This is admittedly kind of a ridiculous way to begin an article about a dead rapper named Guru, but let me posit up top that death is the ultimate contextualizing force. That is, relative to death, everything else falls into a sort of desperate kind of perspective. The difference in re: hip-hop is that bad rap’s rhetorical over-deployment of death — this is the thing that Fox News squeakers pretend to think corresponds one-to-one with actual homicides — makes it seem cheap. Listen to a corny 50 Cent song — or check out 50 Cent’s cornier shoot-em-up video game — and violence is simultaneously the entire context and totally meaningless. What this means is that 50 Cent sucks like crazy, but what it also means is that because death is a half-assed constant in so many stupid, don’t-fuck-with-me boasts, this actually really important thing gets reduced to punchline status — a couplet-ending flourish, not even a verse-ender.
All that cheap money, cheap violence, cheap death: all that grandiose transgression can become weirdly constricting for its authors, to the point where you’re telling good rappers from less-good by the relative novelty of their near-identical 16-line verses. I’m speaking only for myself, here, but if what drew me to hip-hop in the first place a couple decades ago was something that sounded alive and new, what finally led me to more or less give up on it a few years back was that listening to it made me feel like a fucking figure skating judge, trying to distinguish the little grace notes that set clever money/coke/at-the-club/gun verses apart from lame ones.
Tupac is dead, Biggie is dead, but they’re still fairly iconic 14 years after their deaths. Guru from Gang Starr, who died at 43 on Tuesday after months in a medically-induced coma, passed before his time, too, but he was different from those iconic stars in basically every other way. As important as songs like “Just To Get A Rep” and “Mass Appeal” and “The Mall” (j/k on the last one) are to a certain generation of hip-hop fans, Gang Starr didn’t sell many records even when people used to buy records, and Guru wasn’t even the star of his own group — he had the great professional fortune and relative reputational misfortune of working with DJ Premier, the genius producer who is for all intents and purposes the best hip-hop beat-maker of the last 20-odd years. At the time of his death, Guru hadn’t worked with Premier since 2003, and I was surprised to see how many records (that is, any) Guru had recorded with collaborator MC Solar since 2005. Because I, like most everyone else, never heard these Guru solo records, I know Solar only as being 1) not the French rapper MC Solaar and 2) apparently the hip-hop equivalent of the creepy, defective svengali types that circled Britney Spears during her doped-up Brian Wilson-y exile. After Guru’s death, Solar released a posthumous letter of dubious authenticity that purported to be from Guru and essentially disavowed all his work with Gang Starr.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, right: the real difference between this one and other hip-hop deaths — real and rhetorical — was that Guru’s death offered the same sort of bleak and saddening perspective and context that actual death does. One of the most-used words — and certainly, inarguably the worst-used word — in hip-hop is, still, “real,” which maybe will cheapen the next sentence somewhat. But for those inclined to feel something about the passing of a 40-something, mid-tier rapper, Guru’s death felt improbably and painfully real. In this sense, and maybe not only in this sense, Guru was a better, realer rapper than his more iconic, more talented ex-contemporaries.
In terms of actual rapping, though? No, not so much at all. Guru had his strong suits as a rapper, admittedly. These were, in no particular order: a distinctive monotone; an understated knack for detail (more on this in a second); a comparatively vast vocabulary that he used in enjoyably unconventional ways; a unique accent (thoroughly Boston: Guru’s father was the first black municipal court judge in Boston); and an uncommon knack with old-timey dis-words like “knucklehead.” And of course it didn’t hurt that Guru rhymed over beats made by Premier, a craftsman who produced great songs for artists as impossibly dissimilar as Nas (“New York State of Mind,” for starters) and Christina Aguilera (“Ain’t No Other Man”) (seriously).
But for the most part, when people remember quotable Guru lines, they’re of the goofy/flubby variety. The line for which Guru might be most remembered — and it’s incredibly memorable, admittedly — is a retardo-koan from the 1993 Nice and Smooth collaboration “DWYCK,” in which Guru confidently proclaims, “Lemonade was a popular drink, and it still is/I get more props for stunts than Bruce Willis.” Lyrics-of-fury-wise, Guru’s simple, space-filled verses veer uncomfortably close to Barney Rubble rapping about Fruity Pebbles territory with uncomfortable frequency.
As is true of any rapper who sticks around long enough, Guru’s verses became pretty predictable over time. There are only so many ways to say “I’m a better rapper than you” or “Bad rappers make me angry,” and for the most part that was the turf that Guru worked with Gang Starr during the group’s 1990s golden period. On Guru’s two Jazzmatazz side projects, he delivered more or less the same raps, only with Donald Byrd and Lonnie Liston Smith and Ramsey Lewis standing in for Premier’s chopped-up samples. He was decent enough at it, and his voice and delivery made him easy to listen to, but it wasn’t exceptional, and it wasn’t what made Guru unique, and kind of great.
Rapping clearly didn’t come easily to Guru, and there’s a lot of work evident in each of his verses — a struggle to stay on beat, to deal with spacing and pacing and everything else that makes rapping difficult. And while Guru’s palpable lack of natural facility led to the occasional uh-oh proclamation on the enduring popularity of lemonade, it also gave an earnest, blue-collar feeling to even his most conventional verses. Add to this the fact that Guru always rapped old — there was something gym-teachery about his quickness with the motivational platitude, something whippersnapper-slapping about his dismissals of not-ready-for-prime-time rappers in his battle rhymes — and it was easy to pick up a weird and incongruous modesty under all that rote braggadocio. Instead of bragging on his success or bank account or anything else, Guru spent a lot of time big-upping his own work ethic. It was redundant; you could always hear how hard he was working.
And at his best, Guru sounded not just old, but mature. One of my favorite Gang Starr songs, “The Planet,” is probably as close as hip-hop has ever come to “Augie March.” Admittedly, that’s not very close at all, but for all the rap critics who feel compelled to use the words “novelistic detail” every time Ghostface mentions what’s on the TV or burps up some undigested bit of pop-culture from his youth, “The Planet” is one of the very few hip-hop songs I can think of that actually feels novelistic.
The song tells the story of Guru’s pilgrimage from Boston to Brooklyn in hopes of making it as a rapper in New York. This is something that other rappers just never really touch on, and Guru’s gritty getting-there narrative — working in a mailroom, living with his aunt in East New York, being broke and trying to pick up girls at Fulton Mall, writing lyrics late at night — is pretty much the only one of its kind I’ve ever heard. And the details are novelistic not just in their specificity about where Guru used to go to get his haircut (Myrtle Avenue in Fort Greene) and the rules for living in his aunt’s apartment (No ho’s, don’t come home bent), but in their frank emotional honesty: the homesickness, the scary foreignness of a violent neighborhood in a new city. Guru hasn’t yet made it, by song’s end: the triumphal “now I fly to Monaco on a champagne-powered invisible diamond helicopter” verse that would be there if Jay-Z wrote the song never comes. It’s the rare hip-hop song that’s intensely and intentionally relatable, and while Gang Starr street fables like “Just To Get A Rep” — a poker-faced answer to the question, “Why do kids shoot other kids?” with a hint of righteous weariness from Guru — are justifiably what the group is best known for, “The Planet” is the sort of song no other rapper could’ve or would’ve made. That he was in his mid-twenties when he wrote this mini-memoir is an example of him rapping old; that he wrote it at all is a big part of the reason why I’ll miss him.
The weird, sordid business with the deathbed letter and the sketchy new collaborator is a bummer, but the passing of what Guru and Gang Starr represented is the sadder part. Whatever it was that divided the East and West Coast schools of hip-hop back in the 1990s has melted away; I’m generalizing, but what bores me about hip-hop now, whether it’s from Brooklyn or Los Angeles or Atlanta or Kanye’s Fortress of Solitude in Dubai or wherever, is that it’s explicitly about itself, as disingenuous, navel-gazing, self-important and tired as mall-bound macro-pop.
But the East/West difference that used to exist was always, to me, about urgency. It helped immensely, it made Guru’s career, that Premier’s beats were so jittery and nervous and energizing. But hearing how hard Guru worked to keep up with those quintessentially New York beats remains energizing and even inspiring at a level that has nothing to do with his actual lyrics. Even after he made it and settled into same verse/different beat predictability, there was something endearingly scrappy and striving about Guru, a hip-hop immigrant eternally trying hard to make it, shadowboxing against his limitations and pounding out battle raps long after his peers devoted themselves to portfolio diversification and multi-platform media leverage.
David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is “Hot For Teacher.”