Photography by Angela Boatwright
Sad news came to hip-hop on the morning of April 19, when Keith “Guru” Elam died after a yearlong struggle with multiple myeloma cancer. Really, though, fans, friends and family of the legendary Gang Starr MC had been in a strange state of mourning and distress since March 1—this is when many of them first learned he was sick and, soon after, of the ugly personal strife that kept him and his friend, caretaker and business partner John “Superproducer Solar” Mosher separated from many of the people he was once close to.
The story went public, as so much information does these days, on Twitter, when Solar posted a message stating, “Guru is struggling with a serious health issue. And we appreciate all your love and well wishes. We continue to hold out hope that Guru will make a full recovery from this. And ask that his privacy on this matter be respected. Again thank you for all your support through this trying time.” Within hours, the news had evolved into a rumor that Guru had in fact died. That evening, #RIPGURU became a trending topic on Twitter.
A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip was first to break the news that Guru was still alive. “Spoke to Preemo,” Tip wrote. “He’s in surgery still keep praying. He’s still here.” #RIPGURU became #PRAYFORGURU.
It made sense for Q-Tip to go to DJ Premier for answers. After all, from 1988 to 2004, Guru and Premier had recorded together as Gang Starr. Premier was in touch with Guru’s father. The morning of March 2, the website DJ Premier Blog—which is a fan site, but one approved by Premier—tweeted: “Guru still in a med induced coma, he’s breathing with machine help.” Apparently, that didn’t go over well with Solar. Early the next morning, there was a message posted on his Twitter account: “Solar will be providing the only accurate info on Guru.” That, in turn, didn’t go over well with Guru’s family. On March 3, Justin Elam Ruff, son of Guru’s sister, Patricia Elam, posted a video on YouTube accusing Solar of withholding information about Guru’s condition and not allowing family to see him. In a press release, Solar rebutted that Guru’s family members, including Patricia, had in fact visited the rapper in the hospital. And back and forth they went.
On March 8, Justin posted another clip, this one stating he had visited his uncle on March 6. But he said there was one list at the hospital for permitted guests and another for those barred from seeing Guru. He’d also learned that Solar was listed as Guru’s health-care agent, giving him the right to make health-care decisions for Guru should Guru lose the ability to do so for himself. Justin also stated that, on the New York State health proxy form, Solar was listed as Guru’s brother.
#FUCKSOLAR became a trending topic on Twitter.
On March 18, Solar was ready to clear the air. He met with XXL at a Dominican restaurant in Uptown Manhattan and revealed that Guru had entered the hospital of his own volition in mid-February, and also that he had suffered a cardiac arrest later that month. According to Solar, Guru then developed anoxia, a condition wherein a region of the body is deprived of oxygen. But Solar was hopeful for a recovery. “There have been big improvements,” he said. “Facial expressions. He is mouthing words.” The misinformed reports bothered him a lot. The #RIPGURU tweets, especially, were excruciating he said. “I had to go through 200 e-mails of condolences. You don’t know what that was like.” And he stressed that Guru wasn’t in a coma—anoxia has comalike symptoms—and said he was hesitant to release information because doctors had been less than a hundred percent sure of the diagnosis. He confirmed that, upon entering the hospital, Guru had signed a health-care proxy document naming Solar his health-care agent and listing him as his brother. “Guru made that decision when he was in sound mind,” he said. “As much as you and I are talking now. He did not want his family involved.” Solar brushed off critics’ questioning his relationship with Guru. “Listen, they did it to Jesus, and we are measuring time based on that man. I’m just going through a Jesus situation now.”
DJ Premier visited his former partner in the hospital on Monday, April 12. He walked right in, went straight to the elevator and up to Guru’s floor. No sign-in, no list. Nothing.
“I put on a Gang Starr T-shirt,” he says. “I put my Moment of Truth CD in my pocket—I don’t know why I brought it, but I just brought it anyway. I just walked right in, and soon as I saw him—I’m not even a crying type of guy, and I wasn’t boo-hooing or anything like that—but the tears just started running. It’s like, Damn, man, how did it come to this? Because we really had a whole bunch of hopes that we were going to be back to rocking one day. And when you see the way he looked, with all the tubes and the tracheotomy stuff in him, and all of that hooked up to him, it’s like, Wow, this is not what I expected.”
He stayed a short time. Five, seven minutes, he says, before a nurse came in and he left. “I just wanted to tell him how much I loved him, period,” he says. “Whether he could hear me or not, I know somewhere he heard me. It was ill. His eyes were almost half open, and it was like he almost was awake, but he wasn’t… I took my Gang Starr shirt off, and I took it and rubbed it against his body, so he can feel the logo. I knew how much Gang Starr meant to him. Even if he moved on to another chapter in his life, I know how much Gang Starr was important to him. We did way too much to just completely block it out and act like it doesn’t exist.”
On April 19, #RIPGURU tweets popped up again. This time, however, it was not just a rumor. According to an Elam family statement released on April 21, Guru became hypertensive, due to low blood pressure, that morning and succumbed to a second cardiac arrest.
Solar released a statement, too, one day earlier: “The world has lost one of the best MCs and hip-hop icons of all time—my loyal best friend, partner and brother, Guru.” Solar then released a letter that he said was written by Guru back in January, after doctors had told him his cancer was terminal. In it, Guru thanks his fans, requests that Solar “look after” his nine-year-old son, Keith Casim, and, most shockingly, attacks DJ Premier. “I do not wish my ex-DJ to have anything to do with my name, likeness, events, tributes, etc.,” Guru wrote. “I have instructed my lawyers to enforce this. I had nothing to do with him in life for over seven years and want nothing to do with him in death.”
#RIPGURU became #GURUDIDNOTWRITETHATLETTER.
“It’s absolutely false,” Solar told XXL on April 21. “This is Guru’s letter that was prepared to be released by myself through a publicist to the world after he passed.”
Who can you believe? It’s essentially Solar versus everyone. But Solar was Guru’s closest confidant. Like it or not, Guru hadn’t spoken to Premier for six years, according to Premier’s own estimation. He’d disassociated himself from most friends and had a strained relationship with his family. It’s an ugly he-said, they-said situation. Solar claims to be Guru’s “best friend, partner and brother.” Former friends and colleagues, however, describe a different rapport between the two—a destructive, abusive relationship founded on physical and emotional manipulation. Solar, they claim, held all the power—both in life and, now, in death. —Thomas Golianopoulos
For the rest of this extensive reported story on the life, death and legacy of Keith “Guru” Elam, be sure to pick up the June 2010 issue of XXL, which is on stands now.