Guru: Hip-Hop's Elder Statesman Dies Young Throughout his career, Guru was a unique figure: a veteran who thrived when others faltered and an innovator who never followed a style he didn't help invent. His group, Gang Starr, led a vanguard of other artists who bridged jazz and hip-hop. The rapper died Monday at 47.
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Guru: Hip-Hop's Elder Statesman Dies Young

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Guru: Hip-Hop's Elder Statesman Dies Young

Guru: Hip-Hop's Elder Statesman Dies Young

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Keith Elam died earlier this week. You might know him by his stage name, Guru. His work with Gang Starr and "Jazzmatazz" made him one of hip-hop's most distinctive voices, one that numerous rap artists tried to imitate. Guru had cancer and had been in a coma since suffering a heart attack last month. He was 47 years old.

Oliver Wang has this appreciation.

OLIVER WANG: Keith Elam was born into a prominent family in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. His father was a municipal judge and his mother helped run the city's library programs. Their son was enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology before making the decision to give it all up and pursue a career in hip-hop as Guru.

(Soundbite of song, "")

GURU (Late Rapper): (Singing) Boom bash gash, I had to break, I had to get away, pack my bags to leave for good. It was a Monday. Kissed my mother, gave my pops a pound, then he hugged me and then he turned around.

WANG: In New York, Guru met Christopher Martin, aka DJ Premier. Together, as Gang Starr, they forged what is still considered one of the greatest pairings in hip-hop history. Their first single became an instant classic.

(Soundbite of song, "Words That I Manifest")

GURU: (Singing) I profess and I don't jest, 'cause the words I manifest, they will take you, sedate you, and I will stress upon you the need for, you ought to feed your minds and souls so you can lead yourself to keep...

WANG: Whereas most other rap groups were using soul or funk samples, Gang Starr turned to Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" for its "Words That I Manifest."

(Soundbite of song, "Words That I Manifest")

GURU: (Singing) These are the words that I manifest. These are the words that I manifest.

WANG: The group would soon lead a vanguard of other artists bridging jazz and hip-hop.

(Soundbite of song, "Jazz Thing")

GURU: (Singing) In the '40s, there was bebop, the first bebop, the real bebop, so let me talk, about Diz and Byrd, giving the word, defining how a beat could be so complete. Playing with ferocity, thinking with velocity, about ornithology or anthropology, and even episcope(ph), and this real history...

WANG: Guru's love for jazz extended beyond just samples however. In 1993, he began a series of recordings called "Jazzmatazz" that paired him and other rap acts with different jazz singers and musicians, including guitarist Ronnie Jordan and vocalist Dee C. Lee.

(Soundbite of music)

GURU: (Singing) Be on time, 'cause I'm starting to reach my time. I ain't got no time to play. I make moves.

Ms. DEE C. LEE (Vocalist): (Singing) Never no time to play, gotta keep working everyday. Never no time to play. Gotta make moves with no delay.

GURU: (Singing) I gotta make moves.

Ms. LEE: (Singing) Never no time to play.

GURU: (Singing) No time to play...

WANG: Despite Guru's side projects, Gang Starr was still his main vehicle. Throughout the 1990s, he and DJ Premier crafted the platonic ideal for underground hip-hop. Premier's production was celebrated for its propulsive minimalism, while Guru's lyricism was a striking mix between street-corner cockiness and hard-knocks wisdom. Despite the wordplay of their name, Gang Starr were never about gangster rap. For them, the perils of urban life were the source of vivid narratives and cautionary tales, never celebrations.

(Soundbite of song, "Code of the Streets")

GURU: (Singing) Take this for example, young brothers want rep, 'cause in the life they're living, you can't half step. It starts with the young ones, doing crime for fun. And if you ain't down, you'll get played out, son. So, let's get a car, you know, a fly whip, get a dent, pull a screwdriver, and be off quick. With a dope ride, yeah, and a rowdy crew, we could bag us a Benz and an Audi too...

WANG: As a rapper, Guru was one of hip-hops most distinct voices: He was never the most intricate stylist, but with his laconic monotone, there was something mesmerizing in his flow.

(Soundbite of song, "Mostly Tha Voice")

GURU: (Singing) Mostly the voice will get you up, or mostly the voice that makes you buck. A lot of rappers got flavor and some got skills, but if the voice ain't dope, then you need to chill...

WANG: Guru was an elder statesman of hip-hop when he died at the age of 47. Though he and Premier parted ways in 2004, their impact can be heard in countless rap artists who've tried to imitate their particular sound and chemistry. But throughout his career, Guru was a unique figure - the veteran who thrived when others faltered and the innovator who never followed a style he didn't help invent.

(Soundbite of song, "Above the Clouds")

GURU: (Singing) Above the crowd, above the clouds with the sounds of original, infinite skills create miracles. Warriors spiritual, above the clouds raining down...

BLOCK: Oliver Wang runs the audio blog SoulSides.com. He was remembering Keith Elam, stage name Guru, who died this week at the age of 47.

(Soundbite of song, "Above the Clouds")

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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