Born in New Jersey, raised in California and now residing in Austin, Zay Guru is a smooth lyricist, using heavy wordplay and a divine appreciation for the culture of hip hop and its nostalgia. For 5 years, Guru has been hard at work blending genres together– from rap to reggae to neo-soul and sometimes even folk. His aim is to share hip-hop’s ability to grab from different influences and simultaneously bring people together.
Story by Onaje Mcdowelle
Photos by Maya Coplin
How did you get started making music?
My journey in music began at age 12 in a small room with my older brother and my best friend. We had hip-hop beats, known as instrumentals, playing on rotation. Both my brother and my friend would freestyle rap without hesitation. I, however, was too shy. That all changed when they directed their raps towards me, dissing me, in an attempt to get me to rap. Pretty soon, I was tired of being defenseless and quickly learned how to construct rhymes to shoot back at my two attackers. I think hip-hop has always carried a feeling of competition. Once artists learn to respect each other's skill, they can make a much bigger impact in this world by working together as one.
I thoroughly enjoyed your mix, “Uknowhowwedilla (J Dilla X Bahamadia Mashup).” Have you dabbled in producing and engineering, and do you plan to take it a step further?
I have always been fascinated by the production and engineering of music, and hope to dive deeper into it in the future. While listening to music, I often hear a short segment of a song and imagine that segment looped over and over again. Or sometimes, I hear an instrumental and imagine what a famous singer or rapper would sound like over it. That's how the mix came about.
Explain what your creative process is like.
My creative process usually begins with me listening to a beat and thinking about how I will rhyme or sing over it. If the beat is good enough, I have no problem thinking up an entire song. But sometimes, I come down with a bad case of writer’s block. I find more joy in writing a song than in actually recording it. When I'm having a bad day, I can write a song about what I'm going through and instantly feel better. It's funny, but during some of my darkest hours, I've written my most optimistic songs.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I definitely have an appreciation for the artists who have come before me. Without them, the music we know and love would not exist. Artists like Nas and Talib Kweli have shown me how I can use my words to tell a story and inspire global change. I am also inspired by artists who have the ability to captivate a crowd while performing, such as Bob Marley.
Can you talk about the state of hip-hop in Austin and why it is so important for young voices to be heard?
The state of hip-hop in Austin is very much alive and growing. It is an underground movement which has yet to sprout into national headlines. Unlike surrounding cities like Dallas or Houston, Austin's hip-hop artists haven’t gained too much serious attention.
But I have no doubt our voices will be heard. Austin has a lot to say when it comes to social, political and environmental issues. Our music will inspire real change within our communities, and soon, even inspire those outside of it. One can experience Austin's hip-hop by supporting local artists or by going to open mic events, such as the one at Spiderhouse every Tuesday night.
What is currently on your playlist?
The up-and-coming California artist Anderson .Paak has definitely earned a spot on my playlist. His music is reminiscent of James Brown or Curtis Mayfield, with a hint of Kendrick Lamar's rap style. I listen to a lot of jazz and mellow music as well, like The Robert Glasper Experiment. They have featured guest artists like Common, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Lupe Fiasco.
What do you want listeners to get out of your music?
I dream of a world where forests outnumber large cities and where people learn to respect nature and indigenous cultures. My goal is to use music to show others the importance of my dream. Without nature, we lose our substance, becoming overly dependent on technology and the systems that govern us. I want my music to inspire others to follow their own dreams, and find love and appreciation for the natural world.
If you could collaborate with any artist from any era, dead or alive, who would it be?
This is such a hard question! I would have to go with the hip-hop producer "J Dilla," who passed away in 2006. If you aren't familiar with his music, listen to his song "Life."