Guru: Rapper who helped fuse hip-hop and jazz as part of Gang Starr and Jazzmatazz

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The Independent Online

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."

With Gang Starr established in Europe after the Step In The Arena (1991) and Daily Operation (1992) albums, and the singles "Take A Rest", "Lovesick" and "2-Deep", Guru was also able to call on British musicians like guitarist Ronny Jordan, saxophonist Gary Barnacle and trumpeter Courtney Pine, as well as the French rapper MC Solaar, to complete Jazzmatazz Vol. 1. The album spawned the Top 40 hits "Trust Me", featuring the UK-based American vocalist and Brand New Heavies acolyte N'Dea Davenport, and "No Time To Play", with D.C. Lee of Style Council fame.

Championed by DJ Gilles Peterson, then on Kiss FM in London, and Radio Nova in Paris, Jazzmatazz soon matched the popularity of Gang Starr in Europe. Jazzmatazz, Vol II: The New Reality, featuring Chaka Khan, Jay Kay of Jamiroquai, Mica Paris, the US rapper Kool Dee, Jamaican singer Ini Kamoze and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, as well as many of the cast from the first album, spent over two months on the British charts in 1995. Streetsoul, the third Jazzmatazz album (2000), lived up to its title with guest appearances by Erykah Badu, Kelis, Macy Gray, Angie Stone, Herbie Hancock and Isaac Hayes.

Throughout the 1990s, Guru managed to keep the two going in parallel. Indeed, the Gang Starr albums Hard To Earn (1994) and Moment Of Truth (1998), and the 1999 compilation Full Clip: A Decade Of Gang Starr each sold half a million copies in the US. However, following the release of The Ownerz in 2003, he stopped working with Premier altogether and reportedly issued instructions before his death that the producer refrain from using the Gang Starr name. With his new associate Solar (not the French rapper), Guru launched his own 7 Grand label and issued Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures (2005), Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4: The Hip-Hop Jazz Messenger: Back To The Future (2007) and Guru 8.0: Lost And Found (2009).

Even if Gang Starr epitomised a certain kind of socially-conscious New York rap, Guru was not a stereotypical rapper from a deprived background. Born Keith Elam in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood of Boston in 1962, he had a middle-class upbringing. His father, Harry Elam, became the first black judge in the Boston municipal courts, prompting racist phone calls to their home. "We were getting death threats and all types of shit," Guru recalled. In 1983, he graduated in business administration from Morehouse College in Atlanta and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. To the dismay of his family, he soon dropped out and worked as a counsellor in a facility for juvenile offenders in Boston. "Hip-hop changed my life," he said. "MCing was where I fit in. I was doing talent shows. I formed a group and went to New York in 1984."

At first, he called himself MC Keithy E but quickly switched to Guru, saying it stood for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal, a reference to the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam.

He led an early incarnation of Gang Starr and released three 12in singles on the Wild Pitch label before teaming up with Premier – né Christopher Martin – who had moved from Houston to New York. Their 1989 single "Words I Manifest" sampled the Dizzy Gillespie jazz standard "A Night In Tunisia" and established a style that would become as much a Gang Starr trademark as Guru's gravelly voice and clear delivery. Even better, an inspired use of the Ramsey Lewis composition "Les Fleurs" and Guru's smooth flow turned "Jazz Music" into a dry run for "Jazz Thing" and the stand-out track on No More Mr. Nice Guy, the duo's debut.

Gang Starr were not yet enjoying as many plaudits as other emerging outfits such as De La Soul, and raised their game on "Just To Get A Rep" and the title track of Step In The Arena, their first album for Chrysalis. The articulate Guru eschewed most of the trappings of bling and often cast himself as the observer rather than the instigator of any violence.

This helped set Gang Starr apart from most of the East Coast acts, even as the in-demand Premier provided beats for The Notorious B.I.G., Nas and Jay-Z. The critical acclaim duly afforded the ground-breaking Jazzmatazz further enhanced Guru's status as a pioneer on a higher wavelength than many of his contemporaries.

"Jazzmatazz was about bringing the generations together," he stressed. "At that time, there were a lot of people who thought of hip-hop as some violent noise, and there were also a lot of hip-hop cats who didn't know their history and didn't know that hip-hop was embracing all of these other forms of music that came before it. Branford Marsalis and Donald Byrd put the word out amongst the other jazz cats that Guru is the man and is definitely doing his thing, from a hip-hop standpoint, but bridging the gap over to the jazz. I knew that Jazzmatazz would be timeless. It's adding life on to hip-hop."

Last year, Guru was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. In February, he went into cardiac arrest and fell into a coma. His advice to young rappers was simple. "Be honest with yourself, be original, be open to criticism, and be careful not to be surrounded by 'yes' men. I was always a fan as well as an artist."

Pierre Perrone

Keith Elam (Guru), rapper, songwriter, producer; born Boston 17 July 1962; one son; died New York 19 April 2010.