Jay-Z’s right hand man, Young Guru, is the much sought after engineer who started out working for '90s rhymer Nonchalant and is now, besides an upcoming producer, an in-demand international touring deejay.
A self-proclaimed thinking man, Gimel "Young Guru" Keaton is responsible for recording some of Hip Hop’s greatest projects. Originally working alongside Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie at the world famous Baseline studios as part of the Crazy Cat movement, which spawned the hilariously infamous Madd Rapper character featured on many Bad Boy Records recordings, his latest rest spot is Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.
Performing deejay duties in the UK, HipHopDX caught up with the man behind the boards to talk about everything from his humble beginnings and Roc Nation affiliation to how he introduced 9th Wonder to Jay-Z and his love of all things Star Trek.
HipHopDX: Talk to us about your humble beginnings…
Young Guru: I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. It’s right underneath New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Delaware is one of the smaller states in the United States. So it was one of those situations where I had to do everything for myself. I sometimes tell New Yorkers, “Yo, at least y’all had Roosevelt [record conventions].” If you were a beat digger you’d go to Roosevelt [Hotel], and in that room there’d be Pete Rock, Da Beatminerz, and Kid Capri - meaning there were a load of other people who were hip to what was going on and they would help each other. In Wilmington it wasn’t like that. Every single thing I did I had to do for myself and every record I owned I had to figure out for myself. There weren’t really even any clubs so it was like, "Bring everything." [I had to] bring the speakers, wires, amps, turntables, lights, microphone, and records, quite literally everything. So that was really the foundation of it. I started doing that in seventh grade, and that was really how I learned music. It was learned through deejaying. The transition came when all throughout high school I was doing college parties, including parties at the University of Delaware and Delaware State. The University of Delaware is a bigger university, but Delaware State’s the black school. I did parties at them all. Doing that made me more confident when it came to mixing and being in front of people. So from there I went to Howard [University]. As soon as I got there, the very first day, I walked to the radio station, it’s called WHBC, and I was like, “I’m here.” That was my attitude – “Who do I talk to about getting a show because I’m here.” [Laughs] They looked at me and were like, “Calm down, sit down, and we’ll teach you how to get involved.” That was me though – “I’m here!”
I noticed all the local deejays, and I didn’t really think there were any who were super nice or anything. There were a couple of dudes who I’d go and see, but everyone else seemed to be just… average. We came from that above average, that Delaware/Philly mentality. We’re looking at [DJ] Jazzy Jeff everyday. So what we considered top tier and what other people considered top tier was different. It wasn’t even just Jeff. If someone deejayed in Philly then they were nice… period! So when I got to [Washington] DC I just had that they’re-not-that-hot mentality and said to myself, “I’m gonna take over all of this,” and that’s kinda what I did in terms of doing The Ritz, a bunch of different parties on campus, with several different organizations calling me to do parties. It was that type of thing. So I went through that whole process of going through school and not finishing because of the fact the career got away. I was supposed to graduate in 1996, but instead I went on tour with Nonchalant.
DX: Was this was when you entered the game on a more professional level?
Young Guru: Well yeah kinda. I got back from it and asked the question, "What am I gonna do with myself now?” I then found Omega Studios. I went there, paid my little bit of money or whatever, and had them teach me what I didn’t know. Took that knowledge and went back to Nonchalant and was like, “Okay, so I now know how to work this board.” She was like, “Yeah? Let me see.” I put it like this, if you’re at engineering school and you go through the whole process, you learn everything and then you get your first gig you’re nervous as shit. You know what I mean? Me being with Nonchalant made me so comfortable because it was my group. So it was like if I forgot something I had the leeway to figure it out. I’d be like, “Hold on, Non. Let me try this. It may make it sound better, and even if it doesn’t at least we tried it.” It was that type of thing. It was a blessing doing my first sessions with her because it was like my fam coming in to check on me. Leaving her – her second album, which I engineered, never came out; I gradually made my way out to New York. I just wanted to get it poppin’. I got with Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, and that’s how I really got my name out there to the people that mattered, in terms of booking a session. Crazy Cat [Studios] was really like a club house. Artists would come through and I would meet people. That’s how I got my feet wet in New York, and then by the time I went independent I knew so many people that now I can help when [Jay-Z] says, “I want so and so on this track,” because I have their numbers. It all comes from that Madd Rapper album – Tell ‘Em Why U Madd.
DX: Besides engineering and deejaying, do you also produce?
Young Guru: That’s more an upcoming thing but I do have a few already - “Ladies Jam” on The Chittlin Circuit 1.5 with Little Brother. I have some with Jay Electronica that you haven’t heard yet. I have a weird-ass Dave Hollister track on Chicago ‘85...The Movie and a joint on the Big Remo album Entrapment. It’s just an up and coming thing.
DX: You mentioned your work with Jay Electronica. You seem to be heavily involved in his upcoming project. What intrigued you to work on it?
Young Guru: It’s the way he rhymes. I’ve known him for a long time. He was always at Baseline [Studios] before Just [Blaze] gave him “Exhibit C” , “Exhibit A” , and whatever other record he took from him. He told me one time, “I’m gonna make you love Hip Hop again,” and you know what? He did.
DX: What can we expect from the album?
Young Guru: It’s called Act II. It’s just dope rhymes and dope beats. His subject matters are incredible in terms of… I don’t know how to describe it – “I’m in touch with every shrine from Japan to Oaxaca.” I love that line. He’s saying that not only does he except people but he’s actually in touch with their shrines too. He’s in touch with the people that worship that way. He’s just different.
DX: You’re Jay-Z’s engineer, right hand man if you will. What’s it like working with him?
Young Guru: It’s like working with anybody else I’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t ever super plan anything in terms of… Okay, I know that sounds crazy, but I’m talking about in terms of timing. Of course he’s going to plan to do something but whether or not he does it at one or three doesn’t make a difference to him. So I could be sat in the studio for mad long waiting on Jay but that’s just how he is.
DX: How did you guys hook up?
Young Guru: I got done with Crazy Cat and then acquired my first manager. The very next day I was hooked up with a DMX session. So I was in the studio with DMX and LS1, who is a good friend of mine. It was just freelance stuff, and then Lenny S – Def Jam A&R, brought me in to do a Memphis Bleek session. We kicked it off and he became my man. It’s weird though because we’re not the same type of person. Most of the time when you’re with friends they’re like you, but me and Bleek we’re the opposite. That’s my dude though. So then one day Jay came to check on him and I met him. He was like, “Yo, what are you doing next week?” I was like, “What do you want me to be doing?” He told me to clear my schedule and I was like, “Cool.” That, “Clear your schedule,” has been going on for 11 years now.
DX: So explain the relationship you have with Roc-A-Fella Records. Are you signed to Roc Nation?
Young Guru: Nah. There’s no paperwork or nothing like that but I rep the Roc. I rep Roc Nation and I rep Jay because of the fact he made me hot, and any type of gratitude has to be shown. I also try to protect him. I know that sounds funny but he told me one time that I had to block the bullshit. So I told him, “Aight, I fucks with that.” Block the bullshit. So I look at it from that perspective.
DX: You were there when the Dynasty was formed – Beanie Sigel, Freeway, the rest of State Property. You witnessed them all sign on the dotted line so to speak. What was that like and what part did you play?
Young Guru: It was a great time. My part was to sit in that chair and record everybody and make sure that they were right, and not let anyone spit no wack verses. That was my job.
DX: So it must have been rough for you to witness the break up. Do you still talk to the likes of Beans and Free for example?
Young Guru: I haven’t talked to [Beanie Sigel] in a while but I’ve talked to [Freeway]. I just talked to [Young] Chris. I love them dudes, man. I love Beans too. Beans is my man. There’s never been no type of beef with Beans. Me and Beans are actually quite similar in terms of age, birthday, where we grew up, influences. It’s just a love for that dude. Before he put out the very first diss song aimed at Jay – “What You Talkin’ About (Average Cat)” , he called me. Basically someone inside of the building had said something to him and he didn’t believe them. I guess they were just saying it to get him out of the building. So he called me and was like, “Yo Gu, is this ‘Already Home’ [from Jay-Z's The Blueprint III] aimed at me?’ I was like, “Nigga, yeah. You write these complicated-ass-fucking rhymes every day, you know what the fuck he’s saying.” Me and Beans talk like that. So my whole point to him the day before he put that diss out was that I wish there was something I could’ve said or done to fix it, or at least to get them together. He was like, “There ain’t nothing you can do. There ain’t no fixing it. He needs to talk to me.” I just said, “Well… then I don’t know how it’s gonna resolve because Jay ain’t gonna address you.” It was hard.
DX: You’re managed by Tracey Lee, who had his fair share of fame back in the '90s with the smash “The Theme (It’s Party Time)”. How did that even come about?
Young Guru: That was RNF. That was the clique. That was a group of us that got together who were all about music and go to parties and have fun. When I first got to school there was this thing called Power Move, and the reason I was drawn to it was because every week they would have a flyer drawn, hand drawn, with a character with a bomb in a different position. Like the bomb might be on the floor with the PM for Power Move on it with the dude in a B-boy stance or he might be lighting the bomb with this graffiti character. It was a consistent thing from the beginning week in and week out on our campus. So I would go to these events and Tray would be there, and we ended up being really good friends. He was one of those people who was like, “It’s Friday. What are we doing?”
DX: Another friendship you have formed in the music industry over the years is with producer 9th Wonder. Tell us the story of how you introduced him to Jay-Z, which in turn resulted in his beat for “Threat” being used on The Black Album…
Young Guru: I walked in to Baseline one day and Hip-Hop was like ,”Listen to this.” It was "Speed" [from Little Brother’s debut album The Listening]. Hip-Hop actually had a messed up MP3. He actually had the song itself split up in to three different MP3s, and I was stuck. I was like, “This is extremely good.” The guy, T, who was filming the behind the scenes for Fade To Black was like, “I know him.” So I told him to call him. He called him and I asked 9th [Wonder] to come up. In classic 9th fashion he brings 8,000 friends with him. His music really caught me. I bought The Listening and was like, “This shit is incredible!” I then brought him to Jay, he played maybe 90 beats. He was just ready. He’s another one who is pure in what he does. Then he and I, because of how pure his heart is, just kicked it off and then it just became more a friendship than just, “I make beats,” or, “Get this to Jay.” We have the same type of morale character.
DX: Were you there the day Jay-Z picked the beat for “Threat”?
Young Guru: Yeah. That was the day he came up to play all of the beats. Jay looked at me and was like, “This kid is the next [DJ Premier].” I said back to him, “I told you. I’ve been telling you.” So he looks at 9th and says, “Yo I got this idea. I wanna use the R. Kelly song.” The funny part about that, like I always say, is the way Jay says stuff, or operates. He kinda said it like, “Go home and do the beat,” like I’ll see you tomorrow type of shit. However 9th wasn’t wasting no time he threw this sample at Jay, and that’s another example of Jay-Z producing to a certain extent. Jay had the idea, 9th went online downloaded that beat and flipped it in 20 minutes. He gave me the headphones and asked me what I thought of it. It was dope. So I gave it to Jay and he told me to record it. So as I’m putting it in, me and 9th are setting up drops and fine tuning everything and Cedric The Entertainer walks in. So then Jay says, “I just did this record I want you to get on it.” So that’s how it ends up with having Cedric on there. 9th murdered it.
DX: You didn’t actually engineer any of Watch The Throne, as Kanye West had his people do it. What’s your opinion on the project?
Young Guru: I love it. I really like certain songs better than others but I think overall the whole thing is great because it services so many different people. “No Church in the Wild” is my joint. The RZA joint, “New Day” and the very last song (“Why I Love You”) are dope. Jay goes in! The songs he goes in on he goes all the way in. He does it in a way that I really wish he would go in all the time. I happen to like it, even though I know certain people don’t like it. I fucks with “Otis” , I fucks with “New Day.” I don’t like “Niggas in Paris.” I just don’t like the beat.
DX: So during your time with the Roc you must have witnessed some funny things. Anything you can share?
Young Guru: It was just always fun. I’m trying to think of something specific without incriminating anyone. Baseline was like my house in the city. It was really like my apartment in the city. You’d be there, change clothes before you go out, and it was just so convenient because most of the clubs were in that area. It would be four o’clock in the morning, you’re drunk, and if I didn’t feel like going back to Jersey I could go to Baseline and fall asleep on the couch. You know what I mean? It was just the oasis. There were all kinds of funny moments. It was just a free-for-all, go in and record what you wanted whenever you wanted. I was always there. It was just very creative.
DX: What was the worst thing you had to deal with?
Young Guru: I’m gonna tell you the honest to God’s truth. It ain’t even the fact that Jay and Dame broke up, it was the dumb media shit that surrounded it. That’s what really pissed me off. I was always like, “Look man! Whoever you are, writer, you are not in the room.” None of us knew, because Jay, Dame [Dash], and [Kareem] Biggs would just go in to the B room and discuss their business. It wasn’t for all of us. That to me was the worst time, when it really saturated in to my head that [the breakup] was how it was.
DX: For a number of years your stage name caused a bit of a stir, namely friction between you and the late great Gang Starr legend Guru. What actually happened between you two?
Young Guru: Well I guess as I started to move up, do more things, and get more noticed, he claimed to take offence to the fact that I had that name. He says he called Baseline to try to talk to me and I apparently laughed at him or something like that. If Keith E, Guru, called Baseline on the phone I’m answering it. You know what I’m saying? I never got that phone call so to me I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m a Gang Starr fan. I look past the person and look at the music or the situation that I’m in or whatever.
DX: What are your thoughts now that he’s no longer with us? How did you guys leave it?
Young Guru: We never got to talk about it. I said that to [DJ] Premier - Premo is a great friend and mentor. While Guru was buggin’ out and screaming, “Fuck Young Guru,” and all this other stuff, I’d call people that were around him, or people that I thought were around him that I’m close to. So I’d call Premier and he’d be like, “Yo, just leave it alone.” So just that alone made me want to leave it alone because Premo was telling me not to worry about it because Guru was just buggin’ out or whatever. We never got a chance to resolve it.
DX: Is it true that you’re a bit of a Star Trek fan?
Young Guru: Yeah I love Star Trek. There’s a difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Star Wars is religion. With Star Wars they give you the answer. It’s all about The Force. That’s God. He’s The Force. It’s this energy that surrounds and bounds the universe, like in real life. There’s a force that surrounds and bounds the universe. Star Trek is so much more direct and scientific. We never fuck up our timeline. It’s really the study of human existence. Every character on that show represents some human characteristic. Lieutenant Worf is our fighter/animal nature side whereas the telepath that’s on there, that’s the ship’s council. She’s always happy. You know what I mean? It’s still this super analysis of the human existence and I love the way they do it and the way stay consistent. It’s all about bettering humanity. That’s what I really gravitate towards - the science of it and the physics of it because all of it is written by NASA scientists, or was. It has a fantastic back history and I think it is respected by its cult following because of its back history.
DX: Finally, sum yourself up. Who is Young Guru?
Young Guru: I’m different things to different people. I’m a father, a thinker, a heavy coffee drinker, someone who cares about the community that I live in and want to help to change the situation. I’m a deejay, an engineer, a producer. Just know that I think… a lot. I’m a thinker.