With classics like “The Blueprint” by Jay-Z, “The College Dropout” by Kanye West and “8 Mile” by Eminem, being some of the few stand-out titles the DJ has touched, it is no doubt that he is one of the most respected engineers in recent hip-hop history, but how did Young Guru go from walking the yard to being one of hip-hop’s most trusted engineers? Hard work for sure, but a vision at a young age and passion for music is what got him to the top of the industry.
Born as Gimel Keaton in Wilmington, Delaware, Young Guru grew up right in the middle of two different, but respected cultures in music. With his mother’s side of the family from Newark, New Jersey and his father’s from Southeast, Washington D.C., Guru was able to gather influence from the two unique sounds. Listening to Funkadelic and jazz records played by his parents at a young age, Young Guru found a love for hip-hop and beat digging.
With an older cousin coming to Howard, Young Guru visited Howard’s homecoming in 1991. Upon arrival and seeing the scene D.C. had to offer, he knew that was where he wanted to be. By the following year, he was going into his freshman year with a clear vision in mind: to sharpen his DJ skills, gain visibility and make money while doing so.
“The first day, my uncle and mother were helping put up the room. I literally walked over to the radio station and told them I needed a show. I came here for that, to be on as a DJ,” Guru said. “I won a DJ competition that year and that’s how I got introduced to my musical crew.”
As a freshman, Guru resided in Charles Drew Hall, one of Howard University’s freshman male dormitories. With his equipment in his room, Guru pushed the two desks together to make enough room for his turntables to hone in on his craft. A friend of his who practiced graphic design, Cephus, and himself, would go on to throw parties in Drew’s basement with a brilliant idea in mind.
“My dude, Cephus, drew a hand flier and literally walked to the entrance of the Quad and put that flier onto the door. Then at night all the girls from the Quad would come over to Drew and we would throw parties in the basement,” he explained. “It was ill because basically one person could sign in three people. So we would go through the whole dorm whether you knew the girls or not and tell them to sign in some of their friends.”
While gaining a name for himself as a solid DJ in the D.C. area, Guru also had another thing going for him. Howard’s music culture at the time was booming. With prominent figures walking around campus, the up and coming DJ was able to come across some of the industry’s most impactful talent. This was the perfect time for Guru to learn from some of the best in the business.
“All of the hip-hop luminaries were walking around. Imagine Tupac being on campus. There was just a lot going on,” he said. “The R&B group Shai is walking around. Eric Roberson is there. My man Big Ben, who later became MF DOOM’s hype man was around. The scene was incredible.”
By the time he was a senior, Guru established himself as a prominent DJ and mixer in the hip-hop scene. In 1996, Guru went on tour with D.C. rapper Nonchalant as a tour DJ. He then went on the “Ready or Not” tour with the Fugees in the same year. In 1999, he went independent as an audio engineer and got in touch with hip-hop legend Memphis Bleek. Through Bleek, he met with the hottest rapper coming out of New York at the time, Jay-Z.
In 2001, Jay-Z released “The Blueprint” which would go down as one of the most respected projects of all time, and Guru was the engineer.
“I didn’t know it was going to go down as one of the best because it happened so fast. The majority of it happened in one weekend,” Guru said. “Friday morning, none of that exists. That next Monday morning at least seven of those songs are completely done. It happened so fast. Once it got out then it was like alright this is one of the best.”
Fast forward over 20 years and Guru has done it all. To multiple GRAMMY nominations, working on Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” and Kanye West’s “DONDA,” Guru is a hip-hop legend. Yet, Guru has never been one to flex, but rather inspire. He currently serves as director of music technology, entrepreneurship & production program at Long Island University’s ROC Nation School and gives rising artists advice on the importance of consistency and creation.
“Do it now. In order to get where you want to go you have to build that fanbase,” he said. “Consistency is key because someone who is less talented than you can outwork you. Put the work in. The work has a lot to do with how consistent you are.”
Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee