In every episode of ‘Luke Cage,’ a tribute to Gang Starr
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’ 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.
“My life at Stanford was almost like a hip-hop college version of ‘Almost Famous,’” he says. “I was interviewing guys who were or would become rap superstars, and I was still a kid, living in a dorm room. I always loved Gang Starr’s music, and I always read every interview with Guru and took every opportunity to interview him.”
For Coker and many of his peers, Gang Starr represented the empowering side of hip-hop. (One of the group’s breakthrough tracks was called “Positivity.”) Long before “Luke Cage,” phrases from the group’s song titles — “Deep Concentration,” “Check the Technique” — had entered the lexicon.
After serving as a co-executive producer on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” Coker was invited to write a treatment for the proposed “Luke Cage” series, which stemmed from the character’s appearance in “Jessica Jones,” another of Marvel’s recent forays into atypical superhero content.
He is, he says, a big fan of Shonda Rhimes, who names each episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” after a pop song. Preparing for his first pitch meeting with the head of Marvel Television, Coker organized his story arc by taking a page from Rhimes’s book, titling each of his episodes after Gang Starr songs: “Moment of Truth,” “Code of the Streets,” “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?”
Cage, a contemplative character played by Mike Colter, has unbreakable skin, the product of a cell regeneration experiment conducted on him while he was imprisoned. In New York City, trying to get back on his feet by working menial jobs, he becomes a neighborhood superhero despite his reluctance.
Besides his impressive strength, Luke’s superpower is simple: He’s bulletproof. He doesn’t wear a cape or tights; he’s more likely to dress in a hoodie. While the original “Luke Cage” comic book series was conceived during the blaxploitation film craze of the early 1970s, the new series is plugged directly into the contemporary realities of Black Lives Matter protests and renewed debates over what it means to be black in America.
Like Luke Cage, Guru combined a modest kind of heroism with a rich inner life.
“He was an interesting mix of having hard-core cred but making music that was about something, that didn’t shy away from politics or higher intellectual thought,” says Coker. With Gang Starr and the side project known as Jazzmatazz, Guru highlighted hip-hop’s place on a continuum of the African-American musical history he learned from his family elders.
In his private life, as his brother recalls, Guru lived a “Clark Kent-like existence — just a loving father, a guy in the street pushing a baby carriage.”
Onstage, however, he came alive with charisma.
“Some people have that when they step onstage,” says Harry Elam. “He had it.”
A superhero, he says, is someone who possesses the power and virtues the rest of us would like to have, with a sense of “doing good, making the world better.” He counts his little brother among them.