Today (July 17), is the late Keith “Guru” Elam’s birthday. Rest In Power.
I‘m old enough to remember back when Mike Dee & Keithy E left for New York in order to eventually land Gang Starr Posse a deal with K-Tel/Wild Pitch Records in 1987. Back then Boston’s Hip-Hop and Rap music wasn’t being acknowledged by New York City even though Bostonians had already made significant contributions to the culture of Hip-Hop and it didn’t look like that was going to change anytime in the near future.
Boston was the second city after New York to feature an all Rap radio show. Many of the seminal, groundbreaking Rap songs played at the time were actually produced by Bostonians such as Arthur Baker, Michael Jonzun and Maurice Starr. Due to the fact no one paid attention to producers, only the artists back then Boston remained overlooked in regards to Hip-Hop.
What would Boston Hip-Hop be like today had Guru and Mike Dee never gone to New York? What if those first Gang Starr Posse 12”s on Wild Pitch had never dropped? What if Guru never met DJ Premier (or Waxmaster C as he was known then) and made No More Mr. Nice Guy? How would that have affected not only Boston Hip-Hop history but Hip-Hop history as a whole? Not only would this piece never be written but I never would’ve have become a Hip-Hop journalist.
I’m extremely conscious of Guru’s influence on me but let’s examine his influence on the other Bostonians who dreamed of scratching out a career and eventually achieving fame in New York. Boston has completely infiltrated New York Hip-Hop to the point few even realize how many of them are currently there now in regards to Hip-Hop (both print & digital) journalism, radio, production, emceeing, or business management.
For example, take Geespin (Power 105), Sean C (Grind Music), Cherry Martinez (Power 105), Statik Selektah (ShowOff Radio), DJ Madsol-Desar, Dawaun Parker, Che Vicious (G.O.O.D. Music), Maya The B, J The S, DJ Synapse, Touré, Chairman Jefferson Mao, The Source and the crew from Clockwork Music. Even New York City’s mayor is from Boston now.
It all started with one man who was willing to crash on couches, eat sparingly & work menial jobs in New York to be where he had to be to make his dreams come true and put his city on one day. Even though the beginnings of Gang Starr and Gang Starr Foundation all started in Boston close to 30 years ago, their membership and extended family spread throughout the boroughs of New York and their influence is now worldwide. These things were all made possible through the drive and determination of one man named Keith Elam.
We all know Guru as the MC half of Gang Starr. We all remember the unique timbre of his voice. We all marveled at his conviction on the mic even when he was delivering in a laid back, relaxed manner. Guru was also an accomplished producer, an aspect of his amazing career that often gets overlooked. He had an eye for talent. He advocated for Lord Finesse to get signed to Wild Pitch after hearing his demo (which he took it upon himself to do at Stu Fine’s office).
Guru also discovered and signed Bahamadia in addition to producing several of her most notable songs. Together, Guru and DJ Premier crafted the sound that came to define Brooklyn and East New York. Who would’ve ever expected that a transplant from Boston and another one from Houston came to create, symbolize and fully embody the sound and aesthetic of one of the most storied and highly regarded boroughs in Hip-Hop history?
Guru’s highly influential Jazzmatazz series were his brainchild and he was the main producer behind the first three Jazzmatazz albums. He and DJ Premier reached out to many members of the GangStarr Foundation directly during their time in Brooklyn and East New York. Jeru Tha Damaja once told me flat out at the 2010 Boston Hip-Hop Unity Fest “Guru saved my life. Without his intervention and guidance I wouldn’t be alive speaking to you today. I’m not the only person who can say that, either”
Guru spit countless classic bars and quotable lines over his illustrious career. He produced and penned both underground classics and radio hits. He helped to discover and put on numerous people we regard as legends in Hip-Hop today. Even when I heard him big up Brooklyn on records as a youth I knew that Boston, his home, could never leave his heart. In his memory we must make an effort to focus on the true essence of Hip-Hop culture and aspire to inspire others that follow. Make Guru proud. Make Boston proud. RIP Keith “Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal” Elam (1961-2010)