December 2, 2009
Smooth-E’s Jewtronic Music-Making
Eric Schwartz has accomplished a lot in one day. He’s played dreidel with a Lady Gaga impersonator, avoided a meteor shower of mitzvah balls in space, fended off Martians and spent time text messaging in a synagogue — which he refers to as “temple textin’” — all by 6 p.m. There’s an hour to go before production on his new music video, “Honika Electronica,” wraps in Burbank, bringing an 11-hour shoot to a close.
Schwartz is seated under bright lights while a make-up artist applies a sleazy mustache that will transform him into a Jewish uncle who doesn’t like to wear pants, one of four characters he plays in the video. He’s also portrayed his grandmother, Neo from “The Matrix” trilogy and his hip-hop alter ego, Smooth-E, on the set.
“I’ve always been very into pop culture and characters, people that I see and observe and bring to life,” the performer says.
Schwartz and a crew of 15, including a director, a director of photography, wardrobe girls and production assistants, have been at work since 8 a.m. They turned a Burbank store, which rents out production gear and has a small room for shooting, into a fully functional music video set, with a large green screen that Schwartz has been rapping, dancing and moving in front of all day.
But “Honika Electronica” will be more than a music video. It’s also the name of a Dec. 12 Chanukah benefit for The Jewish Federation’s Fed Up With Hunger initiative at which Schwartz will be hosting and performing . Sponsored by JconnectLA, Jewlicious, Brandeis Collegiate Institute, Birthright Next and others, the event will also include music from Diwon, SoulSpeak, DJ Eric Rosen and Cajami at A Cow Jumped Over the Moon in Beverly Hills.
Raised in Thousand Oaks, home videos show Schwartz entertaining from a young age, telling jokes and break dancing. After his bar mitzvah, he used his money to buy turntables so he could DJ. This was against the advice of his parents, who wanted him to save the money for college.
“I felt he was throwing his money away,” father Les Schwartz said. “He was a great student, and his mother and I felt he would be ‘our son, the doctor or lawyer.’ But I also knew that once Eric got an idea in his head he followed through, no matter what the odds.”
Years of DJing and writing parody songs paid off. Schwartz’s Chanukah spoof of the 2003 chart-topping OutKast song, “Hey Ya!,” titled “Hanukkah Hey Ya,” became a widely distributed animated e-card in 2004. Only Schwartz wasn’t involved in production of the video.
A 17-year-old student, Jason Kwon, had found the song, distributed for free on Schwartz’s now-defunct Suburban Homeboy site, downloaded it and tested his Flash skills by creating a simple animated video.
“I can’t remember her name anymore, but some girl I was trying to impress had a link to his song in her AIM profile,” Kwon said. “I enjoyed the song’s one-liners, like ‘oy is yo backwards,’ and thought it would be funny to make something to go along with the song with the very basic tools that I had learned in my animation class.”
The video was widely circulating via e-mail, which is how Schwartz received a copy. He tracked down Kwon, and both now share credit for the piece. The forwarded video went on to be featured on morning talk shows and inspired some California radio stations to play the song.
story continues after the break
Other songs from his 2004 CD, “Kosher Cuts,” included “Crazy Jew,” a parody of OutKast’s “I Like the Way You Move,” and “Lose the Gelt,” a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” In 2005, his Passover-themed “Matzah!” was produced as an animated video by JibJab and debuted on “The Tonight Show.”
But it’s “Hanukkah Hey Ya” that continues to resonate with Smooth-E fans.
Last month, the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh called attention to Chanukah by bringing together more than 150 people on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem for an unannounced choreographed dance, also known as a flash mob. The song they danced to: “Hanukkah Hey Ya.”
“I heard Eric’s song some time ago, and it always stuck out,” said Marvin Casey, who choreographed the dance. “It immediately popped up in my mind as a solution to the problem of there not being any good, modern Jewish-themed songs.”
While his latest album, “Parodies Nuts!” focuses primarily on satirical send-ups of pop and hip-hop songs, including T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It” (“Can’t Afford It”), Down’s “Lean Like a Cholo” (“Lean Like a Gringo”) and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” (“SexyCrack”), Schwartz also continues to record humorous songs about Judaism, including “Crank That Kosher Boy” (after Soulja Boy’s “Crank That [Soulja Boy]”).
“I talk about being Jewish because I think it’s a part of me, I have fun doing it, I like being Jewish,” Schwartz said. “We are a culture that appreciates and celebrates humor.”
In addition to his music videos, Schwartz takes opportunities to skewer pop culture with sketches on his SmootheTV site. In one bit he dresses like Susan Boyle to recreate her popular “Britain’s Got Talent” appearance, only to sing NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton,” and in another he pays a visit to the media camped outside of Nadya Suleman’s home to offer proof that he’s the Octodad.
Recently, he began working with “I’m Yours” singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, to write, direct and co-star in minute-long webisodes to promote Mraz’s latest tour. In each, Schwartz plays Eric, Mraz’s personal assistant, who is too dumb to realize he is being mistreated.
“Eric and I loitered the same open-mic events and would meet up from time to time at each other’s gigs,” said Mraz, who took the time out from his tour in South America to talk with The Journal about Schwartz. “He was always funny. We were all floored by how many punch lines he could pack into one song. He was quick. That’s why I called him up and asked if we could do something together.”
At the moment, however, Schwartz’s focus is on “Honikah Electronica,” his biggest production yet.
As with all his work, he has been the driving creative force behind every step, from inception to finished product, and the budget is even coming out of his own pocket.
Snehal Patel, the video’s director, says he was drawn to working with Schwartz specifically because of how much Schwartz cares.
“He puts in the effort to develop a world for each of his songs. All I have to do is place a camera in his world,” Patel said. “As a collaborator, he’s real easy to work with and always does his homework. He even finishes all his storyboards before he talks to me about a video.”
In a way, “Honikah Electronica” can be looked at as more than a holiday video or the theme for the upcoming charity event. It is also, whether Schwartz realizes it or not, a celebration of what has made his success possible.
“It’s a working relationship between technology and me. But the Internet is just a medium,” Schwartz said. “If it didn’t exist, I think I would find another way to get myself out there. I just want to put out awesome stuff.”
Nefesh B’Nefesh flash mob video