GURU & SOLAR: Team Talk (B&S remembers - Interview May 2009)
Iconic East Coast rapper Guru teams up with his new music and business partner - innovative New York producer Solar - for the duo’s new LP ‘Lost And Found’, released through the twosome’s own 7 Grand Records.
Relaxing backstage at Camden Town’s world-renowned Jazz Cafe, Boston-raised lyricist Guru - who earned legendary street credentials as one-half of iconic hip hop duo GangStarr before instigating a groundbreaking fusion of rap with live jazz via his Jazzmatazz album projects - is keen to discuss his aforementioned latest musical partnership. Which, since 2004, has seen him and NYC’s Solar independently release four successful albums - 2005’s ‘Version 7.0: The Street Scriptures’; 2007’s ‘Jazzmatazz Vol. 4: The Hip Hop Jazz Messenger’; 2008’s ‘Guru’s Jazzmatazz: The Timebomb’; and now 2009’s ‘Lost And Found’.
“Solar and I were introduced by a mutual friend over six-and-a-half years ago, and we immediately hit it off beyond just music”, begins the articulate, confident MC, whose 13-album/20-year career has seen him sell over 3.5 million records worldwide: “At the time I was really disgusted and tired of the A&R’s and executives at the major labels I was dealing with constantly trying to tell me how to do my stuff. I mean, you’d be surprised - even though it may appear one way on the outside - at what goes on behind-the-scenes-with these record companies. And I just didn’t wanna be stifled creatively any more. I wanted artistic freedom. And, because we were friends, I’d often express those opinions to Solar. So one night we were trying to have a good time, just hanging out; I was in my complaining mode... And he was like ‘Listen, man. You’re an icon! If it’s that bad, start your own LABEL!’.”
“So I thought about it, called Solar back a few days later, and was like ‘Yeah, I’ve decided I wanna DO this label thing!’”, continues Guru in signature, clearly-spoken tones: “And, while his first response was like ‘Well, good luck’, I was like ‘No, I want you to get involved WITH me!’… Because, even when we first met, I just knew he was a VISIONARY. Like from Day One his tracks blew me away, plus his business brilliance made me realise he and I together would make for the perfect match - like The Dynamic Duo sorta thing. So I was like ‘This is the future for Guru’... And I’m now being proven right! ‘Cause now you’ve got your favourite iconic rapper combined with New York City’s brightest producer-and-visionary as CEO and President of a boutique label (7 Grand). Which, in a tough musical market, is doing well worldwide as ambassadors of real hip hop. And that’s something the world has never SEEN before! You know, it’s a PHENOMENON - and I’m proud of it!”
With 7 Grand now owning the trademarks to both Jazzmatazz and GangStarr, the label is already proving itself a successful global brand in terms of both record sales and tour revenue. With Guru and Solar’s live show having proven immensely popular on the worldwide festival circuit (huge shows in Russia, France, Japan, UK, Chile and Brazil, to name a few); plus the extreme sports arena (headlining high-profile snowboarding and skiing competitions; plus The World Skateboard Championships in Prague, San Diego and LA).
“Yeah, 7 Grand records to me is the epitome of what great New York hip hop represents, taken to the new millennium and beyond!”, asserts an equally-confident Solar: “Now we’re in control of our own label, we’re free to introduce forward-thinking hip hop concepts to the masses. I mean, our first album ‘The Street Scriptures’ came out in 2005, and now - with ‘Lost And Found’ - we’re already on our fourth! And to me this latest record (which features a guest appearance from UK soul don Omar on the track ‘Ride’) just represents pure hip hop in 2009. It’s not a Jazzmatazz record this time, it’s in a whole ‘nother realm. And I think it’s gonna bring in tons of new fans, as well as keeping our existing fans happy with the progress we’re making as producers and artists.”
Despite still being best known worldwide for his classic rap collaborations with hip hop super-producer DJ Premier as aforementioned iconic duo GangStarr, Guru today is more all about moving forward with his new musical partner-in-crime, and remains surprisingly non-forthcoming on his whole GangStarr experience: volunteering only: “What’s important today is that those principles that GangStarr was founded on - street knowledge, intellect, spirituality - are being taken to new heights now by Guru & Solar. You know, we can‘t go BACK, but we can go to the FUTURE - while holding on to those important principles.”
Nevertheless, on the subject of his Jazzmatazz concept - the groundbreaking hip hop/jazz series which has now seen him release four acclaimed volumes - Guru thankfully returns to his usual quotable self. Happy to discuss how Jazzmatazz has enabled him to collaborate, over the years, with a veritable who’s-who of musical icons; ranging from such jazz greats as Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock and Roy Ayers to world-renowned soul vocalists like Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu and Macy Gray - while also taking-in credible rap and reggae acts like Common and Damian Marley along the way.
“Back around ’93 - when I first came up with the Jazzmatazz concept - I was noticing how a lot of cats were digging in the crates and sampling jazz breaks to make hip hop records”, he explains: “But, while I thought that was cool, I wanted to take it to the next level and actually create a new genre, by getting the actual dudes we were sampling into the studio to jam over hip hop beats with some of the top vocalists of the time. You know, the whole thing was experimental, but I knew it was an idea that would spawn some historic music. So, though everyone at first was like ‘Where does it fit in?’, I was like ‘It doesn’t NEED to fit in! It fits in with ITSELF!’… And that’s how it became a leader, in terms of influencing other things. Because, as it evolved, I was able to add elements of R&B, soul, funk, reggae, rap - all on to the original base of hip hop and jazz.”
Meanwhile last year interestingly saw Guru and Solar re-energising the Jazzmatazz legacy by taking the whole concept to new, more youth-oriented territory with the release of their first Jazzmatazz Mixtape - ‘Guru’s Jazzmatazz: The Timebomb/Back To The Future’: “Well, the idea behind the mixtape was to bring the Jazzmatazz concept to the underground heads, so to speak”, reveals Guru: “Which is why we got on board some of the up-and-coming, younger-generation lyricists in hip hop who are really spitting some very thoughtful lyrics. You know, it was Solar’s idea to do it this way - and it’s turned out to be the first release of its type to have a successful world tour.”
“Yeah, the fact is it’s bringing the family TOGETHER”, adds an enthusiastic Solar: “You know, early on in Guru’s career, EMI Records marketed Jazzmatazz and GangStarr as two totally different entities, and so the fan-bases were completely SEPARATE. Whereas at 7 Grand we see no point in separating the two. So the Mixtape basically represents the Jazzmatazz street record for the kids. And, since we put it out, we’ve seen that concept starting to really take hold. Because some of the concerts we’ve done have been truly phenomenal. Like we did a show in Mexico City to a crowd of 2,000 kids where their average age was like 15/16; we did some shows in Sweden, where two kids of like 14/15 stayed in the hotel lobby ALL NIGHT just waiting for Guru & Solar to come and sign autographs and take pictures... And all of that to me represents a good look all-round for 7 Grand! I mean, to me we do the best hip hop/jazz show on Planet Earth! And I’d defy ANYONE to try and say anything different!”
Guru - A ground breaking Hip Hop legend who will be remembered for his outstanding contribution to to his art. Jazzmatazz and GangStarr will, in the main, define this brave rap innovator, who wasn't afraid to take chances cross-pollenating genres to great critical acclaim - RIP Guru, your spirit will live on and on... and on through your music.
Words PETE LEWIS