When the Roxbury-born rapper Guru passed away April 19 in a hospital bed — succumbing to cancer at the age of 48 — the internationally renowned musician had not seen most of his lifelong friends and relatives in seven years. What was particularly painful for those once in Guru’s inner circle is the fact that, in the final days, many of them had tried desperately to visit him, but allege that John “Super Producer Solar” Mosher, the Svengali-like figure who had come to dominate the rapper’s life, would not allow it.
As the rhyming half of the duo Gang Starr, Guru (born Keith Elam) became hip-hop’s preeminent enlightened auteur in the early ’90s. Along with partner DJ Premier, he honed a mainstream-accessible yet stylistically underground aesthetic that would go on to influence countless hip-hop artists, from hardcore rappers to conscious rhymers.
Separately, the members of Gang Starr also shined. Premier became a highly sought-after beatmaker, producing pivotal tracks for such icons as Jay-Z and Nas, while Guru released several Jazzmatazz albums, in which he worked with such jazz giants as Branford Marsalis and Donald Byrd to wed hip hop with organic grooves.
But following the final Gang Starr collaboration, 2003’s The Ownerz, Guru drifted away from Premier, and started working closely with Solar, a friend and business partner with whom he had established the 7 Grand imprint. From the start, many in the hip-hop community raised questions about the peculiar nature of the Solar-Guru tandem.
The Phoenix spoke to more than a dozen people in Guru’s universe, and a strong consensus emerged that the relationship between Guru and Solar was at best emotionally oppressive, and at worst physically abusive, with Guru allegedly being tormented by his so-called friend. One former bandmate calls Solar “the closest thing I’ve ever seen to true evil.”
Over the past few months, Guru’s friends and family have come forward to detail the at times harrowing story of a father, mentor, victim, and hip-hop deity. In the rush to publish after his death, however, there has been much confusion and misinformation spread about Guru. By sifting through the speculation — and interviewing key subjects from throughout Guru’s years, some of whom have exclusively spoken with the Phoenix — here we attempt to document the rise and demise of Beantown’s griot laureate.
The judge’s son
In a city that has been historically marred by racial injustice, the Elams of Boston are a real-life version of Will Smith’s fictional Fresh Prince Banks family. The son of a struggling mechanic, Guru’s father, Harry Sr., worked two jobs to put himself through law school and eventually became the first African-American municipal court judge in Boston. Guru’s mother, Barbara, was an activist librarian who worked to purge public-school shelves of bigoted literature. His older brother, Harry Jr., one of three siblings, is a professor of drama at Stanford.