By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
Keith Elam has a healthy sense of self-esteem. A man confident enough about his skills with a microphone to call himself GURU (an acronym for "Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal"), he talks some mighty large talk--but he has the chops to back it up. "People have always known me as a message-oriented rapper with a style that's still street-credible," says the man behind the influential hip-hop duo Gang Starr and a flamboyant solo project known as Jazzmatazz. "To me, that's what GURU means. And that's something that I can accept."
Jazzmatazz, Volume II: The New Reality is just the type of sprawling, ambitious piece you'd expect GURU to instigate. A sequel to (and a considerable improvement over) 1993's Jazzmatazz, Volume I, the disc features more guests than the average Grammy Awards broadcast. Veteran jazz artists Ramsey Lewis, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard. Young jazz bloods Branford Marsalis, Courtney Pine and Kenny Garrett. R&B figures Chaka Khan, Jamiroquai, Me'Shell N'Degeocello and Mica Paris. Dancehall stars Patra and Ini Kamoze. And many, many more. Seriously.
Of course, famous names don't necessarily guarantee positive reviews--and GURU's solo work has come in for more than its share of sniping. In fact, both Jazzmatazz offerings have been knocked in certain critical corners for a shortage of genuinely jazzlike stylings: "One guy said, `Jazzmatazz has as much jazz in it as Jazzercise,'" GURU reports, with a hint of weariness. But one glance at the disc's disparate cast should reveal to all but the most knot-headed observers that a straightahead jazz salute wasn't what GURU had on his mind in the first place. "What we're actually doing is a kind of fusion," he says. "And when you're doing fusion, you're always going to tread on a lot of categories. There's soul. There's reggae. There's a lot of things. When I think of Jazzmatazz, I think of a mixed bag--it's something that comes out powerful when you mix it up. You put all these different things in and shake them up, and the whole thing goes boom!"
Most objective listeners probably will agree. Volume II is a stew, and as with any dish of its type, not every ingredient is delicious; for example, the pretentious interview snippet that precedes the single "Watch What You Say" should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Still, the album has no shortage of memorable grooves. "LifeSaver," produced by the Solsonics, emits a relaxed, jazz-rap feel; "Living in This World" calls to mind What's Going On-era Marvin Gaye; "Medicine" finds Kamoze sounding better than he does on his own records; "Young Ladies," a Patra showcase, is prime party music; and "Choice of Weapon" serves as a reminder that GURU can blend the hard and the soft as well as practically any studio pro in hip-hop. In short, Volume II is filled with treats that can be resisted only with considerable effort.
Of course, GURU's sometimes cocksure manner and his eloquent words, which can be sententious and dogmatic, are capable of convincing a lot of people to turn up their noses. He's a man with very firm ideas about what's right and what's wrong with society, and he's not shy about sharing them. His captivating voice, the seductive flow of his delivery and his producing and arranging acumen help smooth out many of his soapbox declarations, but they can't entirely disguise them. In some ways, then, the degree to which you agree with GURU will dictate how often you'll want to hear him.
The former Mr. Elam was born and raised in a poor section of Roxbury, Massachusetts, near Boston, and as he grew, it became clear that he had a gift for language and a jones for music. His first love was funk, but he also had access--forced access--to jazz. "My uncle--he's also my godfather--is a high school principal, but he's also a hi-fi buff and a jazz buff," GURU divulges. "And I used to borrow money from him to go to concerts like Funkadelic and stuff. But before he'd give it to me, he'd make me and my friend sit down in front of these big speakers, and he'd play Coltrane, Charlie Parker, everything. And he'd say, `This is real music. This is what you're supposed to be listening to.' And we'd just laugh. But that turned out to be a big influence on me."
Elam's musical education continued at Morehouse College in Atlanta. While completing classwork for a degree in business administration, he formed a hip-hop crew with several students from the New York area; they rapped at parties where, he remembers, "it'd cost a dollar to get in and everybody would be packed up in there, grinding." But when it came time to study, he'd listen to WCLK-FM, a jazz broadcaster known for daylong features on jazz artists. According to GURU, "They would trace the whole development of one artist over the years. And they did that with Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Freddie Hubbard--almost everybody I ended up working with."
Upon graduation, Elam moved to New York and worked in a variety of jobs--substitute teacher, social worker--before hooking up with Christopher Martin, a disc jockey who dubbed himself DJ Premier, and forming Gang Starr. The act's debut, 1989's No More Mr. Nice Guy (on the indie imprint Wild Pitch) immediately established the duo's sonic thumbprint; one song, appropriately, is entitled "Jazz Music." GURU insists that Gang Starr's decision to embrace this sound was a natural one. "When we got together, people were sampling Seventies funk and James Brown, and it was getting stagnant. So what was the next thing in the record crates next to funk? Jazz records.