Every great rapper has a style. Guru, who passed away this week at the age of 47 from causes relating to cancer, had a sound, too. His flow and delivery spoke volumes about his street smarts, savvy and attitude on life. Although he was central to two key projects, the vocal half of Gang Starr and then central figure in the seminal Jazzmatazz series—his music was rarely mainstream. Ultimately, his most enduring legacy is his musical integrity.
Gang Starr's six albums are pivotal to the development of the New York style. Like Rakim, Guru (an acronym which stands for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), rapped in a low, spoken voice, rather than impassioned shouted declamations. His calm lent his words greater weight; it was as if he didn't need to shout because he knew what he was saying was important. Still, beneath the calm, his voice always had an edge that implied that if you knew what was good for you, you'd better listen. Working with DJ Premier in the late '80s and early '90s, they made music that sounded like it was done in a single take off a stoop in Brooklyn. It was both urban and urbane, the sort of streetwise sophistication that most musicians can only dream about.
Guru was born Keith Elam in the Roxbury section of Boston on July 17, 1962. His father, Harry Elam, was the first black judge in Boston's municipal courts. His mother, Barbara, was co-director of library programs in the Boston public schools. Guru began his career after graduating Morehouse College in 1983 and worked briefly as a social worker after college. But rap's pull was stronger. He moved to Brooklyn, and in 1988 met Premier (nee Christopher Martin) to form Gang Starr. (His original rap moniker was MC Keithy-E; he later changed it.) Together, they made six recordings, each filled with tales of the street, tales told without sensationalism. The sonic backdrops were an ingenious collage of sampled recordings that approximated the polyphony of the city streets.
In 1993, Guru launched a solo project, Jazzmatazz, that bridged the gap between jazz and hip-hop with plenty of R&B flavor. Musicians who were among the leading lights of the jazz funk era—trumpeter Donald Byrd, keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, and vibraphonist Roy Ayers—blended their skills with Guru, French rapper MC Solaar and vocalist N'Dea Davenport. The project was a critical success and led to several subsequent recordings.
By the late '90s, Guru and Premier were working on their solo projects more often than collaborating as Gang Starr. Premier became one of the leading producers in hip-hop and dabbled in R&B while Guru pursued Jazzmatazz and other projects.
Guru was diagnosed with cancer last summer and was hospitalized for related respiratory problems from multiple myeloma. He slipped into a coma last month and went into cardiac arrest earlier this week and died.
I spoke with Guru three times between 1990 and 2003, just after the release of The Ownerz (Virgin), the final Gang Starr recording of new material. By 2003, Guru had just crossed the threshold into over-40 territory—an age equal to triple digits in hip-hop years—but he considered his seniority an advantage. ''We're veterans at this, and veterans know all the history,'' he told me.
He and Premier saw themselves as revivalists, bringing hip-hop back to its roots. ''Since 1996 or so, the New York sound has been left for dead because East Coast rappers want to compete with the South and the West Coast, so they rap over their beats. That's OK for some. Jay-Z can rap over anything because he's brilliant; he's at that level where he can be versatile with his sound,'' he said.
''But everybody tries to copy him, and that's the problem; everybody can't be him. Up-and-coming artists need to realize that they need to be more original.''
He continued, ''Hip-hop is such a big business now, it's easy for it to be exploited. People try to steal the culture and sell it back. Too many people are getting into hip-hop for the money and not the art of expression.''
In his words to the media, as in his words on recordings, Guru fashioned himself a teacher and an elder. Rarely has someone's hip-hop moniker so well matched his day-to-day personality.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.