My brother, Gang Starr’s Guru Harry J. Elam Jr. / Apr 23, 2010

My brother, Gang Starr’s Guru
Harry J. Elam Jr. / Apr 23, 2010

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Boston-born Keith Elam, who rose to fame as Guru, founder of the rap group Gang Starr and a person who sought to merge rap and jazz, died earlier this week. His brother, Harry, a distinguished professor of drama at Stanford, has written this remembrance).

“Positivity, that’s how I’m livin..” So goes the lyric from my brother’s early hip-hop song, “Positivity.’ My brother Keith Elam, the hip-hop artist known as GURU-Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal-died this week at the too-young age of 48 because of complications from cancer. ‘Positivity’ was what he sought to bring to the music and to his life, and for me that will be a large part of his legacy.

In February of this year, my brother went into a coma, and I traveled across the country from my home in California to see him. At his bedside, I stood and stared at his overly frail frame, his head that he had kept clean-shaven for the last 20 years uncommonly covered with hair, his body connected to a sea of tubes and wires. I listened to the whirl of machines around us and took his hand. As I did, my mind flashed back to now-distant times, so many memories. And I saw us as teenagers at the beach on Cape Cod playing in the water together. And I saw us as boys, driving to school. My brother was five years younger than me, so we attended the same school only for one year — my senior year, his seventh-grade year — at Noble and Greenough School, and I would often drive us both to school. Invariably, I made us late, yet my brother, never as stressed as me, was always impressively calm. At school he endured the jests and teasing from the other boys about being my “little brother.’ I was president of the school and had charted a certain path at Nobles. But my brother found his own creative route at school, as he would throughout his life. His journey was never easy, never direct, but inventive. Through it all he remained fiercely determined with a clear and strong sense of self.

Over the years I had proudly watched my brother perform in a wide variety of contexts. While at Nobles, we had a black theatre troupe known as “the Family.’ In 1973, we put on a play entitled ’’A Medal for Willie,’’ by William Branch, and because he was only in the seventh grade, Keith played only a small role, but even then you could see his flair for performance, his comfort on the stage. At home, our older sister Patricia would teach him the latest dances, and he would execute them with verve as I watched from the sidelines, impressed with his moves, and not without a few twinges of jealousy since I’ve always had two left feet. As a teenager he raced as a speed skater. I do not remember how he became involved in the sport; I only remember traveling with my family to watch his meets in the suburbs of Boston. I do not remember if he won or lost, I do know that he always competed with great ferocity and commitment.

When he announced to me that he was dropping out of graduate school at the Fashion Institute of Technology to pursue a career in rap, I thought he was making a grave mistake and warned him against it. But as always he was determined, and in the end he would succeed beyond perhaps what even he had imagined. Early on in his rap journey, he visited me in Washington., D.C., over a Thanksgiving weekend. I was teaching at the University of Maryland then, and we went to what was perhaps the most dreadful party we had ever attended. As we hastened out the door, I apologized for bringing him to this party. My brother replied “let’s write a rap song about it,’ and we did. The lyrics made us laugh as we collaborated on the rhyme scheme and rode off into the D.C. night. It is one of my fondest memories, this spontaneous brotherly moment of collaboration and play.

Keith’s big break came with Spike Lee’s film ’’Mo’ Better Blues,’’ with his song “A Jazz Thing’ underscoring the credits. I watched that film over and over again just to hear my brother at its end. Soon he was on to creating his first Jazzmatazz album with others to follow, and he became credited for creating a fusion between jazz and hip hop. To be sure, that fusion owes something to our grandfather Edward Clark and Keith’s godfather, George Johnson, who introduced Keith to jazz by playing their favorite albums for him. He credits them both on his first Jazzmatazz. That first Jazzmatazz album featured musical heroes of my youth, Roy Ayers, and Donald Byrd, and here was my brother featuring them on his album. And with this success, came tours. I have seen him perform all over the world, and each time he would give a shout out from the stage to his brother and my wife, Michele. And I was so proud. It sometimes struck me with awe that all these people were there to see my brother. I watched him deal out magic; he was in his element feeling the crowd, and them responding to his groove. This was my baby brother, the kid with whom I once shared a room. The kid whose asthma would cause him to hack and cough and wheeze at night keeping me up. But when I would complain, my parents would send me out of the room. The message was clear: Love your siblings, whatever their frailties. Shorter than me and slighter of build, my brother suffered from asthma and allergies his whole life, but he was always a survivor

Back in 1993, when he played at Stanford University, I was in perhaps my third year as a professor there. As I walked into the auditorium that night, the assembled audience of students looked at me with a new awareness, “that’s the Guru’s brother,’ not that’s Professor Elam, but the Guru’s brother.

And I was, and am, the Guru’s brother. I admired and loved him deeply, my little brother. And I was and am so proud of him, and how he made his dreams reality . And with the outpouring of love that has crowded my e-mail with his passing, I know that he touched so many with his music. My brother cared deeply about family. He raps of my parents in more than one song. They are featured on his video “Ex girl to next girl.’ It was one thing seeing my brother on MTV; it was another seeing my parents. His son K.C. was the joy of his life.

The doctors told me back in February that there was not much chance of my brother recovering from the coma. But my brother has always been a fighter, always been one to overcome surprising adversities, so this seemed just one more. We prayed that he would again prevail. But it was not to be. Still his drive, his spirit, his energy, his positivity will live on, and so will his music. “that’s how I’m livin…’

Harry J. Elam Jr. is the chairman of the drama department at Stanford University and the author of several books, including “The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson.’’

source :


~ by livefromheadqcourterz on April 23, 2010.

28 Responses to “My brother, Gang Starr’s Guru Harry J. Elam Jr. / Apr 23, 2010”

  1. thanks for posting.
    harry j. elam is a class act.

  2. this was real insightful thanks.

  3. Best thing
    I read since this bullshit

  4. Touching. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  5. very good read. it made me tear up. i should call my brother.

  6. rest in paradise. lengends like guru will live on forever

  7. That was sweet and moving. I see it runs in the family. Keep him in mind during your teachings, and do what you can to prevent the Solar/Premier issues from being the issue. Bless.

  8. […] Without giving any energy to the controversy surrounding Guru’s death, Guru’s older brother, Harry J. Elam Jr, a Professor of Drama at Stanford University, remembers his lost loved one (via LiveFromHeadqcourterz)… […]

  9. I thought he was 43? And what about the LEGENDARY rap group GANGSTARR with producer/dj PREMIER?

  10. Very moving. My condolences.

  11. I read this drinking free rum and cokes on a tropical island. Yet am so sad still about one of my favorites passing. I feel like his lyrics influenced me so much that he helped shape who I am today. I loved reading this letter and would love to meet his brother. Agreed he’s a class act.

  12. Matter fact maybe he should do a biography on Guru

  13. In 1986 I interviewed him and Premier his DJ on my talk show On Broadway. He was a calm gentleman and very down to earth. He was on Wildpitch records then. Then after several decades I saw him again at Whitney Houston’s father’s birthday party at Justin’s in NY and he gave me that double take look. This was the year 2003, and he had became a bit heavier. I had to remind him why he knew me. He kept saying, I know you from somewhere. I told him I was a tv talk show host that probably was the first to put him on TV. I gave him my card. I wish he would have called me. I have seen his growth and he left a myriad of music. He merged rap and jazz when no one was doing it and he, like Rakim, Common, Talib Kwele, will go down in history as some serious thinkers and intelligent emcees. May God keep him and bless his family.

  14. Thank you for sharing. Besides being amazingly talented, Keith was a kind and thoughtful person. Condolences to the Elam family.

  15. This goes to prove that GURU was a gentleman as well as a legend.
    Over the past 15 years, whenever they came to London Guru and Premier ALWAYS were respectful and showed love to everyone…Last time I saw Guru was 2 years ago at the Southport Weekender with Doo Wop & that other guy…he was cool as always, but something didn’t seem right….
    Sincerest condolences to the Elam family and the Gangstarr Foundation…

  16. your brother was a magnificent influence. my condolences… god bless

  17. […] of Drama at Stanford University, reminisces on the late emcee’s family life and career. (via LFHQ) “Positivity, that’s how I’m livin..” So goes the lyric from my brother’s early hip-hop […]

  18. Thanks Keith. His music lives on. Specially thru us dj’s…..Godbless the Family one of the best Yet-DJ ROCKY ROCK

  19. thanks for sharing the memories – just listening to the guru tribute by mr.cee on hot97.

    above the clouds…

  20. […] My brother, Gang Starr’s Guru Harry J. Elam Jr. / Apr 23, 2010 My brother, Gang Starr’s Guru Harry J. Elam Jr. / Apr 23, 2010 (EDITOR’S NOTE: Boston-born Keith Elam, who […] […]

  21. May man upstairs bless you and your brother.
    R.I.P GURU!!!

  22. His brother pretends Guru’s career started with Jazzmatazz, even though Gang Starr had three albums out by then. And he never mentions Gang Starr or Premier!! (Gang Starr is only mentioned in the “Editor’s Note” and the headline, but the headline is written by an editor.)

    Why try to rewrite history?

  23. […] passing, the web was inevitably awash with tributes, the most significant and sincere coming from Guru’s brother Harry and a typically nimble-wristed Premo, who also broke his silence on Guru’s controversial cohort […]

  24. This is the first time my eyes welled-up regarding the passing of GuRu. I’m 41, so I grew up in the era of the now labeled ‘old skool hip-hop.’ That’s the music of my coming-of-age years, so you know I love it like I love childhood chums. For a sibling to write something so profoundly beautiful…it kinda makes me look at mine differently…in a positive light. Ordinarily, they just get on my good last nerve.

    Thanks Prof Harry J. Elam Jr.

    I once saw/met Guru many years ago. It was the wee hours of the morning in a 24 hour diner out in Queens. I was with some girlfriends, we were catching a bite to eat after hanging out in the club.
    He walked in, alone. He sat at the counter…near where they situate cakes & muffins in pretty glass dishes. I remember thinking to myself…”Gosh, I couldn’t be that close to sweets & resist partaking…” I have an impeccable sweet tooth–plus, I’m chubby…I was then too. Anyhoo, I looked closer & said to my peeps, “y’all, that’s Guru over there.” They looked and said, “Word, it is.” This was around the time the track “DWYCK” dropped. They wanted to immediately go over to greet him…I stopped them.
    I had always been into astrology & metaphysical study–knew he was a Cancer (how? not sure…cause this is way before one could just look up an entertainer’s bio on the net; there was no net), and they honor, especially the males, their solitude. He ordered a mug of hot tea. And sipped it with a certain sexy calm that was infectious.
    ‘Staring at his handsome profile peacefully sip his tea kinda calmed us all down.
    Like our table suddenly fell silent–it was about five to six of us. We were in our early 20s at the time. How often is it you can spot a table full of young gals in a diner & they’re all peaceful. We could barely eat from studying him. He was/is divine.

    The only thing that finally broke our silence was when we noticed a waitress was ‘cuttin’ tha plumb fool,’ swirling around him, constantly, trying to get him to ‘notice’ her–he didn’t, or wouldn’t. Cancers are the moon babies of the zodiac, very intuitive. He had to have peeped her angle long ago. But he was there for tea–and that was it.
    One of us hollered at her: “Yo, babygirl, the obvious is so unattractive!” She looked over at us, clearly offended. Our table broke out in an uproar of laughter. We returned to eating our food & chatting–thereby releasing the energy we, too, were sending Keith’s way–by staring.
    The waitress followed suit by returning to doing her job–waiting tables.
    Then the man was finally able to do what he came in there to do, enjoy a cup of herb tea.

    How amazing it has to be to be able to step into a space and affect the overall energy of that space–no matter how spacious. Especially when that’s not even your intent. These souls are divine.

    “…lemonade was a popular drink & it still is…” 🙂


  25. R.I.P. GURU

    I’ve always been drawn to his music and style as a kid and maybe even more so as I became a man…..thats how long this brotha been doing it for. I’m 31 now and remember jamming GANGSTARR and JAZZMATAZZ as a teen. He was always teaching and metoring in his music…..he was a calm, cool bro… of the coolest dudes on the scene if you ask me and he’s gonna be missed.

    My condolences go out to his fam and people….R.I.P. GURU.

  26. Thanks for writing that, very touching. I am 19, from Ontario, Canada. All my friends and I listen to Gangstarr and it was so sad to hear he passed. RIP GURU and condolences to his family.

  27. G.U.R.U. lives 4 ever through his music so never let it stop!!!


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