Two Funky White Boys: Judging 3rd Bass by the Standards of the Street
January 9, 1990
WHEN I FIRST heard the opening bars of “Steppin’ to the A.M.” on Channel 31’s Video Music Box a few weeks ago, I thought soul brother numero uno had set up a studio in the joint, where his soul is currently on ice. The brazenly pumped-up bass in conjunction with polyrhythmic traps and cymbals caught my ear, because I’ve been down with James Brown ever since I used to check him out for a dollar a dance at the Royal Palm Auditorium in Jacksonville, Florida, back in the mid-’50s. He was raggedy as a mango seed, dancing his ass off and laying down the laws of fundamental funk followed by everybody from Parliament to Prince to the hard-school rappers. I was chillin out at my writing table trying to make my game, so I spaced on the video for a while. But when I finally looked up to see what was happening, there were two funky white boys.
My first impulse was to brace myself for another white-folks parody à la Blondie’s “Rapture,” with its man from Mars eating cars, or the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right (To Party).” But these dudes were dead up in the groove. MC Serch, with “3rd Bass” carved in the back of his fresh fade haircut, quickly started stepping while Prime Minister Pete Nice sat in a big wooden chair chillin, smoking a big cigar and looking gangsterish as a muthafucka with a fly white girl standing by his right side. They had a black DJ and several black dancers. Later, Serch told me they have already been given some fatherly advice by industry bigwigs: “Get rid of the blacks in the act.” Which he assured me they weren’t down with.
The black dancers set the standard for Serch’s performance, which was remarkable for a Euro-American (most are embarrassingly awkward on the floor). There was none of the mechanical, stiffly executed choreography of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or Deney Terrio on Dance Fever, both of which were laughable to African Americans, the prime sources of American dance crazes from the cakewalk and the turkey trot to the jitterbug and the twist to the Roger Rabbit and the cabbage patch. MC Serch’s dancing is improvised movement that proceeds from a basic step and goes with the flow, blending with the rhythm in a style characteristic of what Albert Murray calls the “blues idiom dancer.” Watching MC Serch strut his stuff to the unfettered funk of the rhythm track on “Steppin’ to the A.M.” — he has some patented moves, too — I knew they were committed to observing the performance values and cultural motifs of the genre. In the African-American community, it is a disgrace to be awkward on the dance floor. And the development of a personal style is fundamental to the art of social dancing.
A week later I was down with an advance tape of 3rd Bass’s debut The Cactus Album, which proved equally fresh. Produced by Nice and Serch, in collaboration with host of others including Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee, its pastiche ranges from Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Little Rascals theme to JFK’s inaugural address and Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First.” The producers demonstrate their mastery of sampling on “Sons of 3rd Bass,” superimposing the leisurely horn lines from BS & T’s “Spinning Wheel” over an uptempo hip-hop rhythm, fading them in and out at intervals that both complement and (especially in the timing of the trombone glissando that punctuates the horn statement) mock the lyric. The piano part of “The Gas Face” — taken from Aretha’s “Think” and sounding like Bobby Timmons’s hard-bop classic “This Here” — fits as if it were written for the tune.
Over 20 tracks, Serch and Nice spin out a panoply of imaginatively crafted images and ideas — sometimes witty, sometimes didactic, sometimes irreverent, sometimes narcissistic, all poignantly expressed in the rhythm and rhyme of the streets. On occasion, their use of extended metaphor and multileveled, esoteric allusion recalls modern poetry. But what really kicks the verse and makes the record happen is the groove. I have my own fail-safe method of determining whether a rhythm is truly funky — if it compels me to tune up my conga drums and jam with the tracks. When I heard “Product of the Environment,” I just couldn’t help myself, because like Chuck Chillout told us, “The rhythm is the master, I am just a slave.”
There’s a three-pronged tradition among white musicians who’ve wanted to perform in the black idiom. Some sought to “improve” it: Paul Whiteman’s “symphonic jazz,” or Dave Brubeck’s “third stream.” Others were basically parodists, from white blackface minstrels through the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to the Beastie Boys. But others have immersed themselves in the culture, sincerely endeavoring to observe the performance values promulgated by black musicians themselves; among the most musically successful of these acolytes are the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Benny Goodman, Eric Clapton, and now 3rd Bass.
Unfortunately, however, it is the parodic tradition in which African-American usages are appropriated and distorted rather than honored and absorbed, that has done most to shape the public perception of black Americans. Many whites still believe that African-American culture is not rich and complex enough nor black people sufficiently inventive to produce artifacts worthy of emulation and celebration. This attitude lies at the root of the attraction-repulsion syndrome that gave rise to the most popular form of American entertainment for over half a century — minstrelsy, an arena where the Sambo image of Afro-American personality held sway. As we are told in the introduction to Joseph Boskin’s Sambo: The Rise and Fall of an American Jester, “Why this came to pass is bound up with white perceptions of the black male as a laborer possessing a beguiling style. Whites were fascinated by black movement: the gait, music, language and especially the laugh.” And Baskin himself tells us, “The American Sambo lacked certain qualities ascribed to the [European] Fool.… While both initiated and received laughter, the intent of their humor was quite distinct: the Jester was accorded the beauty of wisdom, Sambo accorded the follies of foolishness.”
The Sambo caricature existed before it was institutionalized in minstrelsy and has survived minstrelsy’s extinction. Manifested as Mammy, Uncle, Buck, High-Yaller Gal, Zip Coon, and Jim Dandy, he persists today in an iconography of racial stereotypes that color the way millions of white folks view African Americans — Avery Brooks is Buck, Jesse Jackson Jim Dandy, Oprah Winfrey Mammy. And it underlies the decision of white pop pundits and consumers to elevate Elvis Presley over Chuck Berry and the Beastie Boys over Run-D.M.C.
But MC Serch and Pete Nice want none of that. At 22, they’ve been involved in rap for half their lives, and they’ve made it clear, by word and deed, that they don’t want to be “perpetrators” — pampered white pretenders perpetrating a fraud. 3rd Bass want to jump out there with the real kids on the block and be judged by the standards set at the source, the hip street culture of urban black Americans. On the face of it they seem unlikely prospects for success. MC Serch, whose proper name is Michael Berrin, is the son of a former stockbroker and a trained opera singer. And Prime Minister Pete Nice, whose given name is Peter Nash, graduated magna cum laude in English from Columbia in 1989, having turned down an appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Yet, these two pilgrims from the white middle class have managed to traverse the great cultural divide. And they did it by immersing themselves in the def black urban milieu in which the rhythmic rhymes of rap were created.
MC SERCH GREW UP in Far Rockaway. “I was living a double life. I’d go to shul, then I’d hang out with my boys in the projects ’cause that’s where the parties were. I’d hang out in 17th Street Houses, Red Fern, Edgemere, Hammel Houses. See, in my neighborhood, like there was a railroad track. To the left of the railroad track was the Jewish orthodox neighborhood where my parents lived and to the right of the track was where all the brothers were. There was a place called the Latin Lounge. And I used to try to slip in when I was 13 years old.” Serch spent so much time on the “wrong” side of the tracks that he was even cool with the Five Percenters, a mystical order founded by a former member of the Nation of Islam that retains some NOI theology. Based among black New York youth, it is a very in-group thing, as secretive as the Mafia. Whites very rarely gain the confidence of its members. But Serch says he got to know many of them well. “We used to hang out around the way. They never allowed me to attend the parliaments where they read from the books of life, so I could never knowledge them. But I was cool on a quiet tip around the way. I did pretty good for somebody who is supposed to be the devil.” Serch identifies with the Five Percenters to the extent that he sympathizes with some of their nationalist goals. But while hanging out gave him a feel for Afro-American street culture, it was in the lunch room at the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music and the Arts that he perfected his rap. “The lunchroom at Music and Art was famous, we all used to hang out there. The Kangol crew started there. Slick Rick, Dana Dane, Lance Omega, and other rappers started there.”
Pete’s father is a high school basketball coach in the city. Pete was often the ballboy for his father’s teams and grew up to become a varsity player at Columbia. He remembers his introduction to rap in the locker rooms where the black players blasted their boomboxes. But it was through the black friends he made while attending integrated schools and hanging out in the Brooklyn playgrounds, sharpening his basketball game, that Pete got the inside track on the rap scene. “I was like in an all-white grammar school in Floral Park in Queens, around Belmont Park. Then I went to junior high in South Floral Park, which was like a weird paradox because South Floral Park was all black. But it was an integrated school, half white and half black. I used to play ball and that’s where I started writing rhymes. Then I went to high school at Bishop Ford in Brooklyn, that’s where my father taught. There we had the same thing in the lunchrooms that Serch had at Music and Art, it was on the tip. That’s when I met this guy Jazzy who was in a group called Whistle. I learned from them and I learned more from playing ball in the parks.”
By the time Pete Nice arrived at Columbia in 1985, he was deep into the hip-hop world. “Some of my best friends, like this kid Keeway and Buddha, they lived in East Flatbush and Bed Stuy and I used to go around and hang out in their neighborhoods all the time. I used to spend whole summers in Bed Stuy just rhyming with my man. A lotta people thought I was crazy going into Bed Stuy by myself all the time, even some black people. ‘Cause you don’t see white people hanging out, or even walking down the street on Decatur or, like, Kingston. I used to havta go through a lot of shit just being there. I had to battle other kids with my boys just to get respect. I got stuck up a couple of times too.”
When Pete Nice went to Columbia he took the streets of Brooklyn with him, hosting the first and only rap show on WKCR in the summer of 1986. While he received a solid education (with a Eurocentric bias, of course), Columbia disappointed him. His show was yanked after one summer because “they said I was bringing too many black hoodlums to the campus. See, I was inviting rappers into the studio. I concentrated on what were then underground acts. I was one of the first DJs to play Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy.” Pete also found some of his fellow students a little strange. “A lotta the students at Columbia were kinda like whitebread, I just wasn’t down with them. They didn’t really know shit about New York City. These kids come from places like Kansas and their parents have money so they think they can come here and run shit. They had no respect for the people in the community.” When I asked him about dating on campus he just waved his hand and proclaimed, “Columbia girls are wack.”
But Pete’s greatest disillusionment came in an encounter with one of his professors, a person Pete greatly admired. He describes him as “a world-renowned scholar who speaks eight languages and is such a genius that he can’t remember to do simple things like turn out the lights or take his key outta the door. A really incredible character. I developed quite a rapport with him and when we decided to do this video ‘Gas Face,’ I wanted to get him to do the introduction and throw around a lot of literary terms relating to the gas face. I thought it would be something pretty positive. When I asked him at first he was down to do it, but when he found out we were shooting the video in Washington Heights, in front of the Audubon Ballroom, all of a sudden he goes ‘Oooh, all the way up there, I don’t know if I can go up there. All the homeless are up there. That’s a black neighborhood, the hoodlums are up there.’ So I says, ‘Yo. what’s up? You only live in these books?’ You see, he taught the picaresque novel, the Spanish tradition of marginal characters on the outskirts of the city. It was basically like a modern-day ghetto with picarones, thieves, tricksters, things I could relate to from living in the city. He always told us we should learn about everything around us, but in the end he was intimidated by the whole scene and dissed us on the project. I just decided he was a fraud who lived vicariously through books, then retreated to his office and was unable to deal with the real world around him. I decided as much as you could learn from a school like Columbia, it still left something to be desired.”
THIS OPEN, ECLECTIC attitude toward knowledge was essential to Pete and Serch’s quest to master the rap idiom. In fact, that’s how Serch got his street handle. “Since they couldn’t give me a righteous name, with me being white, my boys around the way, the Gods, started calling me Serch, for knowledge, trying to understand the culture.” It was a combination of inquiring minds and humility in the face of black tradition that has enabled 3rd Bass to achieve their mastery of rap.
Rap is a quintessentially black male art that goes back to the forms cited by Bernard Bell in his study of the Afro-American novel: “Through the ritual of such verbal contests as toasts, sounding, signifying, and playing the dozens, young blacks in the cities, like their forefathers in rural towns, who had used storytelling or ‘lying,’ learn to sublimate their white-provoked feelings of aggression to achieve mastery of words and their world.” Some of the rhymes me and my boys were kicking on street corners in the St. Augustine of the 1950s have much in common with the lyrics rappers are making grand theft dough for exciting on records now. Bite this, L.L. Cool J:
I was born in a barrel of butcher knives
And they were welded down with .45s
I’ll eat the meat and bury the bone
Then put a sapsucker outta his home
I’ll eat the bone and bury the meat
Then run his whole family out in the streets
Brahma bulls have charged me and never pierced my hide
Cobra snakes have bit me then crawled the fuck off and died
’cause I’m bad
At last count I could recite 20 stanzas of that panegyric to machismo. We had rhymes for every kind of topic, from the Titanic to the signifying monkey. Some of them were just for fun and others conferred true wisdom. And if we’d set them to a dance beat we would have had something akin to rap. It is this vibrant oral heritage, not jazz’s instrumental tradition, from which rap flows. In Bell’s phrase, cultures like that of African Americans, in which speech competes with print, are “residually oral”: “basically aural, functional, collective, and direct. Like oral cultures, they stress performances, mnemonics, and improvisational skills.” It was this heritage that enabled Jesse Jackson to reach such levels of campaign oratory that Richard Nixon could designate him “poetry” and Dukakis a “word processor.”
Traditionally, the prime source of dynamic Afro-American verbal presentations has been the church, inspiration for so much black literature. Describing the protagonist of her novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “I have tried to represent a Negro preacher who is neither funny nor an imitation Puritan ram-rod in pants. Just the human being and poet that he must be to succeed in a Negro pulpit. I do not speak of those among us who have been tampered with and consequently have gone Presbyterian or Episcopal. I mean the common run of us who love magnificence, beauty, poetry and color so much that there can never be too much of it.” So it’s no accident that rap’s greatest appeal has been to urban youth who are alienated from the church.
Nor is it coincidental that it arose when black pop was pervaded by the superficial escapism of the affluent adults who produced the music. Rap first responded to Dr. Funkenstein’s call to rescue dance music from the disco blahs, and then, beginning with Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” began to speak to the violence, crime, drugs, and poverty inner-city youth saw every day. It’s the verbal component of the “wildstyle” movement that also included graffiti and break-dancing, the ritualized challenge dance in which urban street warriors substituted beauty for carnage, nonviolently exorcising macho aggressions exacerbated by the material conditions under which they lived. Whatever one’s reservations about its intellectual sophistication and poetic reach, it’s a refreshing triumph of the human spirit compared to the nihilistic metal and hard rock chosen by so many more affluent white kids.
When an artistic movement is a conscious development in which creative agents deliberately set out to produce a new art, its reason for being and even locus of origin can be pinpointed. Rising out of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, Dada responded to the barbarism of World War I; created in Minton’s Playhouse in the early ’4os, bebop rebelled against the constrictions of dance band performance. But wildstyle, like the Italian Renaissance, was an unconscious movement in which individual artists responded to the social, spiritual, political, and economic stimuli of the time, with no sense of themselves as a purposeful collectivity. Obviously, this comparison isn’t meant to comment on the relative merits of the two movements, only on certain parallels in developmental logic. Exposed to so many of the same stimuli as the wildstyle originators, MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice were subject to the same logic.
Despite persistent arguments to the contrary, all humanity is one species, and all people have the potential to play past difference in race, ethnicity, and class, grasping the universally human elements present in all legitimate cultural artifacts: folk art or fine art, high or low verse. The intoxicating power of black rhythm and rhyme held such fascination for Serch and Pete that they were willing to risk life and limb in order to study it at the source. They even signed with Russell Simmons’s black-owned Def Jam label, thus assuring that African Americans will profit from white performance of their music rather than the other way around. In response to those who would question his legitimacy, Serch asks, “What more does anyone want from me to prove I respect black culture?”
ONE OF THE ENDURING mysteries about human character is what prompts some people to choose creative and performance art as a vocation. But, given the hazards of the game, one thing is obvious: they’ve got to do it or die. And it seems the more they get used to it, the more they want to do it. Saint Thomas Aquinas thought of ecstasy as a personal experience with divine forces; and I believe that’s exactly what happens in the passion of performance. (I know the first time I played congas with Mongo Santamaria’s band it was a helluva mindfuck.) It is a euphoric sensation and those who are capable of experiencing it will do almost anything to let that feeling flow. True artists will willingly suffer physical and mental torture, study for years in poverty, and practice for thousands of hours in solitude to perfect their craft on the faith that one day there will be an audience. Sometimes performance artists are even willing to alter their cultural identity in order to master the nuances of a genre and gain access to the esoteric wisdom of a foreign idiom. That’s why Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Japanese maestro Seiji Ozawa, Afro-Americans like pianist André Watts, and Met diva Jessye Norman all walk, talk, think, and act as if they were Europeans. Their intellectual and spiritual investment in Western concert music was of such a magnitude that they became cultural mulattos. (Wynton Marsalis was saved by jazz.)
The commitment MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice have made to the modern African-American urban folk art of rap is on that same level of intensity. You can hear it in their rap. On The Cactus Album, “Product of the Environment” tells us, “In the heart of the city you was born and bred/You grew up smart, or you wound up dead/Things moved fast but you knew the scoop/And your savior was a rhyme and a beat in a rap group/A modern day production of the city street/You said I didn’t have it that I couldn’t compete/But the sleeper did sleep, so the sleeper shoulda woke up/Now you’re in my sight, the budda-sense you smoke up/That’s the element you carry your rhymes on/But that style rhyme won’t let you live long/’Cause a strong song to you is what I sent/’Cause I’m a product of the environment.”
The voices in “Product of the Environment” are both def and smart, wicked and wise. It is a voice that extols the virtue of rap as a genre, but repudiates the voices that often pollute its milieu. Over the course of the album, they dis not just drugs, but also ostentatious materialism and even (in a few subtle references) Professor Griff. Another verse recounts the risks they took to learn their art in the forum of the streets, the only academies with a pedagogy sufficiently def to grant a degree in rap: “On the streets of Far Rockaway Queens/Sea Gurt Boulevard, Beach 17/Red Fern Houses where no MC would ever go/Is where I did my very first show/Had the crowd and the rhymes goin’ I never fess/And my reward was almost a bullet in my chest/And on that stage is where I first learned/Stick out my chest or be a kid and get burned/You’re so foolish but I think you knew this/That on the microphone punk I can do this/And doin’ this is what life meant ’cause I’m a product of the environment.”
IN THEIR HONEST to God love for African-American cultural style, Serch and Pete Nice conjure up the memory of the late jazz clarinetist and diarist, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. And, though they had never heard of Mezz before I told them about him, Pete and Serch are his spiritual descendants. A tough Chicago Jew who hung around with gangsters in his youth and knew Al Capone personally, Mezz first heard black music while doing time in a Pontiac, Michigan, prison in 1913: “During those months I got me a solid dose of the colored man’s gift for keeping the life and spirit in him while he tells of his troubles in music. I heard the blues for the first time, sung in slow mournful chants, morning, noon and night.… By the time I reached home, I knew that I was going to spend all of my time from then on sticking close to negroes. They were my kind of people. And I was going to learn their music and play it for the rest of my days. I was going to be a musician, a Negro musician, hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can.”
Mezz Mezzrow is remembered by many black musicians as a hip white dude who could play the clarinet with soul and always had the killer herb. At one point during the ’30s, musicians used to call any dynamite smoke, “the real mezz.” Rumor has it that he supplied a consistently high quality of cannabis sativa, that blessed sacrament that — by his own admission — was the soul food that inspired many lyrical lines of sonic poetry from the bell of Pops Armstrong’s trumpet.
Obviously, if he had the thriller weed, Mezz was everybody’s main man. When I first met Pete and Serch they were filming the video for “The Gas Face” at a midtown studio. Daddy-O from Stetsasonic, Kid ’n’ Play, Oran “Juice” Jones, and Flavor-Flav from Public Enemy were all down. I studied the social interaction between 3rd Bass and this crew with the analytical perspective of a trained observer of human behavior and the jaundiced eye of a well-schooled skeptic on matters of race and culture.
It didn’t take long lo see that Pete and Serch were in their element. They were as comfortable in this crowd as sharks in the sea, for both are products of their environment. The vibe between all the rappers was warm and fraternal and, as might be expected, the atmosphere was electric with the fresh repartee of rappers sounding on each other, the sound of people who love the sound of spoken language. In response to those who oppose their right to rap, or question their decision to be def, 3rd Bass offer these “Wordz of Wizdom” on the album. “Gettin’ up is settin’ up just for a payday/The minister sinister ‘I ain’t no devil’/Not a snake slitherin’ scoundrel, Sam level this/Track to smack the smile off the doubters/The brother another MC who’s about/Frontin like ya buntin deceiving the delinquent/Rap is on track bustin out a medium/For those oppose who manifest a dis/Yo Pete, tell ’em manifest this.”
Shortly after the murder of Yusuf Hawkins by the Bensonhurst barbarians, MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice appeared at the Apollo Theater, that world famous incubator of soul. They dedicated their performance to the Hawkins family as a symbol of solidarity with the black community’s struggle against racism. When they got down with “Steppin’ to the A.M.,” the audience received them warmly. For 3rd Bass this was a great moment, a career high point. When Serch described the experience of performing on the Apollo stage before a black audience, it reminded me of Muslims I’d heard describing their pilgrimage to Mecca. This is the audience by which they choose to be judged. Unlike the Beastie Boys, whom Pete and Serch call “perpetrators — complete frauds,” 3rd Bass are not some poot-butt white plagiarizers. They are the real deal. Their importance as rap innovators remains to be seen, although the combination of Serch’s def street perspective and Pete Nice’s knowledge of the formal devices of poetic expression has groundbreaking potential. But they seem certain to become a cultural conduit, a pivotal group in the spread of the authentic black aesthetic among whites. Very soon, I predict these boys are going to be living large.