aka (Almost) Everything I Know I Learned From Listening to Gang Starr
From special guest blogger Spinwell, YKI Records presents. . .
Keith Elam, also known as Guru, died on Monday, April 19th at the age of 48. Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) was one half of Gang Starr, remembered as the greatest underground hip-hop group of all time. Reports indicate he died of cancer.
Originally from Boston, Massachusetts he made his name – a name that would be recognized across the globe by a subset of committed underground hip-hop enthusiasts – in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1990s. Together with his partner DJ Premier, arguably the greatest producer of the same decade, they would create soundscapes that would mesmerize hip-hop heads for almost a generation and would come to embody the very essence, the very sound of what was loosely defined as “underground hip-hop” at a time when hip-hop was racing towards commercial recognition.
The sound, or “formula,” as Guru dubbed it in the opening track of their fifth, and most commercially successful album, Moment of Truth, consisted of:
· Guru’s smooth voice and monotone, unflappable delivery
· DJ Premier’s jazzy, yet dark and dusty minimalist production
· Key vocal samples sliced and diced with precision by DJ Premier in place of traditional choruses between verses
It didn’t hurt that they smoothly positioned themselves as outside, or apart from the glamour and glitz dominating the hip-hop scene at the time and in fact, to this day. They were Underground. And half the time they didn’t even need to say it, it was plain for anyone with an appreciation for quality and subtlety to see, or more accurately, to hear.
I can’t claim that “everything I know I learned from Gang Starr.” That’s not only absurd, it wouldn’t be the truth. That distinction goes first and foremost to my family, my community, paying attention during 10th grade English class, and to the University of California system – back before a Republican governor presided over what amounts to wholesale divestment from California’s infrastructure (hey, I had to get it in there).
But I do believe that Gang Starr played a role in helping me get to where I am today. In fact, I’m absolutely certain that is the case.
I now present: 10 Lessons from the life of Keith Elam (Guru of Gang Starr).
Lesson #1: Brand Consistency Is Everything. Protect Your Brand.
In this era it’s difficult to grasp just how unique Gang Starr’s legacy is, largely because there is no one to measure them against. These guys made consistently strong, unimpeachable hip-hop music for over a decade. Stop and think about that for a minute. In an era of ringtones and American Idol “vote for me and I get a record contract” nonsense, these guys worked from the ground up, grinding day and night, passing up countless opportunities and temptations to water down their sound – all because they believed in their vision of dope beats and dope rhymes.
Is their record flawless? Technically not. But if you look at the write-ups, both recent and not so recent, you’ll see words and phrases like: “the dedicated ministers of underground sound” and “seminal underground hip-hop group” and “legacy.” No one’s talking about a Christina Aguilera remix.
By the time their “greatest hits” (a misnomer if I ever heard of one) album came out they had consistently “kept it real” for 10 years straight: 1989-1999. The ultimate beneficiaries of this philosophy were the hardcore fans and hip-hop cognoscenti because they enjoyed ten disappointment-free years while other people’s favorite artists were letting them down after four years or less.
In other words: it feels damn good to bet on the right horse.
Songs to check: “You Know My Steez” and “Mass Appeal”
Quote: “I’m like two magazines fully loaded to your one/plus I aint gonna quit spittin’, ‘till you’re done/plus more than ever I got my whole sh#t together/more than a decade of hits, that’ll live forever!” – from “Full Clip”
Lesson #2: If You Don’t Believe In Yourself No One Else Will
In some ways you would think this one is obvious but if it is, why don’t more people abide by this philosophy? In hip-hop where projected bravado seems to be a necessary requirement, Guru was confident without being arrogant and his rhymes were obviously forged in struggle, making them that much more potent.
The odds were clearly stacked against this pair. They were making understated hip-hop using jazzy breaks, a dusty boom-bap sound, and they practically refused to use traditional choruses in their songs. Yet they fought their way to the top of the underground and ruled for a decade.
Songs to check: “B.Y.S.” and “New York Straight Talk” and “Gotta Get Over”
Quote: “Now many attempts have been made to hold us back/slander the name, and withhold facts/but I’m the type of brother with much more game/I got a sure aim/and if I find you’re the blame/you can bet you’ll be exterminated, taken, outdone/it doesn’t matter how many, they go as easy as just one/bust one round in their ear for this here/cause this year: suckas are going nowhere/cause my street style, and intelligence level/makes me much more than just an angry rebel/I’m Gifted, Unlimited, Rhymes Universal/emcees that aint equipped get flipped in my circle” – from “I’m The Man”
Lesson #3: To Make It Big, You Need A Strong Partnership
There is no Gang Starr without Guru. There is no Gang Starr without DJ Premier.
Each brought their own strengths to the table and what ultimately mattered is the chemistry they had as a unit and the vision they shared. The combination worked.
It’s a shame that towards the end the two had a falling out and questions remain as to the Svengali-like influence that this “Solar” character seems to have had on Guru during the final stages of his life – FYI the “Solar” in question is different from MC Solaar who will come up later in this post.
Songs to check: “The Meaning of the Name” and “DWYCK”
Quote: “It’s the Guru and Premier, it’s them again…” – from “Hardcore Composer”
Lesson #4: Words Matter, Make Them Count
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” The line is often erroneously attributed to William Shakespeare when in fact it was coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton centuries after Shakespeare died. What Shakespeare actually said was: “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.”
Point being that while the idea is not an original one, the sentiment can’t be stressed enough, at least in areas and systems where rule of law and some semblance of civil society exist.
Guru was aware that words were not to be trifled with. He took them seriously. I didn’t know the man but based on listening to his life’s work extensively it’s my opinion that he was likely aware that the spoken and written word were humanity’s single greatest contribution unto itself.
Songs to check: “As I Read My S-A” and “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight?” and “Full Clip”
Quote 1: “Paragraphs, portraying my viewpoint/so stay attentive cause this is a new joint/ form the G-A-N-G with the info/lyrical elements emerge from the intro/forming a poetic mass over pathetic trash/other writers are outclassed/surpassed by the words and the wit/rhymes fit and hit/cause that’s how we designed it/page for page/we are the new age” – from “As I Read My S-A”
Quote 2: “I don’t know why so many of y’all want to be thugs anyhow/face the consequence, of your childish nonsense/I can make your head explode just by my lyrical content/get you in my scope and metaphorically snipe ‘ya/I never liked ‘ya/I gas that ass up then ignite’cha/the flamethrower, make your peeps afraid to know ‘ya/how I many times I told ya?/play your position small soldier” – from “Full Clip”
Lesson #5: Sacrifice Is The First Step To Lasting Success
Also embodied in Guru’s recurring theme: you gotta pay dues. This might be the one lesson that “left a stain on my brain” more than any other. Listening to their material over the years I really got the sense that Guru was putting a message out to those who wanted to go after, and actually live their dream: this is what is required.
What was required was a sh!t ton of hard work, sorrows, calculated risks and constant flirtation with failure. But above all: sacrifice. You need to risk everything to even have a shot and you’d better be prepared to chase after it because success isn’t going to come to you.
I remember reading once, maybe in The Source when it still had some credibility, that Guru’s father was a federal judge in the Boston area – according to The New York Times obituary written by the writer Jon Caramanica, he was in fact a municipal judge – and that he hadn’t necessarily agreed with his son’s career choice. For some reason that stuck with me and made the autobiographical song “The Planet” from their fourth album Hard To Earn even more powerful.
Songs to check: “Work” and “The Planet” and “The Rep Grows Bigga”
Quote: “But in my heart there aint no quittin’/so I stayed up late to write some rhymes to some rhythms/seconds away from just flippin’/but f#ck it I’ll maintain, one day I’ll be hittin’/see I’ma make it God damn it/RE: B-R-O-O-K-LYN, The Planet” – from “The Planet”
Lesson #6: Never Forget You’re Part of Something Bigger Than You – Pay Homage To It
In Guru’s case it was hip-hop, his extended crew, and his community. He was out for self but wasn’t selfish, a critical distinction.
He was aware that he was but the latest torch-bearer on the journey. Whether the point of reference was human equality, or quality music, he paid respect, both explicitly and subtly, to those that came before him. This theme is present throughout DJ Premier’s vocal sample selections that were used in place of traditional singing choruses.
This legacy and Gang Starr’s contributions to it live on in the works of hip-hop artists like: J-Live, Dilated Peoples, Siah and Yeshua da PoED, Asheru and Blue Black of the Unspoken Heard, DJ Cam, Mos Def, K-Otix, Binary Star, Pseudo Slang and countless others.
Songs to check: “Jazz Thing” and “Above the Clouds” and “Loungin’” and “Royalty”
Quote: “I bet you couldn’t name more than one pioneer/cause you didn’t pay dues and you got on out of nowhere…” – from “Flip The Script”
Lesson #7: Your Voice is an Instrument, Play It Well
I never realized how unique an instrumental the human voice, even in everyday conversation, was until I heard Keith Elam rhyme. He had a unique voice, he knew it, and he used it to his advantage.
Some people, very few of them credible hip-hop sources, have remarked that Guru was a B-grade emcee. If he was then any deficiencies were made up by his voice and his distinct delivery.
His voice made him a commanding presence on the mic, on stage and through the speakers. This is probably one of the reasons he never yelled when he rhymed – he didn’t have to.
Songs to check: “Mostly The Voice” and “All 4 The Ca$h”
Quote: “a lot of rappers got flavor and some got skills/but if you’re voice aint dope, then you need to…chill” – from “Mostly The Voice”
Lesson #8: Hip-Hop is Global. I Repeat: Hip-Hop is Global.
A lot of lip service is paid to this concept. It becomes the throw-away line in reports on “the growing influence of American Hip-Hop culture” in reputable publications and news outlets, so it’s easy to dismiss.
But if you’re still reading this and/or you recognize the overall brilliance of Gang Starr’s contributions, I can’t stress enough how key of a point this is.
In 1993, immediately following their third album, Daily Operation, Guru engaged in a side project called Jazzmatazz. The album brought Guru together with jazz legends such as Donald Byrd, Roy Ayres, Lonnie Liston Smith, Branford Marsalis, Ron Carter and others. For some, including this author, of this generation this would be the first peer-driven exposure they would have to jazz music, but that is not the point of this entry. The significant factor is that included among the lineup of cross-generational All Stars was a certain MC Solaar. Once again, please do NOT confuse MC Solaar with the Svengali-like character “Solar” who seems to have inserted himself into the Gang Starr narrative at the proverbial 11th hour.
The MC Solaar I’m referring to is a pioneering French-Senegalese lyricist from Paris , France. In 1993, when I was in high school, I first heard him rhyme – and it was an amazing experience.
Guru featured him on a song called “Le Bien, Le Mal” (The Good and the Bad). The video, shot in black and white, featured Guru and MC Solaar trading verses in French and English in front of the Eifel Tower.
I couldn’t tell every word that MC Solaar was saying but I could tell one thing – it wasn’t wack. This was/is more than can be said for a lot to the music playing on the radio at the time and still to this day.
Here’s where my mind went: you mean to tell me there are people half-way across the world who dig the same type of hip-hop music that I do?!? Where do I sign up?
I won’t say it started right away, but by the time the late 1990s rolled around, and aided by the internet(s) and friends who had spent time abroad, I was digging and searching for quality hip-hop that was not Made in the U.S.A. This development in my tastes proved to be a saving grace as the hip-hop scene drifted further and further into the mainstream in the late 1990s and early 2000s. If you were only looking within the U.S. scene for salvation at that time, you were up a creek.
if not for Guru it’s possible I would never have come to enjoy the work of Shurik’n from Marseilles, Rande Akozta from Havana, DJ Krush from Tokyo, Freundeskreis from Stuttgart, Jehst from London (by way of West Yorkshire) – or for that matter the Matthieu Kassovitz film “La Haine” – and that would be a tragic statement.
Songs to check: “Le Bien, Le Mal”
Quote: “I live in Brooklyn, got boys all over/been around the world and you know that I know the…good, the bad…le bien, le mal” – from “Le Bien, Le Mal”
Lesson #9: Repeated Play of “Take It Personal” At High Volume Has The Capacity To Blow Out Stock Stereo Speakers On Mid-1980s Model Mitsubishi Cordias
I suppose this one is self explanatory but some of us learned the hard way. Specifically, by playing the sh!t out of the cassette single of “Take It Personal” (with “DWYCK” on the B-side mind you) in mid-1980s models Mitsubishi Cordias. Blue ones to be exact.
Songs to check: “Take It Personal”
Quote: “Rap is an art you can’t own no loops/it’s how you hook ‘em up and the rhyme style, troop/So don’t even think you can say someone bit/off of your weak beat, come on you need to quit/I flip lines-n- rhymes that never sound like yours/there ought ta be laws against you yappin’ your jaws/originality overflows in me/and the truth is, that you wish you could live the, life I live and kick the lyrics I kick/But bear in mind that you can’t think this quick/so Premier drops beats, for me to say verses to/and if I sound doper, then Take It Personal” – from “Take It Personal”
Lesson #10: Wackness Is Eternally Present. Wackness Must Be Destroyed. Enlist In The Fight Against Wackness And Ye Shall Be Remembered Forever
Some may ask: if wackness is a fact of life, why should we spend our time fighting it? To them I respond: the fight against bacteria and unpleasant smells is a fact of life but none of us are going to stop taking showers or brushing our teeth every single day. At least I hope not.
Gang Starr defined itself against a lot of things. Wackess was at the top of that list. They were the exact opposite of whatever wakcness was at the moment, and will be in the future.
Guru didn’t cut wack emcees ANY slack. His position on the matter was explicit: you’re making a fool of yourself and you’re failing to uphold the artform. Please leave, really, it’s for your own good.
He fought the forces of wackess like a B-Boy Jedi Knight using his mic as his lightsaber. He was determined to go down fighting rather than fall prey to the armies that represented all that he opposed. For that, he will be remembered by the people he was likely seeking remembrance from.
Song to check: Every single one of them.
Quote 1: “I take action the minute that the crowd gets hype/I’m type crashin’, down like a meteorite/I’m Bogart-ing, mics and whole stages/destroying emcees dreams, from words to whole pages/their rapbooks, look more scrapbooks/with their fictional fairytales and their frail-a$# hooks/a lot of sh!t has happened, since I started rappin’/there’s been enough beef, and enough gat clappin’/there’s been mad signs, for this brother to heed/and while some choose greed, I choose to plant seeds/for your mental, spirit and physical temple/bob your head to it, there’s the water you’ve been lead to it/bathe in it, a long time you’ve been cravin’ it/prance to it, use your third eye and glance through it/your state of being, becoming advanced through it/while others rhyme with no reason, I be breezin’/their mics I seize them, then I try ‘em for treason” – from “What I’m Here 4”
Quote 2: “But back to the act of developing a Gang Starr track/it means that nothing can be wack” – from “The Meaning of the Name
Quote 3: “There’s a large amount of wack crews/for them I’ve got bad news…” – from “A Long Way To Go”