“What’s wrong when I rap with the mass appeal?” asked a 1994 single by Gang Starr, the Brooklyn rap duo fronted by Guru, who died Monday at age 43. “Mass Appeal,” which reached No. 67 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, was Gang Starr’s biggest pop hit: the closest its appeal ever came to mass. The group flourished in the early ‘90s, at the precise moment that rap’s center of gravity was shifting to the West Coast—when the rugged New York hip-hop that Gang Starr embodied was ceding the spotlight to languid, sensationalist gangsta rap from Los Angeles. When Puff Daddy and the Notorious B.I.G. revived East Coast hip-hop in the mid-’90s, it had a flashiness of which Guru and his producer-partner, the ingenious DJ Premier, were constitutionally incapable.
Gang Starr’s hip-hop was so pure it was almost Puritan: gruff boasts and insults, drawled over beats grounded in samples and the ribcage-rattling thwack of Roland 808 snare drum hits. It’s a style that’s been kept alive, in the years since, by the authenticity-obsessed “backpack rap” underground. But Guru wasn’t hectoring like his heirs. One of rap’s most dedicated battle rhymers, he was too busy dissing everyone to make distinctions among hip-hop’s cliques and castes. He was a lone wolf; in Guru’s cosmos, there was only one legitimate MC. As for the others: “There ought to be laws/ Against you yapping your jaws.”
Guru wouldn’t have made a good pop star, anyway: Underdog status suited him. He was an outsider by birth, a carpetbagging Bostonian who relocated to New York as a career move. (The Brooklynese he flaunts in songs like “Step in the Arena” was studied—rap remains a domain inhospitable to Boston accents.) In Guru’s greatest songs—”Take It Personal,” “Soliloquy of Chaos,” the hardboiled crime narrative “Just to Get a Rep”—he comes off as a scrapper, a street brawler, a gangster (as opposed to gangsta) of the pug-nosed, Jimmy Cagney variety, shouldering intense grievances and moving his mouth fast. He had an old-fashioned vocabulary to match: unnumbered rappers have dismissed their rivals as “motherfuckers” but how many have called them “shysters,” “numbskulls,” “knuckleheads”? “Check the Technique” (1991) has my favorite opening line of any song: “You puny protozoa, you’re so minute.” Guru extends the metaphor: “I’m scoopin’ you up, out of the muck you wallow in/ Like a chief chemist, other scientists are followin’/ Plannin’ to examine you, on a Petri dish.”
In a deathbed letter whose authorship is already disputed, Guru slams DJ Premier and anoints his recent producer-collaborator, Solar, as the keeper of his legacy. (Solar distributed the letter.) The letter also hails Guru as “the father of Hip-Hop/Jazz.” It was Premier’s clever use of jazz samples on Gang Starr albums like Daily Operation (1992) and Hard to Earn (1994) that earned the group the “jazzy” reputation that Guru cemented on his sequence of Jazzmatazz solo records. But for Guru, jazz was more of a style statement—CD cover photos modeled on classic Blue Note album art—than a musical one. In musical terms, Guru’s music wasn’t jazz at all: He simply subbed in Donald Byrd’s horn for the usual James Brown or P-Funk samples.
If there was any jazz in Guru’s music, it was in his rapping. He was one of hip-hop’s most distinctive and influential vocal stylists, a master of deadpan whose calm, clear voice transmitted many moods at once: ease and insouciance, thuggish sang-froid, hardheaded self-assurance, the unimpressed, uninflected sound of a man who had seen it all, and done it all, before. Before Guru, hip-hop’s playas, preachers, and jesters always elevated their pitch. Guru showed that a blowhard could speak soft; in 2010, his legacy is audible in the suave sound of hip-hop radio. In “Moment of Truth” (1998) Guru boasted: “The king of monotone, with my own throne.” Pouring scorn on knuckleheads, numbskulls, and just about everyone else, Guru’s voice cut to the quick because he never raised it.