Martha Stewart is not Jewish. In fact, if WASPS ever create some kind of sports league that requires an emblem, they will use a picture of Martha Stewart, probably crocheting something in a backyard in Connecticut. Martha Stewart barely edges out Amar’e Stoudemire as the least Jewish celebrity on the planet. “Why is this guy wasting my time?” you may be asking yourself. “Everyone knows that Martha Stewart isn’t Jewish- am I about to be told that Tony Yayo isn’t Philippino?” Relax. Martha isn’t here to be recklessly connected to hip hop. Martha is part of this conversation simply because Jay-Z thinks she has been bat mitzvahed. I was thirteen when the Michelangelo of Flow redubbed himself “The Martha Stewart who’s far from Jewish” on The Black Album’s “What More Can I Say”. I remember not just being surprised at HOV’s lack of knowledge about the shixa community, but also the more serious implication of the line- why was Jay so eager to announce himself as not Jewish? I loved hip hop. My older cousins loved hip hop, and shared their love with me. Everyone I went to Hebrew school with loved hip hop. Jews loved hip hop. Shouldn’t hip hop love us back?
(Quick exercise: when I say “Jewish rapper”, who’s the first person that comes to mind? Hold on to this- we’ll come back to it)
There was a lot that I hadn’t grasped at thirteen.
First there is the anti-Semitism: Every corner of the industry, from Public Enemy to Raekwon to Jay-Z to the Clipse occasionally hates on the Hebrews. This, for better or for worse, has yet to stop me from supporting some of these artists. I have rationalized this by drawing the line at any rapper who uses slurs outside of his actual music: I’m willing to believe that Jay-Z is just being provocative because his real-world actions don’t reveal even a shade of anti-Semitism, but I could never bring myself to buy a Public Enemy album. There are a lot of flaws with this strategy. Not only does it completely disregard the homophobia, sexism, and racism in hip hop, but it also misses the fact that buying an album indirectly supports and defends the views behind that album’s lyrics. This is the Jewish hip hop head’s dilemma. Only a Jew could find this much guilt in the genre that constantly champions a guilt-free mentality.
However, the central problem for everyone who’s ever listened to The Chronic on the way to the Synagogue isn’t the occasional stereotypical comment- it’s that Jewish hip hop fans don’t have a rapper to call our own. Yes, there are Jewish rappers. This is not what we want. We need someone to come out of the closet wrapped in a Gucci talis, double fisting Maneschevitz, proudly promoting our culture on a record. There were white rappers before Eminem, but Marshall Mathers owned his lack of melanin with a brash intensity, and it earned him not only the attention of white hip hop fans, but the entire industry. Slim Shady took a risk, and it allowed him, along with other artists, to expand the parameters of who could be considered a legitimate MC. The club that used to be exclusively for thugs and bosses now accommodates stoners, dweebs, former Degrassi stars, and a host of other outcasts. Hip hop is still far from the United Nations, but it’s moving in the right direction. So why are we still without an openly Jewish rapper?
The main reason for this is not an easy thing to admit publicly, but unfortunately it has to be discussed here. Jews are not the coolest people on the planet. We are generally not the best dancers or singers, our humor is self-deprecating and quirky, and we have an unmatched propensity for anxiety and guilt (sounds like an awesome rapper!). As if it weren’t painful enough to know that we’re not the hippest people around, the industry makes us constantly aware of this fact. Parody groups like 2 Live Jews and movies like The Hebrew Hammer may seem to mark great progress in terms of blending Jewish and hip hop culture, but in fact it does quite the opposite. The reason these things are funny is because the premise seems so absurd to people: “Jewish guys rapping? That’s hilarious!” My friends and I, in fact, have subconsciously promoted these same ideas. One summer at camp, we decided to take our love of MCing to the next level and have a tournament-style rap battle. We gave ourselves one week to create hip hop alter egos, pick instrumentals, and cypher for practice. The end result was a great success- many of us turned out to be half decent, and the annual battle is a tradition that has lived on long after we left camp. What stands out right now, however, is not the battle itself, but the way in which we named ourselves. I was 20 Scheckel (this was the summer of Get Rich or Die Trying). One of my friends was the Notorious J.E.W, and there were other similarly-themed monikers all over the tournament bracket (although one kid inexplicably named himself “Shitface”. Shockingly, he didn’t win that night). Somehow, we had independently recognized the irony of a bunch of Jewish kids from the suburbs getting together one night to battle each other, and our names reflected our collective sense of not belonging.
Recently I was discussing this article with a fellow Interludes writer. He was very excited about the concept and warmly suggested an angle that celebrated the great strides my people have been making in hip hop. He informed me that Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg’s birthday bash was this week and the party could serve as a great launching point for the story. He sent me the link to the celebration’s promotional flyer, and one thing immediately leapt out at me. Peter Rosenberg (pictured above) is not on the poster. At all. Staring back at me instead were DJ Premier and Pete Rock, the guests of honor and performers at the party. I was somewhat stunned. Putting two other people, albeit hip hop legends, would have been like me putting my two coolest black friends on the invitation for my Bar Mitzvah. Was this a good move? Of course it was. Peter Rosenberg’s appearance on that flyer, no matter what’s around him, makes that party a little less cool. Jews have been universally accepted as executives, DJs, and producers (Scott Storch and the Alchemist are just a few of our treasures), but the crown jewel- the Openly Jewish MC- still eludes us like the Afikoman hidden behind the bookcase.
It’s not as if Jews haven’t had many opportunities for a rapper to truly call our own. The list of missed chances is actually quite long. First there were the Beastie Boys. The three Brooklyn-born rappers could have been a great fit to bring a little chutzpah to the industry: as white guys they already stood out, and were committed to rebellion with both their sound and their content. Sadly, however, the MCs who were “too nice to be mean” and openly voiced their appreciation for porno mags were never fully comfortable letting everyone know that they could eat kugel with the best of them. Plenty of other artists have also been willing to embrace other unique aspects of their identities before their Judaism. Mickey Avalon willingly shares stores of his days as a male prostitute with colorful clientele, but he won’t divulge tales of Shabbat dinner with Aunt Muriel; quirky Berklee-educated rapper Edan raps about everything from the immensity of his defecations to Japanese schoolkids, but you won’t find any cuts of him mentioning his bris. One of the closest brushes with industry recognition came with Bad Boy-affiliated rapper Shyne. A practicing Jew and an MC on the rise, Shyne’s career (and the hopes of temple-goers everywhere) came to a screeching halt after being sentenced to ten years in prison following a nightclub shooting. Shyne was never exactly Biggie, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.
Drake is Jewish (Yes. That’s not a typo). Drake is also rap’s Eeyore- using his melancholy voice and sad eyes to lament even the smallest hangnail. He is groundbreakingly open with his emotions, letting his listeners into the most intimate facets of his life. While his lyrics are rife with self-doubt and tales of failed relationships, very little is spoken of the religion he closely identifies with. Only one album into what appears to be a long and storied career, Drake may be our best bet at this point, but that won’t stop us from convincing ourselves that it won’t happen. A Jew without anxiety is like a beat without a mic.
Remember that word-association exercise from earlier? Raise your hand if you said Asher Roth. Of course you did. Asher Roth is the most Jewish rapper of all time. He is insecure. He has the patented Jewfro. His father is an architect. Go down the list and you’ll find that he fits every possible requirement. He is our Manchurian Candidate. Except Asher Roth isn’t Jewish. Ask any Jewish hip hop fan where he or she was at the moment of discovering this fact, and chances are you will get the kind of detail that most people use when describing the night of the moon landing. I had just copped Seared Foie Gras with Quince and Cranberry, the gem of a mixtape that Asher released this spring. As I bopped to the first track, Ash dropped the line “no religion/ if I did it would be Buddha/ or maybe Hindu…” This had to be a joke. I went to Hebrew school with four kids named Asher Roth. I immediately googled “Asher Roth jewish”, and the overwhelming deluge of links confirming my fears was too much for me to even attempt denial. His father is Jewish, but like the rest of Jewish culture, Mom dictates basically everything, and her Christianity means that Asher Paul Roth is not a member of the tribe. That moment rocked my perspective as a Jewish hip hop fan- something I considered so obvious that I never even thought to question came crashing down in an instant. If you’re having a hard time relating to this anecdote, imagine this: you’ve come to terms years ago with the fact that Santa Claus isn’t real, only to go downstairs on Christmas Eve and see him fall down the chimney, leave some presents, grab a cookie, give you a pound, and hop back in his sleigh.
The “Buddha” line is a tough one to swallow. Not only is Asher not Jewish, there are multiple other religions he would rather associate with. Don’t worry Cleveland- we too were desperate for a savior only to have him spurn us for something cooler. Ours would rather “take his talents” to Asia than Jerusalem (or just anywhere with weed, depending on how you interpret the line) . Asher would have been the ideal MC to break the mold and rock his Judaism with unprecedented pride. Roth has spun all of his aesthetic shortcomings into a confident comfort that will undoubtedly pave the way for a slew of pale, skinny bros who would rather play Beruit than pop Crystal to rock stages and sell records. Asher Roth isn’t just incredibly talented- he’s also refreshingly honest about the life he lives. It’s a shame that there isn’t a yamika under that snap cap. The fact that Asher is a gentile would never affect whether or not I’m a fan of his, though. I have the Jewish parent approach to this issue- I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. Crackers are great, but they don’t quite hit the spot when you were hoping for matza.
I guess in a way this whole mess is our own fault. Our religion doesn’t have a messiah, so why should we get one when it comes to hip hop? This music is one of my greatest loves, and I don’t need a proud Jewish MC to keep it that way, but oy vey would it be nice. Hip hop is becoming an increasingly safer place to be yourself, but the floodgates have yet to open wide enough for a Jew to squeeze through. Maybe it’s not enough to hope the tide picks us up as it rushes by; maybe we need to part the waters. Any chance we can get Moses on a track?