Bizarre, sad, and strange are not words I would use to describe the music of iconic hip hop group Gang Starr who revolutionized the genre in the mid-to-late nineties with albums like Daily Operation and No More Mr. Nice Guy. But, unfortunately, those three words do describe the story surrounding the death of the group's legendary emcee Keith Elam, aka GURU, who died last month at 43.
Elam had been battling cancer and at the end of April news of his death spread across the blogosphere. Like everyone else, I read the letter that was initially released to the media to announce his death, but right from the start something didn't seem right. Because the letter had such an odd feel to it, notably in the second half, which had a tone that didn't sound anything like Elam would write or express. The letter boasted about projects that didn't personify Gang Starr or Elam's best work. And the letter also failed to mention his longtime musical partner DJ Premier by name and making special note that Elam didn't want to be associated with Premier anymore.
In a nutshell, the letter sounded so bogus and contrived that you knew that there as no way Elam would ever write something like that. Elam was known for being a master of wordplay who spoke his mind using rhymes that challenged his enemies and friends alike to raise the bar on how a contemporary and forward-thinking hip hop emcee should address the times. Elam's one-of-kind laid back flow had style, grace and power — of which that letter had none.
After the letter was released in the wake of Elam's passing on April 20th, the story continued to develop and in the following weeks several reports confirmed many of the doubts that fans had about the truth of that initial letter. We would gradually discover the the details of GURU's final days and the secretly oppressive relationship between Elam and Solar, a DJ who had worked with Elam recently via Jazzamatazz and who initially released the forged letter to the press.
Then came the responses, first of which was a personal statement issued by DJ Premier who made several comments that contradicted the sentiments of the initial letter Solar released including "…I would never play around with the truth about [Elam]'s life…" He also went on to say that their Gang Starr days were a beautiful time during which they built a hip hop legacy…"
Then the following week, in an interview with MTV.com, Patricia Elam, his older sister, explained how his family and friends weren't told of Elam's passing until one day after the fact and that the news had come from Elam's 9-year old son KC who called Patricia after he heard about his father's death on the radio while riding in the car.
In addition to DJ Premier's and Patricia Elam's comments, YouTube video responses from family members, defensive tweets on Twitter from Solar and various updated posts on Hip Hop blogs were added to the mix as everyone tried to understand the actual timeline of events leading up to Elam's announced death and why his failing heath condition was handled with such secrecy and mystery.
Then things got even stranger on May 10th, when the Village Voice reported that "an anonymous hacker made public emails sent between Solar and various parties, including documents that seem to indicate that Solar is more evil than anyone could have even guessed. The emails appear to show that Solar forced GURU to tour instead of seeking medical help; that he controlled GURU's access to his own email account and various other web presences; that Solar owed money to multiple parties; and, perhaps most chillingly, that Solar attempted to pimp out unreleased music from GURU after the rapper's death."
As I pieced together and sifted through all the updates, responses and reports, the story only got more confusing, peculiar and massively bizarre. I'm not sure if we'll ever really know what or why this all happened. And as a fan of hip hop, I would also say that it's a shame that Elam's legacy has to be marred by this terrible ending and that his death has become one of the year's strangest music stories.
But the truth is, there's absolutely nothing Solar, or any more hacked emails, can do to take anything away from the music that Elam and DJ Premier created with Gang Starr. I will always remember Elam for his ability to enlighten our minds and rap some of the best stories hip hop has ever heard. His rhymes were filled with truth and honesty. And when I first heard about his passing, and as this story unfolded, I quickly recalled one of my favorite Gang Starr songs "Soliloquy of Chaos." That track, like many others, is the essence of the legacy that Elam leaves behind. And hopefully that is how music fans and hip hop history will always remember him.