Keith “Guru” Elam, 1961-2010

Keith “Guru” Elam passed away April 19 at the age of 43 from cancer-related illnesses, and following a coma scare in February.

Guru — an acronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal — was one of the best MCs to emerge from the late 80s hip-hop renaissance, a period when the fledgling genre found its form and voice. First known as Keithy E from Boston, he debuted with Gang Starr’s 1987 12-inch single, “The Lesson.” Though merely a tentative first step, it revealed what would become Guru’s lifelong goal: bringing black intellectualism and philosophy back to the streets. Two years later, after Keithy E became Guru, broke with founding Gang Starr producer DJ Mike “1 2 B Down” Dee and brought in Chris “DJ Premier” Martin, his mission to spread “knowledge of self” to B-boys everywhere yielded his first classic: “Words I Manifest.”

With his deep, monotone style — a trait he celebrated on “Mass Appeal” and “Mostly Tha Voice” — Guru was an enigmatic figure. Yes, he was all about the knowledge, and often spoke out about gun violence, most memorably on “Soliloquy Of Chaos.” Other times, he seemed to celebrate the heated and often brawling clashes between rival crews that haunts hip-hop culture. He taunted famous rappers as “Suckas Who Need Bodyguards,” and vowed to punish his enemies on “Make Em Pay.”

But Guru was also cosmopolitan and worldly. When he collaborated with pioneering French rapper MC Solaar on “Le Bien, Le Mal” for his 1993 acid jazz gem Jazzmatazz Vol. 1, he exposed American rap fans to Europe’s thriving hip-hop scene for the first time. His varied personae — the Islam-influenced lyricist of “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” the surly knucklehead of “The Militia,” and the sophisticate of “Loungin'” — often confounded his fans. Some preferred the hardcore rhymes of Gang Starr’s 1994 album Hard to Earn, while others preferred the wise poet of 1990’s Step in the Arena.

Then there was DJ Premier, Guru’s partner and an iconic artist in his own right. Some claim that Premier’s beats outshone Guru. Indeed, compared to Premier’s clean, deft compositions, Guru’s voice sounds halting, sometimes lingering a step or two behind the rhythm. But it’s the contrast between the two “Starrs” that often goes unappreciated. As a man of many styles and moods, Guru’s life and art doesn’t offer the easy pleasures of a Premier beat.

After splitting with Premier following 2003’s The Ownerz, a disappointing album that nevertheless offered one last classic moment in “Skills,” Guru founded 7 Grand Records with producer and longtime friend Solar. Their projects together, from 2005’s Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures to 2007’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 4: The Hip-Hop Messenger “Back To The Future,” seem slight when placed against Guru’s Gang Starr peaks.

Hip-hop fans can be one of the most cruel and demanding of any genre, expecting nothing less than “classic” from its heroes and quickly dismissing them as old and washed up when they “fall off.” They may have wanted Guru to quietly retreat to the concert circuit, performing the Gang Starr chestnuts for old-school diehards. But the same intellectual restlessness that drove Guru’s many incarnations continued to motivate him until his death. His final projects like 2008’s Jazzmatazz: Back To The Future Mixtape were promising enough to suggest that he may have begun figuring out what his post-Premier career would be.

Sadly, Guru’s final days are mired in controversy. Hours after Guru passed away, Solar sent out a bizarre “letter” allegedly written by Guru on his deathbed which turned over the rapper’s estate and affairs to Solar and excommunicated Premier from being “connected in any way to my situation.”

It appears that Guru’s tragic, untimely death will enter the realm of conspiracy, offering plenty of fodder for rumors and perhaps investigative reports, but little in the way of emotional closure. It’s an inappropriate end for an artist whose contradictions, however maddening, surprised and amazed us for over two decades. He deserves better.

(April 20, 2010)

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