There are very few acts in Hip Hop today that are really a throwback to its
"Golden Age" of 1988-1992 (or even 93/94). While I wasn't the biggest
hip-hop head at the time (I was about five years old) I did a bit of catching
up in my more formative years. But when I think of what was on the
airwaves - and on The Box - those days, I think of Rakim,
Tribe, De La, KRS-One and
the early years of a duo comprised of a DJ named Premier and
an emcee named Guru.
Hailing from Boston and Houston, Guru (Keith Elam)
and DJ Premier (Chris Martin) each brought
something special to the table: Guru brought his smooth, if
not monotonic, lyrical approach to Hip Hop, while Premier was
a top-notch producer and deejay who incorporated a lot of funk, jazz and soul
samples into his beats.
In its heyday, Gang Starr was one of the most influential
and important duos and helped create the New York sound. The two inspired
each other, pushing the genre to new heights.
On the side, Guru was keeping busy with his real passion,
it seemed: finding a way to fuse Hip Hop and jazz, a perfect supplement for Gang
Starr fans. His first Jazzmatazz release in 1993
featured Branford Marsalis, Roy Ayers, Donald
Byrd and Lonnie Smith.
Much like previous albums in the series, Guru's guestlist
for Guru's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4: Back to the Future (7 Grand/Koch), stays top-shelf. Hip Hop's Common, Blackalicious
and Slum Village rub shoulders with jazz and R&B VIPs like
David Sanborn, Ronnie Laws and Vivian
Green. On the first Jazzmatazz album, Guru
held his own with the jazz greats. Unfortunately, the quality cameos this
time around overshadow Guru, who barely skates by.
His partner in crime, the New York-based DJ Solar, is
charged, along with Guru with the difficult task of finding a
way to combine Hip Hop and jazz. Unfortunately, they fall flat on most of
the album, giving plenty of "matazz," but not too much jazz. (Hardy
har-har.) In fact, Guru and Solar fail
to really connect the two until the last track, "Living Legend," which features a
turbo-charged alto sax performance from Sanborn. And
instead of closing the album on a high note, it makes one wonder about what
could have been.
Case and point, State of Clarity, which features Common
and Bob James. Guru is clearly outshined
on this track, and Common is more Guru than
it seems Guru can be: "My mind blows decisions/at times
indecisive/you think about the paradox that life is/keep my head to the sky/and
understand where Christ is/turn off the news/'cause every day is a
crisis/lifeless, on the couch weeded out/ a certain type of nigga in my life I
weeded out/I believe in the route of soul before paper/no gold before
labor/truth told with no blazers."
This album doesn't feature the hard-hitting rhymes ("You Know My Steez,"
Personal") or the adroit storytelling ("Soliloquy of Chaos") we're used
to from Guru. But he's all business on "Fly Magnetic,"
the album's best track, as he nonchalantly explains what would happen - check
that, will happen - once your girl takes one look at him. This
may be the best we've seen from Guru in a while: "Loving
my charming wit/don't want no part of this/no time for tricks/I'm in the mix
like Spartacus/More like Hannibal/With thoughts like Confucius/sending her home
to you/but I seen how it's useless/I told her to back away/Left now she's back
today/thought you had her in check/Got my own chicks on deck."
If you haven't checked out any of the Jazzmatazz series before, you
would be better served by starting from the beginning. Picking up this
album now would be like tuning into The Sopranos just as Meadow walks
into the diner in the series finale. This album's worth checking out, at
least given Guru's track record. There's enough here to
groove to, but just don't expect to be blown away.