Listen to DJ Premier's tribute mix below.
By Joel Silverstein
In June 2006, I had occasion to interview Keith Elam, a.k.a. Guru, the prophetic MC behind Gang Starr, and four volumes of groundbreaking Jazzmatazz records. The Boston-born, New York-made rapper died April 19th at age 48, from complications with myeloma, a cancer that attacks white blood cells.
I was working for a weekly paper in Massachusetts, The Inquirer and Mirror, when I heard from a local show promoter that he was bringing Guru, along with his new producer, Solar, out to do a solo show at a small venue in town. At the time, the pair was working on "Jazzmatazz, vol. 4."
I set up a phone interview with Guru, who was on the road somewhere, playing multiple dates in the Midwest and West Coast. When I spoke with him, he was en-route to his next gig, in the back of a car.
We started out discussing his move from Roxbury, Mass. to Brooklyn in 1984, his work with DJ Premier, and the method behind Jazzmatazz.
Working and touring with jazz-greats like Ramsey Lewis and Donald Bird was a thrill for Guru.
"Not only are they serious about their music, but they have really cool outlooks on life."
And regarding Gang Starr, he had only fond memories.
"I reached my peak with Gang Starr," Guru said. "That is a legacy in itself. At the same time, I have to reinvent, move on, move forward."
About 10 minutes into the interview, I hear rumbling in the background, someone yelling. It was Solar. Though Guru had already mentioned his relationship with Solar, how they met, etc., Solar was angry that I'd decided to focus the start of the interview on Guru's prior success, and not on him.
"Do your homework," Solar screamed. "They love me in Europe. I got 10,000 friends on Myspace."
I asked to speak with Solar. He refused.
"Drown in your hate!" Solar screamed. When he wouldn't stop, Guru decided he should get off the phone, as the conversation had developed an uncomfortable air.
Out of respect for Guru, I left Solar's strange bout of megalomania out of the story. But it had certainly sullied my chance to have a meaningful interaction with Guru.
They came to town on July 4, 2006, played a sold-out show, and everyone marveled at getting to see Guru play a handful of Gang Starr hits, like "Code of the Streets" and "Mass Appeal." Solar acted as hype man. But because of my experience on the phone, I refrained from introducing myself to Guru. I regret my stubbornness now. Even more, I regret Solar's hubris.
When controversy around Guru's death surfaced last week regarding a letter "in Guru's words" that was penned by Solar, I remembered my experience with the self-proclaimed "super-producer."
It seemed odd that Guru would make a point, in a farewell letter, to excommunicate himself posthumously with DJ Premier, whom he referred to in the letter as "my ex-DJ." I also watched Guru's nephew, Justin's video plea from a month before Guru's death.
But, in an effort to focus, as I did in 2006, on the life and accomplishments of Guru, I'll end my discussion of the merit of Solar's claims to Guru's likeness there.
As DJ Premier wrote in a statement regarding Guru's death and the aforementioned letter, released on the DJ Premier blog on April 21, "All I will say about it is that our time together was beautiful, we built a hip-hop legacy together and no one can rewrite history or take away my love for him."
Guru's older brother, Harry Elam, Jr., wrote a personal essay for the Boston Globe regarding his brother's legacy on April 23. Elam, a professor of drama at Stanford, remembered watching Guru race as a speed skater, and the ferocity with which he competed, on and off the ice. He remembered Guru playing at Stanford when Elam was a third-year professor.
"As I walked into the auditorium that night," Elam wrote in the Globe, "the assembled audience of students looked at me with a new awareness, 'that's Guru's brother,' not that's Professor Elam, but the Guru's brother."
Justifiably, any controversy surrounding Guru's death has been overshadowed by an outpouring of support and respect for him and his family from the hip-hop community this week. It's fitting that DJ Premier provide an epic tribute mix (embedded below) in Guru's memory. Premier recorded the mix on April 23 on his Sirius Satellite Radio show, "Live from HeadQCourterz," in which he comments on Guru's death.
The first track on the tribute is Gang Starr's "Betrayal," in which Guru utters one of his more profound hooks, "Scandalous, money, greed and lust/ In this trife life, there ain't nobody you can trust/ Plus there's no justice, there's just us."