This month will mark the sixth anniversary of the death of Keith Elam, better known as Guru, one-half of the legendary group Gang Starr. Unfortunately, Guru, who was already one of the most underrated emcees in hip-hop history, has had his memory and legacy besmirched and exploited in recent years by his last musical associate, Solar, a man that controlled much of his life, both professionally and personally. Rumors about the relationship between the two are rampant, to the point that the drama and speculation in Guru’s final days have threatened to overshadow his impact on, and contributions to, the hip-hop culture.
That is a travesty, as Gang Starr was one of the greatest hip-hop groups during hip-hop’s most celebrated era. In his obituary of Guru for The New York Times, Jon Caramanica summed it up thusly:
Together, Guru and DJ Premier made archetypal East Coast rap, sharp-edged but not aggressive, full of clear-eyed storytelling and suavely executed, dusty sample-driven production. In the early 1990s, as hip-hop was developing into a significant commercial force, Gang Starr remained committedly anti-ostentatious. As a lyricist, Guru was often a weary moralist weighed down by the tragedy surrounding him, though the group’s music was almost always life-affirming, never curmudgeonly.
A major part of the reason Guru is often overlooked when the hip-hop greats are mentioned is because he wasn’t flashy. He didn’t dominate the record or scream his name every other bar. He didn’t have to. He let his rhymes speak for themselves. As his name suggested, he was always the wise one, but he was also patient, taking his time and allowing the listener to catch up, similar to a elder professor lecturing a class of freshmen. His monotone voice and methodical flow fit perfectly with Premier’s beats, becoming another instrument within the group’s symphony, bringing intelligent rhymes that ranged from the streets to the heavens.
The group released albums in three different decades and while their sound certainly evolved and grew – No More Mr. Nice Guy doesn’t sound like The Ownerz – the group’s foundation of street knowledge and life wisdom over unique, pounding beats remained constant.
The subject matter of Guru’s songwriting was almost limitless.
On 1994’s “Mass Appeal,” he warned of wack rappers infiltrating the game and gaining widespread – but fleeting – popularity: “And you’d be happy as hell to get a record deal/Maybe your soul you’d sell to have mass appeal.” Five years later, on “Full Clip” off the group’s greatest hits album of the same title, he took this idea further by flipping the image of the gun-toting rap artist on its head, taking aim at studio gangsters by metaphorically using their own imagery against them: “Cock back, blaow, I hit you up right now/I don’t know why so many of y’all wanna be thugs anyhow/Face the consequence of your childish nonsense/I could make your head explode just by my lyrical content.”
He also used stories in a variety of ways to examine the realities of living in the city. “All 4 the Ca$h” is a tale devoted to the chasing of money, especially illegally, can end up tragic while eight years earlier, the 1991 street narrative classic “Just to Get a Rep” addressed the same themes, but in terms of a street reputation. These were flip sides of the same coin.
He also balanced his streetwise rhymes with references to spirituality and higher power, opening “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” by saying, “I was raised like a Muslim, prayin’ to the East/Nature of my life relates rhymes I release,” while beginning “Above the Clouds” with “I Self Lord and Master shall bring disaster to evil factors/Demonic chapters shall be captured by Kings.”
Even his Jazzmatazz albums, a series of side projects in which he collaborated with jazz musicians, contained his ever-present perspicacity. On “Sights in the City,” he relays a different story in each of the three verses about the dangers of succumbing to the allure of street life, from drug dealing to armed robbery to prostitution: “Now she’s a victim of the system/Man, what happened to her dreams and her ambition?”
Despite the often weighty subject matter in his rhymes, Guru wasn’t always serious. He could still write a nonsense party anthem rhyme when he was drunk like he did on the classic “DWYCK”: “Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is/I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis.”
Regardless of how his life ended, it is vital that Guru’s impact and importance is not forgotten amidst all of the drama and hearsay. For two decades, on six Gang Starr albums, four Jazzmatazz projects, and a host of featured appearances, he elevated the art of hip-hop songwriting and storytelling to another level, one reached by very few artists.
The man known as Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal was – and will always be – one of the greats.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, Medium, The Cauldron, and many more. Visit his website and follow him on Facebook or Twitter.