Reflections on Hip Hop

Christopher Wallace

Peter Sherman writes in reminding me that today is the 10th anniversary of the murder of Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious BIG. Here is a piece for the Forward I wrote on the subject published on May 9, 1997. I would note that I wrote it under the influence of one of my great writer friends, the amazing, passionate and gifted Douglas Century.

Too Late to Celebrate the ‘Thug Life’

Two weeks ago I made my way through the crowd of a downtown nightclub, nodding my head to the sounds of Lauryn Hill singing “If I Ruled the World,” and mouthing the words of a Run-DMC old-school classic, “Sucker MCs.” There, ina quiet corner, I found a black-haired man with a trim goatee wearing a baggy shirt. His name was David Mays, the publisher of a hiphop magazine called The Source, and it was his party.

While Mr. Mays was hardly aware of it, we had been students at Harvard together. There, he had launched The Source along with another Jewish
classmate, Jonathan Shecter, who aspired to be a rap artist under the name Big Man on Campus. Nine years later, The Source had rented out the nightclub to showcase its fashion line and had invited hundreds of rap aficionados from the tri-state area to the event.

Seeing Mr. Mays after such a long time, and being one of only a sprinkling of whites at the event, brought to my mind the Jewish relationship
with hiphop, which was mostly a love affair.

The story of hip-hop begins in the street parties of the Bronx in the 1970s — and the Jewish involvement goes back almost that far. In the early
1980s, a New York University undergraduate named Rick Rubin began selling rap records out of his dormitory room. During that same period, a New Yorker called Tom Silverman sold Afrika Bambaattaa records out of the back of his station wagon. A few years later, Mr. Rubin, along with Russell Simmons, helped launch the most successful white rap group of all time — the Beastie Boys, all Jews. One of them, Adam Horovitz, is the son of noted New York playwright Israel Horovitz.

Drawn to rap during their high school and college years, a whole contingent of young Jewish males — and some notable females — began working in the industry as producers, marketers and even a few attorneys.

Messrs. Shecter and Mays, who have since parted ways, typified a certain kind of hip-hop Jewish male. In that era, rap held some promise as a medium that could illuminate race relations in our country. Acts such as KRS-One, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah stressed the betterment of blacks. While rap’s political focus sometimes gave rise to the same pathologies evidenced by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, Jewish advocates of hip-hop could at least argue that the genre had some intrinsic merit.

I certainly thought so at the time. I attended a KRS-One show at a now-defunct Boston nightclub called the Channel and began researching an
article on white kids and rap. In the years that followed, I remained an ardent rap fan, even working for a stint at Mr. Silverman’s Tommy Boy record company. That he was both a proud Jew and a supporter of rap was evident when I overheard him talking about his rabbi’s address during Yom Kippur, in which a Jewish rap group called Blood of Abraham had been one of the subjects.

Just about that same time, rap music began to change. The case of Tupac Amaru Shakur, born to a Black Panther mother while she was in jail, exemplified that transformation. When Shakur first shot into the public eye in the early ’90s, one of his hits was “Brenda’s Baby,” which warned against teenage motherhood. While Shakur had been a hardscrabble youth on both coasts, he could not really be said to be a gangster. He attended Baltimore’s School for the Performing Arts and roomed, for a time, with the actress Jasmine Guy.

By the time Shakur died in Las Vegas, the victim of a hail of bullets, he had spent time in a New York prison on a rape charge and had the words “Thug Life” emblazoned across his chest. The murder of Christopher Wallace, who was known variously as Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G., less than a year later likewise suggested that these men not only sang about a criminal life but lived it. While there was handwringing at the murder of these men — and the AIDS death of NWA founder Easy-E — things in rap only seemed to change for the worse.

Yet as rap focused more and more on violence, Jews remained involved. It was The Source, after all, that discovered Wallace, whose song on his posthumous album is called “Ten Crack Commandments.”

When I asked Mr. Mays about how the medium had grown since his days at Harvard, he spoke with pride about how rap had exploded into pop culture and was a bigger business than ever. I won’t begrudge any businessman the opportunity to earn money, but it seemed that the motivations for being involved in rap had changed. Notwithstanding the work of a handful of artists such as the Fugees, who are dedicated to the plight of the world’s refugees, rap had become a business.

For some Jews, that change signalled a way out. Bill Adler, who as a publicist worked with Def Jam’s Russell Simmons in promoting L.L. Cool J,
Public Enemy and Run-DMC, has left rap to found a spoken word label with artists of all races. He says: “Call it coincidence, but I believe the music
has receded from that high point of conscience and I haven’t regretted not being involved in the music since then.”

Mr. Shecter, Mr. Mays’ old partner, has left the business to create a new men’s magazine. He says he enjoys just being a fan, but still lauds black and Jewish cooperation in the rap business. “Now, it’s the black artist making money and the Jew behind the scenes making money as well. They’re partners.”

With the view of the fashion show blocked and the crowd becoming restless, I decided it was time for me to leave, I walked out into the cool
Spring Street air and didn’t look back.

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3 Responses to “Reflections on Hip Hop”

  1. friend-of-fab-dana Says:

    It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.

    Speaking of the fugees — but what about Lauryn Hill (love her, btw) hating white people?

  2. Evorgleb Says:

    YO Biggie is definately missed. There is a void in Hip Hop that still has not been filled. Over on Highbrid Nation we are celebrating Biggie’s life and encouraging people to stop by and just give thier thoughts on the late veteran. You may want to check it out.

  3. Kita Boo Says:

    Biggie man we miss u here in cali it aint the same with u gone

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