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Keith Elam, rap singer known as Guru of duo Gang Starr, dies at 47

April 20, 2010 | 11:16 pm

GURU_EPA_4 Elam, whose Gang Starr released six studio albums between 1989 and 2003, was also a highly sought-after collaborator who believed music could be a positive social force.

Keith Elam, better known as Guru of the rap duo Gang Starr, whose laconic, monotone delivery made his one of the most distinctive voices in hip-hop, has died. He was 47.

The rapper had been suffering from melanoma over the last year and had been in a coma since a heart attack March 2, said his brother, Harry Elam Jr. He died Monday at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, N.Y., without having regained consciousness. 

“The notion, with him, was that the music could be a positive force,” his brother said. “That is what he believed in terms of hip-hop, who it could reach and what he wanted to do.”

He was born July 17, 1962, and raised in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. He originally formed Gang Starr in the mid-1980s under the name Keithy E.M.C. before changing it to Guru (Gifted Unlimited, Rhymes Universal). An earlier incarnation of the group included Big Shug, Damo-D Ski and DJ 12B Down; but Elam’s long-term partner became Chris Martin, a.k.a. DJ Premier, a producer from Houston, who, like Elam, relocated to Brooklyn in the late 1980s.

Their first single together, 1989’s “Words That I Manifest,” became a hit. Built around a sample of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” the song propelled the group during a popular era for jazz/hip-hop cross-fertilization. “They weren't just sampling jazz, they were approaching hip-hop like it was jazz,” said Joseph Schloss, author of “Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop.”

As a solo artist, Elam pursued jazz/hip-hop fusion even further through his four-volume Jazzmatazz series, started in 1993. These albums paired Elam with jazz musicians and singers such as Branford Marsalis, Ronnie Foster and Me’Shell NdegéOcello. “I was proud to be included in that project, and really appreciated his efforts to bring the world of hip-hop and jazz together,” said pianist Bob James, who appeared on 2007’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 4.

Read the full story: Keith Elam, rap singer known as Guru of duo Gang Starr, dies at 47

-- Oliver Wang

Photo credit: EPA