Exactly one week ago today Keith "Guru" Elam (aka G.U.R.U.) of legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr tragically died at the age 43, a month after the cancer-stricken emcee collapsed and went into a coma. His passing hit all hip-hop fans hard, including myself, since I have been a die-hard fan of Guru and his production partner, the ever talented DJ Premier, from day one and had had the honor of meeting and interviewing them several times over the years. Earlier today, after digging, I discovered one of these old interviews. It's from mid 1991, when the duo were out visiting the Bay Area for a show at the DNA (which was off the hook!) and visiting local retail and radio, including KALX, where I conducted the interview that follows below.
At this stage in their career the Brooklyn based (Boston formed) duo was riding high off the reception to their January 1991 released second album Step In The Arena. In hip-hop it was a time many when rap acts were jumping on the jazz fused musical tip, something that Gang Starr had pioneered -- melding jazzy grooves (rather than the standard James Brown and other funk breaks) into their hip-hop sound. In fact, it was Gang Starr's track "Jazz Music" off their 1989 debut album No More Mr Nice Guy (Wild Pitch) that caught the attention of director Spike Lee, resulting in his inviting Gang Starr to contribute "Jazz Thing" (with saxophonist Branford Marsalis and featuring Kenny Kirkland and Robert Hurst) to the soundtrack of Lee's 1990 film Mo' Better Blues starring Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L Jackson, and Lee himself.
From there, Gang Starr switched labels from Wild Pitch to Chrysalis and recorded the album Step In The Arena, which even at the time (hip-hop's golden era, with an avalanche of quality releases being unleashed) stood out from the crowd. Totally unique and innovative, it avoided all rap cliches and the fact that album tracks such as "Who's Gonna Take The Weight," "Check The Technique," and "Just To Get A Rep" (to name but a few of its 17 quality tracks) still sound so incredible to this day proves what a talented, timeless hip-hop group Gang Starr was. Here is the Gang Starr interview exactly as it was conducted nineteen years ago.
Billy Jam: What exactly does "G.U.R.U." stand for?
Guru: Gifts Unlimited Rhymes Universal.
Billy Jam: Which explains the rap territory you cover. How did you first get into the jazz thing?
Guru: Well, we never really attempted to start any trends with the jazz stuff. It's just that Premier started to give me some mellow breaks to rhyme to instead of those same old breaks that everyone was using. He felt that that would bring out my vocals much more so we started getting into that.
Billy Jam: Are you surprised at everyone following suit and getting on the jazz tip?
DJ Premier: I think it's cool and everything. You know, everyone's gonna do what they're gonna do. It's just that we're proud that that type of new sound expanded, 'cause you get a lot of people who start following the same old thing and then it starts sounding repetitious. And what we like to do is bring about something different but on the same subject of what a lot of other brothers is talking about in their records. But as far as styles, I use jazz, country, whatever. It doesn't matter. I'll use sounds from the grass if it sounds good!
Billy Jam: Your record collection must include a wide range of genres and sounds!
DJ Premier: It ranges from the old soul stuff all the way up to a lot of rock music and new wave. I'm into The Smiths and people like Iron Maiden and AC/DC and that type of stuff. I'm into Bauhaus and Joy Division and Erasure as well as all the funk. All the soul stuff was brought up through my family so that was there but I've always wanted to listen to all types of music just to understand a little bit more because I'm that much into music itself.
Billy Jam: But yet, while you're into all this rock and country, you haven't really sampled it, right?
DJ Premier: I jut haven't thought about going into it yet for the stuff that we do as Gang Starr. If I ever decide to go into that I definitely will. Everything is just on impulse. He [nodding towards Guru] just came up with a nice little title today for something for our next album just from when we pulled up, something we saw. And that's how we build -- from stuff we see all over the place.
Billy Jam: Getting to the lyrics, what's "Just To Get A Rep" [the first single off the Arena album] about?
Guru: Basically, it's just a description of real life. It goes on everywhere, out here and back on the East Coast. It's a situation where the young people are living for today: gotta get money, gotta get material things right now. You know, scheming on one another. So we just painted a picture and tried to make it as real as possible. And the listener can make his own conclusions from the picture we've painted.
Billy Jam: And where did the inspiration for "Who's Gonna Take The Weight" come from?
Guru: It's a question to the listeners. You know, the world is kind of messed up. There's a lot of problems on the streets, politically, and so forth. So it's just a question: who's gonna take the weight to try and change things because I don't think that right now there's gonna be one great man who comes and persuades the masses to get their stuff together. So basically this is our little contribution.
Billy Jam: Was "What You Want This Time?" inspired by one specific girl?
Guru: No, a few. About a year ago we were living uptown. We had a little apartment and what not and everybody used to call at all hours. And we were reminiscing about those times. Actually, people would come knocking on the door and we'd go: 'How'd you know we lived here?'
Billy Jam: So did putting out this record stop these bugaboos?
DJ Premier: I think it added onto it. I had to change my car phone number because too many people was getting that too. Sometimes you'd have people calling you and they don't really have anything to say. I'd never call someone I don't know. I wasn't brought up that way. If I know you, fine.
Billy Jam: On many of your songs, "Execution Of A Chump" in particular, you make commentary on the rap music industry. Where do you think it is headed?
Guru: Firstly, I think that some of the majors need to learn from the skills of the independents as far as marketing street rap. The majors will have the budgets but they won't have the techniques for street marketing and if you can't get radio play then you gotta do stuff differently. I think that a lot of the West Coast rappers are gaining from those skills and I think that a lot of the East Coast record companies need to get with that flow.
Billy Jam: In the song "Lovesick" you say that music is your life. Is that true?
Guru: Yeah, basically. This is the only thing that I would want to do. It's fun. I enjoy it!
Gang Starr "Just To Get A Rep" (1991)