Keith Elam, better known to hip-hop fans as Guru, passed away on Monday after a long battle with cancer, no doubt exacerbated by a heart attack suffered in February. He was 43.
Guru merits a place in the hip-hop hall of fame for a stellar career spanning over 20 years. He is best known as one half of the duo Gang Starr, alongside DJ Premier (arguably the greatest hip-hop producer of all time). Gang Starr were arguably the first rap group to seriously work jazz samples into their music. Despite Guru originally hailing from Boston and Premier from Houston, they defined what would become known as the New York Sound in the late 80s and early 90s, blending gritty street beats and rhymes with the elegance of long-forgotten jazz and soul.
Gang Starr released 4 or 5 solid albums, but the one that really put them on the map was 1991's Step into the Arena. It never reached higher than 121 on the Billboard chart, yet remains a much-revered work. Lovesick, taken from that album, is perhaps the song that first turned me onto hip-hop (at a time when I was really only into rock). It went Top 10 in Australia and was one of the few raps that I can still remember word for word.
Full Clip is a reminder that the duo could keep it raw and streetwise, yet without neglecting musicality.
Guru's side project, Jazzmatazz, took the hip-hop/jazz fusion idea even further, blending his own beats and raps with contributions from jazz greats like Ramsey Lewis, Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd (who plays trumpet on Loungin' below). The concept fit snugly with the UK-based "acid jazz" movement of the early 90s. Guru released 4 albums under the Jazzmatazz banner, but the first, from 1993, remains the best.
The early Jazzmatazz sessions also led to this collaboration with Brit guitarist Ronny Jordan, Season for Change, which appears only on Jordan's The Quiet Revolution album.
A loss of a true legend of the game.
"Myself lord and master/ shall bring disaster to evil factors
demonic chapters shall be captured
by kings/ Through the storms of days after
and to the earth from the sun/ through triple darkness to blast ya
with a force that cant be compared
to any fire power / for its mind power shared
the brainwave causes vessels to circulate
like constellations reflect at night off the lake
word to the father and mother earth
seeking everlasting life through this hell for what its worth
look listen and observe
and watch another sea cycle
pullin my peeps to the curb
heed the words
its like ghetto style proverbs
the righteous men sacrifice
to get what they deserve"
- from "Above the Clouds" (Gangstarr featuring Inspectah Deck)