Legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr, which had faded from the music scene in recent years, saw member Keith Elam, better known as Guru, pass away Monday night.
Elam died at the age of 43 after a long battle with cancer that only recently became public. Elam teamed up with DJ Premier in 1989 to record No More Mr. Nice Guy, the first of six albums Gang Starr released.
Controversy has surrounded a letter he purportedly released from the hospital through his associate Solar, disowning DJ Premier. Elam was already estranged from his family, according to media reports.
It may be tempting for fans to use the passing of one of the genre’s trailblazers as an opportunity to bemoan the current state of the hip-hop scene. The genre’s death has been proclaimed repeatedly over the second half of the past decade, thanks to an obsession with materialism, partying and pointless violence.
Guru had little to do with the intellectually exhausted rap of recent years and — despite the implications of the Gang Starr name — very little connection to the gangsta rap that flooded the New York hip-hop scene in 1994.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Nas and Biggie as much as the next guy. And Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was a musical revelation to a rap novice. But Gang Starr was working, alongside better-known acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy, to make hip-hop a legitimate genre before most of those rappers had recorded their first tracks. DJ Premier provided the duo with a distinct sound based on samples of current hip-hop and classic jazz, which was featured in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” in 1990.
Although the label is fairly recent, Guru can rightfully be called one of hip-hop’s first “conscious” MCs. In 1992’s “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” he made a warning to fellow MCs who had lost sight of artistic pursuits in favor of fame and wealth. In other songs, he rapped about damaging relationships, the AIDS epidemic, biases in the educational system and media depictions of blacks. He was also highly aware of the hip-hop tradition that he was following, although it never diminished his penchant for lighthearted boasting.
The most salient features that set Guru apart from the rappers who have been criticized in recent years are his pure lyrical skills and ability to evoke time and place without ever sounding dated — a talent that has given more hardcore rappers like the Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G. lasting appeal.
Hip-hop fans saddened by the news of Guru’s demise should avoid the familiar refrains of, “They don’t make hip-hop like that anymore.” Better to remember Guru’s achievements in their own right, including his collaborations with several jazz greats outside of Gang Starr.
Guru also knew that one of hip-hop’s most valuable assets is its evolving tradition.
“I bet you couldn’t name more than one pioneer,” he rapped in 1992’s “Flip the Script,” “‘cause you didn’t pay dues, and you got on outta’ nowhere.”
Now, Guru himself can be remembered as one of those pioneers.