This one’s for Coltrane: GURU

Boston Globe, September 26, 2008

NEW YORK – They burned bright … and faded fast. Of the phenomenal MCs who lit up hip-hop in its late 1980s and early 1990s golden age, turning it from a regional novelty to the most influential arts movement of our time, few remain in the limelight.

Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane, and so many more – the Coltranes and Parkers of their day – have drifted into the background, the industry having stopped rewarding their poetic sophistication and retreated into the wastelands of bling.

But it isn’t time to pronounce hip-hop dead – at least not if Guru can help it.

The veteran MC, known to connoisseurs as the voice of the seminal group Gang Starr, has re-emerged with a new partner, the producer Solar, and a fresh edition of his influential Jazzmatazz series, first launched in 1993, in which he pairs hip-hop beats with music and lyrics from a roster of jazz, R&B, and international artists.

Tomorrow Guru, Solar, and three colleagues – DJ Doo Wop, multi-instrumentalist David Scott, and trumpeter Nick “Brownman” Ali – bring Jazzmatazz to Northeastern’s Blackman Theatre for a radically revamped edition of a Boston jazz institution, the annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert.

In addition to merging hip-hop mastery and jazz tradition, the event is, for Guru, a homecoming: He grew up in Roxbury and Dorchester (Egleston Square and Four Corners, specifically) but has made New York his base for two decades.

In conversation at a West Harlem barbecue spot, having driven in with Solar from the producer’s Hudson Valley recording studio, Guru confesses to divided loyalties at a recent crunch time: “When I watched the Patriots play the Giants, I was a little mixed up,” he says. “I was riding the fence there a little bit.”

Guru’s loyalty to hip-hop, however, is unquestioned. His credentials run deep: With partner DJ Premier in Gang Starr, he developed a distinct and often underrated monotone flow with subtle internal syncopation, and an elastic ability to maneuver the language into riffs with both linguistic sophistication and streetwise appeal.

Classic Gang Starr tracks – “Just to Get a Rep” on 1991’s “Step in the Arena,” or “Ex-Girl to the Next Girl” on 1992’s “Daily Operation” – are embedded in the cortex of hip-hop heads alongside the contemporaneous classics of Public Enemy or A Tribe Called Quest.

But after “Moment of Truth” (1998), Gang Starr’s output reverted to greatest-hits compilations and the 2003 swan song, “The Ownerz.” The pair’s major-label contract ran out, and with Premier, still in demand as a producer, moving to other projects, Guru was left to his own devices – and to his demons.

“I was drinking heavily,” he says. “I was really frustrated and drinking to medicate myself from all the BS.” Older than many of his golden-age peers (he was born in 1961), let alone the new blinged-out whippersnappers, he was fading to obscurity and living off the fumes of dissolving fame.

He credits Solar with stopping his slide. It was a gradual process. Solar (not to be confused with French rapper MC Solaar, who appeared on the first Jazzmatazz disc) was working corporate jobs and making tracks on the side, and it was only after a year or so hanging out that they considered recording together.

At the time, Solar says, he, too, was feeling burnt out, in his case by his longtime volunteer work with homeless children.

“You take a problem as big as that, sometimes you can get consumed in it and lose track of you,” he says. “And Guru at the same time was involved in his own struggles, so suffice to say we both really could use a friend at that point. It was a time to lighten up, and we got to run around Manhattan, chase girls, all types of silliness. …”

But Solar also keened on to Guru’s disgruntled state. And it was he who not only suggested Guru start his own label, but recommended he quit drinking as well.

“And you know what, it worked,” Guru says. “I respect his word so much that I was like, I’m gonna do that. I quit the booze cold turkey, straight like that. That’s not something I want to hide. It’s all good.”

On their label 7 Grand, the two have put out since 2005 a Guru album, “Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures,” “Jazzmatazz Vol. 4,” and a new mixtape CD, “The Timebomb.”

The latter two feature a roster of guests that shows that for all his travails, Guru’s convening power is undiminished: jazzmen David Sanborn and Ronnie Laws; soulsters Kem, Raheem DeVaughn, and Caron Wheeler; “conscious” hip-hoppers Common, Mr. Lif, and Blackalicious; and reggae scion Damian Marley all appear.

Gang Starr nostalgics will be happy to find Guru’s flow intact, even if Solar’s production approach – more upbeat and melodic – differs from predecessor Premier’s style. “I try to get his voice out front,” Solar says. “And he does great choruses – his hooks are brilliant.”

Guru chimes in: “Even that whole monotone aspect is different now. I’m flowing in different ways now that I’m impressed with.”

As for the jazz aspect, Guru says it dates to his childhood, when his “Uncle George,” his dad’s best friend, used to play Sonny Rollins or Betty Carter classics on his high-end stereo system. Later, in college at Morehouse, Guru and friends dug the eclectic styles of Herbie Hancock and Roy Ayers.

It was another jazz free-thinker, trumpeter and educator Donald Byrd, who helped Guru line up the first Jazzmatazz – a truly influential compilation that crested the early-’90s wave of acid-jazz and soulful hip-hop fusions.

For the Coltrane tribute, Guru and Solar promise new pieces that interpolate Trane-associated classics like “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme.” Catalog material dating back to the Gang Starr heyday is also on the menu.

It’s a chance, Guru promises, for old-heads who have soured on hip-hop – a considerable demographic – to come home. “Come see us live, you’ll have the most euphoric experience,” he says. “Because it’s cool to go down memory lane, but it’s even cooler to go down memory lane and then hear some new stuff that just blows your mind.”