By Sam Seifman
MC Serch, born Michael Berrin, hails from Far Rockaway, in Queens, N.Y. Serch grew up surrounded by hip-hop but living in a conservative Jewish household. With a local cantor as a mentor, he had dreams of being one himself. He combined his two worlds, going to schul on Friday and Saturday while also playing basketball and listening to rap on Shabbat.
His rabbi saw him playing with friends, many of whom were African American. Serch was called into his office the next day.
“Michael, I had such high hopes for you,” his rabbi said.
The rabbi lamented Serch’s choice in friends, using a derogatory Yiddish word for African American.
“You’re supposed to teach? You’re supposed to educate?” Serch replied, frustrated.
Distraught, he turned down a scholarship from the St. Louis School of Music, where he planned to train to become a cantor. Instead, he became a professional rapper—something he had been doing as a hobby since he was a teenager. He converted to Islam—remaining in the religion for the next four years. He later converted back to Judaism after moving in with a Christian-agnostic girlfriend. One Christmas, she wanted to put up a tree and he felt the need for his background to be represented. So, they also lit menorah candles.
Serch’s story is emblematic of hip-hop’s roots—starting from rebelliousness and reaching success as a performer and promoter of rappers in the ’80s and ’90s.
Or as the Canadian Jewish black rap superstar Drake, puts it, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” Drake was born Aubrey Drake Graham. His father is African American, and he was raised by his Jewish mother and bar mitzvahed.
Drake and other rappers fall under the category of “Hip-hop,” a subculture that also encompasses disc jockeys, graffiti artists and break dancers. It is said to have originated in 1973, in the Bronx, at a party hosted by Jamaican-born Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell.
As hip-hop grew, it diversified beyond African American artists and fans to include Jews as well. The breakout Jewish rap stars were the Beastie Boys, made up of Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. The group achieved notoriety and toured with Madonna in 1985. In 1987, their album “License to Ill” went platinum, selling a million copies. In total, they have recorded seven platinum albums and have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2012, Adam Yauch died of salivary gland cancer, and he was so esteemed that a park was named for him in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.
When Serch was younger, some of his African American friends converted to Islam. This prompted him to ask them questions about it, to which they would reply, “Why are you always searching for answers?”
So they called him “Search.” It was changed to “Serch” when he was buying a customized belt buckle and found out that it cost $20 less leaving out the “a.”
When he decided to go professional, his mother, Roz Berrin, was supportive. She sang as Linda Paige in the Borscht Belt. However, Serch admits, she wasn’t too familiar with rap.
“She thought I was going to be a gift wrapper,” he said.
Serch achieved some success in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, partially because he was very active in “battle rap” (two rappers verbally attacking each other) scene—a consistent theme among rap’s outsiders. After releasing two albums through independent labels, he was signed by Lyor Cohen (also Jewish) and Russell Simmons, working for Rush Productions. Later, these two became major producers in hip-hop and founders of Def Jam Records, one of the most successful rap labels. Producing artists like the Beastie Boys and Kanye West. They agreed to pay for his demo.
Serch teamed up with rapper Pete Nice and DJ Richie Rich to form 3rd Bass in 1987. Before breaking up in 1992, they released three albums, two of which went gold, selling at least 500,000 copies.
Serch went solo that year, releasing the album “Return of the Product,” which reached 103 on Billboard’s “Top 200 Albums.” He also started Serchlite Productions, producing the album “Illmatic” by Nas, which ranked 11th on Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Debut Albums of All Time.”
Serch and Cohen join a long line of Jewish producers. Rick Rubin, another Jewish Def Jam co-founder, worked with big names like Jay Z, Kanye West and Eminem. In 2007, Time Magazine ranked him number eight on its “Most Influential” list.
Richard Wolf was part of the production team for Serch’s album “Return of the Product.” “Serch was a very confident artist who had definite ideas of what he wanted,” Wolf said. Wolf’s mother was French and his father was Belgian, both of them refugees from the Holocaust and dedicated to music education. In the 1980s, he was drawn to hip-hop, listening to it as people performed on the streets of Manhattan.
“It had the rebelliousness and lyricism of early folk rock,” he said.
In the late ’70s, Wolf started as a solo artist, recording a folk rock album his freshman year of college in Muscle Shoals, Ala. He then became a staff writer at Warner/Chappell Music. While there, he also wrote theme songs, including for the Rodney Dangerfield film “Back to School” and “Karate Kid II.”
In 1989, Wolf and Epic Mazur (his former intern) opened Wolf and Epic. They produced for the rap group Bell Biv Devoe, including its album “Poison,” which sold 3.5 million albums.
In 1998, Wolf started his own company called The Producer’s Lab. Since then, he has written and produced music for some of television’s biggest shows, including: “America’s Next Top Model,” “NCIS,” “The Good Wife,” “Static Shock” and “Fox Sports.”
He also teaches a course called “Music, Media and Culture” at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music; it covers how music related to different art forms and, of course, the evolution of hip-hop.
“Being Jewish has been a deeply engrained part of my life, my parents having escaped Nazi Germany,” Wolf said. “Jewish culture has an emphasis on the mystical music is how you connect with the divine. I didn’t choose music, music chose me.”
Modern Day Rappers
Drake is one of the biggest names in rap. But there are other well-known Jewish performers, such as Mac Miller, Asher Roth and Matisyahu, a former Hasidic Jew whose music often involves religious topics.
Much like Serch, Soul Khan (Noah Weston) gained notoriety through battle rap. His name became recognizable in Brooklyn and his YouTube videos have hundreds of thousands of hits—the lyrics are brutal.
In his battle with fellow rapper QP, he said, “I saw a video of your son. I thought something didn’t look right. You’re the only one under the sun who your son don’t look like.”
Khan started rapping as a hobby at 13 in the late ’90s. He was raised in a secular Jewish household in Los Angeles but was both bar mitzvahed and confirmed. “Judaism affects my outlook on the world—certainly my sense of humor,” Khan said.
When he was a child, his mother would play Paul Robeson records, including songs sung in Yiddish, introducing the idea of crossing cultural boundaries through music.
While he is an established member of the rap community, Khan seems to feel like a guest.
“Hopefully it’s not appropriation on my part because I always want to acknowledge the culture,” he said. “I recognize that rap is an African American art form …”
“Because the American Jewish experience started as much more marginalized, it connected them to other communities,” he added.
Today, Khan no longer battle raps, focusing on his studio work. Since 2010, he has recorded seven albums, including a few songs with Jewish references, like his track “Minyan” on his album “Soul Like Khan.”
“Rabbi Darkside,” born Samuel Sellers, got into rap through ’60s protest music, which he listened to at Jewish summer camp. Darkside transitioned to rap as a teenager, thanks to rap group Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It,” which used as its background the rock legend Lou Reed’s ’70s hit “Walk on the Wild Side.”
In Buffalo, he was one of the only Jews among his friends, who gave him his stage name. As a teen, Darkside spent his bar mitzvah money on a stereo record player. He would listen to it and transcribe lyrics.
“I’m sure in my heart and my subconscious, there is something in my writing influenced by my upbringing,” Darkside said.
Very few of his songs have Jewish themes. From time to time, his music comes with a political message, like his song “Malala,” inspired by 19-year-old female education activist Malala Yousafzai. The lyrics include: “And on Pakistani buses and in schools for every child, in the face of vitriol violence in place of spiteful alliance, there is spiritual highness that can transcend foes and faux.”
He also understands that his Judaism is, in a way, inescapable. He has faced anti-Semitic slurs while on tour in rural Czech Republic. He’s also seen it in his other gig, as a professor at the New School in New York. There he teaches “Hip-Hop Skills and Science,” where students rap at the beginning of every class. Recently, however, swastikas have been drawn on the walls of his students’ dormitories, to him a disturbing development unrelated to rap but still hitting home.
“It’s become an interesting moment for me in terms of my Jewish identity right now,” he says.
Doron Lev, or “Ugly Braine,” was born in Miami to Israeli parents. His mother was Hassidic and taught classes at Hillel before she passed away in 1998. His father lived on a secular kibbutz and currently owns his own auto shop.
“My name was very strange, and I remember feeling like an immigrant,” Lev recalls.
Lev was influenced by hip-hop in the fourth grade, listening to Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” In sixth grade, he started writing lyrics.
But his primary interest was being a drummer, not only in hip-hop but jazz and salsa as well. He started as a rapper while drumming for funk bands, freestyling between songs. Today, he still drums and raps.
Lev recorded the song “Take a Walk in the Desert” with Rabbi Darkside and has performed at the Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theatre in Tel Aviv. He is planning another trip this year to Israel, where he hopes to help achieve peace through music. He knows Palestinian rappers and hopes to collaborate with them.
“I know one man can’t fix [the conflict], but I just want to do my part,” Lev said.
His roommate is an Egyptian rapper. Their fathers fought on opposite sides of the 1967 Six-Day War—and adore their sons’ friendship.
In January, he released his album “Watching Shadows,” featuring Rabbi Darkside.
“No matter how strict or tough my dad was as an Israeli, he always had a sense of humor,” Lev said. “It’s part of who we are. Rap music has that element to it. It doesn’t always have to be funny, but, with Jews, there is always some kind of entertainment element.”