So, What's Your Real Name?

"I had fifteen hundred dollars, a duffel bag, a dream and a five hundred dollar 1974 Volvo. My father thought I was crazy." --Keith Elam

Way back when I was a starving college student studying journalism in the big city, I wrote for an online music magazine. Run by a friend of mine, it was a small-scale operation, but it afforded me the opportunity to meet, interview and photograph some very cool musicians, most notably Henry Rollins, The Reverend Horton Heat and Guru, one of hip hop's most legendary MCss.

I jumped at the chance to interview Guru as he passed through town, and trudged my way through the season's first big snowstorm - on public transit - to get to the venue. I was wet, cold and snotty-nosed mess by the time I reached the venue he was performing at that night, but I didn't care. One of my best friends, a hip-hop aficionado in his own right, had gotten me hooked on Gang Starr a few years prior, and I was unabashedly star struck at the thought of meeting the outfit's MC, let alone interviewing the guy.

It was an interview that I will never, ever forget – because Guru was one of the most interesting and engaging people I have ever had the chance to interview, and because he put me in my place before I'd even asked my second question.

We were in his dressing room, on an overstuffed red couch, sitting across from one another. A steady stream of people were coming and going through the wide open door, and there were a handful of folks in the room with us, including a pair of girls waiting to interview Guru who were wearing more makeup and less clothing than I was. I remember trying to play it cool and keep the complete lack of privacy from getting to me – Focus on your material, I told myself, and stay in control. I looked down at my notepad and asked my first question – an innocent enough question, or so I thought:

"So, what's your real name?"

Guru's head snapped in my direction. "My real name? Don't you read the records?" He laughed loudly and reached for a beer.

I could feel the eyes of every single person in that room boring holes in to my body. I opted for the honest approach. "No," I admitted, looking Guru in the eye.

"Just so you know, for writing and publishing purposes, anybody who writes a song, ever, their real name is on the record. That's how people know people's real names," he clarified, giving me a sideways glance. "My name is Keith Elam. E-L-A-M," he spelled.

Duly noted, I thought. I took a deep breath and asked him what artists he had admired growing up. I knew that Guru had a deeply-rooted interest in jazz, and was hoping he'd expand on that a bit.

"I used to admire pimps," he said, and everyone in the room broke out laughing. "I wanted to be a pimp, for real. I'm from the old school."

More laughter.

"Serious! I was trying to get curls and all that. That's why I'm bald now – my brother put a perm in my hair and he left it on too long. Burned my scalp!"

Gratuitous laughter. I just sat there, all pathetic, not knowing whether to laugh along with them – or cry.

And then, in that moment, the tone of the interview shifted. Perhaps Guru felt a bit of sympathy for the shivering white girl sitting beside him, because he changed his tune. "No, but on the real, though, I looked up to people like Rick James, George Clinton – that was my shit. That was my type of music, funk," he said, and that's where our interview really began.

For the next half hour I got a glimpse of Keith Elam, the man behind the mic. He talked about his family, of his close bond with both his Godfather and uncle, two men who distinctly shaped the would-be musician's style, and his desire as a teenager to move away from his strict father. He told me about taking off for New York City and starting out in Brooklyn, getting used to – and lost in – the Big Apple and striking it lucky with an indie label in the mid 80s. He told me about meeting DJ Premiere (with whom he had a falling out nearly a decade ago), and how excited he was about his newest project at the time, the Jazzmatazz series, of which he was extremely passionate about.

Once the interview was over I spent several minutes panicking that I had made a total asshole out of myself, but after I'd calmed down I thought about what Guru had shared with me. His life, his stories, were really interesting; he was quite animated, a great storyteller. I walked away from that interview feeling better for having had the experience; the chance to meet Guru has stayed with me and our interview was definitely one of the most interesting I've ever had.

Keith Elam died this past Monday after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 43 years old.

RIP, Guru. We've lost a great talent.

[credits: photo/photo]

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