Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
An interview with MC Serch
BY ADAM MANSBACH
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.
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.
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.
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: 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. &