Harry Elam’s brother had an alter ego. In his everyday life he was a smart kid from Roxbury, prone to allergies, drawn to the theater, born to a judge and a public schools library director.
But when Keith Elam dropped out of graduate school at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the mid-1980s to become a rapper, he took on a stage name — Guru. It was, he explained, an acronym for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal.
“That’s a superhero name,” says Harry, who is vice provost and a professor of drama at Stanford University.
With his two-man group, Gang Starr — himself on the microphone and the Houston native DJ Premier creating the beats — Guru forged a path as one of the most thoughtful, tradition-oriented MCs on the scene during the “golden age” of hip-hop. Though he died at age 48 in 2010, Guru’s legacy continues to inspire: Each episode of the new Netflix series based on Marvel Comics’ black superhero Luke Cage is named for a Gang Starr song.
“Hip-hop is the greatest motivational music in the world,” says Cheo Hodari Coker, a noted music journalist who wrote a biography of the Notorious B.I.G. before becoming a TV producer. He is the showrunner for “Luke Cage,” a 13-episode series about an unassuming superhero in Harlem, which rolls out its entire first season Friday.
“If you listen to a rapper talk about himself, you can imagine talking about yourself,” Coker says. “You feel like, ‘I’m unstoppable, man.’ I have friends who, before they go into meetings, listen to Jay-Z.”
As an undergraduate at Stanford in the early 1990s, Coker took a class with Professor Elam. Meanwhile, he was moonlighting as a rising hip-hop journalist, writing feature stories for VIBE before becoming a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times.