Guru AKA Keith Elam (17 July 1962 - 19 April 2010)
Back in '86 when I moved back to New York from Los Angeles, I'd seriously considered starting a label with my friend Stu Fine. We had several think-tank meetings trying to figure out what the label was, but more importantly what it wasn't. Both of us were fervently passionate about music. He was gaga over hip-hop, I was certainly a fan as I was managing The Nastee Boyz outta Newark. They were budding young entrepreneurs that were not only creating some of the dopest and craziest tracks of the day but were publishing the very first rap magazine called The Hip Hop Hit List. I wanted the label to include other genres of music; well, actually rock and alt-country, but Stu could see the value of narrowcasting to corner the growing rap and hip-hop market. Stu, being a massive baseball fan, came up with the name Wild Pitch Records. I liked it, didn't love it, as football was my main sport.(I guess, being a longtime suffering Cleveland fan I'd witnessed too many depressing baseball seasons.)
Enter a young Keith Elam, AKA GURU (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal ), fresh to New York, sporting the dreams of all young rappers. Gang Starr was his vehicle. I'm not sure if he gave me his tape at a club or if it was mailed to me. But I remember listening to it and thinking how fresh it was. We met. I learned that he was from a middle-class family in Roxbury, attended Morehead State. That his father Harry was a lawyer and then an Appellant judge in Boston. He was looking for that break. I knew that he had talent. But I didn't want to manage any more hip-hop acts. I turned them over to Stu to handle with my blessings. Suffice to say, Stu would roll with Wild Pitch without me. And in 1987 and 1988, Gang Starr released three 12" vinyl singles on his new label. But it wasn't until 1989's "Words I Manifest" from the album No More Mr. Nice Guy that it blew up.
I ran into Keith on Broadway and Houston about 5-6 years ago. We hugged and laughed about the good old days. Where our careers had taken us, where we thought they might be heading. He was looking to reach a whole new generation of hip-hip fans. I commented how I so wanted him to do another Jazzmatazz record. How it was so important to the growth of his genre, how defining it was to this new generation of rappers and fans alike. We parted. And as sprawling and small as this city can be, we never saw each other again.
Fast forward a few months ago, and I'm reading about his heart attack, coma, and cancer. And I wanted to reach out to him. See how he was. Try to offer some levity in all of the shit that was piling up on him. But apart from a few weak email attempts, we didn't connect.
Today I blasted Guru's Jazzmatazz Volume I at the office. My young scribes were blown away by the swing of the funk and jazz and hip-hop collision. I had to remind them that this dropped in 1993! Waaaayyyy before Gnarls, Madlib, Outcast, Jay-Z... This was Keith's "experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz" with folks like Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Branford Marsalis, DC Lee, N'Dea Davenport, Courtney Pine, Lonnie Liston Smith, Ronny Jordan. And his rhymes were tight. Like another instrumental riffing with the trumpet or sax. His monotone delivery flowing with ease and grace.
Keith, you were the real deal. You were a pioneer both with Gang Starr and solo. You expanded hip-hop and rap into new directions that would reap millions, and I mean millions, for those rappers that followed in your footsteps. Thank you for your art, your life, and your legacy.
Rest in peace,
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 4 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.