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Gang Starr’s Guru Was An Indie Hip Hop Pioneer

Is the industry reluctant to remember this part of his legacy?

guru1On Monday, April 19th, the hip hop world said goodbye to a legend. Keith Elam, known best as the super emcee Guru, passed away after a yearlong battle with cancer. Unfortunately, the iconic rapper’s passing has been tinged with the exact brand of drama and controversy that he avoided in life.

A Bit of History

Guru is best known as part of the influential hip hop project, Gang Starr. He and DJ Premier put out six albums between 1989 and 2003, a catalog which began by defining the east coast sound, and evolved into a signature style that infused jazz influences with hip hop. Throughout this period, Guru was also releasing solo albums that delved heavily into merging jazz and hip hop (check out the Jazzamatazz series).

And then, right around the release of Gang Starr’s last album, some weird stuff went down. DJ Premier went home halfway through a world tour, and soon, Guru was being quoted as saying that Gang Starr was finished, and that he was moving on to new projects.

It was at this point that Guru dropped out of the mainstream hip hop scene, and made the choice to become an independent artist, starting his own label, 7 Grand Records, with a new producer, the relatively unknown MC Solar.

Solar Controversy

gurusolar5Solar and Guru appeared to have a very close relationship, and in interviews over the years that followed, Guru refused to discuss Gang Starr or his relationship with his “ex-DJ,” Premier. Things got a bit strange when Guru began to succumb to his battle with cancer in March. Rumors flew that Solar was the only one in contact with Guru, and that he was preventing other friends and family from seeing the dying emcee.

Finally, yesterday, a letter was released, allegedly written by Guru, that mostly involved heavy praise for Solar and an insistent avowal that Guru wanted DJ Premier to be uninvolved in anything to do with his music after his death:

I do not wish my ex-DJ to have anything to do with my name likeness, events, tributes etc. connected in anyway to my situation including any use of my name or circumstance for any reason and I have instructed my lawyers to enforce this. I had nothing to do with him in life for over 7 years and want nothing to do with him in death.

Cue a massive outcry from the hip hop community, most of which boils down to an insistence that Guru did not write the deathbed letter, that it was written by Solar, and that the producer was trying to capitalize on his partner’s death. However, anyone following Guru’s career in recent years might not find the letter so shocking.

Does the Drama Boil Down to Guru’s Choice to ‘Go Indie?’

It’s still a rare enough phenomenon in the hip hop world for an emcee to turn away from the big paycheck in favor of an indie career, but that’s exactly what Guru did. Whenever interviewers asked him what happened to Gang Starr, he was evasive, but he was always emphatic on one point:

I was really disgusted and tired of the A&R’s and executives at the major labels I was dealing with constantly trying to tell me how to do my stuff. I mean, you’d be surprised – even though it may appear one way on the outside – at what goes on behind-the-scenes-with these record companies. And I just didn’t wanna be stifled creatively any more. I wanted artistic freedom.

–      Blues & Soul Online

As collaborators, Guru and Solar were shown to agree on the point that it was time for something new in hip hop, and they didn’t want the direction of their music controlled by greedy execs. Although he never directly called anyone out for trying to control his music, Guru did have this to say about the commercially-focused nature of mainstream hip hop:

I felt that people tried to get me to compromise. Or some people compromised me without me knowing, like people that I put in positions of authority to represent me, misrepresented me, and that’s why I had to fire everyone and rework everything and come back better than ever.

–       HHNLive

In interview after interview for the last seven years, Guru refused to slam anyone, but he always made the point that he didn’t like the way the industry did business, that he wanted to move on from Gang Starr, and that his indie label, 7 Grand, was doing more for him than a major ever had.

So when a legend like Guru spirals off the mortal coil and leaves behind a letter asking that his musical legacy be protected, I’m not inclined to wonder if his producer wrote the letter, but why we, as human beings, are so compelled to hang on to a past that – while it undoubtedly represents a great era of hip hop – also defined the corporatization and commoditization of a musical genre that, in Guru’s own words, was created to give voice to the poor and the disenfranchised.

In the part of Guru’s letter that seems to get overlooked after the paragraph dissing Premo, the message is this:

The work I have done with Solar represents a legacy far beyond its time. And we as a team were not afraid to push the envelope. To me this is what true artists do! As men of honor we stood tall in the face of small mindedness, greed, and ignorance. We fought for music and integrity at the cost of not earning millions and for this I will always be happy and proud.

Did Guru write these words? Did Solar? In the end it hardly seems to matter. The words reflect the manifesto represented by 7 Grand Records over the years, and if we, as hip hop fans, can’t deal with the change represented therein, we should perhaps be asking ourselves why.

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  1. Excellent post!