I met Keith back in 1989. I had just gotten back from law school in Washington, DC and was ready to kick off my career as a music attorney. I had also been a year deep in starting my Buddhist practice. A year earlier, back in ’88, back in DC I knew a married couple, fellow Buddhists, who knew about my interest in rap, as well as my intent to work in the music business. The husband in particular kept telling me he had a brother in law (his wife’s brother) who was a rapper. Said he had a record deal and was about to make a name for himself. “Riiiight” I thought. Cats in DC weren’t really up on Hip Hop yet, plus me working in the biz was still a dream, so no way was he talking about a real rapper.
Fast forward to ’89. I’m now working at Def Jam. I was on my way to my Buddhist center in the Union Square section of Manhattan. At the time, one of my favorite songs was that single ‘Manifest’ by this new group “Gang Starr”. The video was dope as well since it had the pro Black, Black Muslim kind of feel (everyone in rap seemed to be getting their politics in order). As I was stepping into the center, I saw that rapper I had seen in that ‘Manifest’ video standing outside. I think this was the first time I met a real live rapper. I asked him if he was a Buddhist. He said Muslim, but that his sister was, and she was in town from DC, so he stopped by the center to link up with her. That’s when it all clicked, Keith “Guru” Elam was the cat that my peeps had been telling me about. We kicked it a bit, told him about me starting off at Def Jam, then we bounced. Not star struck, but was amused at how I met my first rap star.
What’s always been cool about Keith was how, wherever we was, whenever we saw, dude would be the first to say “Whaddup Regg?”. No pretense, no faking Jacks as to who would say what first, like so many cats I know in the game. He eventually introduced me to Preemo, and what’s amazing is how Preem was always on that non b.s. kick as well. Then a funny thing happened. Gang Starr started blowing up. In ’91, they dropped their 2nd album ‘Step In The Arena’. I copped it and was literally blown away. It instantly became my one of my all time favorites, and that’s when I officially became a fan of Guru and Premier. In my opinion, it was and remains their best album. What was more bugged though, is that as much as these cats were blowing up, I started seeing more of them doing random shit in the streets of Brooklyn. I’m talking running into them at a car wash, grocery store, house party. Particularly Keith. Dude was everywhere with no traces of a bodyguard in sight.
After “D.W.Y.C.K” dropped, heating up clubs worldwide, it was a wrap. Gang Starr officially became rap legends. Not as big as EPMD or A Tribe Called Quest, especially since the passing of time has kind of eroded their massive impact on Hip Hop. Still, you ask anyone that’s been around, or has been reverent enough to have studied the game. They’ll tell you, no he was never the best, or nicest or sold the most records, but Guru mos def deserves his place at the table from which Hip Hop legends sit.
I last spoke to Keith two years ago. Even though I never repped him, he called me to possibly do some contract work for him. I was already burnt out from the industry, plus I didn’t think the deals he wanted me to work on had that much of a financial payout for me. I didn’t take him up on the work he needed. Even though me and him had been way cool for close to 20 years. And he had remained the same humble cat I met from day one. Not that I feel bad or guilty for not helping Keith out, never no regrets. But something inside me is telling me I could have at least helped dude out in some manner.
I got the news last night, about Keith having a heart attack, and subsequently falling into a coma. A lotta people say it, but as I write this, my heart literally goes out to him, his family, to Preemo. My prayers do too. We as a culture owe a lot to Gang Starr, to Preemo, and to the monotonous Ill Kid known as Guru. I wish him a speedy recovery. And when he makes it back, I’ll make sure to do my part in paying mad respect to the esteemed legacy that he’s created and to the genuine individual that he is. We need to respect our rap heroes while they’re still alive and well.
Keith “Guru” Elam, friend, get well soon.