Keith “Guru” Elam died this week of cardiac arrest at the age of 43. He was one half of one of the greatest hip hop groups of all time. I met him twice, most notably when I was 18 years old while still in high school and still under the spell of hip hop fanaticism which I would later outgrow by becoming a professional within the culture/ business I had been religiously following. I was introduced to Guru as a local up and coming mc and producer with a bright future. We chatted and I naively asked if he was looking for artists. He wasn’t of course, but he took the time to tell me why. He treated me like a colleague when we both knew damn well I was not. This I’m sure was merely a reflection of his character, but his death and the subsequent fanfare has got me to thinking.
I did not know Guru. In fact, I can think of several people with whom I spent more time, who have since passed away who evoked only a moment or two of reflection by my self before I carried on with the rest of my own life. I am not a cold or callous person. I have just had several devastating losses already in my life and will have plenty more as time goes on. This is due to the fact that I am fortunate enough to have a lot of people who I love dearly, and one day, many of those individuals will most likely die before me. Nothing is free. The price of great love, is great loss. It is for this reason I cannot share in the grief of someone I did not know. If I were to allow myself to be affected by the death of every person whose work I enjoyed, i would be miserable. I did not know guru. We are not related. My condolences to his family and friends.
Many of my contemporaries react differently to the deaths of individuals they did not know. They refer to deceased rappers as OUR icons, or OUR heroes. They spend a week playing the music of the deceased and then add them to this running list of dead rappers that they can spout off at a moment’s notice. This is clearly the craving of a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. In my youth, I saw hip hop as that something the way they do. I mistakenly thought of it as some kind of giant fraternity containing people of similar worldview, similar passions and similar ideals. But this perception faded with every new hip hop enthusiast who made my acquaintance. We weren’t the same at all. Very few people actually shared my priorities, ideals and passion. Hip Hop was not some club we had all signed up to join. It did not have a test or a written code to which we all adhered. The perception of Hip Hop and it’s values was different (sometimes drastically) with every individual pledging allegiance to it. I realized that what I thought of as hip hop was only a tiny fraction of who I am as a person. Hell, it was only a tiny fraction of who I am musically! I liberated myself from the religiosity and began doing what I wanted to do without any regard of how it relates to “hip hop.”
Guru and I didn’t share some sort of connection because we both create or enjoy hip hop music and that single commonality is not enough for me to do or feel anything unique when he passed away (I certainly wouldn’t expect him to do the same for me if the roles were reversed.) I am not part of some big family with Guru and every other deceased rapper just because we all at one point enjoyed spitting rhymes. I am not obligated to feel bad and post R.I.P. on message boards just because someone in the same profession met their demise. It is not fair to a Guru or ANY other artist of his stature for a person like me to assume some kind of connection or relation just because we occasionally create the same genre of music. How pretentious would that be of me? “Yeah man, you know I feel you man because I’m like you.” At the same time, I don’t want some arrogant kid to feel the same way towards me. “Nah buddy, you ain’t like me.” Just because we’ve both made a few beats doesn’t mean we have anything of significance in common.
It sucks when a person who brought enjoyment to our lives passes away. But unless you are a miserable human being, the list of these people should be in the thousands. Death will eventually come to ALL of them and to you. Fortunately, many of them are able to leave behind much of what brought us joy. In the case of Guru- some very good records. Enjoy them, and for the sake of your own happiness, save the grief for those who pass away who TRULY matter to YOU.
On a side note… I just received my first e-mail from a club promoter inviting me to a “R.I.P. Guru Party.” Now that’s classy. What a tool.