Below is an out-of-print interview with Keith “Guru” Elam. Upon learning about Guru’s untimely death Monday, HipHopDX writer Adisa Banjoko provided us with this 1991 relic to Gang Starr fans and Hip Hop culture. Initially conducted for Black Panther newspaper The Commemorator, the piece spent over a decade on cassette tape until appearing in Banjoko’s self-published, now out-of-print Lyrical Swords Volume 2 book.
Sitting next to Gang Starr partner DJ Premier, Guru and Banjoko’s ’91 conversation took place during San Francisco’s Galvin Convention, on the steps of radio station KPOO. Also present for this interview were KRS-One, Young Black Teenagers and famed engineer Sam Sever. Although additional information remains unknown at this time, the conversation took place shortly after Gang Starr’s January, 1991 release of their acclaimed sophomore album, Step Into The Arena.
Adisa Banjoko is founder the Hip-Hop & Chess Federation (@HipHopChess). He is a published author and scholar on Hip Hop and Islam. In addition to his present writing at HipHopDX, Banjoko has written for VIBE, The Source and XXL dating back to 1990.
In life and in death, Guru remains Gifted, Unlimited and his Rhymes Universal.
Adisa Banjoko: I’m chillin’ right now with Keithy E from Gang Starr. On some stoop in San Francisco.
Guru: Word. They also call me the Guru. Guru stands for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal. I got my homeboys in the house from Fillmore. Jugga D, Big T, Funkenlien is in the house.
Adisa Banjoko: Why’d [Gang Starr] leave Wild Pitch Records?
Guru: We just needed more space to do our stuff. They had me kinda frustrated, as far as creativity. I did not want a mansion and a limo to take me everywhere. But I did want my own space to create more.
I wanted to be able to not take the train and have people pointing at me. I did not want to have to go to a nine-to-five job. When we had two videos out, the “Positivity” video and “[Words I] Manifest,” I was still working. I was working with foster kids through New York City.
Adisa Banjoko: I always noticed a heavy Jazz influence in your music, from day one. Is that influence more you or more [DJ] Premier?
Guru: Both really. [DJ] Premier’s grandfather used to be in a Jazz band. When he was first getting into Rap, he used to tell him, “Yo, it’s the same thing. It’s just another expression of the street.” With me, my godfather was a heavy Jazz buff. He was a Hi-Fi fanatic. He would buy the top of the line, Carver stuff. If I was with my friends and I needed some money or something, I’d pass by his house. He’d grab the whole posse and say, “Sit down and listen.” He’d sit us in between two big ass speakers, as tall as the next man. It would sound like you could hear every instrument.
Adisa Banjoko: So, how did doing Jazz Thing with Spike Lee happen?
Guru: He saw the “Manifest” video. Then he went and got our LP, No More Mr. Nice Guy and he heard a song on there called “Jazz Music.” That was a tribute. He was working on Mo’ Betta Blues already. He wanted a song like that, but more in depth. He hooked us up with Branford Marsalis. He is from Louisiana, but he was living in Brooklyn. He tracked us down through our management.
What was cool was he was not like, “I’m Branford Marsalis The Jazz artist. You guys are just rappers.” He did not have any attitude. He was not like, “I’m a musician and you are not.” He had already played sax on Public Enemy’s [Fear of a Black Planet] album. He had a 3rd Bass tape.
We hipped him to the underground. We talked about how some artists be actin’ funny wit the ego shit. He was like, “The same thing happens in Jazz. They be fightin’ at the shows.”
Adisa Banjoko: I tripped off how in the Jazz Thing that Miles Davis was not mentioned. I heard the reason was that somebody in the Marsalis family did not get along with Miles and that they may have influenced you to leave him out. Is that true? To leave him out is like to leave Rakim out of Hip Hop. So, I had to ask…
Guru: No. I heard about that bullshit. It was just what happened. I meant to say what’s up to L.O.N.S. [Leaders of the New School] on [Step Into The Arena]. It wasn’t a diss move at all.
Adisa Banjoko: So who does Gang Starr listen to?
Guru: I listen to slow jams from the old days. I listen to the new school slow jams to. I chill with my crew in an ‘86 Cadillac—it isn’t no new one. We just chill. Just because I don’t rhyme with all the curses and what they call “Gangster Rap,” I don’t feel I have to talk about it because I been through a lot of it. All that does not impress a real person who has been through it.
Adisa Banjoko: Who do you listen to in Hip Hop?
Guru: It started with the old school. A lot of rappers be tryin’ to act like the old school does not matter. I give credit where credit is due. Like the old school movies like Wild Style. They had my man Busy Bee in there rockin’ the mic. He spelled a big B on the bed at his hotel with the dollars he made at the show! I listen to “Double Trouble.” Run-DMC, they changed the format. Kool G Rap – the first original gangster style, ever. You talkin’ about Gangster Rap. You over here talking about, “We did this, we stole this from the next man.” He ain’t tryin’ to hear all that! His lyrics, and the way he displays his lyrics
show that. He has a lisp like my man [Erick Sermon] in EPMD. It does not matter, look at his styles and the way he flips his lyrics.
People often ask me what I think of N.W.A. “since you’re positive.” If I was “Mr. Positive,” I’d say “Let’s all hold hands.” But I don’t rhyme like that. I write about street shit, but in a different way. All I say is that they are another voice. Rap is an expression of Black urban life today. Urban Life. It’s just an expression.
Adisa Banjoko: I notice you did not swear on Step in the Arena. Was that a conscious decision?
Guru: No. I mean, I’ll say a “shit” or a “fuck” if I want to. There was one on “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” and one on “Step in the Arena.”
Adisa Banjoko: Who was that at the beginning of “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”?
Guru: I don’t know. He was introducing [Minister Louis] Farrakhan, but I’m forgetting his name right now. But can I talk about something? Can I talk about religion?
Since I did “Manifest,” everybody was asking me if I was Five Percent [Nation of Gods and Earths] like groups like Brand Nubian, Rakim, King Sun, Poor Righteous Teachers. I love what all them brothas are doing. But I’ll put it to you like this: A lot of my boys are [Five Percenters], I know a lot of people that are. But I do not practice that doctrine. I do know one thing. When the brother that started it [Clarence 13 X] went out into the streets and started this kind of stuff in New York, this stuff was mainly in New York. They call Jersey “New Jerusalem,” Brooklyn is “Medina,” “Mecca” is Harlem, Queens was ummm. . .
Adisa Banjoko: What’s “Divine Land”?
Guru: That’s the projects where Poor Righteous Teachers are from. But I was up on it. The brotha did that so that the mindstate could change. Tryin’ to have self-esteem. If you feel like you got your knowledge of self together, then give it to the next man.
Brothas get divided. “Oh, you this kinda Muslim, you that kinda Muslim.” They got more than six types of Muslims! Christians don’t want to talk to Muslims. Buddhists are spiritual people too. They may not believe in God the way someone else might see it. But it’s a mystic law that means being a good person and what you do comes back on you! All of that is to say that I support all of that. I support anything that uplifts the humanity and uplifts the black man. Don’t trip on what I am or anything like that.
That’s why I’m called the Guru. My sister’s Buddhist, my cousin is Muslim. They got me outta a lot of trouble when I was wildin’ when I was younger. They brought Islam to me. They brought that to me to get me on the right path.
Then I studied a bunch of other stuff to. So, that’s why I call myself the Guru.
When I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, I had one of the most profound religious teachers, Dr. [Lawrence] Carter. He taught us about all the religions of the world, and how we’re separated over silly superficial reasons.