FOLLOW THE LEADER
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.
"In a way, we were innovators and in the forefront of jazz rap with Gang Starr, but there were a lot of groups in that same era, even before we came out, that were doing the same things," he continues, with regal modesty. "People like Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Erik B. and Rakim. All of them were using jazz, too. But it just became part of our style."
This impression was solidified by Gang Starr's contribution to the soundtrack for the 1990 Spike Lee film Mo' Better Blues. By 1991's Step in the Arena, on Chrysalis, Gang Starr was seen as the jazz-rap combo and as a major influence on A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets and many others. But GURU claims that he soon began to chafe at the restrictions he felt this designation placed upon him. "When people started labeling us, I wasn't too happy with that," he notes, "because I feel my lyrics are reality lyrics--so to be thought of as only a jazz rapper took a lot away from me. So Premier and I decided to give each other some creative space. And that's when I thought, `Okay, I'm going to take the burden of the jazz-rap thing away from Gang Starr. That way, we can do whatever we want to do in Gang Starr, and I can do Jazzmatazz and make a statement as far as being one of the pioneers of the genre.
"My objective," he goes on, "was to get some of the older cats that we sampled a lot and some of the younger cats who are close to the hip-hop era and some vocalists together. The whole point was to bring generations together. That's what Jazzmatazz is all about--dialogue and communication between generations. Like I talk about on the record, the family structure over the years has been really divided. So people need to come together a little more, at least to talk."
Jazzmatazz, Volume I may have taken the respect at the heart of this concept a bit too far; GURU seemed to think that merely having fine instrumentalists at his beck and call compensated for a dearth of good songs. But commentators tended to ignore this aspect of this CD, saving their barbs for GURU's knowledge of jazz history. In particular, he was derided for giving so much prominence to Donald Byrd, who is regarded in high-brow jazz circles as something of a lightweight (his soul-jazz album Blackbyrd sold more than a million copies--the kind of crossover success that makes jazzbos suspicious). GURU, who refers to Byrd as his "mentor," has heard these comments before, and he doesn't like them.
"All of the guys that I work with are guys who view jazz as a living music," he says. "These guys, they're like, `I'm moving with the times,' whereas the other guys are more like, `Let's stay with the tradition.' You see what I mean? So Donald is used to this. They were saying the same things back in the Seventies--that the things Donald was doing weren't cool. He told me there was a lot of resistance to Blackbyrd, especially. But Donald is a teacher, so he can really relate well to young people. And no matter what anyone's said, he's kept moving on."
The response to Volume I required GURU to thicken his skin, too. "I didn't get too bitter about it," he reports. "It got to me a little bit, but I've grown up about it. It's part of the business. People saw all these jazz names on the album and figured it was supposed to be a jazz album. But I'm a hip-hop artist."
And he's an extremely responsible one, to boot. Indeed, GURU's rhymes should hearten those bored with the plethora of bloody-revenge raps that keep popping up with frightening frequency. Like KRS-One, he's not afraid to decry violence, ignorance and their attendant spinoffs. "Living in This World," for instance, contains the following manifesto: "From New York to L.A., dead children lay/Victims of an unfair society/But for those who are blessed/We must correct this mess/Or disappear into nothingness."
By the same token, GURU is not one to blame musicians for the sorry state of America's inner cities. "Who are the real gangsters in society?" he asks. "They're the people who cause the situations that a lot of rappers are rapping about. These guys they call gangsta rappers are just talking about what's going on in their communities, and they're coming out real raw with the stuff and with their opinions and viewpoints, because the stuff that they're facing is real raw. I think the politicians who are saying how they want to get rid of this stuff need to pay attention to the fact that these are warning signals that they should be doing something to help the community, help better the education systems and the employment structure. Because that's why these guys are talking about this stuff."
If there's uncommon maturity in these words, it may be due to GURU's uncommon maturity, at least in hip-hop terms. He's in his thirties--an age by which even successful rap artists (such as the members of Run DMC) are often put on the shelf. But while Jazzmatazz, Volume II isn't burning up the charts, it's doing well enough to guarantee that GURU will be around for a while longer. And he knows it. "My reason for having longevity," he says, "is I've kept in touch with my roots, and also with the music that's happening now. Musically, rap changes just as much as the vocals change. You can't do the same beats forever, because the style of the beats changes. So you've got to stay up on the type of production that will make you come across. A lot of rappers with messages didn't realize that--or else they tried to switch over to another type of lyric just to make more money. And when they do a switch like that, they usually flop.
"I didn't do that, and that's one of the reasons for my longevity. A lot of artists can't come out with hits and then they're gone. But we've built a foundation, and it's a foundation that we're continuing to build on. I used to be frustrated because maybe Gang Starr wasn't promoted so well. Maybe it was because Premier and I didn't cut our hair the same way or didn't wear the same types of clothes. But we adapted--we became businessmen in order to pay the rent. And we're paying it."
That's no exaggeration: Together and individually, the two Gang Starr partners are doing just fine. DJ Premier produced the latest KRS-One single, as well as the Crooklyn Dodgers '95 hit "Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers" (the kick-off from the soundtrack to Spike Lee's Clockers). And GURU and his DJ have blocked out studio time in December to begin putting together the next Gang Starr long-player (the first since 1994's erratic Hard to Earn).
GURU would love to receive as much praise for the music they'll make as he does for his status as a role model. But if that's not to be, he claims not to mind. "I'll take the bad with the good," he says. "But I focus more on the good."
Jazzmatazz II, hosted by GURU (featuring Reuben Wilson, Kenny Garrett, Bernard Purdie, Donald Byrd, Zachary Breaux, Baybe, Big Shug, DJ Sean-Ski), with Vanessa Daou. 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 27, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $17.85, 447-0095.
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