Keith ‘Guru’ Elam (July 17, 1961–April 19, 2010)
I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Keith Elam or his music. He went by the name Guru, and he was the founder of the rap group Gang Starr. His music was always there. I loved his music; I just didn’t think about it that much. In that way, Elam’s music was like my hand. I love my hand, and I use it all the time. It’s a good hand. It helps me get through the day. I just don’t think about it that much. I guess you could say that I take my hand for granted.
But I didn’t always take Elam’s music for granted. When I lived in Massachusetts, there was a part of me that hated myself. I was 19, briefly living with my biological father in Roxbury (the same Boston neighborhood Elam grew up in). My dad, I should mention, was a paranoid schizophrenic. It was a rough neighborhood, especially for a suburban outsider. My dad and I were the only nonblack people in our complex, and nobody liked me. On the day I moved in, I carried an old chair up to his apartment, and an elderly black guy named Joseph passed me in the hallway.
“Hi,” I said. Instead of greeting me, he slammed his shoulder into mine.
“Stay the fuck out of my way,” he grunted, and shuffled past. I stayed out of his way. Some nights, I’d sit by myself in the park with my headphones on, staring at the moonlit Hancock Tower. It was a horrifying structure made up of a million giant mirrors.
On a warm spring night in 1994, I went to Newbury Comics and bought Hard to Earn, Gang Starr’s fourth studio album. Like their previous albums, everything was so crisp—not just the music, but the message. As DJ Premier’s blocky drum structures played, Guru’s gruff monotone spoke to me: “It’s a long way to go when you don’t know where you’re going,” he said. A scratched A Tribe Called Quest sample asked, “How far must you go to gain respect?” and it reminded me of a Greek chorus, reflecting on some great tragedy.
When Elam died of complications from cancer on April 19 of this year, I wasn’t quite sure how to take it. It’s not like I was related to him. I sat in my backyard in Sacramento, trying to imagine removing my hand and resting it in the ground. I looked at the space where my hand used to be, remembering how useful it was, and how much easier my life was when it was there. Just as easily as I could use it to pick a flower, my hand could ball up into a fist. I imagined the rest of my life without my hand. Yes, it was possible, but I will always remember—with sadness and pride—all the things it helped me do.