“It’s mostly the voice, that gets you up/ And mostly the voice, that makes you buck/ Some got flavor, and some got skills/ But if your voice ain’t dope, then you gots to CHILL”
—“Mostly tha Voice” (1994)
The recent passing of Keith Elam, a.k.a. The Guru (1961-2010 RIP), reminds us of an era in hip hop, that for all intents and purposes has also passed. A time when the culture was still underground, but standing on the verge of Planet Rock. Gang Starr was a transformative act, bridging the gap between hip hop’s secondâ€””golden”â€”generation in the late 80s, and the music’s explosion onto the world stage as a defining pop phenomenon of the 90s. And in the beginning, Guru’s was manifestly the voice of change.
His warm, burred monotone had an inherent authority, revealed an acute intellectual foundation, and built upon the broader thematic claims for hardcore rap at the time being staked out by the triumvirate of Rakim, KRS-One and Chuck D. Where these masters challenged the format of rap, Guru’s consolidation of their innovations became a proposition for the future of the form, a statement of its viability and versatility, a formula for longevity. It made of an MC of somewhat limited technical skill one of the signature voices of hip hop, but the constraints it imposed on the ambitious and apparently somewhat unbalanced Guru seem also to have contributed to his sad decline as an artist over the last decade.