By now you've heard about the loss of Keith "Keithy E" Elam, aka Guru, who passed away yesterday. If you're reading this right now, you're probably grappling with the tremendous loss and reflecting on the monumental impact Guru had on rap music -- despite the fact that he never really appeared on anyone's list of top MCs or was considered one of the hottest MCs in the game.
Fact is, though, Guru is rap royalty. An enigmatic MC with a dope voice and an inimitable style, he waged lyrical war on six albums' worth of DJ Premier beats.
Take a moment to absorb the profundity of that statement: six albums' (!) worth of beats by one of the greatest producers in the history of rap! That's about 75 Primo tracks. To put it in perspective, Jay-Z does maybe one per album. And Guru never came off wack!
"Primo made a lot of hot beats," DJ Chonz pointed out earlier this afternoon, "but the classics, the real hot joints -- it always seemed like he saved those for Guru."
Considering the MCs who have gone "back up in D&D" on a Primo track, as Jay once put it -- Nas, Ludacris, Scarface, even that dude from Bedford Stuyvesant (Y'know the Livest One?) -- Guru more than held his own. When he dripped honey rhymes all over songs like "B.Y.S." and "Mass Appeal," he smoothed out Primo's futuristic boom-bap and made it palatable for the everyday thug.
The real pleasure in Guru was watching him walk the line between hip-hop statesman and everyman. When Spike Lee had the duo re-record their song "Jazz Thing" for his movie Mo' Better Blues, they were catapulted onto the world stage and forced to speak for this emerging form of music.
Guru and Premier carried the weight like champs. Elder statesmen (even then, they were in their thirties), the two didn't conceal their college degrees or families. They not only kept it real, they kept it right.
Down to earth doesn't begin to describe this gifted pair. I say this from experience. When I first met Guru and Primo in St. Louis, back in 1991, they used their own money, rented a mini-van and drove coast to coast to promote their album Step in the Arena.
I will always remember two guys with a deep respect for every region of the country who had so much confidence in their art that they dedicated themselves to shaking the hand of every fan they thought might vibe.
Think about that for a minute, and then think about "grinding," that fashionable verb that Guru might never say, because he was too busy living it.
In 1993, Guru struck out on his own mission to leverage Gang Starr's jazz loving audience and bring jazz to the masses with Jazzmatazz. The project still doesn't seem fake or disingenuous, like other "jazz rap" albums. Guru was a blue-collar MC in the rap game, so he was the perfect guy to reintroduce the people's music back to the people.
To that end, you could easily see him kicking it with Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers and the forgotten everymen of jazz whose careers he helped to resuscitate. Even when the "jazz-hop" bubble burst, Guru still produced three consecutive volumes of often catchy, always classy hip-hop fusion.
When it was time to step back into the Gang Starr role, rap fans, who are traditionally fickle (shocker), didn't blink an eye. Guru stepped in stride, making records with dudes named "Melachi the Nutcracker" and "Jeru the Damaja," and no one questioned his street cred.
Jazzmatazz and Gang Starr took Guru around the world, but he always took care of home.
Guru with the RadioBums record pool crew
"Whenever he hit Denver, he always hit me up. He always wanted to connect with the DJs -- that's how much respect he had for the art," said Chonz, recalling a time in 2005 when Guru took time out to meet and greet the entire RadioBums record pool. "He was punctual, respectful and down to build with whomever. He even hosted DJ Sounds Supreme and DJ Amen's AnyQuality mixtape on some underground love!"
Gang Starr, even at their breakout finest, 1997's Moment of Truth, could have easily been the type of group that you blog about but don't listen to. Something about the Guru seemed content to let the music be the star. Consequently, you didn't see Guru energy bars or a line of children's books, just record after record, classic after classic.
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So the next time you think about this rap shit, consider what you love about it: Is it the bluster and hyperbole? The fake beef? The clothing lines? The cameo in the new Tom Cruise movie? I hope not. I hope that, like me, you love a dope beat with an MC that sounds like he was born to rap on it. Because that was the Guru, in his own words:
"One of the meanest and the cleanest/And I'm still kinda fiendish/When I'm at this/Been doin this for eons/Peons best to catch this/Vision of excellence."
Relax in Paradise, Guru. You said it for us, but you could have said it for yourself: You're royalty.