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In Memory of: A guide to 10 of Guru's greatest moments

April 23, 2010 | 10:10 am

Guru-jazzmatazz-vol-2 A Tribe Called Quest garnered the most critical raves and Wu-Tang Clan swung the hardcore hip-hop pendulum back from the West Coast, but no group defined the sound of '90s New York City rap like Gang Starr. Even 21 years after their debut, Guru’s sage and sober-minded rhymes combined with DJ Premier’s jazz and soul loops, scratched hooks and subway-filthy drums, remain as iconic as Times Square and twice as grimy.

Earlier this week, Guru (real name: Keith Elam) died at 47 following a lengthy struggle with cancer. In the interest of commemorating his indelible legacy, the following is a guide to a few of Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal’s finest moments on wax.

“Manifest” from “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (Wild Pitch, 1989)

Recorded in less than 20 days due to a label-imposed deadline, Gang Starr’s first full-length was later considered by Guru to be little more than a glorified demo. Yet the chemistry between the recently transplanted New Yorkers was immediate, with the duo synthesizing two of the prevailing styles ruling rap at the end of the 1980s: the jazzy grooves of Stetsasonic and the early Native Tongues, and the Afro-centric Nation of Islam-influenced agitprop of Public Enemy and X-Clan.

The video for “Manifest” finds Guru paying homage to Malcolm X, lecturing from a podium in a skull cap and suit. It’s a fitting image for a man who embodied the spirit of the master-teacher: imbued with “knowledge and understanding,” always positive but never blanching at the brick-bat realities of the street. The beat from DJ Premier already reveals their nascent aesthetic, suturing a horn sample from Charlie Parker’s “A Night in Tunisia,” to a funky James Brown break.

“Jazz Thing” from 'Mo’ Better Blues' Soundtrack” (Sony, 1990)

While both Premier and Guru were vehemently opposed to the “jazz rap” tag ascribed to them by label-happy journalists, the genre was a salient influence. So when Spike Lee heard “Jazz Thing” and “Manifest,” he turned to the tandem to create an anthem for his 1990 portrait of fictional jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam. Their new label Chrysalis, a subsidiary of EMI, wanted “Jazz Thing” for the next Gang Starr album, but the duo refused, lest they be pigeonholed.

Recorded with a pre-“Tonight Show” Branford Marsalis, “Jazz Thing” maps out the history of the art form from the African Diaspora to its birth and evolution in New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago. Invoking Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie “Bird” Parker, John Coltrane and others, the cut helped spark a resurgent interest in jazz among hip-hop performers, with Digable Planets, Us3, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul subsequently revealing their jazz jones.

Just to Get a Rep,” from “Step In the Arena” (Chrysalis/EMI, 1991)

“Stick-up kids is out to tax,” cries the muffled hook for the debut single from Gang Starr’s first classic record. The jazz fixation is absent, swapped for an eerie sample from French electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, suggestive of graffiti scars, broken bottles, and the rough underworld of the pre-Giuliani New York.

Guru skulks in the shadows, a neutral narrator illuminating the plight of the stick-up kids coiled in every corner (“he could be loose in the park or lurking at the train station.”) Befitting his academic background (his father was a prominent Boston-area judge), in only 3-1/2 minutes, Guru says more about urban decay and crime motivations than most sociologists could in an hourlong lecture.

Gang Starr – “Ex Girl to the Next Girl” from “Daily Operation” (Chrysalis/EMI, 1992)

While many rappers struggle to write songs about the opposite sex, resorting to patronizing cliches or misogynistic caricatures, Guru’s versatility and emotional complexity were always peerless. “Ex Girl to the Next Girl” found him at his most vulnerable and honest, tenderhearted but always street-smart, conveying relatable tales about three different women with whom he’d parted ways.

The first, a gold digger still scheming to get him back, the second a would-be sugar mama, and the third, a schemer perpetually stuck on material goods. Striking a triumphant but slightly wistful tone, Guru captured the vicissitudes of contemporary romance without resorting to sucrose sentimentality.

Gang Starr ft. Nice & Smooth – “DWYCK” (“DWYCK/Flip the Script,” Chrysalis/EMI, 1992)

“DWYCK” didn’t see release on an actual album until 1994’s “Hard To Earn,” but that didn’t stop it from dominating booming systems during the summer of 1992. A collaboration with Nice & Smooth, “DWYCK” remains one of the group’s most immediately radio-friendly and catchy cuts. Occasionally chided for his monotone flow, Guru was at his most charismatic, dropping eminently quotable lyrics in each bar. No one really knew why he declared that “lemonade was a popular drink and it still is,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop fan over 30 ignorant to where the line came from.

Guru ft. Donald Byrd –“Loungin’” from “Jazzmatazz Vol. 1” (Chrysalis, 1993)

In a 1994 interview with The Source, Guru described Gang Starr as “his girlfriend,” and “Jazzmatazz” as his “ho.” The comparison might be off-putting, but there’s no denying that his side project allowed him to explore fertile terrain that wouldn’t have worked within the more tradition-bound confines of his main squeeze.

Backed by a live band featuring jazz legends Lonnie Liston Smith, Branford Marsalis, Donald Byrd and Roy Ayers, the first “Jazzmatazz” revealed Guru’s fearlessness and creative restlessness at a time when most of his peers were retreating further into their thugged-out personas. As he says himself, he was showing “how to pave the way, mellow out, and just [stay] loungin.’”

Guru ft. MC Solaar– “Le Bien Le Mal” from “Jazzmatazz Vol. 1” (Chrysalis, 1993)

In 2010, hip-hop has been long established as an international phenomenon, with the New York-born genre mixing with global sounds to create a million distinct dialects and permutations. But in 1993, when Guru reached out to France’s most renowned rapper, MC Solaar, the move seemed radical. Foreign hip-hop seemed alien to American ears, but Guru’s co-sign helped Solaar make a minor dent in the American market—still the only French rapper to do so. The video featured Guru and Solaar standing in front of graffiti-pocked Brooklyn buildings and the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, with a universalist message and relentless funk.

“Mass Appeal” from “Hard to Earn” (Chrysalis/EMI, 1994)

Ironically, “Mass Appeal,” a song dedicated to calling out those who’d “sell their soul to have mass appeal,” was one of the group’s highest-charting records. Hip-hop has been described as the most postmodern of the genres because of the way in which it reappropriates the past 100 years of recorded music to create something wholly new. But one of Premier’s most impressive tricks was to pare obscure licks (in this case a sample from “Horizon Drive,” by jazz guitarist Vic Juris) with a then-recent hit like Da Youngsta’s “Pas Da Mic.”

Guru boasts that just like “baggy slacks, I’m crazy hip-hop,” and even though contemporary fashion trends lean toward the tightly fitting, the statement remains valid. Indeed, “Mass Appeal” stands as testament to the group’s integrity and unwillingness to cater to popular caprice.

“You Know My Steez” from “Moment of Truth” (Noo Trybe/Virgin/EMI, 1998)

Following a four-year hiatus, Guru addressed potential doubters in the intro to “You Know My Steez”: "We have certain formulas, but we update 'em with the times. So…the rhyme style is elevated, the style of beats is elevated, but it's still Guru and Premier.”

The first single from “Moment of Truth” immediately quelled anyone who suspected that the time off had caused atrophy. Arguably their creative apogee, “Moment of Truth,” was Gang Starr’s most commercially successful record, one that struck a perfect alchemy between hard-core braggadocio, odes to the opposite sex, mortality, and concerns both political and personal.

“Keep Your Worries” ft. Angie Stone from “Jazzmatazz: Street Soul” (Virgin, 2000)

Aware that he needed an artistic left turn to keep the “Jazzmattaz” series fresh, Guru enlisted some of neo-soul’s biggest names including Angie Stone, Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, and Craig David. Never ignoring his hip-hop roots, Guru also recruited The Roots, Pharrell Williams, and J Dilla, along with legends like Isaac Hayes and Herbie Hancock. Oft-overlooked in his catalogue, “Jazmatazz: Street Soul,” finds Guru secure in his legendary status: self-assured, relaxed and effortlessly cool.

-- Jeff Weiss