March 4, 2004
Etan G—A Nice Jewish Homeboy
"Yo, welcome to my crib."
It's a greeting one might expect, say, in a hip-hop movie, but is slightly jarring from this friendly, compact boychick wearing a knitted yarmulke in the doorway of his Pico-Robertson apartment.
The boychick is Etan G, who calls himself The Jewish Rapper and whose CD, "South Side of the Synagogue," features songs such as "Yo Yo Yarmulke" and "Hava Na Wha?" Even so, it's startling when he ushers a visitor into a living room that appears to be decorated by the set dressers from both "Yentl" and "Shaft."
Across from the Shabbos candlesticks is a chocolate-colored velvet couch draped with fluffy white furs. There's a "davening station" heaped with tallitot, tefillin and yarmulkes knitted by Etan's "honeybabies ... my girls," the 30ish G says. There's the "pimpass" outfit he wore to the Grammys (rust bell bottoms, Navy polyester shirt) where he refrained from eating the non-kosher food.
"While I'm an observant Jew, I'm definitely the coolest pimp out there, ah-ite," he says, using a hipster term for all right. "I'm the man who brings the house down."
G plans to do just that in a Chabad of Irvine Purim concert March 6, when he'll rap, breakdance and sing backup vocals with Shlock Rock, a band he's been performing with since he was a teenager. The show will include tunes from Shlock's 23 albums, such as the original rap song, "Be Good, Be Cool, Be Jewish."
G and Shlock's Lenny Solomon -- a kind of Jewish Weird Al Yankovic -- are a study in contrasts. The earnest, 43-year-old Solomon looks like exactly what he is: a nice Jewish ex-accountant from Queens, "white-bread Orthodox," as he puts it. Yet the singer and keyboardist has achieved acclaim in Jewish circles for clever parodies of pop hits such as The Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" ("Help Me Rambam") and the Village People's "Macho Man" ("Matza Man"). He's also released CDs of original and children's music and says his "whole being is devoted to spreading Jewish identity."
G, meanwhile, is flashy, garrulous, extroverted, a natural schmoozer and storyteller. He colorfully describes appearing on the Howard Stern show, prompting the shock jock to joke, "I can see why Jews aren't in the rap business."
In 2002, Hits magazine lauded G for helping to expand "the rise of Hebe-Hop" and "the notion of ethnic flava originally essayed by the likes of the Beastie Boys and M.O.T."
But in person, G seems more focused on presenting the kind of cocky, macho image proffered by mainstream rappers such as Dr. Dre. Like that artist, he plays down his married status, citing his "girls," until a reporter opens a photo album and sees a beaming G in his wedding kittel. The busted G blushes, laughs and politely requests that this detail, and his impending fatherhood, is omitted from the article. (Sorry, Etan.)
Unlike Solomon, he's hoping to cross over into the mainstream music business.
Despite their differences, the rapper and the shlocker have co-written songs and toured the Jewish circuit together, at times in beat-up cars crowded with musicians and equipment. They've eaten whatever kosher food they could find on the road: "Sometimes a meal would be chocolate and potato chips from 7-11," Solomon recalls. "But we never compromised. It was always the letter of the law."
Their music also shares a message: "It's Be Good, Be Cool, Be Jewish," Solomon says.
While G's "crib" is in the Jewish hood of Pico-Robertson, Solomon's is in Beit Shemesh, Israel, where the Zionist musician relocated in 1996. After a band rehearsal late one Tuesday night, he spoke to The Journal by phone to describe the roots of his shlock 'n' roll.
The Jewish part is genetic, he says. He's descended from generations of cantors and grew up listening to his father, who was also an IRS agent, sing the signature pieces of famed chantors such as Moshe Koussevitzky. Solomon discovered the Beatles and Billy Joel courtesy of his friends; at 21, he formed his own Jewish rock group.
Although he majored in accounting as a practical measure at Queens College, Solomon had given that up by the time his band, Shlock Rock, and released a 1986 album of parodies composed for youth conventions.
It was behind the bandstand of a National Conference of Synagogue Youth concert in Baltimore that he met the then-13-year-old Etan G (né Goldman) in the early 1980s. The energetic teen seemed to have his boom box, a bar mitzvah gift, permanently glued to his shoulder.
"We'd be onstage performing and Etan would be down on the ground, breakdancing," Solomon recalls. "Gradually, he became part of the band."
Shlock's 1987 "Purim Torah" album features two parodies penned by the 15-year-old Etan, including a Purim spoof of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" called "Achashverosh."
As incense wafts in his bright yellow living room, G reflects that Shlock gave him "a forum, a place to fit in. He had felt himself to be a genetic "fluke" in his family of doctors, accountants, and Ivy League graduates. And he hadn't felt particularly welcome at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, where he was frequently marched to the principal's office for stunts such as wearing fake tzizit and davening with a "Grease" movie book hidden in his siddur.
"The teachers were always, 'You need to do this my way,' but their way was not my way," says G, who now has a master's in education from Loyola Marymount.
After the first of several suspensions from yeshiva, the sixth-grade G landed in a predominantly African American public school where he discovered rhythm and blues. He began drawing graffiti art, listening to musicians such as Grandmaster Flash and practicing his own rap skills with Shlock Rock. He says he connected with black music because of the rhythm, the storytelling and the "underdog mentality."
But not everyone connected with G. At a party several years ago, a guest scoffed, "Who is this idiot and where does he think he's from, the south side of the synagogue?" G recalls.
The Jewish rapper defiantly turned the insult into his 2002 album, in which the titular shul represents a fictitious place where iconoclasts like himself fit in.
At times he's still dissed, he says -- not by blacks, but by Jews who insist a Jewish rapper "isn't legit."
Solomon, who's faced criticism that Shlock's parodies are sacrilegious, disagrees. "Jews have always borrowed from their musical environment," he says. "If a song has a Jewish message, it's Jewish."
As an interview winds down in Pico-Robertson late one afternoon, G describes his next album, "Bringing Down the House," which is "about the party" but also about the legendary Third Temple.
"They say [it's] gonna come down from the heavens, and a brother like me has the ability to assist in that bringing down," he says.
He sounds even more incongruous while extending his arms for a good-bye hug in his mezzuzahed doorway.
"Gimme some love," he says. "Everybody's gotta give a brothah love."
Shlock Rock, with Etan G, will appear Sat., March 6, 7:30 p.m. at the Lake View Senior Center, 20 Lake Road, Irvine. For information and tickets, $18, call (949) 786-5000.