Keith Elam dies at 47; rap singer known as Guru of duo Gang Starr


Keith Elam, better known as Guru of the rap duo Gang Starr, whose laconic, monotone delivery made his one of the most distinctive voices in hip-hop, has died. He was 47.

The rapper had been suffering from melanoma over the last year and had been in a coma since a heart attack March 2, said his brother, Harry Elam Jr. He died Monday at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, N.Y., without having regained consciousness.

Keith Elam obituary: The obituary in Wednesday’sLATExtra section of Keith Elam, a rapper known as Guru, said he had been suffering from melanoma. He had multiple myeloma.

“The notion, with him, was that the music could be a positive force,” his brother said. “That is what he believed in terms of hip-hop, who it could reach and what he wanted to do.”


He was born July 17, 1962, and raised in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. He originally formed Gang Starr in the mid-1980s under the name Keithy E.M.C. before changing it to Guru (Gifted Unlimited, Rhymes Universal). An earlier incarnation of the group included Big Shug, Damo-D Ski and DJ 12B Down; but Elam’s long-term partner became Chris Martin, a.k.a. DJ Premier, a producer from Houston, who, like Elam, relocated to Brooklyn in the late 1980s.

Their first single together, 1989’s “Words That I Manifest,” became a hit. Built around a sample of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” the song propelled the group during a popular era for jazz/hip-hop cross-fertilization. “They weren’t just sampling jazz, they were approaching hip-hop like it was jazz,” said Joseph Schloss, author of “Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop.”

As a solo artist, Elam pursued jazz/hip-hop fusion even further through his four-volume Jazzmatazz series, started in 1993. These albums paired Elam with jazz musicians and singers such as Branford Marsalis, Ronnie Foster and Me’Shell NdegéOcello. “I was proud to be included in that project, and really appreciated his efforts to bring the world of hip-hop and jazz together,” said pianist Bob James, who appeared on 2007’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 4.

Between 1989 and 2003, Gang Starr released six studio albums, plus a 1999 retrospective anthology, and cemented a reputation for powerful, minimalist beats from Martin and street-inspired braggadocio from Elam. Despite the connotations of their name, Gang Starr often spoke against urban violence through the use of evocative narratives illustrating the perils of city life. “Just to Get a Rep” in 1990 dramatized the doomed fate of a small-time hoodlum, while 1993’s “Tonz ‘O’ Gunz” decried the proliferation of firearms. Longtime critical favorites, the group’s most successful album came in 1998: “Moment of Truth.”

“Moment of Truth was their most impactful album. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to characterize Gang Starr as saviors of an underground sound that was lost at the time,” said Jeff Mao, former editor at ego trip and Vibe magazines.

Elam was a highly sought-after collaborator and worked with artists as diverse as rapper-rocker Everlast, singer-songwriter Sade and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Through the Gang Starr Foundation collective, Elam mentored up-and-coming rap acts, including New York’s Group Home and Philadelphia’s Bahamadia. “He had a very unique voice, and the content of his lyrics were truthful, conscious and beautiful,” said his most successful protege, Jeru the Damaja.


In addition to his brother, Elam is survived by his parents, Harry and Barbara Elam, sisters Patricia Elam and Jocelyn Perrin, and his son, Keith Casim.