Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 


An interview with MC Serch

MC Serch, a.k.a. Michael Berrin, was not the first white rapper, but he was the first whose skills and pedigree were unquestioned: a hip-hop acolyte who paid his dues, honed his chops, and earned respect well before the culture was mainstream-accessible or financially rewarding. In the mid-eighties, New York was hip-hop’s epicenter, and a young Serch (Harlem’s High School of Music & Art, Class of ’85) did his best to be anywhere it was. He roadied and ghostwrote for Whodini, braved trial by fire on legendary Manhattan stages like the Rooftop and the Latin Quarter, chauffeured DJ Eric B to the far reaches of Long Island to pick his brain, cut demos with Grand Wizard Tony B, and occasionally recuperated with fifty straight hours of sleep at his parents’ place in Far Rockaway, Queens.

As the boisterous, bespectacled, B-boyish half of the hip-hop duo 3rd Bass (a sartorial contrast to Prime Minister Pete Nice, who favored suits and canes) and then as a solo artist, Serch helped define hip-hop’s direction in the early nineties, contributing classic songs like “The Gas Face” and “Steppin’ to the A.M.” and policing hip-hop’s borders against the incursion of Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer with the über diss track “Pop Goes the Weasel.” But hip-hop has more to thank Serch for: he jump-started the careers of major artists such as Nas, MF Doom, and OC; briefly helmed the seminal underground label Wild Pitch Records; popped up as a scene-stealing revolutionary in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled; and hosted a popular Detroit radio show. Now, after years as a behind-the-scenes impresario, managing artists and promoting events through Serchlite Music, the self-described “Product of the Environment” is once again highly visible as the host of VH1’s subversive sleeper hit Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show. He’s also organizing a compilation album featuring Israeli and Palestinian rappers, and raising three kids with his wife, Chantel. Below is the least rap-dorkish excerpt of a much longer conversation.

AM: There’s a long and complex history of interplay between blacks and Jews, politically and artistically. It might be Al Jolson singing in blackface in the twenties or the Nazis pulling Duke Ellington’s orchestra off a train in Germany in the thirties and calling jazz “nigger-Jew music”; it might be the Civil Rights alliance of the sixties or the tensions caused by the comments of Jesse Jackson and Minister Farrakhan in the eighties. And in hip-hop, a huge percentage of prominent white people are actually Jewish. Do you see a particular logic to Jewish involvement in black culture? Is there a natural affinity, or do we all just happen to live in New York City together?

MCS: I think that there has always been a strong connection between the Jewish community and the music business. The fundamental part of that is that music is a form of education; you’re always teaching your audience something. And one of the fundamental ideals of Judaism is to be a teacher. It’s the greatest position you can have. I think Jews involved in the music business are not only involved because they love music, but because there are levels of education and teaching that are more than just amusement.

Let’s deal with it from a geography standpoint. Jews are always in close relation to ghettos in any major metropolis. Whether it’s Williamsburg or Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Western and Fifth in L.A., or Southfield in Detroit, a Jew is always close to the ghetto, whether it is his own or someone else’s. What that is about I have no idea, but that’s what it is. So the music that comes out of the hood is going to directly affect a Jew — whether it’s jazz or blues or hip-hop or reggae. I think that’s why there’s such a close relation between Orthodox Jews and reggae. I honestly believe those close proximities create a bond between not only the cultures, but the music they absorb.

For me, as a Jew living in the ghetto of Far Rockaway, Queens, being surrounded by the Redfern, Hammel, and Mott Avenue projects, as the music changed from the Ohio Players, Funkadelic, and even the Talking Heads to the Albino Twins and the Kangol Krew, and basement rap tapes, hip-hop was the music I chose to listen to. I was enveloped in it because it spoke to me and not only made me believe I could perform it, be good at it, but appreciate it and love it. Lyor Cohen [Def Jam president] got involved with Run-DMC because of the music; it wasn’t until later that he became a capitalist.

AM: One of the most memorable 3rd Bass lyrics is “black cat’s bad luck/bad guys wear black/musta been a white guy who started all that.” You were addressing whiteness in hip-hop at a time when most whites refused to do so, at a cultural moment dominated by the black nationalism of X Clan and Public Enemy and by Five Percent Nation of Islam [later known as the Nation of Gods and Earths], groups like Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers, who were inclined to talk about the white devil. What was it like to be an artist who made bold statements, and how did the interplay between “Jewish” and “white” work? Sometimes, in hip-hop, it was more convenient to identify as Jewish than as white — there was a minority status, there was a history of slavery — and sometimes it definitely wasn’t.

MCS: During those years I wasn’t a practicing Jew — I was a practicing Muslim. I had pretty much denounced Judaism, because of something ignorant and out of line my rabbi said to me at a very, very crucial time in my upbringing. As a youngster, I wanted to be a cantor, and possibly a rabbi — my course in Judaism was to be involved and enveloped in my religion. I was one of these kids who, even after my bar mitzvah, continued in Hebrew school. I loved reading the Torah, I loved learning about the Torah, but I had my boys, and we were listening to early hip-hop.

Rabbi Spielman, who was the rabbi at my congregation in Bayswater, New York, had seen me in the park, listening to hip-hop. He looked at me with such concern — I’ll never forget it — and he said, “I don’t understand, I have so much promise for you, why you want to be a shvartzer so bad?”

I was like, “What the fuck did you just say to me?” And he was like, “Watch your language in my office.” And I was like, “Watch my language? What the fuck did you just say to me? Are you kidding me? We’re here to educate and teach, we’re supposed to be teachers, and you’re trying to teach me hatred? Are you saying you have hatred for black people because they have a culture I appreciate and that because I’m interested in it, that takes away from my growth as a Jew? This is what you’re trying to teach me Judaism is about?” He was like “No,” but I was like, “Fuck you and fuck this.” And I blazed out and told my parents I was never going back.

At that time, my friend Julius Johnson was becoming Lord Sha Born and studying Supreme Mathematics [the Nation of Gods and Earths’ system of spiritual numerology]. My friend Math was going to see Lord Duquan with his Big Book of Life in Prospect Park and telling everybody how the Gods have to give to the Mecca, and I was like, “Yo this is it, I’m with you, I want to knowledge the ones and tens” [i.e., learn Supreme Mathematics]. Degrees of Knowledge started with being a Freemason, and so [to be perceived as someone who had Degrees] I would tell them I wasn’t a Mason, because obviously if you’re a Mason you can never reveal it.

AM: And even a Mason could only know thirty-three of the Five Percenters’ 360 possible degrees.

MCS: Exactly. If you wore a star, it had to be with the sword in it. I started hanging out in Long Beach and getting to know Zev Love X [now the rapper MF Doom] and his brother Subroc and the Ansaar Allah community and was fasting on Ramadan with them. When I met my wife, and for the whole time I was in 3rd Bass, I was a Muslim. I was not reading the Qur’an every week and I did not change my name to an Arabic name, but I was not a practicing Jew. Out of respect to my parents I would go to the synagogue on holy days, but I was not praying.

Chantel asked me if I cared that she wasn’t Jewish, and I told her, “I don’t care that I’m not Jewish.” The thing was, I totally related to Jesse Jackson calling New York City “Hymie-town.” Farrakhan said all Jews were evil, and I was like, “Yeah they are evil; my rabbi is an evil motherfucker.” When [Public Enemy’s] Chuck D said Farrakhan was a prophet [on 1989’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”], I believed it. And when 3rd Bass was on the cover of The Village Voice and Mordecai Levy from the Jewish Defense League asked, “How can you be a Jew, how can you do this to your people?” I was like, “You know what? Fuck you, fuck the Jews. You weren’t even here for me, you were not down for me when I wanted to be this. My people were calling me a wigger, what are you talking about? You want to kill Chuck D [during the 1989 controversy over Public Enemy member Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic comments]? I want to kill you.”

And then I fell in love with my wife, and she wanted a Christmas tree. I said, “Listen, if you’re going to have a tree, we’re going to light up a Hanukkah menorah.” As soon as I lit it I got that spark of Jewishness back. I realized that I didn’t care what my children became, but I knew if my wife was going to bear my children, I had to give them a foundation in Judaism. Good, bad, or indifferent, that’s what raised me. It wasn’t Islam, as much as I find true Islam to be a pure and peaceful religion, regardless of what fundamentalists turn it into. I felt there was a part of Judaism that I had not given a chance as an adult.

AM: How would you describe that part?

MCS: I believe so many Jews are writers and educators because our job is to teach. It’s not to teach our truth, but to teach what we know and what to appreciate. I couldn’t teach my kids to be Muslim, because it was something I took on secondhand, as a rebellious teen.

AM: So there was never a moment when you became disillusioned with Islam or Five Percenter ideology?

MCS: Exactly. Listen, let’s be very clear: I still want to kill the white man.

AM: I’m with you.

MCS: I know you are, I read your book. It’s not that I want to kill the white man as much as I want to kill the idea of the white man. The idea of whiteness. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Crazy White Boy movement, started by a rapper down south named Haystak, a.k.a. Crackavelli, a.k.a. the God Cracker. They see the white boy as being slighted by hip-hop. It’s a movement of racist white boys who claim they’re not racist, but know that if it came down to a race revolution they would pick white over black. My answer to them is no, you can’t claim me; I am not white and you can’t claim me just because I have a hit show with the word white in the title. I’m not one to claim I’m a white man just because I have a lack of melanin. The bottom line is the white man would come kill me ’cause I’m a Jew.

AM: Let’s talk about the show. It’s a big hit for you and for VH1, going into the second season, and it’s been controversial: you’ve got a bunch of white kids competing to be anointed the next white rapper. The show plays with notions of whiteness and blackness and authenticity, and more often than not the competitors end up looking pretty ridiculous. Some of the scenarios are serious, based on rhyme skills and knowing hip-hop history, and others are totally absurd ....

MCS: It’s a social experiment. We’ve got kids who know the culture and have skills, and we’ve got kids who are wack and don’t know anything, and the idea is just to see what happens, to clown all the fake notions of what hip-hop is supposed to be and blackness is supposed to be — like the catching cases skit [in which the aspiring rappers “catch cases” of beer, a play on “catching” legal cases], or taking them into the barbershop to rhyme. The people who are supposed to get it get it; they think it’s hilarious.

AM: I like that it dislocates some of the entitlement white kids have now about being involved in hip-hop. There’s very little dialogue on what it means to be white in hip-hop today, but it was much more contested in 1990, when 3rd Bass absorbed some serious attacks from the group X Clan.

MCS: The first thing you have to realize is that we knew what X Clan was really about, and if we’d ever divulged it, it would’ve destroyed the credibility of the group. You have to remember, [X Clan’s] Lumumba Carson had managed Pete Nice. I hung out with [X Clan producer] Paradise every Thursday, Friday, Saturday at the Latin Quarter. We knew what these dudes were really about. But we felt that if they were trying to create a positive movement and had to use us as the punching bag, then fine. They didn’t really do it to me, they did it to white people. I was just the example of the larger scale. We thought about it for a day or two and said, “We know what they really are and let’s keep moving.” They’re trying to create a black council; I’m all for it. If they want me to sit on it, I’ll be the first one at the table. If it benefits black people, it benefits me. I’m in.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing