Dispatches from my series on Jews and Hip-Hop

MC Serch Told Me …

Some morsels from a talk with the 3rd Bass rapper on his music and his Judaism. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews I conducted on Jews and Hip-Hop.


Hip-Hop culture, and most importantly rap music, has come a long way, and will continue to travel years after we’re all buried in the cold cold ground. Hip-Hop comes from the poverty stricken streets of the de-industrialized inner city. The scholars, academics, and the deep dish diggers often point to New York City, and to the fact that these sounds came from the predominantly black and latino communities. Even though the art is signified as an exclusively black art, the latino sounds were very influential, spanning from the burgeoning Fania musicians through the New Yurican flavor, and later with some spice from the freestyle section. White participation is a bit more contentious because of the racist overtones, and undertones, permeating from this country for centuries, only to change with the sign of the times. White flight was a stark reality by the later part of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, like Snake Plissken (Think Escape from New York, which was released in 1981) finding any way out of the deep darkness that was the decaying rotting apple. But this is too easy and too simple to state. The reality is that a portion of so-called whites remained because not all had the monetary means to leave. We should also remember that most of these residents were newer arrivals (of the last century) and a large amount of them were Jewish. The Bronx, as well as the other boroughs, still carried some of these Jewish markers well after large swaths of Jews physically left. Jews have been a large part of the music industry, so it should come as no surprise that a large number of the “white” participants were (are) Jewish. At first we had the money changers, music makers, music boosters, and countless other roles. This later changed, with Jewish artists becoming visibly popular like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and other Jewish musicians and artists. Like the Rock ’n’ Roll business the same model was replicated with the rap music business. At first the Jews were in the background supplying money (think start-up money for Sugar Hill Records), and other resources. This all changed in the middle of the 1850’s where Jews started to perform this new budding art. This is all pointed to the earliest groups being The Beastie Boys and later 3rd Bass. MC Serch (A/K/A/ Michael Berrin), is a formidable force and was one of the two rappers for the group 3rd Bass, who were signed to the revolutionary Def Jam Records label. He is Jewish, like all the members of the Beastie Boys, as well as the staff who worked for Def Jam. Besides his work with 3rd Bass, he has released solo work, and has mentored many influential rappers including members of the group Non-Phixion, and very importantly, Nas. These are his words and what he thinks of being a Jew in Hip-Hop, and how he defines Judaism and how he lives it to the very day.


His Views on Jewish Identity:

In the present Serch has found his Jewish spiritualism in the form of what he considers Conservative Judaism, which means that he isn’t orthodox but he’s also not reform. These terms get tricky with regards to the specific stream of Jewish sects, which is mainly an Ashkenazi phenomenon, but can get confusing, so when you see conservative Judaism do not think of the political allegiance. However, he marks his identity, like most of us, through the rituals of Shabbat and the Holy Days, Yom Tov or Chagim in Hebrew. Judaism to him is a culture, and this is the common viewpoint by many of the Jews I spoke with who are in that specific age group. To him it is a culture that is marked by specific traditions and customs performed through rituals. Like most American Jews, the religious aspect is mostly secondary, but the markers are apparent and very important to him, as he keeps a kosher household and his wife, who is African-American, converted to the faith. This markers have become more familiar to Americans as they are included more so in the present, just think Drake and his love for Bar Mitzvahs.

Growing Up in Hip-Hop:

Growing up in Queens most of his friends were black and latino, and by 1979 he was the only white Jewish kid in the crew. However, he is adamant that his friends were very accepting of his whiteness. But, like many of the Jewish artists I’ve spoken with and younger Jews in general (like myself) in the present, he didn’t view himself as racially “White.” Many Jews feel uncomfortable with the “white” label because it means many things to many people, and Jews do not fall into every category that defines American whiteness. What’s more aggravating is that the racial game is a slippery slope to Gehenna/hell for Jews, just look at the Nazis. That is why it is no surprise that he felt comfortable not only hanging with non-whites, but even by participating in the newest musical scene, which was rap music. He told me that in the 1970’s while attending public school he went to all the park jams, rap battles, clubs, and viewed as many routines as possible. This is where he began to see rap as a profession, while getting encouragement from his non-white peers. He’s not the first Jewish fella to do this, and definitely not the last.

Def Jam Jews:

After meticulous research it becomes apparent that if you worked for Def Jam and you were white, you were probably a Jew. The roster of employees is endless including Serch, you had many members of the tribe including the founder and creator of the actual label Rick Rubin, Lyor Cohen, Bill Adler, Faith Neuman, Glen E. Friedman, The Beastie Boys, and a few more. Hence, this beckons the question of “did you guys ever Jew speak to each other?” Like all cultures and people there is a common Jewish language, look, attitudes, and lifestyles, as well as many other markers, which draws us together. That is why I asked all the Def Jam staff I interviewed if they said things like “Good Yontif” (happy Holy Day in Yiddish) or other markers. First and foremost the Jews of Def Jam were not at all observant, but this was their glue, the binding force where on Fridays you pass by, nod, and say Shabbat Shalom. He told me that the many Jewish backgrounds varied but he did say Shabbat Shalom and of course season’s greetings for the Holy Days.

Nation of Islam and the Beef with Griff:

Apparently Serch had quite an interesting relationship with the Nation of Islam, and its many nationwide chapters. At first you’d think that it was contentious due to the things we hear from the media about the Nation and its relationship with Judaism. However, it was actually very friendly, showing that Serch bucked the trend. When 3rd Bass toured with Public Enemy Serch had many thought provoking conversations with the members, especially Chuck D. Serch told me that he would be contacted by the various branches of the Nation at every stop 3rd Bass and Public Enemy made. According to Serch this relationship was actually very fluid and positive because he believed in the Nation’s work, and being a product of an activist mother, he believed in the cause of the upliftment of the African-American people. During these shows, and during his set he would take pause and announce either events or learning sessions taking place after the show in the local mosque or center, sponsored by the Nation of Islam. This was also all supported by his tour mate Chuck D.

Oh the fight, and the melee that ensued according to Cey Adams. The beef between Serch and Griff of Public Enemy was sad, but very informative with many versions creating a Rashomon effect like collage of versions. What we all do know is that Griff, the so-called minister of information for Public Enemy, was offended by 3rd Bass’s video for the Gas Face.

Griff assumed that the images at the beginning of the video was a direct jab at Public Enemy’s S1W’s. According to Serch that was not the case at all, because the message was a dis at what he called the “the rise of the so-called fake and fraudulent rap stars,” like their hate for MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice who were huge at the time. Let us also not forget that Griff was interviewed right before the spat in the office making disparaging and anti-Semitic comments, even disparaging members of the Def Jam label. According to Serch, he called me a “Wicked, wicked Jew.” A recent version of the fight was also re-situated as a set up by some Def Jam insider to get these two groups into one spot at the same time. No matter the side details, this all reached a boiling point where both groups bumped into each other, basically becoming a shouting match between Griff and Serch. Serch said that he attempted to placate Griff and even attempted to speak to him as he did with other members of the Nation, as he had done many times during his tours. However, once Serch reached out with an olive branch bysaying “My brother” to Griff and trying to make peace. Unfortunately, Griff’s anger escalated saying that he was ready to fight Serch. Serch said, “let’s take it outside and scrap it up.” This never happened, but according to Serch there was an attempt to make peace, but Griff bucked that, and seems to remain angry to this very day.

Jewish Response to Griff’s Comments and the Def Jam Jews:

Griff was a member of the group Public Enemy, and was not a musical aspect, but rather labeling him the “minister of information.” He was steeped in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, and heavily influenced by the leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan is, and remains, an avid anti-Semite who’s preached some vile and disgusting ideas about Jews and Judaism. The biggest irony is that he, and other members who preach these ideas to this very day, got many of their anti-Semitic ideas from the debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and other white supremacist literature coming from the father of the model-T, Henry Ford. Griff was interviewed by a Washington, DC paper, where he spouted the same anti-Semtitic rhetoric to the reporter. This hurt many of the employees at Def Jam, who were Jewish, and it placed Chuck D and the entire group in a bind. MC Serch was far more flexible, but it didn’t turn out so well in the end.

Many Jewish groups were up at arms denouncing Griff, Public Enemy and anything associated with the group, including the newly released film by Spike Lee — which starts with the sonic blare of Public Enemy’s seminal song “Fight the Power,” titled Do the Right Thing. These groups included the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), The Jewish Defense League (JDL), and the more radical and violent splinter group of the JDL, the Jewish Defense Organization (JDO). In a well researched book about the label, The History of Def Jam Records by Stacy Gueraseva she writes that, “No sooner did the film [Do the Right Thing] hit theaters than the militant New York-based Jewish rights group Jewish Defense Organization (JDO) jump on Public Enemy and everyone associated with the group. They began distributing leaflets denouncing Public Enemy and picketing screenings of Do the Right Thing. JDO even went after the Jewish staff at Def Jam who worked with Public Enemy, such as Bill Adler, whom they called “a self-hating Jew,” and Rick Rubin, “self-hating Jewish trash.”” They blamed Rubin for Public Enemy’s outspoken lyrical content and statements to the media. “He could have put a crimp on [Public Enemy] in the first place,” said JDO spokesman Leonard Fineberg. “We’re going to punish him for his lack of morality through strong but legal and effective means.” Serch told me that a radical member of the group, who used firearms in another incident in the Lower East Side, chastised Serch. He said that Serch should be ashamed for not only being a Jew in this situation, but the fact that he stood up for the label, Public Enemy and his friend Chuck D. Serch said that, “we should be more ashamed at not helping blacks in the socio-economic and political issues.” This all came from his upbringing, and especially his mother who was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and he was raised in a multi-cultural household.

Serch and Tupac:

The recent bio-pic might have elevated his status, but Tupac Shakur will always be an anomaly. He was a fierce rapper and amazing poet, who put his heart and soul into his work, while also over exaggerating reality and life to the point of death. Many media outlets portrayed him as an ignorant, nihilist thug. However, he was much deeper than most would know, and Serch acknowledged this through their many conversations. 3rd Bass toured with many acts including the funk Humpty Hump group known to the world as Digital Underground. They also had a member who started out as a dancer, and would later get shine on their EP and second LP by the name of Tupac. Tupac and Serch spoke extensively about the common ground between blacks and Jews in America. They were so adamant about this that they pushed for unity, hence the Unity Tour in 1991. They spoke of the ills of the white man and how they should do the utmost best for each other. They had a multi-cultural and multi-racial audience, and this all spilled over into conversations on religion and faith as they both spoke about Islam and Judaism.

Serch and Nas:

In 1991 Nas guest appeared on the Main Source’s debut album, but he also made an early appearance on a song on 3rd Bass’s second album, and later on Serch’s first solo album, titled “Back to the Grill.” Nas also appeared on the myth making Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show, but Serch had bigger ideas and advice for the up and coming rapper. He wanted Nas to get a fair deal, unlike his as he learned about the woes of the music business coming up. Nas, alongside what he calls the “Ramones of Hip-Hop,” Non-Phixion, would get a solid shot unlike his experiences with labels, including Def Jam.

The Spectrum of Hip-Hop Now:

Serch claims that the spectrum of Hip-Hop is the biggest it’s ever been, as he points to the many popular Jews on the scene. These include rappers and artists like Action Bronson, Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg (who recently became the CEO of Def Jam), Drake who intertwines the hood with his Jewish identity, and Mac Miller who’s a nice Jewish kid from Pittsburgh. Due to the spread, and this is my main argument about Hip-Hop Jews, is that the bond between Blacks and Jews (as well as other minority groups and Jews) is much stronger now due to the music scene. There is far more participation as well as cultural awareness on all ends. However, with this also comes some misconceptions about Jews, Judaism, and the thorny issue of Israel. No matter the case, it seems like the bond remains strong, and will remain due to the pats, present, and foreseeable future.

To Be Continued…. and Thank you MC Serch

#3rdBass #TheBeastieBoys #DefJamRecords #MCSerch