Listen to the celebrated Boston MC’s best album with Gang Starr for his 51st
A reweet this morning from the legendary DJ Premier reminded many of us that today marks the birthday of his longtime partner in the greatest duo in rap history, Gang Starr, the man born Keith Elam but who is known the world over as GURU: Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal.
The Boston-born rapper died on April 20, 2010 following a battle with cancer at the age of 47. His older brother, Harry J. Elam, wrote the most touching tribute to his kid bro on the Elam family website, written in the immediacy of Guru’s passing.
“In February of this year, my brother went into a coma, and I traveled across the country from my home in California to see him,” Elam wrote. “At his bedside, I stood and stared at his overly frail frame, his head that he had kept clean-shaven for the last 20 years uncommonly covered with hair, his body connected to a sea of tubes and wires. I listened to the whirl of machines around us and took his hand. As I did, my mind flashed back to now-distant times, so many memories.”
The landscape of hip-hop is an incredibly different realm than it was when Gang Starr ran the game throughout the entirety of the 1990s. The combination of simplicity and dexterity of Premier’s production style, which was of one with his work as a DJ, made him something of a Jimmy Page for the rap idiom, and he provided that perfect platform for Guru to do his thing. You listen to his lyrics and he was always bagging on his short stature, talking about how he’s 5′ 8″ all the time. However, the depth and the monotone nature of his voice, plus the perfection by which he was able to coast along Primo’s beats, made them masters of the two-man rap group, seconded only by Eric B. and Rakim.
And when you wanna hear Gang Starr at its absolute zenith, you look no further than 1994’s Hard To Earn, which turned 25 this past March 8th. I remember when this one came out, my friend Will bought it at the Media Play in the Crystal Run Mall in Middletown, NY the Tuesday it came out (I was there for Brutal Youth and The Downward Spiral, both of which came out that day as well). And from then on it was the literal soundtrack to our spring and summer of that year, Hard to Earn that is. Every hangout up at Split Rock or the Second Landing in the Shawangunk Mountains. All those nights we’d chill in this abandoned dead end road, hanging out and listening to music while imbibing on probably some crazy shit. I’m sitting here listening to this stream of the full album you can check out below, and it’s really taking me back, man.
Happy Birthday in Heaven to the Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal. We miss you and hip-hop needs that Gang Starr spirit now more than ever.
STREAMING: Gang Starr Hard To Earn, Chrysalis/EMI 1994