The artist Guru (an acronym for Gifted. Universal. Rhymes. Unlimited), born Keith Elam in Boston, yearned to live in Brooklyn, New York where I holed up after college. In a twist of irony, I was offered a graduate school spot in Boston and was elated to leave the city Guru anticipated would be a boon. This was not before I had listened to whatever track by Guru I could get my hands on, and ponder his wondrous, often aggressively spewed lyrics. By aggression, I don’t mean threatening like Cypress Hill (still a great band), I mean aggressive in a positive, urgent way- aggressively wanting the listeners ear, to be heard, and to teach. He knew somehow life was a short situation.
I never saw Guru perform, and will always regret this, as he died at a young age of 43 His work on this planet was complete in my eyes, and I consider one of the finest examples of any recording artist projecting light, hope, and wisdom.
In a song Guru says his father, a Judge told him ‘keep the light shining.’ My father was a civil servant, and though a respectable person, if he said anything by and large it was pedestrian. On the subject of women and sports his advice was often bad and anything but philosophical. I suspected there were deficiencies with family, but when I read about what Guru’s dad said, things solidified in my mind about what I lacked. Lots of people had a less dysfunctional family than I, even rough, tough gangster rappers. This hit me.
Too Soft For True Hip Hop? I don’t think so. I have to point out having been born and raised within New York City, Guru never struck me as a soft guy. If there was a Notorious B.I.G inspired Ready to Die Index (RDI), where assassinated Hip Hop musicians, and those who have been shot get a 10/10, I’d give Guru a 7 out of 10. He may not sound like much, and Guru never made a shoot em’ up track like by B.I.G., but he was ferocious, and was a founding member of G.A.N.G.S.T.A.R.R. Why a 7/10? First off, having made the New York City to Boston switch, Guru had switched from Boston to New York City, and neither switch is easy to make. This may be one of the central reasons I took his music so personally. Second, he died of a particularly lethal form of cancer which I can attest, he may have known about for years but soldiered on regardless. Third, he came from a straight, middle class family and instead of going the middle class route that I went, he took a big risk with his career.
Spike Lee and ‘Mo Better Blues. In this brilliant jazz inspired story, Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes battle for status as local legends. Undercutting Denzel Washington’s ambitions are selfish decisions and troubling allegiances. Beside being on of Spike Lee’s better productions, with cameo appearances by Samuel Jackson, the soundtrack which includes his father, composer Bill Lee, and performances from Branford Marsalis, is the beginning of Guru’s journey into hip-hop/jazz fusion. Alongside other half of Gangstarr in its second or third incarnation D.J. Premier, Jazzthing was created for the soundtrack. A Public Enemy – esque piece, featuring overlaid samples from several jazz legends it kicked off the second half of Guru’s musical career.
Yet it was his personal life, born in the segregated Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, which likey planted the seeds of wisdom. His father, Harry, was a judge and his mother, Barbara, was the co-director of libraries in the Boston Public Schools system, kept Keith Elam (young Guru) in line. Despite the challenges of his environment, and a strong history of racism in Boston, Guru Elam graduated with a degree in business administration from Morehouse College in Atlanta and took graduate classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.
Unfortunately for the world of music and culture, diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a lethal cancer which may be detected years before it’s onset with a special blood test, and in 2010 Guru went into cardiac arrest and died. I did not understand what his music meant in my life back then, but recall the New York Times obituary moving me. Life is short, so take a look at yourself, and make moves.
My experience with the music. Fear. Fear of what could happen to me, what might happen to me, or of what already happened that I was afraid to face plagued me. It was summer 1994, I had graduated from college. A friend Jack said his music professor gave him something to listen to – Guru Jazzmatazz. It was okay, Jack said.Driving upstate with my friend Joe, I put my Guru cassette in his car stereo. We listened to Take a Look at Yourself. I felt bad. Two girls I dated and lived had both dissed me; both coincidentally from Humanities High school too. I wondered what the problem could be? Then I heard the words on the car audio system:
You came up short man (that’s right)
Yes just one time too many (too many)
Don’t try to get too friendly (nah)
I shouldn’t give you any (none)
I would not have felt that sting of truth if it was not somewhat true.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, you know respect (yeah)
All right, so I wasn’t always nice to them either. I could have, should have, would have given more respect if it wasn’t for the stress.
For your problems, yo you can’t blame no one else
Take a look at yourself
Take a look at yourself
Take one big look
Take a look at yourself (you dig?)
Nah, I wasn’t being real. If the kind of stress I was under led me to disrespect them, even if it was their infidelities, lies, and in once case- murders, I wasn’t close to being ready for a relationship. I may never be. Keep the light shining Guru, and happy birthday.
- The Editorial Staff at Mitten Maid