As you know, the hip-hop world was dealt a harsh blow this week with the passing of Guru from Gangstarr. A pioneer in fusing jazz and hip-hop, Guru trail blazed this style of music.
Right now, there is much speculation over Solar and his role in Guru's life prior to passing. Luckily, two years ago, I was able to interview both Guru and Solar on upcoming projects and life. Even then, he refrained speaking to me about his relationship with DJ Premier and Gangstarr, something that caused much frustration and a lack of insight.
Take what you will from it.
“Raging Above the Machine: Guru and Solar”
The cross pollination of music is a practice that is becoming more readily accepted in hip hop. More and more, there are rock, electronica, and blues elements infused into the mainstream. In exploring other facets of music, hip hop artists have also broadened their fan base. Yet, this technique is far from new. History repeats itself. In hip hop, Guru was a pioneer in bringing one of the oldest forms of music to the world of hip hop; jazz. For the average 1990s hip hop fan, there’s no mistaking Guru’s baritone voice, smooth lyrical delivery, and jazz instrumentation. It wasn’t about the materialism of the industry, or the violent lifestyles from which the artists derived. It was still conscious, still informative, and all about innovating the music.
Noted as “Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal”, Guru started off as one half of the lasting members with the hip hop group, Gang Starr. Coupled with renowned DJ and music producer, DJ Premiere, the two continued on with the Gang Starr name. They
went on to be a historic staple in the early 90s “Golden Era” of rap. Critically acclaimed, and street credited, albums such as Step in the Arena, Daily Operation, and Moment of Truth re-created the rap coming out of New York City during the 90s. Although both members originated outside the Tri-State area, Guru (Boston, MA) and DJ Premiere (Houston, TX) are still considered strong forces from the New York City roots in rap music over the last nearly two decades. The status of the group, as active or dormant, has been of debate over the last five years. DJ Premiere has been quoted as saying that Gang Starr still lives and will resurrect once again. It’s no secret that Guru’s stance is more along the lines of forward movement and he’s been noted as affirming Gang Starr is no more. He chooses not to speak on it during interviews.
In Guru’s evolution, he came across the likes of producer, Solar. The business relationship that blossomed between the two has created the Jazzmatazz series, and an independent record label, 7 Grand.
Guru remembers, “ One night, in particular, we were hanging out and I was complaining.
He was like “Listen man. You’re an icon. Start your own label if it’s that bad.” I went back to him a couple days later and told him I wanted to do this label thing. He was like good luck. I was like wait, I want you to do it with me and bring your wise mind to the table. He thought about it and felt it was important too. That’s when we really put our heads together and started forming 7 Grand. That was late 2004. We put our first release out in 2005 called Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures. Jazzmatazz 4 came out August 2007 and Timebomb comes out tomorrow.”
The introduction to Jazz infusions started with the track “Jazz Thing” off of Spike Lee’s soundtrack for Mo’ Better Blues, during the days of Gang starr. Guru, along with the expertise of Solar, have taken that defining sound and morphed it into an unstoppable series of mixtapes and albums under their independent label, 7 Grand. As in the title, jazz is still as equal an influence as hip hop itself. Guru concurs, “The thing about jazz and hip hop is that jazz is at the base of all forms of music.”
Solar is the production genius behind these compilations. Solar’s motivation for
creating 7 Grand has a lot to do with the state of music as seen today.
Solar: A lot of people state that the “Golden era” of hip hop was the best, to some
degree, I agree. People also agree that the era to follow, the “Bling era” ruined
everything. You don’t hear too many people in New York bigging up this music. As a
result we can’t get a New York record on the radio anymore. It’s all over down South
beats. You can’t just listen to music that’s only designed to stimulate a certain type of behavior. You also need music that’s spiritual, has some content, and is intelligent. By an intelligent label, you get intelligent music, and we’re not going to apologize for that.
On an independent scale, Guru’s Jazzmatazz compilations have done very well, and
aided in 7 Grand scoring bigger distribution deals. Yet, and still, there’s no love from the bigger companies to push a conscious album into the mainstream. Despite the clout of the featured artists on the album, there’s still hesitation by “the machine” to help bolster the sales associated with Guru and Solar’s projects. This is the story that has become the norm, and unfortunately, redundant in the current climate of hip hop. Guru’s view are less intrusive on wanting the complete backing of the music industry, as much as he would like a section of it.
Guru: We don’t even necessarily want the big machine. Just give us access to a piece of
Solar: The really inspirational part of constructing tracks is the effect it can have on the fans out there. We’re trying to have people really think about hip hop again. There are principles and elements that we want to bring back. Every one of our albums are concepts and there’s no real money behind it and people are loving it. Then what’s
coming out on the other end of this is “Nigger”. This album is getting millions of dollars behind it. It has the whole machine behind it. It’s up to the fans to email these dudes like what the f*ck are you thinking about right now? Not telling them not to put that album out, but you ain’t got no money for Guru and Solar and you gonna put this out. You know how many of my elders I would be ashamed to have even turn on the tv and see this type of behavior? They come from a time when people would call them a nigger and they’d come home in tears. Or they’d stay at a job that called them a nigger so that they could put food on their tables. Fuck all the pain it’s caused everyone else. I’m sorry, I just can’t have my little man walking around calling people nigger.
It’s about balance, and 7 Grand’s goal is to create another side of the spectrum to the sex, drugs, and mayhem that is so influential in hip hop music right now. It’s been an up hill battle for the two, but the independent ear is listening. Are they purchasing as well?
Solar: We’re an independent label and we can’t live off of corporate funding. This is one of those rare times in history when the fans have to step up. We encourage everyone to explore the internet, but we also need you to go to the official website and download some songs too.
It’s a fight to the finish. Guru and Solar have proven respectable numbers independently, and continue to strive for that piece of funding from the industry. One thing is undeniable. Whether alone or collective, 7 Grand and its creative masters aren’t going anywhere.