A pioneer of jazz-rap fusion, Gang Starr is an innovative hip-hop duo composed of rapper Keith Elam, known as “Guru,” and DJ Christopher “Premier” Martin. The group is hailed as one of the most original and forward-looking rap acts around. At a time when most rappers use pre-recorded beats in live performance, Premier does all his cutting and sampling on stage. Guru’s slow, sleepy voice produces lyrics that are distinctly hardcore but, while addressing the realities of life on the street, do not glorify violence in the way much “gangsta” rap does.
Gang Starr was formed when Guru, in the studio at Wild Pitch Records recording some singles with a friend, heard a demo tape by Premier. He was impressed by the range of sounds featured on the demo; Premier has an enormous record collection and an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Their early records together incorporated jazz elements, and their career was given a boost by director Spike Lee’s commissioning “Jazz Thing” for the soundtrack of his 1990 movie Mo’Better Blues. But Gang Starr refuses to be pegged as a pure rap-fusion group. As reported in Billboard, Premier insists that “he ventured into using jazz loops out of boredom.”
While Premier found himself more and more in demand as a producer—helping out such artists as KRS-One, Arrested Development, Heavy D, and Das EFX—Guru took time away from Gang Starr in 1993 to make the critically acclaimed Jazzmatazz. The album brings together a pool of significant jazz talent to provide the accompaniment for his raps. Gang Starr’s subsequent group effort, 1994’s Hard to Earn, foregoes jazz altogether for a stricter hardcore sound; “it’s deliberate,” Premier told David Thigpen in Rolling Stone. “We wanted to show we can go in a different direction.”
A rap career was the last thing Elam’s parents expected, or wanted, for their son. Born in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Guru grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, the youngest child of a judge and a librarian. While his siblings followed in their parents’ footsteps—one sister is a judge, another is a schoolteacher, and Guru’s brother is a professor at Stanford University—Guru was the rebellious one, running around with a tough crowd and aspiring to success as a rapper.
Guru attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, graduating with a degree in business management that has proved useful in music industry negotiations. After
For the Record…
Members include DJ Premier (born Christopher Martin, c. 1967 in New York City; attended Prairie View University, Houston, TX) and Guru (born Keith Elam, c. 1962 in Boston, MA; son of Harry [a judge] and Barbara [a librarian] Elam; children: one son; received degree in business management from Morehouse College; attended Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City).
Group formed in New York City, 1988; signed with Wild Pitch for 1989 debut album, No More Mister Nice Guy; signed with Chrysalis; released two albums; in 1993, during a brief hiatus, Guru released Jazzmatazz (also on Chrysalis) while Premier produced various rap artists; Gang Starr then released Hard to Earn on Chrysalis, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Chrysalis Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104.
college, he headed for New York City, briefly enrolling in the Fashion Institute of Technology and working while shopping around demo tapes and performing in a variety of hip-hop venues. Having signed with Wild Pitch Records, Guru went into the studio with DJ Mark the 45 King, whom he credits with early jazz-rap experimentation, and released a couple of singles. While at Wild Pitch, Guru heard a demo by a Texas group called the Inner Circle Posse, featuring Chris Martin, a young man from Brooklyn attending Prairie View University near Houston. The two musicians began exchanging tapes through the mail.
Back in Boston, Guru had formed a group called Gang Starr with some friends, one of whom worked with him on the Wild Pitch singles. When Martin left Texas and returned to New York, he hooked up with Guru. They shared an apartment and became the new Gang Starr. Earlier, as a member of the Inner Circle Posse, he was known as Wax Master C, but Stu Fine, the owner of Wild Pitch, didn’t like the name. Martin’s mother suggested that he call himself “Premier.” Martin explained to Michael Gonzales of Pulse!, “She said it worked ‘cause I wanted to be first at things. Not just music, everything.”
The ambitious duo was off to a good start with their first album, No More Mister Nice Guy, released on Wild Pitch in 1989. One song, “Manifest,” was a hit, and another, “Jazz Music,” attracted the attention of Spike Lee. Lee asked them to write something for his 1990 film set in the New York City jazz world, Mo’ Better Blues. The result, “Jazz Thing,” pays homage to jazz greats and features saxophonist Branford Marsalis; the cut plays over the film’s closing credits and brought Gang Starr further recognition.
Signing with Chrysalis, the company with which the group has made all of their subsequent records, they released Step in the Arena in 1991. Though full of standard rap themes, the lyrics do not condone violence but do stress that education is the one sure route out of the ghetto. Discussing the early albums in a conversation with the Source, Guru reflected, “I really look at Step in the Arena as the first album. I look at No More Mister Nice Guy as almost just a demo, an introduction ‘cause it was just the beginning and stuff really hadn’t evolved.”
The next stage in the evolution was the widely acclaimed Daily Operation —of all their albums the one with the most jazz-influenced sound. Premier’s increasingly complex montages also demonstrate a taste for ’70s funk. Premier, who has wide-ranging musical interests, maintains he simply searches for the best samples for each individual work. “I’ll sample anything that fits the atmosphere that we’re trying to create. It could be opera, whatever,” he told Danyel Smith in Vibe.
Although it was Guru who proclaimed that “the Nineties will be the decade of the jazz thing,” as Melody Maker reported, Gang Starr resists the rap-jazz label. “As much as we respect jazz musicians and recognize that their artform is similar to ours, this is just another era,” Guru said in Billboard. “Yeah, our music has a jazzy feel to it, but at the same time, it’s rugged. It’s hardcore rap.” Perhaps in reaction to the media’s characterization of Gang Starr as a fusion group, the 1994 Hard to Earn is a straightforward hip-hop record with no discernable jazz flavoring.
In between Gang Starr albums, both group members worked on independent projects. Guru told Smith, “We know how to give each other creative space. But even on the side projects, we let each other hear what we’re doing.” Premier, highly in demand as a producer, formed his own company, Works of Mart. He is known for his “old school” use of the turntable, preferring to manipulate the records himself rather than rely on pre-recorded tapes. “I’m one of the few producers who still scratches on his records,” he informed Michael Gonzales.
Guru’s 1993 release Jazzmatazz, meanwhile, features jazz talents such as Branford Marsalis, Lonnie Liston Smith, Donald Byrd, Ronnie Jordan, Courtney Pine, and Roy Ayers. Guru rapped over their live studio performance, an innovative technique for hip-hop. In some quarters hailed as a brilliant experiment, in others as a good but flawed idea, Jazzmatazz demonstrated, at the very least, that rappers and jazz musicians have enough in common to make collaboration possible.
Back together for Hard to Earn, Gang Starr maintains that they are first and foremost a team: Guru explained to Billboard, “The nucleus of everything I do is Gang Starr.” The duo’s focus returned in the mid-1990s to traditional hip-hop. Guru’s lyrics narrate keen-eyed, often autobiographical stories about ghetto life, embracing the hardedged language of hardcore rap but avoiding many of its cliches. Critics predict that Gang Starr will continue to bring a fresh perspective to rap; however, they are foregoing further experimentation for now. Premier told Gonzales, “Right now, it’s all about hard-core. Right now, it’s about making real music for the kids in the street.”
“Jazz Thing,” Columbia, 1990.
No More Mister Nice Guy, Wild Pitch, 1989.
Step in the Arena, Chrysalis, 1991
Daily Operation, Chrysalis, 1992.
Hard to Earn, Chrysalis, 1994.
Solo albums by Guru
Jazzmatazz: Volume 1, Chrysalis, 1993.
Billboard, October 3, 1992; May 8, 1993; June 12, 1993; February 5, 1994.
Boston Globe, October 4, 1992.
Melody Maker, May 18, 1991.
Musician, June 1993; April 1994.
Pulse! September 1993; May 1994.
Rolling Stone, May 19, 1994.
Source, April 1994.
Spin, January 1991; May 1993.
Vibe, May 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Chrysalis/ERG press materials, 1994.
Members: Keith "Guru" Elam, vocals (born Roxbury, Massachusetts, 18 July 1966); Christopher "DJ Premier" Martin, disc jockey, production (born Brooklyn, New York, 3 May 1969).
Best-selling album since 1990: Moment of Truth (1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "Take It Personal," "Ex Girl to the Next Girl," "You Know My Steez"
With Guru's self-proclaimed "monotone style" of rapping and DJ Premier's inventive, genre-blending production, Gang Starr emerged as one of hip-hop's most unique and respected groups. Originally noted for incorporating jazz into their sound, they quickly branched out to demonstrate mastery of a wide range of styles. Balancing intelligence and spirituality with a hard street edge, they bridged the gap between "old school," turntable-based DJing, and "new school," studio-concocted production. Though major commercial success eluded them, their legend grew throughout the 1990s.
After graduating from Atlanta's Morehouse College in the mid-1980s, Boston native Keith Elam relocated to New York City. He took the name Guru and began releasing singles as Gang Starr on the independent label Wild Pitch Records. He had no full-time musical partner until he happened upon a demo tape of a Texas-based group called ICP that was produced by Waxmaster C, Christopher Martin. Guru was impressed by his work and eventually convinced Martin to join him.
Martin changed his name to DJ Premier and sought to be the top DJ and producer in hip-hop. At the time, fellow DJs had been sampling abundantly from 1970s funk, especially James Brown, to construct their tracks. Premier wanted to explore new territory, so he began integrating jazz recordings into their music. Though their independent label debut album No More Mr. Nice Guy (1989) went widely unnoticed, it contained an homage called "Jazz Music" that caught the attention of filmmaker Spike Lee. Lee asked Gang Starr to update the tribute for his film Mo' Better Blues (1990) and "Jazz Thing" landed on the soundtrack. The exposure led to a major label deal with Chrysalis, who planned on marketing them as "jazz rap," like budding contemporaries De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
Uneasy with being pigeonholed, Premier was determined to show the range of Gang Starr's musical palette on Step in the Arena (1990). Though horn and piano snippets were prevalent, the musical vocabulary expanded to include both taught rhythmic and spare melodic guitars, orchestrated strings and swirling cosmic sounds. The most divergent endeavor from previous work was the dark, street-tough "Just to Get a Rep." Over a mysterious backdrop, Guru illustrates the motivation behind gang violence and details a chilling narrative ending in murder.
Such commentary on the urban and black situation in America became a widespread part of Guru's agenda. He sought to educate and empower by disseminating knowledge and promoting spiritual wholeness. For balance, he left time for traditional hip-hop topics, too, boasting about his vocal skill and prowess with women. Regardless of the subject, his delivery is always silky smooth, effortless, and undeniably distinguishable from all other rappers. Though his stage name stands for the acronym Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal, the maturity in his voice and wisdom in his lyrics position him as a highly respected teacher, a guru, as his acronym suggests.
Step in the Arena and Daily Operation (1992) were heralded by critics and became underground classics. Despite the praise, the camp was divided. Premier still felt there was too much focus on the jazz elements in the group's sound, so Guru launched a solo career to maintain a jazz outlet, releasing Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 in 1993.
The following year, Gang Starr returned with their angriest and darkest album, Hard to Earn. They remained adamantly noncommercial as stated in their single "Mass Appeal" and maintained the group's lyrical ideology. However, they employed several guest rappers and more of a gangster tone, two trends of the time. Though a solid effort, they seemed confused about their place in the current hip-hop market. The indecision led to a hiatus. Guru released Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality in 1995, and Premier went on to produce tracks for several of hip- hop's top names including KRS-One, the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and Jay-Z.
By the late 1990s Gang Starr's music became essential listening to hip-hop aficionados. When they returned with Moment of Truth (1998), their legacy propelled their fifth studio release to become their first gold album. A year later, Full Clip: A Decade of Gang Starr (1999) served as a career retrospective. Fans looking for an abbreviated introduction to the group pushed the album to gold sales, as well. After more side projects, Guru and Premier returned again with The Ownerz in 2003.
Gang Starr's modernization of hip-hop's original sound—two turntables and a microphone—and preservation of its original mission—positive promotion of change—give their music a timeless quality. Throughout their careers both in and out of the group, Guru and DJ Premier established themselves as inimitable and consummate professionals.
Step in the Arena (Chrysalis, 1990); Daily Operation (Chrysalis, 1992); Hard to Earn (Chrysalis, 1994); Moment of Truth (Noo Trybe/Virgin, 1998).