Keith Edward Elam (July 17, 1961 – April 19, 2010), better known by his stage name Guru (an acronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), was an American rapper, producer, and actor best known as a member of the hip-hop duo Gang Starr, along with DJ Premier. He was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
About.com placed him on their list of the Top 50 MCs of Our Time, while The Source ranked him #30 on their list of the Top 50 Lyricists of All Time, saying “Guru dropped some of the most thoughtful rhymes on wax.”[
Elam began his music career under the pseudonym MC Keithy E but later changed name to Guru. He founded Gang Starr in 1987. The group initially released three records, produced by DJ Mark the 45 King, on the Wild Pitch Records record label, but these records received little attention. After a change in line-up, the group consisted of rapper Guru and beat maker DJ Premier. Gang Starr released its first LP No More Mr. Nice Guy on Wild Pitch Records; the group achieved a sizable following and released six critically acclaimed and influential albums from 1989 to 2003. Two albums, Moment of Truth (1998) and compilation Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr (1999) were certified gold in the United States by the RIAA. Gang Starr made archetypal East Coast hip hop with Guru’s rhyming described as sharp-eyed but anti-ostentatious
Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 is a jazz rap album by alternative hip hop artist Guru, released on May 18, 1993 (see 1993 in music) on Chrysalis Records. This album is one of the first albums to combine a live jazz band with hip hop production and rapping. It is the first such project to feature established rappers. Live backing is provided by a band that includes Lonnie Liston Smith, Branford Marsalis, Ronny Jordan, Donald Byrd and Roy Ayers. The album also features vocal collaborations with Carleen Anderson, N’Dea Davenport (of the Brand New Heavies) Dee C Lee and French rapper MC Solaar. The variety of guest artists adds diversity and originality to each track, and gives the album a distinct jazz feel.
By the late 1980s, hip-hop acts and producers such as DJ Jazzy Jeff, Marley Marl and A Tribe Called Quest had made the connection between jazz and rap. But the American MC Guru went further and helped fuse the two, first with Gang Starr, and most notably with his Jazzmatazz project.
In 1990, Guru adapted a poem by Lolis Eric Elie about the history of jazz over a loop DJ Premier, his partner in Gang Starr, made of the quartet assembled by the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the musical director on Spike Lee’s film Mo’ Better Blues. Prefaced by a cascade of classic jazz samples, the resulting track, the infectious “Jazz Thing”, lured younger audiences into cinemas and became a crossover hit. Three years later, Guru roped in Marsalis, trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Lonnie Liston Smith and vibraphone player Roy Ayers to record the Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 album.
“I was noticing how a lot of cats were digging in the crates and sampling jazz breaks to make hip-hop records,” Guru told Blues And Soul’s Pete Lewis during a visit to play the Jazz Café in London last year. “I wanted to take it to the next level and create a new genre, by getting the dudes we were sampling into the studio to jam over hip-hop beats with some of the top vocalists of the time. The whole thing was experimental, but I knew it was an idea that would spawn some historic music. As it evolved, I was able to add elements of R&B, soul, funk, reggae, rap – all on to the original base of hip-hop and jazz.”
In 1993, Guru released the first in a series of four solo albums while still a member of Gang Starr. Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 featured collaborations with Donald Byrd, N’Dea Davenport, MC Solaar, and Roy Ayers and received positive reviews. His second solo LP, Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality, featured Chaka Khan, Ramsey Lewis, Branford Marsalis, and Jamiroquai. The third installment was released in 2000, but it received less positive reviews.
In 1994, Guru appeared on the Red Hot Organization’s compilation album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album, meant to raise awareness and funds in support of the AIDS epidemic in relation to the African American community, was heralded as the album of the year by Time Magazine.
Guru with Gang Starr, Germany 1999
In reference to the above-mentioned Jazzmatazz project, Guru told Pete Lewis of Blues & Soul: “Back around ’93—when I first came up with the Jazzmatazz concept—I was noticing how a lot of cats were digging in the crates and sampling jazz breaks to make hip hop records. But while I thought that was cool, I wanted to take it to the next level and actually create a new genre by getting the actual dudes we were sampling into the studio to jam over hip hop beats with some of the top vocalists of the time. You know, the whole thing was experimental, but I knew it was an idea that would spawn some historic music.”
Guru’s first solo album not a part the Jazzmatazz series, Baldhead Slick & da Click, was released in 2001 to poor reviews. The album reached #22 on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop album charts. The seventh chapter in the book of Guru, Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures, was released in 2005 on Guru’s own record label, 7 Grand Records. The album was produced entirely by labelmate Solar. It reached #54 on the Billboard R&B albums charts and received mixed reviews.
Guru’s final releases were the fourth installment in the Jazzmatazz series, released in June 2007; and Guru 8.0: Lost And Found, released May 19, 2009 (also in collaboration with Solar). A Gang Starr reunion album was planned but will never be released because of Guru’s death.