On April 19, Guru died. I read about it a day or two later on a blog and felt a twinge of sadness. He was one hip-hop emcee who so completely changed my mind about the genre and opened up a new vista for me that I always felt grateful to him. Guru (real name: Keith Elam) was one half of the New York duo called Gang Starr and he was only 48 when he succumbed to cancer.
I still remember the first Gang Starr album that I heard. It was the early 1990s and an ad film-maker friend had passed on Daily Operation on a cassette. “It’s great hip-hop stuff,” he said with a smile, knowing full well my near-visceral distaste for the genre then. I tossed the tape somewhere and forgot about it for a few weeks. Then, on a whim, I popped it into the car deck. And, was instantly gripped. The easy-going rhythm was a hooker but what really made me sit up and listen were the lyrics—intelligent, deep and witty. No gratuitous sprinkling of expletives (of course, you have the occasional mother#@$%* and a few, but then what did you expect from a hip-hop duo?) and stories and anecdotes that were interesting and even sensitive.
Here’s a sample from Take it Personal:
I never thought that you would crab me
Undermine me, and backstab me
But I can see clearly now the rain is gone
The pain is gone but what you did was still wrong
There was a few times I needed your support
But you tried to play me like an indoor sport
like racquetball, tennis, fool, whatever
All I know is you attempted to be clever
Nevertheless, cleverness can’t impress
Cause now you’ve been exposed like a person undressed
cause I see through you, I’m the Guru
Now what you gonna do when I step to you
and when I pay you back I’ll be hurting you
This ain’t no threat so take it personal
Well, what did you think? Not very hip-hop-ish, those lyrics, are they? That’s exactly what drew me to Gang Starr and the two who made it up—Guru, of course, and his collaborator DJ Premier. Gang Starr’s music had a gritty, 1990s Brooklyn feel to it. On Daily Operation, you could hear the influence of New York’s swing era jazz, which makes it a pleasure to listen to and to my mind, is a great way to ease into the world of hip-hop, especially if you’ve been a sceptic.
After testing the choppy waters of hip-hop via Gang Starr, I was emboldened enough to try other stuff—I tried several emcees and DJs, from the commercially successful to the obscure; from the abusive and violent to the ones that were a bit more toned down. I must confess I found the whole abundance of sex, drugs and violence thing in the lyrics overpowering and, well, after the initial novelty had worn off, distasteful. I did kind of stick with some producers and rappers—such as the hugely influential Dr. Dre or the equally successful Jay-Z (whose American Gangster is a favourite playlist for me to go running to)—but I never really took to hip-hop.
But then, when I read about Guru’s death, I dusted off my copy of Daily Operation (I have it on CD now) and put it on heavy rotation. There’s a track called Hardcore Composer, where Guru’s lyrics tell it all: about his commitment to true rap and his disdain for the sell-outs and the fakers. Check it out:
Now I got you looking stiff you numbskull, you’re at a stand still
Still faking that you’re hard with your rhymes and got no hand skills
so I’ll easily drop you and stop you from rhyming
Send you home to moms all bruised up and crying
Then if you want you can go call your people
You’re gonna need a mob against me cause I’m lethal
Not that I’m a violent brother to the contrary
My vocals carry, and then I bury
MC’s in holes that they dug for themselves
Couldn’t be themselves so they sold themselves
to a company exec who doesn’t have respect
for real rap music so he wants to get an MC
that starts out street to crossover
but not me, cause I’m the hardcore composer
You ain’t a writer nor a fighter you’re just a biter
I think you need to save all that because in spite
of the reputation that you think you have
the crew already knows that you’re really a crab
So I’ll grab the mic with haste and send you out of this place
and back to trace my flow but don’t waste your time bro
It only takes a minute a second for me to switch
and rearrange real quick cause I can kick plenty styles
Rhymes stretch many miles
I’m the authentic yes the lyric unloader
The truth exposer, the hardcore composer
For me, Gang Starr and Guru (that actually stands for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal, if you were wondering) are what led me up the hip-hop path and their music, dated or otherwise, will always remain a part of my classic collection.
Three to Tango:
- Sleigh Bells: Three songs from this New York-based indie band that you ought to watch.
- Nugscast: If you want a playlist for the run-up to this year’s New Orleans jazz fest, this is it.,
- Mimicking Birds: Like folk music? Ok. Like folk music with haunting overtones? Then try this new band..