With all the positive attention Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly has been deservedly receiving, it’s only right to highlight one of the first rappers to blend jazz and hip-hop to great effect.
It’s been five years since hip-hop lost one of its most beloved sons. Keith Elam — best known as Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) of Gang Starr — died in April of 2010. And 26 years have passed since the release of Guru and DJ Premier’s classic “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” a seminal record in the vein of alternative hip-hop.
Guru left behind a body of work that, for many of us, still holds up. From he and Premo’s aforementioned 1989 debut to their final collaboration “The Ownerz” in 2003, the duo’s legacy is not up for discussion. Purveyors of a sound that infused jazz (also see Guru’s Jazzmatazz offerings) and soul, their influence on culture and music on a whole will surely outlive them both. Performances like the ones they gave on Yo! MTV Raps and The Arsenio Hall Show are further proof of their singularity — even among groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Leaders of the New School who popularized a similar brand of rap.
Still, there was no one like Guru. From his smooth, monotone delivery to the way he imparted knowledge over beats, he was the secret envy of a generation of hopeful emcees. He brought a flavor and a certain consciousness that impacted fans of diehard lyricism. One of the most celebrated wordsmiths in the history of hip-hop, his intelligence on wax rivaled the shoot ‘em up mentality of many of his contemporaries. From the jump, he stood out and gained respect for his approach. Guru always made it a point to emphasize the power of positivity and of possessing a sense of self–worth.
Feeling nostalgic and in need of something heartfelt? Maybe it’s time to revisit the catalogue of a legend. Here are five essential Gang Starr gems:
1. “Words I Manifest” – “Do more than the rest who fess and can’t compete / I’m elite, I’ll defeat, delete, and mistreat.”
2. “DWYCK”, featuring Nice and Smooth – “Lemonade was a popular drink and it still is / I get more props in stunts than Bruce Willis.”
3. “Mass Appeal” – “Cuttin’ off wack kids, pulling their trump cards / I thump hard, and make ‘em say that I’m God.”
4. “Royalty” (featuring K-Ci and JoJo) – “Major effect to your sector, I’m the corrector / Live and direct, waving my mic like a scepter.”
5. “You Know My Steez” – “The apparatus gets blessed, and suckers get put to rest / No more of the unpure I got the cure for this mess.”
— Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR, Esquire, and, of course, VIBE.