The Hip-Hop world lost one of its most valued MCs yesterday: Keith Elam, better known as Guru. We were all alerted to his poor health earlier this year when he was admitted to hospital following a cardiac arrest, sending him into a coma. Apparently he had been living with cancer for the past year, and although he seemed to be recovering well after waking from his coma in early March, he died in hospital on Monday, aged 48.
With a career spanning over two decades and numerous projects, Guru has left an extensive musical legacy behind him. Formed in 1987, Gang Starr was arguably his most influential project. After putting out three singles on Wild Pitch records in ’87 and ’88, Guru enlisted the help of the now legendary producer DJ Premier. With Guru delivering his trademark monotone battle raps and Premier laying down some of Hip-Hop’s most iconic beats, Gang Starr went on to produce a string of hit albums that became timeless classics. The duo’s influence was so profound, that some of its music single-handedly made the old records that it sampled into classics.
Gang Starr’s first major hit, ‘Manifest’ (1989) took a loop from Charlie Parker and Miles Davis’s ‘A Night in Tunisia’ and coupled it with a James Brown groove, creating an instant classic which is still dropped on many a dancefloor today. Their reputation was further cemented with the release of ‘Step in the Arena’ in 1992, their second full-length album, containing the hit ‘Just to Get a Rep’, with Guru’s conscious flows matching a loop taken from French electronic music experimentalist Jean-Jacques Perrey’s ‘E.V.A.’, turning the latter into a crate digger essential. Other highlights from the album are ‘Check the Technique’, which samples Marlena Shaw‘s ‘California Soul‘, and title track ‘Step in the Arena’, with trumpet flourishes from rock group Ballin’ Jack’s ‘Never Let ‘Em Say’ and an iconic scratch from Premier using Thunder and Lightning’s ‘Bumpin’ Bus Stop’, laid over a thumping Fred Wesley break.
In 1993, Guru took time away from Gang Starr to focus on the first of a series of albums entitled ‘Jazzmatazz’, a project that united his love of Hip-Hop and Jazz. Guru not only brought in established MCs to feature on the project but also enlisted a number of legendary jazz artists to provide instrumentation, including Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith and Donald Byrd. The album was one of the first to combine classic sampled beats (by artists such as James Brown, Love Unlimited Orchestra and Melvin Bliss) with live instrumentation provided by renowned old school artists, putting the two production approaches on equal ground and showing how powerful this combination can be. The album was a notable commercial success, especially in Europe where Acid Jazz was in full swing.
1994 saw the release of Gang Starr’s ‘Hard to Earn’, containing the anthemic ‘Mass Appeal’, with an inspired loop lifted from jazz guitarist Vic Juris’s ‘Horizon Drive’, whilst a different atmosphere is created on ‘Code of the Streets’ thanks to a soulful Monk Higgins loop. The second instalment in the Jazzmatazz series arrived in ’95, including ‘Feel the Music’, a track built around a loop from Martine Girault’s Acid Jazz single ‘Revival’, released in ’92 on FFFR. It wasn’t until 1998 that the next Gang Starr album arrived, entitled ‘Moment of Truth’. Guru released a third Jazzmatazz album in 2000, and Gang Starr released its final album, ‘The Ownerz’, in 2003.
Interestingly, Guru even dabbled in dance music, appearing on Dutch Trance DJ/producer Ferry Corsten‘s 2003 single ‘Junk’, a re-working of Corsten’s own track ‘Punk’. Guru followed on to release a solo album titled ‘Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures’ in 2005, a fourth Jazzmatazz instalment in 2007, and his last solo album, ‘Guru 8.0: Lost and Found’, in 2009.
His loss is particularly painful given that he died at the young age of 48, and carried on making and releasing music until shortly before his death. May he rest in peace.
Please feel free to pay your tributes and highlight your favorite Guru moments in the comments section below or on Guru’s artist page on WhoSampled.com.