Rapper/composer Guru (real name Keith Elam) first rose to prominence as the "lyrical half" of the hip-hop duo Gang Starr, one of the first outfits that attempted to fuse jazz with rap. After three albums by Gang Starr hit record store shelves (1989's No More Mr. Nice Guy, 1991's Step In The Arena, and 1992's Daily Operation), Guru launched his own solo career, issuing Jazzmatazz, Vol.1 in 1993. The album featured guest appearances by the likes of Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, and N`Dea Davenport of The Brand New Heavies, and was followed up two years later by a sophomore solo outing, Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality, which again featured a variety of special guests (including Ramsey Lewis, Branford Marsalis, and members of Jamiroquai). Despite his solo career, Guru has remained true to Gang Starr all along, continuing to contribute to such further albums as 1994's Hard To Earn and 1998's Moment Of Truth. Five years after his second solo outing appeared, Streetsoul was issued in 2000, which again featured a stellar cast of supporting characters: Herbie Hancock, Isaac Hayes, The Roots, Erykah Badu, and Macy Gray. Wasting little time, Guru returned directly back to the recording studio, issuing a follow-up one year later, Baldhead Slick And Da Click. In addition to the aforementioned artists, Guru has collaborated with some of rap music's best-known producers, including fellow Gang Starr member DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Alchemist, Ayatollah, and Dj Spinna, as well as Ice-T, Naughty by Nature's Treach, Killah Priest, and Ed O.G.
Guru - Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1
One of the first hip-hop records to successfully integrate jazz, Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 is a surprising success for Guru. The rapper's warm grooves and laid-back rhymes fit in perfectly with the instrumental tracks provided by a cadre of jazz musicians. The way that the live playing is integrated on this album is different than the way it is done on, say, an Us3 record. On a few occasions, the instrumentalists provide the melodic hook of the song but, more often than not, they are relegated to noodling in the background while Guru raps. Needless to say, this meets with mixed results throughout. The Lonnie Liston Smith collaboration "Down the Backstreets" is a fine track, but the Donald Byrd and Roy Ayers partnerships sound busy and forced. Standout tracks include the two collaborations with Brand New Heavies singer N`dea Davenport. The jazz connection on these songs is minimal at best, but the well-produced tracks and Davenport's sultry voice are compelling on their own merits. As for Guru himself, some of his raps can only be described as awkward, and it is at these moments when the record is weakest. However, the overall vibe of the album is strong, and inane comments from the leader aside ("Jazz is real, and based on reality," Guru says in his introduction), Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 is entertaining, almost despite itself.
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Guru - Jazzmatazz, Vol. 2: The New Reality
The follow-up to the heavily acclaimed Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1. This album might not have quite as much jazz-rap power as the first volume did, but it's still quite good. Some of the big guns of jazz found their way into the album, including Branford Marsalis (who, of course, had already experimented with urban beats a bit with his Buckshot Lefonque project), Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, and Kenny Garrett. Underground rapper Kool Keith (at this point still a member of The Ultramagnetics) also makes an appearance. Dancehall reggae princess Patra is included on a track, as are Chaka Khan and Me`Shell N`Degeocello; Jamiroqai helps out in another. In some ways, the personnel on this album may be slightly superior to the first outing, but the music also seems a tiny bit blander. Still, what makes the Jazzmatazz albums special is the live synthesis of jazz and rap. With Guru's vocals over the top of live jazz performers (as opposed the usual samples), interplay is facilitated between the two, and thus a whole new dimension is added to the fusion. For someone interested in jazz-rap in general, the first album is a higher priority (as would be Us3's albums, with extensive Blue Note sampling), but this album is still high on the list.
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Guru - Streetsoul
Give Keith Elam credit for knowing how to surround himself with great talent. It's a fact that has guided his career from the early days of Gang Starr — the group he formed with one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time, Dj Premier — to his solo Jazzmatazz albums, recorded with a host of jazz legends including Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, and Branford Marsalis. This third volume in Guru's Jazzmatazzseries came not only after a five-year break, but at a time when the notion of jazz-rap was almost as antiquated as the '70s jazz-funk sound it helped resurrect back in the late '80s. Guru undoubtedly realized this, so instead of focusing strictly on jazz this time out, he made Streetsoul more of a roots album. With all the great contemporary R&B talent on display, though, any jazz-rap fans still left could hardly be annoyed with Guru's shift in focus from jazz to soul. A trinity of late-'90s soul divas — Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, and Kelis — each have features, and the swing-to-urban production behind Badu's contribution frames her vocal excellently. Dj Premier also shows up, contributing his usual excellent trackmaster skills to "Hustlin' Daze," with vocals by Donell Jones. Fellow rapcentrics The Roots make an appearance on the fight-for-your-right anthem "Lift Your Fist," and Guru inserts two pioneer tracks, Herbie Hancocks's "Timeless" and Isaac Hayes' "Night Vision" near the end. Unfortunately, the one caveat to Streetsoul — Guru's rapping talent hasn't improved at all — is practically unavoidable considering he pops up for a verse or two smack-dab in the middle of almost every track here.
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Guru - Baldhead Slick & da Click
Guru is a model of understated consistency — from "Manifest" to "Just to Get a Rep" to "You Know My Steez," he can always be depended on for thoughtful and innovative material, if not outright classics. But Baldhead Slick & da Click, his first non - Jazzmatazz solo effort, veers from this course, with just about nothing notable on the entire disc. Guru sounds obsessed with fake thugs and gangsters, and at 21 tracks without an updated flow or much variation in theme, the record becomes a struggle early on. His usual insight, storytelling, and clever swagger are replaced by a punchless braggadoccio, and his guest artists only offer the same. For longtime fans who counted on the monotone to never become monotonous, Baldhead Slick & da Click is nothing short of a disappointment.
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Guru - Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures
For the seventh chapter in the book of Guru, Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures, the former Gang Starr mastermind strips away from the cocktail and smoke settings of Jazzmatazz and returns to the pastures that made him one of hip-hop's most revered and skilled MCs: the pavement of New York City. Nearly a 20-song homage to the Big Apple, Guru nods in the direction of the city's future; having such established and up-and-coming MCs as Jean Grae, Talib Kweli, and Styles P make guest appearances. Surprisingly, the album is produced in its entirety by SOLAR, a bold move considering Guru's finest moments often occurred when Dj Premier was behind the mixing disc and drum machine. Having a consistent producer throughout also leads to a bit of monotony in arrangement; leaving Street Scriptures with a dragging feeling towards the conclusion. This could have been trimmed down from a 20- to a 14-song release, which would have increased the impact of the album on the whole. And while Guru still rhymes better than most, he does have his off moments from time to time and thankfully there's more than one guest appearance to help songs move along to their conclusion. Not his strongest outing, but certainly an improvement over Baldhead Slick & da Click and the last Jazzmatazz record.
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