Hip Hop Hebrews (Part I)
It's October, and that means… The Hip-Hop Awards, of course! So we will use that as an opportunity to look back at the Jewish contribution to, of all things, rap music.
The involvement of Jews in rap and hip-hop probably starts with the Beastie Boys, all three of whom are Jewish: Michael "Mike D" Diamond, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, and the late Adam "MCA" Yauch.
As far as acknowledging their Jewishness in song, they followed the pattern of the rock and pop stars who went before. Which is to say that they barely mentioned it, if at all; one of the few examples of the Beasties bringing up their Jewish heritage is their song "Shadrach."
A less known group, 3rd Bass, had a member who went by MC Serch but who was born Michael Berrin. He offered " No Master Plan, No Master Race" as a minority-solidarity anthem. Today, he is a DJ in the original sense, playing music on the radio.
More of the acclaim level of the Beastie Boys was a large and loose collective known as the Wu-Tang Clan. One of its members, Remedy, was born Ross Filler in Staten Island, and he remains quite observant. Only the Jew in the Wu could have written a song about his Hebrew name: "Reuven ben Menachem." Wherever he goes, Remedy is open and proud of his Yiddishkeit, and even performed his Holocaust-memorial song "Never Again" in Berlin.
Then there are the brothers Braunstein--Ronnie, a.k.a. Necro, and Ill Bill--second-generation Israeli-Americans. Necro is a solo act who also runs a production studio; in one of his few Jewish tracks, " Jewish Gangsters," he embraces the history of Jewish mobsters like Meyer Lansky, explaining his reaction to anti-Semitism. Ill Bill, meanwhile, is part of Non Phixion, which also includes Jewish rapper Goretex Medinah. Both Necro and Non Phixion toss Jewish references into their lyrics like croutons in chicken soup. Necro gets his props and has able to lure some major names, like Prince Paul, to perform on his brother's albums, but still faces anti-Semitism from his fellow musicians.
Women Jewish rappers run the gamut from Concetta "Princess Superstar" Kirschner, whose lyrics would make Britney blush, to the members of Northern State, who merge the no-frills look and sound of The Ramones with the fun feminism of P!nk. Regardless of their take on rap, they have thus far sidestepped the matter of their Jewishness.
As in many (if not most) areas of pop music, Jews have made major contributions behind the scenes as well. Multi-Grammy winner Rick Rubin has worked with everyone from eardrum-busters Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, AC-DC, and Metallica to mainstream acts like Tom Petty, Mick Jagger, Neil Diamond and Adele. More recently, he scored hits with country acts Johnny Cash and The Dixie Chicks. But he began by partnering with Russell Simmons to create Def Jam, a seminal rap label, with acts like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and of course the Beastie Boys; he later produced Jay-Z.
Lyor Cohen has also contributed to the careers of the Beasties, Run-DMC, and LL Cool J, as well as more recent acts like Foxy Brown and Nas. He was born in New York to Israeli parents. Over the years he helped start several labels that became major forces in popular music, including Island Records and Roc-A-Fella. On Sept. 29, he resigned from his post as the North American Chairman and CEO of Recorded Music for Warner Music Group.
So when Matisyahu (whose new album, Spark Seeker, just dropped) takes the stage, he does break new ground by incorporating everything from Chasidism and reggae into his hip-hop style. And he is certainly the most openly Jewish rapper ever in his stage presence- even beard-less, he promotes a very positive image of Judaism in his lyrics.
But he is not the first Jewish rap star. License to Ill came out when a Matisyahu was six years old. And the Beastie "Boys" are now fortysomething men, leaving a legacy honored with a short film featuring some very recognizable faces… and this.
Why have so many Jews been drawn to rap music? Well, Jews have always been at the forefront when it comes to fighting for rights. Even the right to party.