This interview was conducted in October 2000. Guru was a lynchpin in my adolsecent interest in hip hop, so I was very excited about talking to him (I was 22 at the time). I’ll always remember this interview not so much for the content but for Guru’s incredible eloquence and ability to bring any question I asked him back to his message about his new album (not all of which I typed up!). He struck me as a very intelligent, thoughtful person – someone who was in love with his artform. Rest In Peace, Guru.
Has the concept for Jazzmatazz changed over the three releases for you as far as your goals?
Definitely. Not the overall concept but the concept has changed as far as the vision that I’ve got because this new one is real focused. The first were experimental. They were focused but not as intense as this because coming out of my work with Gangstarr I had never really worked with live musicians and vocalists so the first one was definitely experimental and that’s why I called it an experimental fusion of hip hop and jazz. The second one was called the the New Reality. It involved more of the soul and the other elements and then this one I kind of went all the way over to the soul. Streetsoul represents… street represents hip hop, soul represents black music.
Well, with your emphasis on the soul you also seem to have drawn more on females to collaborate with. I don’t want to psychoanalyse you but is that a natural conclusion that females are more soulful…?
[laughing] I think females are very soulful. The way it really worked out was that first of all this album could really be called Guru and Friends because these are people that I’ve met over the years whether touring with Gangstarr or touring with Jazzmatazz, doing shows together, staying at the same hotels, meeting them at industry functions, working in the same studios… people whose music I admire who showed me that same level of respect in return and let me know that they admired, loved what I was doing over the years with Gangstarr and Jazzmatazz so it gave me a really good feeling to work with these people because it is a mutual respect thing. And that’s what makes it even more spontaneous when we collaborate. That’s what Jazzmataz means: spontaneous collaboration.
What’s your take on the Afro-pean soul side of things? I mean, you had MC Solaar on the first Jazzmatazz, and now you’ve got Les Nubians…
Well the first thing I want to say… well two… when you asked me about the women, I made the wishlist and I said, wow I got a lot of female artists on here but then I said ‘that’s good, now I’m protected’. All the women on here are strong individuals with their own character and their own aura and the way they approach their music so I learned a lot, even more on a production level and an executive production level just to put that together. And you know what was cool was that none of them had any bad words to say about the others. So that shows you what type of women they are coz there’s some women that always talk about eachother… and what was the other question again?
Just on the Afro-pean side of things…
Right. Well first of all that’s one thing that really interests me and that really I get excited about, meeting people like that overseas. You know, the blacks in England – most of them are from the Carribean or Africa and then in France and Germany, most of them are from Africa. To me, it means a lot for me to connect with them because I learn things. For example, they not only represent their European culture but their African culture or their Carribean culture which is not as prevalent in the States. In the States you got a lot of kids running around not knowing their culture and they don’t lose their self-esteem and their sense of self because of that lack of culture so it’s very inspirational to be around people like that and Les Nubians are just really really… I don’t know… I feel really good around them. They’re very strong, young women. And they take care of eachother. Their sisterhood is really good.
How many generations has your family line been in America?
I would say – my mother, only two ‘cause they’re from Trinidad. And then for my father, it’s probably more ‘cause his go back to the West Indies and Africa. Before that they were down south in Carolina before they got up to Boston.
The fact that you felt Les Nubians and their proximity to their homeland so intensely… did you find it difficult not to dilute that bringing them into New York and into your studios?
That’s a great question. I put it to you like this. The whole project with every person I wanted them to feel comfortable and I wanted them to feel in their own element. I was actually the one to travel to each artist ‘cause that was the hardest thing. After we got everyone to agree the hardest thing was scheduling. So we figured that the best way to do it would be for me to travel to everyone. With Les Nubians, they wanted to come to the States. Like I said, I’ve had relationships with everybody on the album to some extent except for the new artists like Bilal and Craig David who I just met recently. But as far as them [Les Nubians], I knew them and we kicked it before when I was doing the stuff with Solaar and now we’re label mates. So when I spoke to them they said they wanted to come over to New York anyway so what we did was, instead of recording right away, we didn’t do any recording, we just walked around, kicked it and vibed and talked so I could get more of an understanding about what they were about. We listened to a few tracks but I knew I was going to have to construct a track from scratch that really represented them.
And do you feel you have accomplished that?
Yeah. They loved it. After they came to New York – they stayed for two days and we didn’t do any recording – then when they went back I went into the studio and constructed a track based on the vibes I got from just hanging out with them and I sent it to them and they loved it and I sent them the reel and they put their vocals on it and sent it back. That track and the Craig David track are the only ones I did that way. Again, there’s a reason I involve the Europeans on the Jazzmatazz. It’s because when Gangstarr first came into the rap scene, everyone was sampling James Brown. We came in the era where the jazz sampling really began and we were really pioneers of that era, then we got a chance to travel after doing “Jazz Thing” for Spike Lee’s Mo Better Blues, and we started to travel and we got to see how basically black music is looked at as a mirror to our society so this music that we’re doing, this hip hop is like a mirror to American youth culture for the people overseas but now, it has evolved… at first they were rhyming in their own languages but still trying to be American but now it’s like they’re rhyming about their own issues. Even the UK rappers are rhyming about the issues they face so it’s getting even more intense. But my point is to say that after we toured Europe there were a lot of influential things. For me to hear people rhyming in French – it was just really cool to me. The French language is really smooth. Americans really like it. Les Nubians were successful at selling a lot of records in America without singing in American. They were singing in their own language and Americans bought it so that shows you right there.
And in the UK I saw how so many people there had so much respect for black music, soul music and jazz and I was just like, ‘wow’. They collect records there. It’s a common thing not even just for DJs but for people to collect records over there. And that was really cool to me. Then they have this club called Dingwalls with Giles Peterson and DJ Femi – the guys from Talkin Loud – they used to blend jazz and hip hop records all night. Like hip hop beats with Jazz records and absically they created the whoile acid jazz thing. And the DJ over there is really important because the dj creates a lot of the music like techno, jungle, and so forth and, now, garage music, so when I decided to do Jazzmatazz… I decided to do Jazzmatazz because everyone was calling Jazzmatazz jazz rap – the media – and I didn’t like that, and I feel I was very wise to not be pigeon-holed into that because you and I wouldnt even be talking right no because the groups who went under that are not here any more – US3, Dream Warriors, Digable Planets etc. And not to mean anything disrespectful to them but I knew that Gangstarr was much more than that. Gangstarr was one-on-one dialogue with the urban youth, fat beats, scratches in a rhyming form. It’s underground, hardcore rap – a DJ and an MC. So I didn’t want it to be classified as jazz-rap so I went out on a limb and said, ‘ok, as my solo project – because me and Premier decided to give eachother creative space to do solo projects so we could evolve individually as artists and producers and always have more intensity to come back and do Gangstarr… because so many of our heroes in the game fell off – the groups broke up over petty stuff, but with me and him it’s more of a loyalty, love and respect, family sort of thing so eventhough we do outside projects we support one another. And it helps to make for a more exciting and challenging relationship and more longevity for us. So on that note I decided I would step up as a pioneer of that era where we sampled jazz I was like, ‘ok I’m going to go and get the actual jazz cats who we sample and get them to come into the studio and jam to some hip hop.