Lil’ Dap whiled away the late ’80s cruising around on his Honda motorcycle. Flashing his jewelry as a status symbol and posturing like “one of them lil’ fly niggas,” he’d ride from his East New York base to the Bronx blocks between 183rd Street and East Fordham Road, where he’d hustle with his partner, a young boxer who’d crowned himself Melachi the Nutcracker.
On one such day, their friends, Tommy Hill and Gus, introduced them to Keith Elam, a/k/a Guru, a Boston-bred rapper who’d just moved to New York City to spark the career of Gang Starr, his fledgling rap duo with DJ Premier. The tentative friendship that resulted changed Dap and Melachi’s lives; as Gang Starr swiftly became NYC-rap royalty, the duo formed their own crew, Group Home, whose gritty Livin’ Proof is a cornerstone of 1995 hip-hop. Now, with their friend and mentor having died of cancer in April, they’ve recorded a new album, G.U.R.U. (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal), in his honor. Fittingly, the project also reunites them with Guru’s fellow long-term underground-hip-hop associates Jeru the Damaja, Brainsick Mob, and Smiley the Ghetto Child.
Looking back, Dap remembers being initially disappointed by Guru: “He wasn’t dressing like the rappers on the radio, like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Special Ed. I looked at Tommy and said, ‘He ain’t no rapper I look up to.’ ” Still, the crew trailed Guru into Manhattan that night, hitting up a Midtown club where the influential DJ Red Alert was spinning before a Queen Latifah performance. Guru’s mission was to get the Gang Starr song “Bust a Move Boy” played. He failed. “Red Alert just cracked that record,” recalls Dap. “At that time, if you brought your shit to a DJ, they either liked it and played it, or cracked the vinyl on the spot.” Feeling humiliated in public, Dap warned Tommy, “Don’t be bringing me out of the ‘hood to this Manhattan shit when this nigga ain’t got no respect.”
In the days that followed, Guru called Dap repeatedly. “He said he knew I was mad, he knew the type of nigga I was, he apologized, and we became cool. After that, me and Guru got real tight.”
The bond they formed led to Dap and Melachi’s music career: First came guest verses on Gang Starr albums Daily Operation (1992) and Hard to Earn (1994), then came Livin’ Proof. A blend of DJ Premier’s (almost) exclusive production and the two rappers’ starkly economical expressions of street-life frustrations, the album is just as stupendous as hip-hop’s 1995 standard-bearer, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . . But even that was only the surface of a deep-rooted organization called the Gang Starr Foundation, a well-populated movement long before rappers started using the term to describe any group of guys who drop a couple of free mixtapes. Dap remembers the posse taking over clubs like the Tunnel and the Apollo en masse; listeners experienced those invasions vicariously through Gang Starr songs like “Soliloquy of Chaos,” where Guru’s roll-call for the night runs “five carloads deep” as he shouts out Dap, Melachi, Tommy, Gus, and many others.
Guru’s gift was describing street life in a more philosophical way: “Soliloquy of Chaos” turns into an anti-club-violence sermon. “You had a lot of street dudes and killers back then,” Dap testifies. “Some of those guys was out of their minds, but they’d listen when Guru dropped a jewel. I’d think, ‘Wow, Guru probably just saved this dude’s life.’ ” Dap and Melachi vie for that same sort of insight. So when Guru passed, and his most recent partner and producer, Solar, emerged as hip-hop’s pantomime villain (accused of pillaging Guru’s pockets and legacy), Group Home took a step back from “all the nonsense on the Web.” Dap explains the decision: “I don’t really like this nigga, and I want to knock him out, but if Guru vouched for him then, I’ll accept that—just like in the streets.”
It’s a mentality crystallized on the mournful G.U.R.U. title track—Dap laments the loss of “my big brother” and recalls when they “used to tear the Tunnel down/Going to foreign countries and give ’em the sound.” Then, as if taking a cue from one of Guru’s lessons, he eulogizes, “Your mission is done, so you gotta go now/So let’s pray that you go to a better place now.”