Sunday, February 20, 2011


So, it's been a week since the Grammys.  There were some people who deserved to win who won, some big upsets, some great performances, some bad ones. But the thing I keep thinking about is the tribute to those who have passed away in the past year.  They forgot to mention Guru from Gang Starr, who died in April of 2010.

By the way, this isn't a post to complain about how the Grammys ignore hip-hop, I don't really think that that's the case anymore. Mainstream hip-hop stars like Jay-Z and Eminem got a lot of recognition at the Grammys this year (and probably split a lot of votes by being pitted in some categories against each other).

Guru is one of the greatest MCs of all time, but Gang Starr never really sold tons of records.   Maybe because their music was a bit too complex.  Maybe because they weren't doing whatever was commercial at the time.  Maybe because their record label didn't know how to market them.  Most likely it was a combination of all of the above, and other reasons too. Maybe this is why they forgot about him.

It's not just that Guru was a great MC, although he certainly was. Another important point is that he is exactly the type of artist who worked to bring traditional forms of music to younger audiences. In the Gang Starr song "Jazz Thing," he named dropped (or referred to) Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, all while giving a brief history of jazz music. This is the type of thing NARAS normally loves younger musicians to do.

And Guru wasn't just giving lip service in a song, either.  In 1993, he started his Jazzamatazz series of solo records (he ultimately released four volumes), which brought jazz music to a younger audience.  They weren't gimmicky made-for-TV-award-show-collaborations.  They weren't contrived duets albums, dreamed up by marketing departments and booked based on who owed who a favor. These albums were true collaborations, based on love of jazz and mutual respect. Vol. 1 marked the first time (I think) that a hip-hop artist did an album backed by a jazz band.  Over the series, he collaborated with Branford Marsalis, Ronny Jordan, Courtney Pine, N'Dea Davenport (from The Brand New Heavies), Jamiroquai, Angie Stone, Macy Gray, The Roots, David Sanborn and Herbie Hancock, among others. It's hard to imagine that these collaborators were really based on commercial expectations. It was all artists who wanted to do what jazz does: to make music that goes somewhere new.  And maybe take jazz to a new audience. That's what NARAS should always do, particularly with genres like jazz, blues, "world music" and classical.  Keep it alive, keep it from being a museum piece. That's what Guru did. I'm not even focusing on his positive messages in songs like "Tonz O' Gunz," either, this post will go on forever. But suffice to say, this is a guy who should have been celebrated by the Academy during his lifetime.  It's too bad that they couldn't pay tribute to him, even in death.

Another interesting point is the controversy around the winner of Best New Artist: upright bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding. If she fits into any category, I guess it would be jazz. She seems like exactly the type of artist who Guru would have collaborated on Jazzamatazz V, if he were still alive to record another volume. And an interesting postscript to all of this is two tweets from Q-Tip (another hip-hop artist who really brought jazz music to the hip-hop audience) posted the night of the Grammys. One, asking people to complain to NARAS boss Neil Portnow about the exclusion of Guru from the memorial segment. And also this one: which said, "I happen 2 b producing esperanza's next Lp. She is a sweet talented woman I wish the haters wld be more careful w/ comments". If Guru were alive, I bet he'd echo the same sentiment.

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