Keith Elam, the Gang Starr rapper known as Guru, died Monday after a yearlong battle with cancer. The MC, who grew up in Roxbury before he headed to New York to make his name in the music business, was 47.*
Elam, who attended Noble & Greenough School and Cohasset High School before enrolling at Morehouse College in Atlanta, first found success when he teamed up with Christopher Martin, known as DJ Premier. As Gang Starr, the pair released six albums between 1989 and 2003 that were both critical and commercial successes.
"Step in the Arena" (1991) is considered a highwater mark in the genre, as it combined Guru's brash rhymes -- filled with braggadocio, humor, and social critiques -- and the inventive, often jazz-laced tracks provided by Premier. Gang Starr's fifth album, "Moment of Truth," hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop album charts. The duo, considered a pioneer in the creation of the hip-hop/jazz hybrid, scored several Top 10 hits on the Billboard rap singles chart, including "Just to Get a Rep," "You Know My Steez," and "Take It Personal."
As a solo artist, Guru released "Lost and Found" in 2009 as well as a quartet of critically acclaimed "Jazzmatazz" albums from 1993 to 2007. Those albums, each with a different musical slant and subtitle, found the artist working with a wide variety of artists including jazz greats like Branford Marsalis and Roy Ayers, R&B stars like Erykah Badu and Macy Gray, and fellow hip-hop artists like Common and the Roots.
Marsalis, whose work appeared on two of the "Jazzmatazz" releases, remembered Elam today as a "very creative guy" and if not the most technically gifted rapper, a unique one whose style worked perfectly in the idiosyncratic Gang Starr framework.
"The group itself had a sound, and you really couldn't imagine any other rapper" but Elam rhyming on top, Marsalis said. "Itís like Keith Richards. Nobody is going to remember him as the worldís greatest guitar player, but when you needed an iconic lick for you song, heís your guy. Thatís what Guru did; his sound really set it off."
Brian Coleman, a Boston-based author of the hip-hop compendium "Check the Technique," said he considers Gang Starr to be in the top tier of rap groups, even though the duo didn't attain the multiplatinum status of some who followed its lead.
"In a weird way he was a brag rapper with humility," Coleman said. "The way that Guru rhymed, it was never on a pedestal. They just had that kind of an impact where anyone who ever heard them could never really think about approaching a song the same way after that, and thatís the sign of a truly legendary, ground-breaking group."
Members of the hip-hop community offered condolences today via the social network Twitter as the news of Elam's death spread. "Guru was a sweet inspiring uplifting person," tweeted hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, co-founder of hip-hop label Def Jam. Rapper-producer P. Diddy tweeted: "Hip-Hop lost an icon today-but u'll always be w/ us b/c Legends live on 4ever." Guru's friend and recent "Jazzmatazz" producing partner Solar released a statement saying "the world has lost a great man and a true genius."
According to Solar, Elam wrote a letter while in the hospital thanking his fans and spreading the word about the children's charity Each One Counts. It read, in part: "I write this with tears in my eyes, not of sorrow but of joy for what a wonderful life I have enjoyed and how many great people I have had the pleasure of meeting."
The letter, which was posted on a fan website devoted to and sanctioned by DJ Premier, found Elam distancing himself from Premier, with whom he reportedly had a falling out. The statement went on to praise Solar and the music they made together: "I hope that our music will receive the attention it deserves as it is some of the best work I have done and represents some of the best years of my life."
Elam's parents -- Harry, a retired lawyer and judge, and Barbara, who was a director of the library system in Boston school -- live on Cape Cod. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.
(*Because of inaccurate information in wire reports and online, this obituary originally misstated the age of Keith Elam, a.k.a. Guru. He was 47.)