“His eyes were open, fluttering,” DJ Premier, 53, said in an interview this month at HeadQCourterz Studios in Queens, a space stuffed with platinum and gold plaques inside the sprawling production complex that houses the “Sesame Street” set. “I just looked at him: This should not be you.” He remembered placing a Gang Starr shirt on his friend’s chest and telling him, “I love you, man. Anything happens to you, I’ll make sure your family’s good. I’ll never let you down. We’re Gang Starr forever.”
Guru, born Keith Elam, formed Gang Starr with friends from Boston in the late 1980s; when the rest of the group split, he relocated to New York and teamed with DJ Premier, a gifted producer from Texas. From 1989 to 2003 the pair released six critically acclaimed albums that showcased Guru’s slick baritone gliding over Premier’s hardened beats. Their songs “DWYCK,” “Mass Appeal” and “You Know My Steez” became hip-hop staples, and the two musicians thrived separately, too: Guru with his jazz-rap fusion series “Jazzmatazz,” and Premier as an in-demand producer for the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Nas.
After a period of drift sparked by tensions over alcohol, money and credit, the duo had lost touch. And when Guru died just weeks after Premier’s hospital visit, the chances of new Gang Starr music appeared to have died along with him — at least until this past September, when “Family and Loyalty,” the first Gang Starr song in 16 years, was released (it included previously unheard Guru verses and a feature from J. Cole). On Friday, a full-length LP titled “One of the Best Yet” will arrive. It is potentially the first of two posthumous Gang Starr albums, which have taken nearly a decade to bring to life.
“Everything we’re doing is really for him, to keep his legacy alive,” said Guru’s son, KC Elam, who was 9 when his father died.
The journey to new Gang Starr music has been complicated by years of legal battles and conflicting personal accounts. And it’s not over yet.
It began with a letter Guru was said to have written on his deathbed that removed Premier from his legacy. “I had nothing to do with him in life for over 7 years and want nothing to do with him in death,” it read in part.
For years, there were questions about its authenticity, and the letter remained a point of contention. In lieu of a will, it was the only document that expressed Guru’s last wishes, and it highly praised John Mosher, known as DJ Solar, a producer he’d met in 2001 when Gang Starr was working on “The Ownerz,” its sixth and final LP. By then the group was already splintering. Guru’s drinking, long an issue, had become problematic.
“He was a functioning alcoholic,” said the rapper Big Shug, a Gang Starr affiliate who helped Guru start the group. “He definitely had an issue.” Shug said that Premier’s rising profile as an A-list producer formed a wedge between the duo. “Guru always felt like he discovered Premier,” he said. “He might have felt that Premier owed him more.”
In a phone interview from his attorney’s office in Nyack, N.Y., Solar, 56, said that Guru had many issues with Premier: He said Guru believed Premier was involved when Guru was robbed and pistol-whipped in 1999; and that he was shorted money and credit by the group’s managers and accountants. “It’s no secret within the industry that Guru felt abused, he felt ripped off,” Solar said.
“It’s really unfortunate that after all these years that guy is still making things up,” DJ Premier said. “We didn’t even know him back then and didn’t meet him until years later. Since then, he has systematically tried to tarnish the Gang Starr legacy and diminish everything that Guru and I built.”
In 2005, after Gang Starr was dropped by Virgin Records, Guru and Solar launched a record label together, 7 Grand Records. Solar said their friendship was swift and genuine: “We met in Harlem and we became fast friends.”
Despite the cold war between Premier and Guru, few in hip-hop believed that the classic Gang Starr lineup was over forever.
“When Guru passed, everyone was trying to figure out what happened,” said Fab 5 Freddy, who directed some of Gang Starr’s early music videos and returned for the “Family and Loyalty” clip.
The situation was confused further by odd developments during Guru’s hospitalization. Someone posted misleading information about Guru’s condition on his Twitter account while he was reportedly in a coma. Premier said he had to sneak into the hospital to say goodbye, bribing a hospital worker who wanted the producer to listen to his demo tape. “I’ll sign you,” Premier said he told him. (Solar said, “I never, at any time, stopped Premier or his sister, or brother, or anybody in the family from seeing Guru.”)
After Guru’s death, Solar and Guru’s family battled over his estate. Guru’s oncologist testified in court that the rapper had never awakened from his coma and would have been incapable of writing the deathbed letter. In 2014, a Rockland County judge ruled against Solar, giving control of the rapper’s estate to Guru’s family, forcing Solar to cease all business pertaining to Guru and Gang Starr, and ordering him to pay back nearly $170,000 in checks, withdrawals, royalties and life insurance payouts that had been misappropriated. But that wasn’t all the family was after.
“I knew if Solar had any recordings that Guru had made, those would be important to get also,” Mark Levinsohn, the Elam family’s attorney, said in an interview.
Premier was convinced there were unreleased vocals in the vault. “I knew there had to be material out there that [Solar] was sitting on, I could just feel it,” he said. “Guru’s like Tupac. He just records and records and records. I felt like it was a rescue mission.”
Premier and Solar weren’t on speaking terms, and the case was wrapped up in appeal. But in 2016, Premier received word that Solar was ready to sell. “Whatever the ransom’s going to be, I’ll pay for it,” he said he remembered thinking.
According to Premier, the parties settled on a figure in exchange for 30 unreleased recordings and made a deal. “Some of them had two verses, some of them had a verse, some of them just had a hook and then faded,” Premier said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, there’s enough to do something.’” He took the tracks and started to rework them into the songs that appear on “One of the Best Yet.”
According to Solar, there was “no valid agreement,” and he sees the songs being released this week as essentially stolen from him. “These are songs that me and Guru wrote together,” he said. Solar contends that the recordings, made between 2005 and 2009, were intended for a Gang Starr album — a reunion project featuring production from Premier, himself and other producers. He said he handed over Guru’s vocals because “I believed this was going to be a healing process,” and he didn’t expect his production contributions to be erased. He said he plans to take legal action unless his name is added to the album’s credits, and after that, he’d like to reconnect with Guru’s son. “I’m always for healing,” he said.
DJ Premier’s manager Ian Schwartzman responded in a statement: “These are baseless and outrageous accusations and they absolutely have no merit. I suggest he reference the legal agreement he signed.” (The New York Times has reviewed a notarized document signed by Solar in 2017 that states he is not a songwriter, producer or performer on the master recordings.)
Premier said he spent 18 months locked down at HeadQCourterz, retrofitting new production for his old partner’s rhymes. When he arrived at the studio each day, he’d perform a sage-burning ritual over an urn containing some of his friend’s ashes. “So many things surrounded him at the end, it was a good way to clear all the evil energy,” he said.
He added that Guru’s spirit guided the creative process: “I know what a Gang Starr album that’s done is supposed to sound like. I know what he would like.”
The album is a 16-track-long journey through the group’s different sonic periods. In addition to J. Cole, the guest list includes Talib Kweli, Royce da 5’9” and Q-Tip, as well as longtime affiliates M.O.P., Big Shug and Jeru the Damaja.
News of the album’s release has longtime fans excited. “It’s a joy to hear Guru’s voice,” said the actor Jonah Hill, who listened to Gang Starr’s music while writing his 2018 film “Mid90s.” Nas, one of the group’s New York contemporaries, said he would have hoped the duo could have reconciled by now. “When a group that started in ’89 puts out a record today, there’s a history lesson to learn,” he said. “For us to have this, it makes us kind of wonder what would it be like to see Premier and Guru today, onstage, live.”
For Premier, the process of making the album was an emotional journey that offered something rare: “I’ve been wanting this closure for a long time,” he said. “And I feel like this album does it.”