Guru's Brooklyn

Slate's Culture Blog
April 20 2010 9:04 AM

Guru's Brooklyn

Guru, the Brooklyn rapper best known for being one half of the pioneering duo Gang Starr, died yesterday of cancer. When I learned of his death, my thoughts turned to what has long been my favorite Gang Starr recording, " The Planet ," from 1994's Hard To Earn . The song is Guru's Künstlerroman , telling the story of his move to Brooklyn as a young man, and of his years in the city before he achieved renown as an MC.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

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Though the narrative is familiar, there's something different, and disarming, about the forthrightness of Guru's storytelling. Is there a worse credential, if your goal is to become a successful New York rapper, than to have grown up in Larry Bird's Boston? Yet Guru freely admits to having come up in the Four Corners neighborhood of Dorchester. What's more, he opens not with a vignette describing the hard-knock streets or broken home of his youth, but with a portrait of a young man who has decided it's time to make it on his own:

Boom bash jash I had to break, I had to get away,
Pack my bags to leave for good, it was a Monday.
Kissed my mother, gave my pops a pound.
Then he hugged me. And then he turned around.
I threw the duffle bag over my shoulder,
It was time to get props, kid, 'cause now I'm older.
Time to fend for myself, Jack,
So Imma go for mine and maybe never come back.

Though the scene unfolds in Boston, it's an authentically New York moment: The young artist from the provinces scraping together his savings ("it took the last of my loot to make this move, true"), getting on a train, and coming to the big city to pursue his dream. And though both parents are there to bid their son goodbye, the image of Guru's father turning around after bestowing that hug is powerful the artist is on his own now.

Once in New York, the life Guru describes in "The Planet" is neither glamorous nor designed to give this young Bostonian some New York grit. It's delightfully mundane. His first New York City home is the apartment of an aunt who charges him rent and maintains a strict no-40s, no-girlies policy. His first job is working in a mailroom. He pursues his rap career on his own time, and it's a struggle: "I stayed up late to write some rhymes to some rhythms/seconds away from just quitting/ But fuck it I'll maintain, one day I'll be hittin'."

Eventually, Guru gets his own place in Bed-Stuy, but that independence comes at a price he falls asleep at night listening to fighting in the streets. His friends, when they visit, do so armed. The aspiring rapper isn't cowed by the violence, though he doesn't rejoice in it, either. "Sometimes I used to miss my moms," Guru confesses, wonderfully. But he's not going back to Four Corners. He turns up DJ Red Alert and sets about his work. "Imma keep writing shit and perfecting my skills," the song concludes. "Imma make it goddamn it." And he did.

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