Sunday, April 17, 2011

R.I.P. Keith Elam aka Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal

It’s been one year since the untimely passing of one of hip hop's great voices. At only 48 years of age, Guru's death caught me off guard as I'm sure it did many others around the world. I had read that he had fallen ill in February, immediately followed by reports that he had lapsed into a coma. When the news spread of his death in April 2010, hazy stories were spread online which didn't add up. The shady actions of his business partner, producer and supposed friend at the time [Solar] added to the dread that not all was right in his passing [see] His death is a tragedy on multiple levels, for his family and friends to his legions of fans worldwide. His unique voice, delivery and intensity will be remembered and replayed, but never reproduced.

Looking back on his musical output, there are four albums which I feel a personal connection with as they are somehow connected with my history. The beauty of music to transport us back to certain times in our lives, igniting memories, is an amazing thing. I was introduced to a lot of music via a close friend in the early nineties in the form of dub tapes. Ian "Senor" Berry was always hooking up dubs of the latest and greatest hip-hop from the late eighties into the early nineties. In 1991 he introduced me to Gang Starr's sophomore release Step In the Arena. Now, at the time I was definitely listening to a lot of music from the Native Tongues collective, 3rd Bass & KMD, Public Enemy, E.P.M.D. and of course west coasters Ice Cube, Del, Too Short, DJ Quik and so on ... so the album hit a cord immediately as it reinforced a lot of what was heard from other groups coming out of New York and the east coast. You have to keep in mind the amount of [amazing] material which was being released in this time frame. Although it would be a year or two before I sniffed out and listened to Gang Starr's initial effort, No More Mr. Nice Guy [1989], DJ Premier's production on Step In the Arena cemented him as part of the production elite in the ever-emerging hip-hop scene. As well, Guru's strong and distinctive voice meshed with the music on so many levels - lyrically conscious, streetwise and scathing. A year later though, I had a new dub which would blow my mind.

Daily Operation stands as my favorite Gang Starr album. I'm sure I wore the dub out with the amount of play it got throughout the summer of 1992. DJ Premier laced the album hard and Guru in turn put a lyrical effort to match the audio canvas laid out for him. The production jumped in all sorts of directions, incorporating jazz, funk, soul and solidifying Premier's now distinctive style and sound. Spawning classics such as “B.Y.S.”, “Flip the Script”, “Take It Personal”, “Ex to the Next Girl”, “No Shame In My Game” and “I'm The Man”, the album is chalk full of anthems which have reverberated throughout the years. Just check a sample of the rhymes from the track “2 Deep” –

I'm too deep and yes much too complicated
my lines when stated are quite often underrated
so consider it a privilege to hear this
those weak minded opinions could never come near this
for my outlook on life is a profound view
while the suckers act down thinking that they sound new...

Before Youtube came along, CMC (that’s California Music Channel, not country folks!) was the only place a non-MTV household could watch current videos in the Bay Area, many of which I also use to dub. It was also the medium I was actually introduced to a lot of groups visually. I can’t remember if it was the first video I saw from them, but the one which I remember –“Take It Personal.”

When 1993 rolled around, there were all kinds of great albums dropping. The bay area’s independent scene was going crazy, Del and Souls of Mischief released their best albums (ever), A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders provided the right medicine for the winter months and Wu Tang dropped a bombshell which gave birth to successful careers and fortified a whole new track in hip hop. By this time I had started buying albums [cassette tapes] and had even started buying some originals of my dub back-catalogue. Coincidently, my dub source’s interest in hip hop weaned starting in 1993/1994. We did share a very high opinion of Guru’s first solo project outside of Gang Starr. Jazzmatazz was a concept album merging sampling and real jazz performers, which provided Guru a totally new soundscape to get loose on. As you can imagine, Jazzmatazz was indeed that. Featuring jazz luminaries such as Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith, Ronny Jordan and Roy Ayers, Guru was also accompanied by France’s MC Solaar (not to be confused with his future producer Solar), N’Dea Davenport and D.C. Lee. The album was an introduction into a whole other realm – sometimes seedy, always soulful, downbeat and downtrodden, upbeat and heartfelt – it hits on so many levels! Guru was there throughout – narrating, romanticizing, loungin!

1994 brought in a lot of amazing albums – Illmatic, Do You Want More, Ready to Die, Boxcar Sessions, The Main Ingredient, Roxbury 02119, etc, etc. Gang Starr, always up to par, released their fourth album, Hard to Earn. The album didn’t deviate so much from earlier formulas, but rather the duo kept tightening up and honing their respective skills. Premier continued to amaze with his selection, chopping, arranging, drums and the ever-present, yet always dope, chopped-up choruses. Featuring Foundation members Jeru the Damaja, Lil Dap (Group Home) and Big Shug, the album also had an appearance from Nice and Smooth on “DWYCK” (which was actually released in 1992 as a 12”.) Again, classics rang out – “Mass Appeal”, “Suckas Need Bodyguards”, “Code of the Streets”, “Speak Ya Clout”, “Now You’re Mine” – it’s funny to see titles like this in a list, knowing they all came from the same album. What I mean is that the quality control, artistic aptitude and actual vibe has been missing from a majority of albums for a long time. You’re lucky to get two or three quality tracks on a release.

Gang Starr was consistent to the core through their next two releases – 1998’s Moment of Truth and 2003’s The Ownerz. Both still get heavy enough rotation, although not as much as the ones I’ve detailed above. I also enjoyed the Jazzmatazz albums (Volume One was the best, followed by Volume Two and so forth as the series came out) and to a certain extent, Guru’s solo album after the breakup of Gang Starr – 2005’s Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures. In lamenting Guru, I do feel privileged to have seen Gang Starr perform live twice. I feel sorry for those who didn’t have the chance to see the energy which Guru exuded, the power of his delivery and experience the impact of his presence. It's only apporpriate to end this with a Guru line from the Gang Starr song "I’m the Man” – PEACE GURU!!

Bust one round in the air for this here
cuz this year, suckers are going nowhere
cuz my street style and intelligence level
makes me much more than just an angry rebel
I'm Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal
emcee's that ain't equipped get flipped in my circle.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Coming Soon: Age-Notes From The Laundry Room EP

A new production project/concept based on records found in a laundry room. Date TBA