Hip-hop legend Guru's death haunted by controversy

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It’s not a “Who shot ya?” death in the vein of Biggie and Tupac but Guru’s passing on April 19 is not without controversy. Although most well-known as one-half of Gang Starr (whose last album was 2003’s The Ownerz) with highly regarded DJ/producer DJ Premier, his lesser known collaborator MC Solar has somehow become the sole spokesperson for Guru, born Keith Elam in Boston on July 17, 1962. That eyebrow raising situation has Twitter aflutter.

The statement in question is highly suspicious and very reminiscent of those mysterious wills in the movies or, worse, real life, that just pop up. This one emerged hours after Guru’s death and was conveniently delivered by Solar, whom Guru’s nephew Justin Nicholas Elam-Ruff accused of keeping the Elam family away from Guru in a HipHopDX post on March 3, 2010. Then, as now, Solar has proclaimed himself Guru’s keeper.

Statements like “Solar and I have toured in places that I have never been before with GangStarr or Jazzmatazz and we gained a reputation for being the best on the planet at Hip-Hop/Jazz, as well as the biggest and most influential Hip-Hopp/Jazz record with Jazzmatazz 4 of the decade to now” and “The work I have done with Solar represents a legacy far beyond its time” are indeed questionable. Insistence that “Any awards or tributes should be accepted, organized approved by Solar on behalf myself [sic] and my son until he is of age to except on his own” is just not buyable, considering that Guru had reportedly been in a coma. Also, in the digital age, one has to wonder why, if Guru wanted people to not question his wishes, the message was not videotaped and distributed.

Even more perturbing is the absence of loving mentions of his family as well as statements disparaging DJ Premier. “I do not wish my ex-DJ to have anything to do with my name likeness, events tributes etc. connected in anyway [sic] to my situation including any use of my name or circumstance for any reason and I have instructed my lawyers to enforce this,” he reportedly demanded. “I had nothing to do with him in life for over 7 years and want nothing to do with him in death. Solar has my life story and is well informed on my family situation, as well as the real reason for separating from my ex-DJ.”

Other questions abound? Why would Guru feel the need to proclaim to fans that “My loyal best friend, partner and brother, Solar, has been at my side through it all and has been made my health proxy by myself on all matters relating to myself. He has been with me by my side on my many hospital stays, operations, doctors visits and stayed with me at my home and cared for me when I could not care for myself. Solar and his family is my family and I love them dearly and I expect my family, friends, and fans to respect that, regardless to anybody’s feelings on the matter”? What’s really going on?

So many people have questioned the authenticity of the letter, concluding that Solar is an opportunist, that Solar has taken to Twitter to defend himself. “Guru made this statement from his own mouth and anybody saying different is insane with Hate!” he tweeted from his @Solar_7Grand account April 20, soon after releasing the letter.

Unfortunately, what’s getting glossed over now is Guru’s legacy. Gang Starr’s debut single “Manifest,” with its thought-provoking lyrics, in many ways, helped stretch hip-hop. Certainly, the lyrics “I profess and I don’t jest cause the words I manifest/They will take you, sedate you, and I will stress upon/You the need for, you all to feed your/Mind and soul, so you can lead your-self” pointed to the impact hip-hop, at its best, did have on the minds of youth.

It is little wonder why Gang Starr landed a spot on the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues with a “Jazz Thing” in 1990, just a year after their debut album No More Mr. Nice Guy hit. That inclusion helped widen Gang Starr’s audience. It also indicated that hip-hop could actually co-exist with jazz, a theme Guru would revisit throughout his career. In all, Gang Starr released six albums, including the highly regarded Step In the Arena (1991), Daily Operation (1992), Hard To Earn (1994) and Moment of Truth (1998). Outside of “Manifest,” “Just To Get A Rep” and “Mass Appeal” are among the duo’s more memorable singles.

Guru attracted even more attention from the jazz community and other genres outside of hip-hop when he initiated his Jazzmatazz series, featuring collaborations with Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis and Roy Ayers, in 1993. There were four volumes in all, with Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Street Soul enjoying the most commercial success. Along the way, Guru enlisted such contemporaries as Erykah Badu, Common and The Roots in his hip-hop/jazz-infused mission.

In the coming weeks, more details are bound to emerge regarding Solar’s claims. It’s a shame that, in a moment where we should all be celebrating the accomplishments of a pioneering artist, his death has become more of a sideshow.

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