Gang Starr’s Guru: Solar Power
It’s a long way to go when you don’t know where you’re going.
As the legendary rap duo Gang Starr, Guru (Keith Elam), along with producer DJ Premier (Chris Martin), helped to pioneer the sound for hip-hop’s early-’90s golden age. That sound, Gang Starr’s sound, wasn’t “influenced by” jazz, it didn’t “incorporate” jazz, it was jazz, and Guru’s rough-voiced slick staccato style over Primo’s grimy, swollen bass and reluctant snares gave rap music its definitive swing.
While Gang Starr achieved critical and commercial success throughout the ’90s, laying the foundation for the East Coast’s raw boom-bap style, Guru’s solo records—his collaborative Jazzmatazz passion projects Vol. 1 (1993), Vol. II: The New Reality (1995) and Vol. III: Streetsoul (2000)—sought to further explore hip-hop’s jazz roots, influences and possibilities. Now, four years since Gang Starr’s final album, 2003’s The Owners, Guru returns to his Jazzmatazz series with Vol. IV: The Hip-Hop Messenger–Back to the Future.
“To know where you’re going, you’ve got to know where you come from,” says the veteran rapper, revealing the essence of his hip-hop/jazz cross-fertilization. “That element of improvisation; I do what I do to the music of the track. My voice is the instrument, and when I’m hearing something that’s inspiring me to flow I flow right there in that moment. That’s jazz.”
Vol. IV continues the Jazzmatazz series’ natural progression, bringing the project full circle while opening doors for new directions. While the music for its predecessors was the result of multiple collaborations with numerous producers and musicians, Vol. IV was produced (and arranged) exclusively by up-and-coming New York “super” producer Solar. If DJ Premier was then, Solar has become Guru’s now, providing the perfect sonic landscapes for the MC’s still-sharp wordplay.
“Gang Starr was a great, historical thing,” says Guru of the now (seemingly) defunct duo, “but what’s different about my partnership with Solar is the friendship. We started as friends and didn’t really get into music even when we hung out. It was only when I started complaining about my situation with the major label and A&R’s trying to control my creativity that Solar took me to his lab, where he made music simply as a music lover. Immediately, I was like, ‘Where have you been hiding this?’ It was like he’d read my mind, spontaneous combustion, and I felt creatively rejuvenated.”
“When Guru asked me to do this record, I told him, ‘Let me see,’” recalls Solar, who also produced Guru’s most recent solo album, Version 7.0. Street Scriptures. “Let me go off by myself and find the inspiration to come up with the music that’s going to fit this album.”
Solar realized soon after, even though he’d grown up with jazz and loved the art, he wasn’t as well versed in the genre as he’d thought. So Solar started investigating the history of jazz—its roots, its purpose, its culture—to find its correlations with his music, hip-hop, another underground subculture borne out of oppression. Then began the process of listening and relistening to all of the genre’s defining works, until he found his point of inspiration. He found it, unsurprisingly, in the music of John Coltrane.
“The piece broke down to a drum and bass solo,” says Solar, “and what the bass player was playing sounded like ‘Good Times’ by Chic,” the same bassline that laid the foundation for Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” “I said, ‘Wow. Nile Rodgers took this concept, added the heavy disco sound to it and we’re off to the races.’ So then I started to see. This is the album. Fusion.”
In order to keep with the tradition of the Jazzmatazz series, Solar had to negotiate the obvious limitations of his process to craft the album’s distinct progressive sound. Coming up as a hip-hop producer, especially in New York, Solar’s style had been heavily reliant on sampling but, he says, “The Jazzmatazz series incorporates both samples and organic instrumentation, and I didn’t want to lose either of those elements.”
“Herbie Hancock once told me, ‘You can’t stray too far from the box,’” says Guru. “You can think outside of the box but don’t lose the box, your core. Hip-hop flows through my veins.”
So what Solar chose to do, rather than be constricted by his sampler’s limitations, was have the music for the tracks be composed almost entirely of live organic instrumentation, and “sample” those performance recordings. In doing this he was able to manipulate the recorded music: change keys, add additional improvisation to the arrangement, remove elements from the arrangement. It was a sampler’s dream, all for the purposes of providing the Jazzmatazz project’s countless string of guest musicians, including everyone from rapper Common to jazz pianist Bob James, with a fully prepared track for them to add their unique flavor.
“To be fortunate enough to meet and work with the people who inspire you is a blessing,” says Guru. “It’s essential to have someone like Solar to take the skills and talent I have and give it a whole new look. With Jazzmatazz, because it’s our creations, we were able to experiment, push the envelope just a little bit further.”