In the Yid-Hop Game, All You Need is Chutzpah
Spark Networks CEO David Siminoff gets down with Chutzpah, the Jewish recording artists dubbed “a cross between Eminem and Woody Allen” by The New York Times. Our favorite “yid-hop” impresarios rap about their mothers, their unique musical niche, and the serious message behind their light-hearted lyrics. Not even an overheating car can stop these guys.
DAVID SIMINOFF: Give us some background, if you will, on how Chutzpah was born and your genre of music.
JEWDAH: This came together almost by accident because I write songs with Master Tav. And we got called in to consult because somebody wanted some Yiddish for a hip-hop song they were doing. And we were like, “what’s that about?” Yiddish in hip-hop? We should be doing that. So then we start writing all this stuff just to make ourselves laugh. We started writing “Tsuris” about our mothers. Over six to eight months, we put together a bunch of tracks. We were like, “Maybe we’ll burn this and give it to the family.” Something for them to laugh at. But Master Tav produces records for a living. He was in a meeting, and they were talking about some other record, and it was getting a little tense because there was a lot of money involved.
MC MESHUGENAH: Oh no, my car’s overheating. For real. I have to pull over. Go ahead, talk amongst yourselves. Oh, boy.
MASTER TAV: I was sitting in a meeting at a record label in Los Angeles, which shall remain nameless. I was trying to pitch an Isaac Hayes album, who I was working with at the time, on a children’s product, and they were going back and forth with me about the budget because they thought it was too much money, and I thought it still wasn’t enough money, and you know, it was Isaac Hayes! It’s Shaft, come on. And as a joke, to lighten up the room, I said, “Hey, you know what? I’ll bring this album somewhere else. You could just sign my Jewish hip-hop group.” And they all laughed. It turns out, long story short, we got an email later that day from the A&R guy saying that if I wasn’t kidding, he’d really like to hear about it because his CEO just financed a new label called Jewish Music Group, which we, of course, are currently on. It’s devoted specifically to Jewish artists speaking about Jewish stuff.
DAVID: What was the genesis of your first album?
MASTER TAV: Jewdah and I had written, arguably, nine or ten tracks already. Given that I’m normally a record producer, we said, “Okay, let’s really do this. We’ll make all these tunes. We’ll master it. We’ll get it done right, and then we’ll give it to our families for Hanukkah.” That was our plan, but once we got the deal and realized that people would actually hear this thing, we rewrote about 70 percent of the record. So… Hey, MC? Can you mute your phone or something?
What we really wanted to do was create an album that was meaningful as opposed to just funny, because this isn’t a novelty thing.MC MESHUGENAH: Yeah, I’m going to have to check out for a little bit. I’ll tune back in. My car has seriously just overheated. I have to do something about it.
MASTER TAV: That’s the best representation of MC Meshugenah I could possibly have given you. That’s pretty much his life right there.
Anyway, once we realized that millions of people could hear this thing, we set about rewriting most of it, because what we really wanted to do was create an album that was meaningful, as opposed to just funny, because this isn’t a novelty thing. We’re not “Two Live Jews” or something like that. Humor is only the way we impart a deeper message. I think when you hear songs like “In The Shtetl,” you kind of get that. And “Mishpuchah,” even though it’s funny, still has an underlying, very authentic, Jewish cultural message to it.
DAVID: What’s the relationship with Debbie Harry [of Blondie]? How did that come about?
MASTER TAV: Well Jewdah, he gets around. Even though he’s lost most of the time, he seems to meet a lot of people. Asking for directions, maybe. So Jewdah knew her from a long time ago. You want to tell that story, Jewdah?
JEWDAH: Yeah, a long time ago – late ’70s – when she was just starting out in New York, I was friends with her because her keyboard player produced a band I was in. So we used to hang out, back in the punk days. Now I’m dating myself. I was just a teenager. I sent her some files. She played them, and she was like, “You know, I think you mean this to be funny, but I think it’s really good.” She started to write these notes for us and said, “You can put this in your liner notes, if you want, in the CD booklet.”
MASTER TAV: I produced a children’s record for Disney called “A World of Happiness,” with a lot of celebrities on it, and we got her [Debbie Harry] to do a duet with Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, who, of course, in the Jewish world is known as Peretz, or DJ Peretz. We did a music video filmed by Gary Oldman that went all over MTV. We’ve all remained in touch with Debbie because she’s not only a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer now, but just a wonderful woman, good friend and, obviously, has terrific musical taste.
DAVID: Minus the poor guy overheating and having to leave the interview, talk about the glamour of your business. Do you guys have groupies now? Who are your biggest fans?
MASTER TAV: Our fan base seems to be predominantly middle-aged women. We discovered this while we were in Aspen for the HBO comedy festival that our film “Chutzpah, This Is?” was in. Ladies from Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana seemed really into us. Missouri and Kansas, too. Ironically, a lot of our fans are non-Jews. I think we bridged this gap of being able to relate to non-Jews, and they say, “Okay, I can understand Jews better through Chutzpah,” and, of course, through the best way, which is humor. We seem to have a lot of groupies in Israel, but I think the film has been this crossover product that’s allowed Gentiles to embrace Judaism a little more. And the third tier of fans is predominantly Jewish. We have this amazing influx of Jewish girls – mostly girls, but boys too – ages ten to thirteen who literally ask us to autograph their sneakers and crazy stuff. Taking pictures of us on their cell phones to use as their wallpaper. That feels really good.
DAVID: Israelis are finding you guys? How does that work?
MASTER TAV: We get requests from Israelis who say, “Please come and play a concert. We don’t have any good hip-hop here,” which is not true, by the way. There’s a lot of good hip-hop in Israel. And in Hong Kong, we just got our music video, “Chanukah’s Da Bomb,” into the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival.
DAVID: Are you guys married? Single? Dating? On JDate?
JEWDAH: MC Meshugenah and I are both single and available, though we have not yet availed ourselves to the services of JDate.
MC MESHUGENAH: I’m so available, it’s not even funny.
DAVID: Oh, you’re back?
MC MESHUGENAH: I’m all over this town like a rat. Oh yeah, I never really left.
MASTER TAV: David, do you want to ask Meshugenah any questions before something happens to him again?
MC MESHUGENAH: You know, right between my car overheating and the dentist. I love it.
MASTER TAV: I’m not single, but I’m willing to be if the right woman comes along.
MC MESHUGENAH: But he acts like it.
MASTER TAV: I do act like it. You know, it’s funny, we can go totally on the record here because I was a good boy when we were in Aspen. Meshugenah said I was distant because all the girly-girls were flocking around, and I shook a lot of hands, a lot of kisses on the cheek, but nothing. I will say this though, and I’m proud to say it – my mother is a proud member of JDate.
DAVID: Maybe we should hook her up with MC Meshugenah.
MC MESHUGENAH: Yeah, well, she would love to. There has been some sexual tension between me and your mom.
MASTER TAV: That’s true, actually. I know you guys are laughing, but I’m about to get nauseous. When we played the Jewish Community Center in Scarsdale, New York, MC Meshugenah stayed over in Larchmont, where we’re from, at our house. My mother and he stayed up talking pretty late. A little too late for me to feel comfortable, if you get my drift.
MC MESHUGENAH: His mom is a psychologist, and she has a home office. When I went into her office and saw that couch, I wanted to sit there and talk to her for days. I loved it.
DAVID: On that same theme, your song “Tsuris” discusses the stereotypical Jewish mother. Is that your mother? How did that song evolve? Walk us through the creative epiphanies.
MASTER TAV: That song is not about my mother, specifically. It’s not about any of our mothers specifically, but it is about all our mothers indirectly. Whether you like it or not, and whether or not it comes off as a stereotype, I’ve never met a Jewish boy whose mother didn’t possess those qualities to some degree. Yes, we tease them. We say it gives us tsuris. But we love them. And we wouldn’t be who we are if it weren’t for them, not just physically but emotionally. I think that the mother in Judaism is the most powerful force. There’s text upon text written about the Jewish mother, and I think our song is probably some of the truest.
JEWDAH: Now that we said all that good stuff, we hope we don’t ever have to advise them on their computers again.
MASTER TAV: Yeah, I literally almost shot myself on a phone call with my mother talking about her computer, because the conversation goes a little bit like this: “So I move the thing on the computer, but nothing showed up.” That’s usually how these conversations start.
DAVID: You’re funny. You could just probably roll a camera on you guys for a while and come up with all kinds of good stuff.
MASTER TAV: Well, that’s exactly how it [the mockumentary] happened.
DAVID: Yeah, you made this mockumentary called “Chutzpah, This Is?”. Can you walk us through the process — how you came up with the idea and then how you shot it?
MASTER TAV: It came off very organically. At the end of the day, we took the modest amount of money we had and said, “You know what? We should just turn on the cameras, go to the studio and see what happens,” and that’s exactly what we did for five days straight. And of course, there are some production pieces, like “Da Lost Tribe.” This is the business of this town [Los Angeles], so you can get a lot of deals. My mother knew the mother of the guy who owned the Avalon, where we got to shoot the music video for basically the cost of security. So we got a huge deal there. And we kept getting deals. I quote George Segal, who said, “God is shining down on us,” because these good things kept happening. When we got pulled over by the cops, we really got pulled over by the cops, and they let us go. All this stuff was really true. There’s some exaggeration, because we’re also trying to make something compelling and entertaining. The only part that was somewhat fabricated was knocking on the doors of celebrity friends of mine. I had to call them and say, “Hey, do you mind if I show up with a camera?” But besides that, it was pretty legit.
DAVID: And so how did that work? You had Vivian Campbell from Def Leppard, Sharon Osborne, Debi Mazar and Gary Oldman.
MASTER TAV: Yeah, they’re friends of mine. Gary Oldman and I play music together. He’s a very talented musician. And he has always wanted to be Jewish. Of course, he’s British, Protestant, the whole thing, but he always thought that being Jewish would be really cool, and he thinks it’s hip to be Jewish. The only thing that ever upset him was that I didn’t credit him in the movie as Harry Goldman. He has this whole story about how he just flipped a couple of the letters in his name and became Gary Oldman so he’d be a famous movie actor, but he really wants to be Harry Goldman. He’s directing our next music video for our second album, and he will be billed as Harry Goldman.
I used to score a lot of film and television, and I met Debi Mazar through that. Vivian Campbell, I produced his solo debut album last year on Sanctuary called “Two Sides of If.” It was an electric blues record. He’s always loved the Jewish hip-hop. There’s always been, I think, a great affinity between the Irish and the Jews. In fact, my wife is Irish. Same thing goes for a lot of people of color and the Jews. Any other kind of oppressed people, we seem to instantly get along with.
With all these people [the celebrity guests], when I’d give them the rough tracks, the demos, everyone thought it was hysterical. They would call me from their cars laughing and grooving. When push came to shove, we wanted famous people in our film. It helps sell it. So I said, “Hey, this is it. If you really love us, be in the movie,” and they all said yes, without hesitation.
I’ve stopped saying we do Jewish hip-hop because I’m not really sure what that means anymore. In my mind, we’re doing hip-hop.
DAVID: How do you see Jewish hip-hop playing out, because it’s a range of very different styles from you guys to Matisyahu and so on. Will this be part of the mainstream music landscape, five to ten years from now?
MASTER TAV: It will become mainstream if we allow it to. And when I say “we,” I mean the artists that are doing it. In this country right now, it’s obviously Matisyahu leading the way. If in the face of adversity, with people going, “Oh, they’re a novelty group,” or “It’s all shtick,” we just keep doing our thing, more and more people will become aware of it and, ideally, buy it. My crystal ball says that in the future, Jewish hip-hop will just be hip-hop. I’ve stopped saying we do Jewish hip-hop because I’m not really sure what that means anymore. In my mind, we’re doing hip-hop. Our second album, in that sense, will be more mainstream. It’s inherently Jewish because we’re writing it, but there’s a lot less overtly Jewish messaging. There’s much more of a unified idea on our second record, with a lot of fun stuff thrown in, but it’s really about this “one tribe” idea. Not just about one Jewish tribe, but a world tribe. And I don’t mean to get too deep, but I really believe that hip-hop is a rarified art form which gives voice to somebody from any culture, about any culture. We all have something to learn from each other.