GURU: a giant of hip-hop music

By Larry Hales


Guru, a giant of hip-hop music, of Black culture and of entertainment in general died April 19 from multiple myeloma at the young age of 47, weeks after he went into cardiac arrest and lapsed into a coma. Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), originally named Keith Elam, was one of the founding members of the pioneering group Gang Starr, along with D.J. Premier.

From the beginning Gang Starr had a different sound. Guru, who was born and raised in the Roxbury section of Boston, and D.J. Premier were both heavily influenced by jazz music. Premier’s production uses samples from across the spectrum of Black music and he has been known to have an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop lyrics throughout the years.

Guru’s affinity for jazz music was displayed very early on. The group’s first album, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” was recorded during the period now known as the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, when the music was much more culturally relevant, socially responsible and commented on the reality of the daily conditions of oppressed Black people.

In the song, “Jazz Music,” Guru precisely ties the development of jazz music to the historical oppression of Black people:

“The music started in the hearts and the drums from another land/
Played for everyone by sons of the motherland/
Sendin’ out a message of peace to everybody/
And came across the ocean in chains and shame/
Easing the pain, and it was without name/
Until some men in New Orleans, on Rampart Street/
Put out the sounds and they gave it a beat.”

During the Golden Age, before the commoditization of the culture by mainstream media, it was difficult to find hip-hop music that did not have a social message and even the most radical of groups, like Public Enemy, were widely known and their music widely circulated.

Just as the argument as to when hip-hop started will go on: did it start with Langston Hughes, who spoke his poetry to the accompaniment of Charles Mingus; with Muhammad Ali; with the Watts Prophets; Last Poets; or Gil Scott Heron; or does it precede all of them and go all the way back to African traditions? Just as few would argue that history was set in motion when the first slaves were captured and put on vessels across the Atlantic and from this hip-hop came, the argument about when the fusion of jazz and hip-hop or jazz rap occurred will go on.

But, regardless of when and whom it started with, Gang Starr and Guru were the first to perfect it, even before Miles Davis cooperated with Easy Mo Bee to make the Doo Bop album, before the Digable Planets and before the Roots.

Guru recorded another tribute to jazz for the soundtrack to the Spike Lee movie, “Mo Betta Blues,” titled, “Jazz Thing.” The lyrics in “Jazz Thing” show a greater maturity, rhythmically and historically when the rapper intones:

“Its roots are in the sounds of the African/
Or should I say the mother … bringin’ us back again/
From the drummin’ on the Congo, we came with a strong flow/
And continue to grow/
Feet move, to the beat of the t’balo/
Now dig the story and follow/
For then it landed, on American soil/
Through the sweat, the blood, and the toil/
Hear, ‘Praise the Lord,’ shouted on chain gangs/
Pain they felt, but it helped them to maintain/
Scott Joplin’s rags, Bessie Smith’s blues, St. Louis blues, they were all the news/
Ringin’ smooth … in all the listeners’ ears/
Fulfillin’ the needs, and plantin’ the seeds/
Of a jazz thing.”

While socially conscious, Guru was not without his contradictions, especially when it comes to the women question. But this is pervasive in the U.S. and can be seen in the glut of sexist imagery on television, in print and in music and has to be fought against in general. It is not based in hip-hop culture alone but in the overarching culture of the U.S., which is rooted in the particular development of U.S. capitalism.

Guru’s social consciousness can be seen early on in his music, from the first Gang Starr album, in the song, “Positivity.” One of this writer’s favorite songs is from the third in the “Jazzamatazz” series, “Streetsoul,” entitled, “Lift Your Fist.” The chorus of the song, rapped by Black Thought of the Roots, goes:

“To all my people just lift your fist/
Seem like it ain’t no peace, no justice/
How you want, the bullet or the micro chip/
Either way you go to lift your fist.”

One of his last pieces of music was from his fourth “Jazzamatazz” collection, a series that was well-received critically. In this song, “Too Slick,” Guru displays his usual braggadocio along with a critique for some who make music purely for the sake of fame and money:

“Watch me show splendor I’m no pretender/
Cause I can bring summer during cold December/
Golden embers of burnt emcees remains/
‘Cause they traded their names for some sleazy fame/
As it all turns out they’re forgotten about/
While I’m the one that the homies are talking about.”

Earlier in the same verse Guru rhymes:

“Take you to new heights/
Let’s go up a few flights/
You heard what was said/
I’m a shed some true light/
This is art no corporate crap.”

Guru was not the greatest rap artist. His cadence wasn’t the greatest, his imagery not the most creative, and his word play wasn’t the densest. Yet, few can imagine a greater production rap team than Gang Starr and few can imagine any other voice displaying the confidence, braggadocio and social message that came from Guru.

Guru’s voice alone, the clarity in his particular northeastern growl, was distinctive. He belongs in the canon of hip-hop performers and artists in general. And who can ever forget the line from the song, “Dwyck”:

“Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is/
I get more props and stunts than Bruce Willis.”


  1. […] GURU: a giant of hip-hop music « Fight Imperialism Stand Together […]

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