Hip-hop lost one of its most distinct voices on April 19th when Guru, whose collaboration with DJ Premier as Gang Starr expanded the genre’s scope, died after a year-long struggle with cancer. He was 48.
“Guru was like a vanguard of rap,” says Nas, who, as a kid in Queens, was inspired to rap about street life by early Gang Starr cassettes. “Gang Starr were right there, at the forefront of style on the New York streets.”
Although his name and style would come to define New York hip-hop, Guru ˜ born Keith Elam ˜ grew up in the Roxbury section of Boston. His father was that city’s first black municipal judge and his mother was a library director in the city’s public schools. Elam graduated from Morehouse College, worked as a social worker, and began graduate school at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology before he dropped out in the mid-’80s, dove headlong into New York’s burgeoning hip-hop underground and began his rap career as MC Keith E.
Soon, Elam became Guru and connected with DJ Premier, a Houston transplant born Christopher Martin, whose stark, jazz-sampling grooves were the perfect counterpoint to the MC’s hypnotic, gravel-and-cognac voice and thoughtful, complex rhymes, at turns boastful, political, and deeply introspective. “I’m gonna miss hearing his signature monotone voice when he walks in the room, but the songs will always bring it back to me,” Premier said in a statement, adding that the duo planned to reunite for a seventh album “when the time was right. Tragically, we will never reach that day.”
“He had one of the most distinctive voices in music,” says Q-Tip, who first met Elam in 1988, a year before Gang Starr released its debut, No More Mr. Nice Guy. “If you wanted to understand rapping, story-telling, if you want to get thugged out, if you want to get political, you could listen to Gang Starr. They just encompassed everything that hip-hop embodied.”
Over a 14-year span, Gang Starr released six albums, all universally acclaimed, and despite the duo’s uncompromising music, which was often dense and rarely radio-friendly, had two gold albums and several Top 10 singles, including “Mass Appeal.” As a solo artist, Guru recorded four editions of his Jazzmatazz series, rhyming over jazzy arrangements featuring the likes of Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, and Branford Marsalis.
Along with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Public Enemy, Gang Starr helped expand the possibilities of hip-hop, still a nascent genre when Guru and Premier came on the scene, and helped inspire a generation of innovators.
“Gang Starr’s music was the soundtrack to me falling in love with hip hop,” says Talib Kweli, who was a 14-year-old aspiring MC in 1990, when he first met Guru and Premier at New York’s New Music Seminar (“Guru and his crew snuck me and my crew in,” he says) and later toured with the duo. “Guru was a friend, a mentor, and a legend. He will be forever missed.”