Guru, Rapper Known for Social Themes, Dies at 47
By JON CARAMANICA
Published: April 20, 2010
Guru, the gravel-voiced rapper who as a member of the duo Gang Starr was one of the most expressive rappers of the 1990s and a major figure in bridging hip-hop and jazz, died Monday in New York. He was 47.
As a solo artist, the rapper Guru, above, whose real name was Keith Elam, released four volumes of his “Jazzmatazz” series.
He learned he had multiple myeloma last summer and was hospitalized for related respiratory problems in February, his brother, Harry Elam Jr., said. Soon afterward he slipped into a coma, from which he did not recover, his brother said.
Though Guru came to be known as one of the formative rappers of the flourishing New York hip-hop scene of the late 1980s and early ’90s, he was not a native. Born Keith Elam in the Roxbury section of Boston on July 17, 1962, he began his career in the mid-1980s as MC Keithy E, but soon switched to Guru (which he later turned into an acronym, for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal).
In 1988, after an early version of Gang Starr splintered, Guru met DJ Premier — Christopher Martin, a Houston transplant to Brooklyn — forming a partnership that would lead to six influential and critically acclaimed albums, two of which, “Moment of Truth” and the hits collection “Full Clip,” were certified gold.
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.
From a young age, Guru had been “creative like crazy,” his sister Tricia Elam said. “Dynamic and curious, eager and ambitious.” But his artistic impulses didn’t neatly line up with his middle-class upbringing.
Guru’s father, Harry Elam, was the first black judge in the Boston municipal courts, and his mother, Barbara, was the co-director of library programs in the Boston public school system. Before beginning his rap career in earnest, Guru graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1983 and took graduate classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. He worked briefly as a social worker.
Leaving school to pursue a rap career flummoxed his family, said Guru’s brother, Harry Jr. “I was on my way to becoming a professor, and my brother is dropping out of grad school, and I’m saying, ‘What are you doing?’ But he believed in it and followed it through.”
Besides his brother and sister, Guru is survived by his parents; another sister, Jocelyn Perron, and a son, Keith Casim.
Guru’s music bridged generations in part thanks to his career-long engagement with jazz, even after hip-hop largely ended its flirtation with it in the early 1990s. As a solo artist, Guru released four volumes of his “Jazzmatazz” series, the first of which, from 1993, was one of the most influential in the fleeting jazz-rap movement of the day. And “Jazz Thing” a Gang Starr collaboration with Branford Marsalis, was used over the closing credits of the Spike Lee film “Mo’ Better Blues.”
For all of Guru’s gifts as a storyteller — songs like “Just to Get a Rep” are among the starkest tales hip-hop has told — he benefited from an unusually forceful voice, rich and burred around the edges. It was tough to compete with, which he explained on “Mostly Tha Voice,” from Gang Starr’s fourth album, “Hard To Earn”: “A lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skills/ But if your voice ain’t dope, then you need to chill.”
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