Rap musician Keith ‘Guru’ Elam has died (born July 17, 1961). Long considered an elder statesman of hip-hop music, Guru was a founding member of the hip-hop group Gang Starr (above right, started in the 1980s), as well as having had a parallel solo career of importance from the 1990s forward. According to a recent article by his brother, Elam was 48 years old, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse who veered into rap music where other family members became attorneys or joined academia.
As a lyricist, Guru joined contemporary ‘street intellectuals’ of hip hop, delivering a mixture of MC battle-aggression on certain songs as well as thoughtful moral observations on the contemporary music industry and social conditions in the inner-cities of America . On his solo albums, Guru eased off of cursing and invited an assortment of veteran and contemporary musicians to collaborate on his Jazzmatazz offerings. Some of the collaborators included Donald Byrd, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Herbie Hancock, and Branford Marsalis.
In recent years, Guru’s life and career took an unfortunate turn for the bizarre: Circa 2004, less than a year after the release of Gang Starr’s last group effort The Ownerz, a press release was distributed indicating that the group had been dissolved, and that Guru would now by default be a solo artist, and starting up his own independent label, 7 Grand Recordings. His new business and musical partner was John Mosher, aka Solar (not to be confused with the Afro-French hip-hopper MC Solaar who contributed to the first Jazzmatazz LP).
Despite Solar seemingly being a newcomer to hip-hop industry insiders, Guru heaped fawning praise on his new partner, declaring this to be his new permanent career path. Guru, who was almost never interviewed outside the company of Solar, was defiantly evasive about the reasons he split from DJ Premier, and would come to be increasingly dismissive of their time together. In certain interviews, Guru went so far to say that he and Premier were ‘never’ friends, and that their collaboration was simply a ‘business arrangement’, and stressed that the concept of Gang Starr went back further than his meeting Premier, and thus Premier’s claims on the Gang Starr legacy were tenuous at best. Guru and Solar would insinuate that others in the Gang Starr extended family of artists and associates were taking advantage of Guru and disrespecting him, prompting his cutting of ties.
Guru delivered three more solo albums in collaboration with Solar. Critical response was positive, but sales were minimal (to be sure, Gang Starr/Guru rarely went gold, even on their most acclaimed albums). By now, urban radio was a closed yard, but Guru managed to maintain his fanbase by touring, especially internationally, headlining select festivals and other events.
Still, questions followed him wherever he went about the separation from Premier, and the possibilities—however remote—of an actual Gang Starr reunion. Anecdotes started popping up on the Internet hip-hop blogospheres, about alleged diva-like behavior on Solar’s part (example- allegedly insisting on being in all fan photos with Guru). Rumors began to circulate, mostly centering around Solar having some kind of Svengali-like influence over Guru— and perhaps the most inflammatory idea being that Guru and Solar were romantically involved.
Tragically, Guru apparently suffered a heart attack in early 2010, and slipped into a coma; accurate information was fleeting concerning his condition, which eventually was revealed to be cancer; some family members claimed that they were blocked from seeing him in the hospital; at one point Solar released a letter allegedly penned or dictated by Guru, that once again trumpeted Solar’s credentials, while managing to take sharp jabs at DJ Premier, allegedly requesting that he not be allowed to participate in any tribute events, and lastly gave mention of a non-profit foundation allegedly started by Guru, where fans could make donations. Ultimately Guru died on April 19 from complications. He left behind a son, K.C., who is 9 years old.
Since the death of Guru, there has been an outpouring of fan sorrow for the rapper and his family, and fan anger (at the mysterious Solar). A recent interview was conducted by HipHopDX.com with Tasha Denham, a former employee of 7 Grand Records, friend to Guru and, apparently, ex-lover to Solar (she has a child by him). If her statements are to be believed, the bombshell interview reveals a scandalous level of alleged manipulation of Guru’s life by Solar, including verbal and physical abuse. For his part, Solar has given a public interview with MTV personality Sway, effectively denying that there was anything negative or manipulative in his relationship with Guru.
The aftermath of Guru’s death is still an ongoing saga. Some form of a tribute event has been promised by his family members, and DJ Premier has already recorded a free mixtape in tribute to him. Public opinion has largely condemed Solar; it remains to be seen what his next career move will be, but already allegations exist that the nonprofit described in Guru's alleged deathbed letter is formally owned by Solar's ex-wife, and its 501-c-3 status may not be in good standing.
I think the first songs from Gang Starr that I ever heard were from the second album, 1990’s Step Into the Arena; the songs were the singles from those albums, “Just to Get a Rep”, “Love Sick”, and “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?”. I missed out on Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues film that year, and I barely remember seeing the accompanying Gang Starr single/video, “Jazz Thing”. I thought the group was pretty good, and I probably taped the singles as they played on my radio, but I hadn’t been compelled yet to seek out their work in cassette form.
The first Gang Starr album I actually owned was Daily Operation, when it came out in the spring of 1992. I was at the tail end of my first year in college, and “Take it Personal” was the first single, which I thought was banging. I’m thinking I purchased Operation and the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head LPs on cassette the same day. I ended up playing the Operation album on a regular basis throughout the next year. Guru's unique, smoky monotone voice fit in just right with the rhythm tracks by his partner DJ Premier (Christopher Martin). The trend had recently crept into hip hop of using vintage jazz recordings to create breakbeats and samples, and Gang Starr were among the primary pioneers of that style of hip-hop. They always stressed that their love of jazz was genuine, and not just a hipster gimmick to get fleeting attention. Unfortunately, crossover fame seemed to elude the group compared to A Tribe Called Quest and the short-lived US-3 collective, who also made prominent use of jazz backdrops to their recordings.
I never got to see the group (or a solo Guru) play live in concert; I’m not sure how often they visited Detroit, but with them being primarily based out of New York City, my guess is that it wasn’t a standard part of their touring jaunts. I still checked for the songs on urban radio and the cable video shows.
He will be missed.