Giving GURU his due

Boston Globe, May 20, 2011

Edo G. remembers well the day when Guru set off from Boston for New York City in search of fame and fortune.

Back then, in the mid-’80s, Guru was known as Keithy E. – the stage name of Keith Elam, son of a judge and a librarian from a respected Roxbury family, and a recent graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta. Like so many young people of his time, he had caught the hip-hop bug hard. And he had talent – a deft pen and a patented delivery, in a kind of syncopated monotone, that would go on to make him, as the MC in the group Gang Starr, one of the most influential rappers of his time.

But first he had to leave home.

“I was there the day that he left for New York, in his old Jaguar,” says Edo G., who in those days was a teenager from Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury who beatboxed and rhymed around town. “He had bought a big radio for the ride, a boom box, from a cat I knew. We were there when he left. And he became who he became.”

The rest is rap history. But it’s also a sad history, for Guru died after a battle with cancer on April 19 last year, at age 47. His illness and last days were darkened by controversy, as his producer Solar prevented family and friends from having access to him, and squared off against many in hip-hop – including DJ Premier, Guru’s partner in Gang Starr until the group petered out early last decade – in an ugly battle in the media and online.

As for Edo G. – who was born Edward Anderson and, for a long time, favored the spelling Ed O.G. – he stayed local. He resisted the siren call of New York and highlighted Boston with his group Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs, who had a short run of national hits in the early ’90s, including the man-to-man appeal “Be a Father to Your Child.” The video for the group’s breakout song in 1991, “I Got to Have It,” was filmed in and around Dudley Square, featuring such local institutions as the store A Nubian Notion. Their second album was titled simply “Roxbury 02119.”

In 1995 Edo’s label dropped him, part of that period’s purge of rappers who did not fit the music’s emerging hyper-commercial standard. Though relegated for some to the wax museum of “old school” rap, he has stayed active, recording seven independent albums. The newest, “A Face in the Crowd,” came out this week. Its title almost claims a workingman’s anonymity, a far cry from the outsize braggadocio of rap’s early days.

It comes amid a reunion of sorts, albeit posthumous, for Guru with Edo and, by extension, the Boston hip-hop scene he represents. The album features a track by DJ Premier, who is associated with Guru’s finest work. And tomorrow at the Paradise, Unity Fest, an annual hip-hop concert Edo organizes, dedicates its fifth edition to Guru, with performances by Premier and other members of the original Gang Starr camp, along with Boston indie stalwarts 7L & Esoterik, Jaysaun, and more.

The festival, a celebration of hip-hop in Boston, is also a chance to promote community peace, Edo says: “We’ve never had violence, not once. Shout out to the Boston Police Department.” It contrasts with the vibe 20 years ago, when hip-hop was hard to book in the city. Fights were common and venues shunned the genre. “We had to go to Providence to see the big concerts, and there were a thousand fights there,” he says.

This atmosphere contributed to the frustration of many rap performers and fans in that era – another reason why a figure like Guru felt he had to leave.

Today, Boston remains a small hip-hop market, but far from idle. It produced Akrobatik and Mr. Lif, prime figures of independent rap. “There’s really good stuff going on all over New England,” Edo says. “A lot of cats are making a living off of it.”

Married with children, involved in after-school programs and other interventions with local youth, Edo G. has remained a local booster, having moved from Roxbury only as far as Dorchester. At the same time, he has found a new audience in Europe for his music, and he says a documentary film about the original Bulldogs is getting filmed.

As for Guru, it’s well known in hip-hop that he downplayed his Boston roots for a time, penning a famous song in honor of his adopted home of Brooklyn. But he could never leave completely, Edo says, laughing as he remembers Guru’s Boston accent. “He couldn’t hide it, though he tried to! Just listen to [the Gang Starr song] “DWYCK!”

Tomorrow night, the tensions and conflicts of the past won’t matter, Edo says, as Boston pays tribute to a native son. “Everyone’s going to honor Guru their own way,” Edo says. “It’ll be a great night for him.”