While trying to organize some tribute pieces for Guru, I asked my main dude Brian Coleman to say a few words for Heavy In The Streets readers. Brian did far more than what was asked of him and wrote an unforgettable tribute for me to share with the world wide web.
For those who don't know, Brian is the author of the indispensable book Check The Technique.
Read below as he breaks down the significance of the one and only Guru.
Hearing about Guru's passing the other day was sad to me on many levels. It made me think back on all the good times that his music brought me over the years. There were a hell of a lot of them, and there will be many more. That's the one and only blessing when any artist passes away - you have their art to keep you company when they have moved on.
I originally had a second paragraph here, which talked about his post-Gang Starr career with Solar, but I erased it. I don't want to dwell on anything negative about Keith Elam, because he made so goddamn much amazing music in his not-long-enough life.
Even if Guru's career had ended ten or fifteen years ago he would still be considered legendary. And he should be considered legendary. Think back to any MC you like right now who hit the scene after 1991 (when the group's first classic, Step in the Arena, hit). They wouldn't be who they were without Guru, I promise you.
I won't write an 37-page essay about why I think Gang Starr was important. I would have preferred to have let Guru and Premier discuss the matter, but to be honest, Guru rejected my request to interview him as part of my Check the Technique book in 2006. I couldn't allow that chapter in the book with just Premier's input, even as much as I worship the man as a producer. And now that Guru is gone, I'm even more saddened because that chapter will never be.
But I digress, and since my man Sorce-1 asked, I'll chime in, because Guru and Gang Starr were important to me, as a person and as a music fan. They were - and should be - important to anyone who claims hip-hop in their life (as opposed to someone who shrugs, "Yeah, I like rap", and then downloads a Soulja Boy album).
Simply put, Guru was a dude who rhymed with intelligence, supreme confidence and - most importantly - two feet on the ground, keeping things balanced with more humility than maybe any so-called brag rapper ever. I didn't always believe that he packed as much heat as he claimed (maybe I was wrong), but that didn't really matter that much. Because it seemed that he never really rhymed to cut people down or just to talk shit or waste his listeners' time. If he was dissing the ever-present but unnamed "wack rappers" it was because he seemed to be pissed, and I was curious why that was.
He also used something that many rappers don't have the brains to enlist - a conversational way of rhyming. Such a basic thing, but so amazingly important. When you hear a verse, you usually feel like Guru is talking to you, AT you, looking you in the eye. That automatically draws you in. "Oh, shit, Guru's really laying it on the line." Sometimes you also got to eavesdrop on conversations he was having ...
"Ex Girl to Next Girl"
or "Take It Personal"
or "Lovesick." Connecting with your audience is so important in the rap game. So many MCs who came before and after Guru just never had that in their toolbox.
In the past couple days I've been having an internal tug-of-war about my favorite Gang Starr album. I used to think it was Step in the Arena. But I think now I have to say Daily Operation. That's because I think that's the album where Guru really started to understand the importance of having conversations with listeners, as if it was his duty. And as an entertainer it, in fact, kinda was.
Premier's beats were amazing before and after Daily Operation, and Guru still spit a great deal of illness after that classic from 1992. But that's when Guru climbed the mountaintop and it seemed that on those cuts he and Premier reached that perfect balance, fueled by a combination of confidence and a desire to still push and stretch the limits of music and words. I even like "The Place Where We Dwell," in fact I LOVE it, even though it pissed me off at the time because I'm from Boston and we all knew Guru wasn't from New York. But I could never argue with the power that the two of them unleashed with a track like that. Mellow, wig-flipping power.
As for my favorite Guru song, I might have to say "The Planet". Because it's a heartfelt story, because he tells it like he's writing in his journal or telling you over a drink at a dive bar after a long day at work. And because he takes a brilliant, slower, gritty Premier beat and he pours himself all over it. If the beat had been different -- faster, busier, with different samples or cuts -- he probably would have told a completely different tale. But he was an artist who fed off music, and luckily he had Premier as chef.
My second favorite might be "Above the Clouds", in part because of the ridiculously good Preemo track and in part because of Inspectah Deck's cameo (Gang Starr pretty much pioneered the practice of putting people on tracks just because they were dope, whether they were known or not.... see Group Home or Jeru the Damaja, among many others, for proof).
But mostly because of Guru's wisdom and way with words, which steps out onto a higher plane than usual, with stunning results:
"Bear in mind
Jewels be the tools of the trade
Sharp blades, heavenly praise
And dues are paid."
Amen to that. Guru, I hope you Rest in Power, we miss you.
-- Brian Coleman
Shout outs to Dig It Out, DJ Premier Blog, Noz, and Upnorthtrips for having some crazy images on their sites that helped me put this post together.