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.