It’s been a year since Gang Starr’s Keith “Guru” Elam passed away. The 43-year old, who died after a long battle with cancer, is still regarded as an important figure to people in the hip hop community, one who never went platinum and one who couldn’t seem to get as much as a mention in the Grammy Awards' “In Memoriam” segment.
Not that true hip hop has ever really needed to be recognized by a mainstream culture that considers Fergie and Jennifer Lopez to be hip-hop artists. Part of the culture’s rebellious spirit was birthed in response to its creators being shut out of what people consider to be popular. But now that the paparazzi is just as obsessed with Kanye West as they are with Justin Bieber, it’d be nice to think that a pioneer like Guru was not so easily forgotten.
Still, let’s not lay blame on mountain-climbing music-industry execs only. The hip-hop community is just as guilty. Take away the controversy surrounding his death and the one-year-later stories, and Guru’s legacy isn’t really front-page news on any hip hop magazines or websites either. “Love him or not, he deserved a cover,” says DJ Premier, the other half of the legendary Gang Starr duo. Premier says he was disappointed when he didn’t see Guru’s face on any magazine covers. “He’s a major part of hip hop. I don’t care if it was a one-page story. We were on the cover [of The Source] in ‘93. C’mon, Gang Starr is well in the books. Everybody [that died] got a cover except for Guru.”
A year after Guru’s death, Premier reflects on his old friend and the industry’s reaction, including the Grammy snub. “I was just saddened that his name didn’t pop up,” Premo says of the Grammy segment. “He put down a major stamp on hip hop. He’s a Walk of Fame artist. He deserves a star like everybody else.”
But Premier says there were a few things that took place in the wake of Guru’s death that no Grammy moment could take away from him. One such moment came courtesy of Jay-Z, who recognized Guru during his performance at Yankee stadium. “When I went to Yankee stadium when Jay-Z and Eminem performed, we were up in a suite watching the show and everything got silent. I heard Jay-Z say, ‘Rest in Peace to Guru.’ [Jay] has that power. He’s still the biggest thing in hip hop.” Premier felt honored.
Premo says in the days following Guru’s death, his phone rang constantly with an outpouring of support from the hip hop community. But while he was fielding condolence calls from friends, he was also forced to deal with some negativity, stemming from a letter released to the press by Guru’s business partner Solar. In the letter, which Solar claimed was written by Guru on his deathbed, the rapper distanced himself from Premier and named Solar as the individual responsible for Guru’s affairs.
“It’s not to discredit Solar. I know everything about him. It’s just some of the things that went down was uncalled for. Don’t you know God is watching, one way or another? I’m a spiritual dude in my own way, and I do believe in karma,” Premo says about the situation. Though he has no problem commenting on it, he’d like to focus on Guru’s contributions to the game and their history with each other rather than the negativity, which almost outshadowed Guru’s legacy in the days after his passing.
The legacy, though, begins with a story that only Premier could tell. For today’s web-savvy hip-hop audience, the story of the Gang Starr Foundation is not easily found on the internet. DJ Premier first heard of Guru and the Gang Starr Foundation back in the late '80s. He says he was working on moving up to New York from his hometown of Grand Prairie, Texas, and, while listening to DJ Red Alert on the radio, he heard a song called “Bust a Move Boy" that stood out. “I thought the group was 'Gang Stop' because of his Boston accent,” recalls the DJ. “His voice was really, really different. I had never heard a voice like his. Way before videos, it was always based on your voice.”
While working at a record store, Premier gave his demo to "a guy named Carlos" after finding out that Gang Starr was looking for a new DJ. Guru heard the demo and the two later hooked up at a club in New York. “Me and Guru smoked a blunt and kicked it and started talking about all the music we liked, and we were on the same page,” he says. Not too long after their initial conversation, Premier sent over a beat to Guru that would change both of their lives. It was the beat for “Words I Manifest.”
“It was the first beat I ever sent him,” says Premier of the song, now considered a classic. Wild Pitch Records brought the two together immediately to record it. Premo remembers it was Thanksgiving week. They released the song and shot a video for it soon after.
The two went on to establish a legacy in hip-hop, releasing six albums and two compilations. The critically acclaimed Moment of Truth was certified gold. “Gang Starr was his baby,” Premier says. “Jazzmatazz was Guru’s thing, but Gang Starr was his baby. I don’t care what anybody says. That dude loved Gang Starr. To all of a sudden downplay it [in his last days], I knew he had been hypnotized.”
Before his untimely death, Premier hadn’t spoken to Guru since April of 2004. In the days following his death, news of the infamous letter leaked by Solar surfaced online. According to Solar, the MC did not want his “ex-DJ" to have anything to do with his name, likeness, events, tributes, etc. “We never disbanded Gang Starr,” Premier says. “We had one more album on our contract. We asked if we could be dropped, and they dropped us. But we’ve always done the same routine. We’ve always done a Gang Starr album, then he does Jazzmatazz, I do my thing. That was our routine our whole career.”
Premier says that despite the fact that he hadn’t talked to Guru in years, he knew he had to see him before he died. Though Premier's name wasn't on the list of people who could visit him at the hospital (Solar allegedly wasn’t allowing any family members to see the MC either), Premier says Guru’s nephew convinced him to go, so he snuck into see the rapper, who was in a coma.
Employees at the hospital were giving Premo the runaround, so he asked one of them to use the restroom. Walking down the hallway, the producer found a staff elevator and took it to Guru’s floor. Then he followed another family down the hall until he got to his friend’s room. “I had a copy of Moment of Truth and a Gang Starr T-shirt. That was my balloon and my get-well card. It was from our last tour, one of the old original Full Clip T-shirts that he loved. I pulled the sheets down and laid the T-shirt on him. I was trying to see if I can get any feeling, but you could tell he was gone already. I said a few things to him. I wanted to talk to him [about] that legacy.”
Seven days later, Guru was gone. According to DJ Premier, Guru suffered cardiac arrest as a result of an asthma attack while he was being operated on. Premier says his body was removed by Solar without the family’s knowledge. “There was a lot of funny business going on. We called every funeral home where he lived and [his family] found the body. When Guru’s brother walked in, the mortician said, ‘I know you’re the brother.’ Guru’s son was able to see his father before he was cremated.”
For Premier though, the memory that will stick with him the most is the music: “He was very ill on his wordplay. He’s phenomenal. That’s what always sticks in my head—that his last word in an argument was: ‘One thing is for sure. None of y’all can out-rhyme me. You can’t out-rhyme me.'”