Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Sweating the Technique: Hip-Hop and the Jewish Problem

Oy! MTV Raps!I am a non-practicing Jew and a practicing hip-hop head. I can't be bothered with the five books of the Torah, but I can wax ecstatic about the 36 chambers of the Wu-Tang until your eardrums pop. (That sound you just heard-right before the popping of your eardrums-was my grandmother's wailing.) While hip-hop has quietly been part of my identity for at least fifteen years, Judaism has partly defined me since birth, even though I turned out to be only a High Holidays Jew. These two unrelated aspects of my life are usually able to coexist peacefully, but every now and then homeostasis is disrupted by the odd anti-Semitic reference in a song. Sure, I could willfully ignore these moments and just continue jamming out, but not without feeling some of that famous Jewish Guilt™. So even if it's only an intellectual exercise, there's no way for me not to explore whether this is indeed something worth getting offended over. You know how Jews like to get all philosophical about this stuff.

The first time I felt slightly insulted by a rap song came courtesy of Sir Mix-a-Lot's massive booty anthem, "Baby Got Back." Seriously. It may seem odd for a man to take exception to lyrics that unapologetically celebrate women as fleshy objects, but there we are. The line that did it was: "Turn around, stick it out, even white boys got to shout." (Even terminally lame, sexually inert white boys.) The second time was during Dave Chappelle's concert movie, Block Party. Politically charged duo Dead Prez have a lyric that goes, "It won't stop ‘til we get the police off the block." During their Block Party performance, though, Dead Prez swapped "police" out for "crackers." As a white end-user, I wasn't truly offended-all they did was remind me of my status as an outsider in hip-hop. Lyrics that invoke Judaism, on the other hand, are not so easily dismissed. These remind me of my status as an outsider in life.

I didn't notice my first J-bomb until about a year after Block Party came out, when Clipse dropped the single, "Wamp Wamp." Clipse are known for songs that paint stark, unglamorous portraits of the Thornton brothers' former vocation: crack-selling. There's a line in "Wamp Wamp" about how when cocaine is frying in Pyrex cookware, "it cools to a tight wad-the Pyrex is Jewish." My reaction was instantaneous and involuntary: I became defensive. I wanted to stammer out, Jimmy Stewart-style, "Now just you wait a second, mister…" and explain that I've been over-tipping for years in a self-reflexive effort to combat this misconception one person at a time. Ultimately I decided to give Clipse the benefit of the doubt. It's highly likely, after all, that they just used this stereotype like a pop culture reference because it fit in the rhyme scheme. That's not much of an excuse, though. Things were getting complicated.

After I had my moment of Clipse-induced hand wringing, I began to notice more examples in newer songs, as well as songs I'd been listening to for years. That is a lot of benefit of the doubt to be giving! Ghostface's heart is probably not filled with hate when he vehemently dismisses the idea of "doing business with the Jews" in the song "After the Smoke is Clear," but it still raises a red flag. What I think (hope) is happening in this lyric is that Ghost is portraying himself as part of a powerful underground organization similar to the Mafia, who famously have a complicated relationship with Jews (see: "The Sopranos.") That interpretation lends the song a cinematic, in-character vibe, which is certainly easier to digest than the idea of Ghostface condoning a boycott of all things Hebrew. And whatever Ghost's Wu partner, Method Man, meant with his early career championing of the "P.L.O. Style" can probably be chalked up to a misguided attempt at worldliness.

Then we have Jay-Z, who inexplicably anoints himself "the Martha Stewart who's far from Jewish." While it's tempting to focus on puzzling out just why Jay-Z would want to align himself with Martha Stewart (similar entrepreneurial instincts?), I'm more concerned with the second half of the lyric, a reference to Jay's benevolence and free-spending ways, with Jewish people serving as the extreme counter-example. Not cool. At other times Jay-Z mentions that he employs only the finest Jewish lawyers and that his "flow is tight like [he] was born Jewish." Now we have a problem. Most perceived anti-Semitic lyrics are possible to write off as flukes, but Jay-Z is arguably the most popular, most respected rapper of all; if it's okay for him, it's okay for everybody. And, no, saying "Mazel Tov" and "L'chaim" in the middle of "Roc Boys" for absolutely no reason does not automatically absolve him.

Again, this phenomenon isn't exactly new. Seminal 80's rapper Rakim, a practicing Muslim, used Jew as a verb in the song "My Melody," and this line somehow slipped in under the radar. In fact the only real uproar that's ever been made publicly due to rappers shooting off on the Hebrew tip was when Public Enemy's Professor Griff gave an interview to the Washington Post in which he claimed that "Jews were responsible for the majority of wickedness in the world." Aside from that glaring transgression, hip-hop and Jews have enjoyed a mostly fruitful history together. Rick Rubin, The Beastie Boys, and Lyor Cohen all helped build the Def Jam label into the conglomerate it became, paving the way for Jay-Z to reach the stratospheric heights he found there later on.

It's been years now since Jay's last reference to Judaica, and so far no trend has materialized. So then, considering the scale of this tiny epidemic, should Jews ultimately be offended? Well, we should probably be annoyed, sure, but that's about it. After all, if this is what passes for mass media prosecution these days then we've truly entered some kind of golden age. Lest we forget, a time once was where blatant, mean-spirited verbal assaults were openly expressed toward Jews on the grab-him-by-the-horns level that Borat was lampooning. Now the charge of stinginess with money seems to be the sole remaining stereotype of Jews deemed acceptable by RIAA standards. While it is kind of insulting coming from the hip-hop world, where conspicuous consumption is practically a religion unto itself, it's no worse than the other cultural stereotypes that frequently pop up in the public sphere.

Hip-hop is not the most inclusive genre ever created, to say the least. Female rappers aside, pretty much every song is narrated from the perspective of a straight male. Women are rarely portrayed as friends, life partners, or business associates; rather they are mostly kept around for decoration and on-demand sex. And while a lot of rappers have been taken to task for using homophobic slurs, the gay community is still an audience who, if not outright antagonized much lately, is otherwise neglected. At least women are needed in some capacity and therefore get the occasional bit of respect-the gay hip-hop fan doesn't even merit a begrudging reach-around ("no homo.") Every couple of years there is an outcry about sexism, or Eminem will say "Hate fags? The answer's 'yes,'" and some people get upset. Overall, though, most listeners seem to accept it or ignore it. The greatest trick that hip-hop ever pulled was being so blatantly offensive while remaining so danceable.

There are a lot of things that I put up with from hip-hop in order to get to the good stuff. For every piece of delightfully dexterous wordplay, there's a gaggle of goofy, mindless choruses. For every world-dominating beat, there are a boatload of small-minded boasts. If I think too hard about what I'm supposed to be getting out of the women- and gay-bashing aspects, though, it makes my brain hurt. I don't quite accept it, and there's no way I can ignore it, so I've sort of just become resigned to it. The best I seem to do is view this sort of thing from an ironic distance ("Hey, that's not how a salt shaker would shake it.") Not very pro-active, I know.

In the end, I guess you have to be willing to have a sense of humor about yourself or you're going to be too busy being offended to do anything else. Take Isaac Hayes, for example. He served as a voice actor on "South Park" for nine seasons of raunchy equal-opportunity offensiveness aimed at every stereotype, religion, and ethnic group on the planet. It was only when the creators of the show applied the same treatment to Scientology (Hayes' personal brand of faith) that the actor got fed up and quit. That's ridiculous. You can't put up with the continual knocking of other groups only to get up in arms when it's your turn to take a few hits. If I can accept up front that hip-hop can be wildly misogynist and homophobic, but suddenly get offended by these relatively minor insults to my own tribe, well, that's just not kosher.

Joe Berkowitz is an assistant editor and freelance writer living in New York City.

45 Comments / Post A Comment

joe (#2,899)

Clipse only got worse on subsequent releases: "Look what them Jews made me," etc.

Was this coincidentally posted on Drake Day with no mention of the man? Or is it a comment on something, perhaps his own avoidance of the topic on his debut album?

Slava (#216)

It's "jewels"

saythatscool (#101)

"Seminal 80's rapper Rakim, a practicing Muslim, used Jew as a verb in the song "My Melody", and this line somehow slipped in under the radar."

Where is the word "jew" used in that song?

scroll_lock (#4,122)

Maybe he heard "no chewin" as "no Jewin"?

saythatscool (#101)

Also Rakim isn't a "practicing Muslim." He's a Five Percenter and traditional Islamic mosques have called that yemple "heretical" for 45 years.

saythatscool (#101)


saythatscool (#101)

@scrolly: Ah! Well I think Joe's love is like bad venison. And bad venison is what I need.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

Not as good as bad clams but it'll have to do.

saythatscool (#101)

Let's pee in the corner,
Let's pee in the spotlight.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

Trying to go all R Kelly on me again? I'm getting my tarp.

saythatscool (#101)

Might as well face it, I'm a dick with a glove.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

Zombie Robert Palmer!

Wrapitup (#975)

A yemple is a pimple on Barbra Streisand.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

I thought it was alluding to the shpilkes in her genecktigazoink.

saythatscool (#101)

@wrappy: Oh I saw that when Babs starred in that porno!

Art Yucko (#1,321)

anyone remember Blood of Abraham?

Moff (#28)

Upside! The presence of anti-Semitic lyrics in popular music proves that those rumors about you guys controlling the media are false.

NicFit (#616)

I wonder how female hip hop fans must feel!

Oh, pobrecito. It's tough being a hip-hop fan, isn't it?

Seriously, though. Don't forget about Cube. He caught a lot of anti-Semitism flack back in the day.

I think that Jay's "Martha Stewart" line could also just be interpreted that he's just not religious in any way. As in, "I sold/sell drugs and commit various types of other sins, so no one would ever think I was Jewish". At any rate, although he's not specifically mentioning Jews as much these days, he did make "Young Forever", which may be the first ever Bar-Mitzvah-slideshow rap song (shout to It's The Real).

Finally, I'm afraid that you really, really just don't get dead prez. And that's a damn shame.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

The Martha Stewart comparison is referring to Jay's love of crafting. He was so proud of the first booty cozy he crocheted for Beyonce.

Moff (#28)

@Reginal: The capitalization of the D and the P in the post is a definite no-no.

@Moff: Yeah, Dead Prez = dead giveaway.

Dave Bry (#422)

I like a post that deals with this stuff. But I think there are a few places where this one misreads lyrics. First, Scroll Lock is right: Rakim says "no CHEWIN'" in "Check Out My Melody." The line refers to his eating the 21 MCs he's lined up to challenge him. He eats them quickly, easily, with no messing around, or even bothering to chew.

Second, when Jay-Z says he's "far from Jewish," he's not referring to the miserly stereotype. He's saying that he was born without the advantages of a white person, or a Jewish person. In the next line, he says he's "far from a Harvard student." And then that "Just had the balls to do it." I mean, I guess one could take offense at his trafficking stereotypes at all. But he wasn't referencing anything nasty there.

Not that there aren't plenty of instances of antisemitism is rap. There are. And from many artists who's work I admire. (Ice Cube's "Get rid of that Jew plain and simple/Put a bullet in his temple…" is one of the worst. And I still love that song.) But if we're going to call this stuff out, we need to be more accurate. Otherwise, we'll just look like we're fulfilling the stereotype of the paranoid Jew. Like when Woody Allen hears someone say, "Did you enjoy your meal" as "JEW enjoy your meal?"

Lastly, in solidarity, I have made similar mistakes myself. I once cited, for a group of non-white colleagues, the funny racism of a lyric from EPMD's "It's My Thing" that I heard as "sweating and things, as if Jew was making love…"
The line is actually, "As if YOU was making love…"

To be fair, Erick Sermon is damn-near incomprehensible sometimes, as awesome as he is.

saythatscool (#101)

See I agree with you Dave. There's plenty of examples of antisemitism in rap, I just don't see any proper ones given by Joe. So while I think he's a good guy for not taking offense at what he perceives to be racist remarks, it's all moot because they're not actually antisemitic lyrics.

iantenna (#5,160)

pre-internet lyrics websites i always thought q-tip was saying "a tribe called quest came to drop jews with ease," despite how little sense that made when you consider the lines that followed.

And Jimmy Hendrix was not exploring bisexuality in "Purple Haze," and Elton John does not have a thing for Tony Danza ..

saythatscool (#101)

"You let a Jew break up my crew." Now that's antisemitism, Mr Heller.

Joe Berkowitz (#5,534)

@DaveBry Yikes @ the Rakim lyric. Could've sworn I'd heard that 'Jewing' was what he definitely said, but now that I think about it, 'chewing' really does make more sense. That definitely sinks that example. Haha @ Woody Allen line–I feel juuuust that lame right about now. Don't know how I missed Ice Cube, but oh well. As for Jay-Z, I'm afraid it's still sterotyping to assume that all white, Jewish babies are born privileged; only reinforces that we control everything and have all of the monies. Thanks for reading, though.

Wrapitup (#975)

What is your stance on Tracy Morgan's seminal, and even, dare I say it, bildungsroman-esque ode to Halakhic ceremonies aka "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" ?

djfreshie (#875)

Boys becoming men
Men becoming woooooooooolves

jamboree (#206)

"Female rappers aside, pretty much every song is narrated from the perspective of a straight male." Well, yeah.

Remember BWP's "Two Minute Brother"? Why has that awesome song been relegated to the dustbin of hip-hop history?

JaguarPaw (#312)

I'm not sure if I'm the only one to catch this, but in the Official Scrabble Dictionary (…anyone?), if you look up "Jew", it is listed not only as the religious noun, but also a VERB. I kid you not. You won't find the verb iteration in 'real' dictionaries, like Webster's, etc.

Didn't you know that Michael Jackson owned the Scrabble empire and put that in there himself?

iplaudius (#1,066)

Maybe they’re just sore about all those JEWISH record produces who JEWED them out of decent royalties? LEARN TO READ, RAPPERS! Or get a JEWISH lawyer?

And what about the francophone rhymers? "Influential French rapper" MC Solaar? Influential mon derriere.

Moff (#28)

Have said it before, but it bears repeating: RAPPING DOESN'T COUNT IN A LANGUAGE WHERE ALL THE WORDS END IN "oeuh."

fairest (#413)


"You should do like we do / stack chips like Hebrews" from that Biggie tune but not said by him…still my fav.

The mention of "Jew Bitches" from the new-ish Rakeown is disturbing.

For the next groundbreaking racial topic on the Awl, I'd like to see southern white and black tensions explored under the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

x^n (#5,476)

Strange then, that in order to come to this rather basic realization, you must make light of it on a public forum. I mean, most of us have learned to take the things that our these called "artists" say, with less than a grain of salt…

BrownRice (#5,566)

I grew up in Parkhill, the same Staten Island neighborhood as Method Man. "P.L.O. style" is a reference to the corner store that members of the Wu used to hang out in front of and smoke/sell weed and kick rhymes. The store was nicknamed P.L.O. because it was owned by Palestinians…nothing more

Tommer Levin (#5,727)

Maybe he want to say that the J of Jay is not for Jew. Seriously, Rappers comes from their society and that one has antisemitism so they just reflect it, they don't have the boundaries of politically correct like whites, I mean if white would say so it will be worrying, they are spoiled at that and that's the whole story.

Get yourself some Klezmer Music …

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