- Fri, 2009-07-31 15:23
With a 13-album/20-year career that has seen him sell over 3.5 million records worldwide, East Coat rapper Guru found fame through his collaboration with DJ Premier as part of the iconic hip hop duo Gang Starr. He went on to form Jazzmatazz, a compelling fusion of jazz and rap, which saw his lyrics and vocal abilities pushed to new heights. Teaming up with new partner Solar, the duo went on to establish 7 Grand Records, which now owns the rights to both Gang Starr and Jazzmatazz.
The Guru-Solar partnership has seen the release of four albums to date, the most recent being 2009's Lost And Found, as well as a live show which has toured the globe, enticing fans both old and new. Sworn to the past, present and future of hip hop, Guru and Solar are on a quest to stay true to the essence of its roots, while at the same time pushing the beats and lyrics as far forward as they possibly can. I Like Music caught up with the duo to chat about the notion of 'real hip hop', producing and writing an album for 2009, where the magic in their partnership comes from and why Guru decided not to be a breakdancer.
"I Like Music because… music is a healing force that transcends language barriers, racial and culture barriers. It takes you to a whole new level of universal existence.” Guru
"I Like Music because… it is the backdrop to my life.” Solar
ILM: How would you describe the vibe of new album Lost and Found?
Guru: The concept behind Lost and Found came from our travels. Everywhere we've been people are talking about hip hop's problems. “It's missing this. It's lacking that. We've got to go back.” Well, we can't go back! We decided to make an album that's real hip hop for 09. Not for 2000, not for '95 but for 09. Solar brings his musical challenges to the table and pushes a veteran like me to new heights.
ILM: You weren’t tempted to make another Jazzmatazz record?
Guru: We have the number one hip hop jazz act on the planet. We could have just coasted through with Jazzmatazz and done another Jazzmatazz record. But we felt compelled to do a pure hip hop record. Hip hop flows through our veins like that. We live this. We kept going into the lab making more tracks just saying We've got to get this out of our system.
ILM: Guru mentions ‘real hip hop,’ why do you feel now is the right time to make such a record?
Solar: Nas put the epitaph on hip hop, he declared it dead. Then of course we had Jay Z say Before me there were many, after me there will be none. These are men of great stature, if they say that hip hop is dead, we're going to listen. But, there have been a lot of times when people have said something is dead, then it has come back. I remember as a child people saying disco was dead, but then it came back. It re-vibed itself. We seriously believe that hip hop can't die. You can beat it up a little bit, put it in a bad place, but real hip hop is never going to die. A lot of today’s stars live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, what does that have to do with real hip hop? Maybe some of them don’t want to be bothered with making real hip hop anymore.
ILM: So how did you approach the task of making a ‘real hip hop’ record as a producer?
Solar: We had to come up with a sound that was real for 09. A sound that people would listen to in five years, 10 years, 15 years from now and think, “Wow, that really was great.” Just one track alone on the album demonstrates that we were able to hit the mark. Lost and Found. I don't think any hip hop head out there would say that it's not a good song. This album does go on, I pushed it forward. Hip hop has always been visionistic and always futuristic. You listen to a track and it's a shock. We talk about electronic policing. The UK has the whole 'eyes in the sky' big brother thing, in the US, it feels like it won't be long until we see some kind of robot police.
ILM: Why is it important for hip hop to be visionistic?
Solar: Hip hop has always been cutting edge in the sense of things that were being talked about, that's when hip hop was at its best, at its height. It’s gone from that to “I'm going to write a new song about butts, about booty.” With Guru and Solar you get thoughts and comments on the future. Whereas with these guys you get one more song about a girl's butt, a car, a new chain or some other materialistic nonsense. I think we hit the base for those that are intelligent, who want to see our take on the future. If you want to go back to the past of hip hop, well, I'm not going to imitate that, because I think the best of that was made back then. If you want to hear classic hip hop like Gang Starr, then you go and buy a Gang Starr record. I endeavour to make a new sound. This record didn't need a whole bunch of features, we've done that with Jazzmatazz records, we've done that to the next level. This album was about recognising the classic albums that I love.
ILM: So how did you approach the task of making a new sound?
Solar: Rhythm. I think all hip hop records centre around a fat drum beat. I pay particular attention to the drums. Everyone talks about the 'golden era' and what's good about it, a thing that is bad about it for me is that most of the drums sound the same, the 808 sound. The first thing I like to do is fool around with drum sounds, play around with drum machines until I get the sound I’m looking for, or the right combination of sounds. Once I've gotten a groove together, then I start to work on the actual content of the music and elaboration. Even if it involves a sample, nine times out of ten, the music around it will be original. I will make a whole new arrangement. It might stay similar in some ways, but I'll produce around it, turn it into a new song. I'll take a piece and flip it. On this record that worked very well. It's not something I've done much on other records.
ILM: Can you describe how you work in the studio?
Solar: I love creating. I love making music. I can't figure out when a lot of these so called stars and producers get the chance to make music. They're at every party and every event. When do they go in the studio? Lost and Found took me over a year to produce. And we're talking over a year of intensive studio work. Long, long nights of working. I'm a perfectionist. I don't imitate. I don't sit down and listen to what Kanye is doing or what Timbaland is doing. So perfecting something that is new and different, and getting it right when you have nothing to compare it to is a labour of love. That's what I do. I have to keep it fresh. During the creative process, if there is anything that isn’t sounding fresh to me, I get rid of it.
ILM: What would your advice be to anyone looking to get involved in the music industry?
Solar: You gotta believe in your music and what you're doing. At the end of the day, if you don't believe in it, then who will? As much criticism as I got, either warranted or unwarranted, I had to believe in myself. I've had a lot of criticism, stepping in for another producer so to speak. I suppose I'm one of the best people to say you've got to be positive, get your head down and work. Believe in yourself and your music. Hopefully that way other people will start believing too.
ILM: How would you describe your working relationship with Solar? Where does that magic come from?
Guru: We connect. Solar is a master in the studio. I'm in my zone with my book, just writing and vibing, listening and coming up with concepts. It's just real organic and real disciplined too. It's enjoyable. When we're touring, we get even more inspiration to bring back with us.
ILM: When did you realise you wanted to get behind a mic?
Guru: When I first started getting in to hip hop. I'd tried breaking and graffiti, I did a lot of graffiti. I tried, but I couldn't DJ! I couldn’t break either, my co-ordination was off! I saw a mic and I was like “That's me.” I just knew. I’m a talkative dude! My mum had actually already pushed me into creative writing. I already had rhyming ability and a lot of poetry. So I started freestyling. Then I realised it was cool to get a flow with freestyling, but that I had to write too. So I started to write and put rhymes together and learn how to run with the rhymes I had written. The rest is history! For me there was something about watching people get up and express themselves on a mic that got me. The fact that all these dudes were different, they represented each other differently, they had different voices, they talked about different things. That had me open. It was like a form of salvation for me. It was a way to get things off my chest.
ILM: What do you look forward to most about performing live?
Guru: It’s that connection with the crowd. Whether it’s a festival with 40,000 people, or a small 500 people show. The brilliance of the show that Solar produces is that it is affable to any of these crowds. It’s crazy. It’s a musical journey through all the classics. Gang Starr, Jazzmatazz, 7 Grand classics. It’s just so brilliantly put together, it leaves the audience in a euphoric state. That connection with the crowd is something I’ve always been in love with.