Born Michael Serrin c. 1967 in New York, NY. Education: Attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts. Joined group 3rd Bass, signed with Def Jam Records, and released debut, The Cactus Album, 1989; released solo album Return of the Product, Def Jam/Columbia, 1992; coordinated soundtrack for film Zebrahead, 1992; co-founded production company Serchlite Productions. Addresses: Record company-- Columbia Records, 666 Fifth Ave., P.O. Box 4455, New York, NY 10101-4455. Fan club-- MC Serch Fan Club, FDR Station, P.O. Box 685, New York, NY 10150-0685.
"With his elaborate metaphors, copyrighted slang, taunting of other rappers and semiautomatic lip," Rob Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone wrote in 1992, "MC Serch may have the biggest mouth in hip-hop." As a white rapper committed to hip-hop legitimacy, MC Serch has had to fight for his "props," or respect, throughout his career. Hip-hop fans first encountered his short-haired, bespectacled visage when Serch's group 3rd Bass broke through in the late 1980s; described as the "comedian" of the group by Rolling Stone, he spent almost as much time justifying his presence as he did dropping clever, allusive rhymes. After a crossover hit single making fun of another high-profile white rapper, however, 3rd Bass split up and Serch released a solo album. It looked for a while as if he would have to begin making the case for himself all over again--this time as a legitimate solo rapper--but Serch revealed a confident persona. Indeed, even critics who were lukewarm about his solo debut asserted that Serch had been the strongest element of 3rd Bass. And he carried over from the group a passionate commitment not only to rap but to the community that supports it. "If you really love the music," he told Errol Nazareth of the Toronto Sun, "then you have to love hip-hop culture and black culture."
Before adopting his hip-hop sobriquet, MC Serch was Michael Serrin, born in the late 1960s and raised in New York City. He was a Jewish kid from the affluent side of the tracks who led what he called a "double life," as he told Playthell Benjamin of the Village Voice: "To the left of the railroad tracks 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." It was while hanging out in the 'hood and attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts that Serch developed his rap skills. As for his new name, he told Benjamin, "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."
Soon he was a staple on the city's club scene; his association with influential white rapper Tony D--whose record at the time was Serch's favorite--led to an early single. "I put a record out on Warlock called 'Melissa,' which was probably the biggest Frisbee to ever be made," he noted derisively to The Bomb. "But the thing that got me over was I'd go to do shows and it wasn't the record getting me over; it was my dance steps and people seeing a white boy doing the Whop and being in the LQ [Latin Quarters]." As Serch told the Toronto Sun' s Nazareth, "I never felt different in those clubs. I used to get chased out of Harlem World 'cause I was a little kid, but when I hung out at the LQ, man, that was home. " He and Tony D then decided to form a record label, Idlers. Although the new label released some of Serch's material and jams by fellow rap upstarts the Jungle Brothers, he wasn't happy there and decided to move on.
Serch was paired with rapper Peter Nash--a cigar-chomping English major from Columbia University who rechristened himself Prime Minister Pete Nice--by producer Sam Sever, with whom Serch had been working on a demo. With the addition of DJ Richie Rich, the only black member of the group, they became 3rd Bass and were signed by Def Jam records. The trio released their debut, The Cactus Album, in 1989 to enthusiastic reviews. Their use of samples from such diverse sources as Blood Sweat and Tears' rock single "Spinning Wheel" and Abbott and Costello comedy routines struck both listeners and critics as fresh, and singles like "Steppin' to the A.M." and "The Gas Face" proved the group's dance floor credentials.
Spin 's Joan Morgan admired the "funky, fiery intensity" of Cactus. Village Voice contributor Benjamin canonized Serch and Pete as the first serious white rappers, placing them alongside jazz clarinet master Benny Goodman and blues guitar legend Eric Clapton in the pantheon of caucasian artists "sincerely endeavoring to observe the performance values promulgated by black musicians." Of the album, Benjamin attested, "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."
1990 saw the release of an album of remixes, The Cactus Revisited, and a spate of serious road time for 3rd Bass. Rolling Stone' s Michael Azerrad reported that at a show at Harlem's Apollo Theater--the venerable testing ground of black musical performance--Serch and Nice had chanted "If you're black and you're proud, throw a hand in the air" and actually got the crowd to comply. For a white performer to do this, Azerrad asserted, "takes a little chutzpah."
But it was in 1991 that 3rd Bass definitively crossed over to a mass audience, thanks to a single called "Pop Goes the Weasel," from their album Derelicts of Dialect, another stew of rock, soul, and comedy samples, funky beats, and the inimitable, esoteric wordplay of Serch and Pete. "Weasel"--incorporating samples from Peter Gabriel's hit "Sledgehammer," among other songs--attacked white rappers who lack respect for the black tradition they appropriate. Although he isn't named in the song, the eponymous weasel--as confirmed by the video--is mall-rap idol Vanilla Ice. The issue was clearly a sore one for the rappers of 3rd Bass, who considered their legitimacy hard-won and viewed light-weight white pop-rap as a sort of violation of, not to mention a show of disrespect toward, the black community.
Derelicts didn't fare as well with critics as its predecessor had, despite its higher profile. "Weasel" helped the album go gold, but reviewers like Kim France of Rolling Stone found the sentiments voiced therein the "flattest" on the disc, which earned a three-star rating but evinced, according to France, a disturbingly "self-conscious" quality. "This spare but insinuating follow-up to The Cactus Album is light on melodies (even by rap standards), heavy on beat," People' s David Hiltbrand declared in a largely positive review. Echoing other tastemakers, though, Option dubbed Derelicts a "slightly inferior sophomore effort."
In 1992, after another tour, 3rd Bass announced their intention to split up. "We just felt it was time to explore our own musical creativity," Serch told David Paul of The Bomb. Rumors abounded, however, about ill feelings between Serch and Nice; some insiders hazarded the opinion that Serch had left the group because of dissatisfaction with its drift toward pop in the wake of "Weasel." But the rapper downplayed such speculation; "I just wanted to make a solo record," he insisted to Al Pereira of Black Beat, "but I got no beef with anybody." He also claimed that his relationship with Pete was still "amicable." Depending on which late-1992 interview the group's fans read, they could have determined that 3rd Bass had either broken up, reformed, or merely taken an extended hiatus. "If the case of 3rd Bass can teach us anything," The Source concluded dolefully, "it's that shotgun marriages don't last in the world of hip-hop."
Serch ended the guessing game when he released his solo debut--1992's Return of the Product --which showed him branching out stylistically. He told Steven Blush of Paper, "I wanted to make an album that was live, that was funky, that was hardcore. But kinda alternative hardcore, finding a middle ground somewhere." Working with a variety of DJs and guest rappers like Chubb Rock, Serch offered more politics than jokes on his solo effort. He also underlined his Jewishness and remembered the early days of rap. The music included more live instrumentation than had appeared in any of his previous work. Reviews of Return of the Product were mixed. Entertainment Weekly found it "strangely hollow," and Request worried that the rapper at times "sounds like he's coasting." Vibe approved of the groove but found that "as a commentary of hard-core street life," the record came up short. Option, meanwhile, opined, "This disc proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Serch was the crucial half of 3rd Bass," and Reflex, along similar lines, deemed Product "pure hardcore hip-hop that goes beyond anything put out by 3rd Bass."
In addition to the aggressive promotion of his album, Serch busied himself with his production company, Serchlite, and worked as the soundtrack coordinator for the interracial love story Zebrahead. He made it clear in Paper, however, that he had no plans to disappear into an office. Asked by Blush to "define [his] relationship with the hip-hop community," he responded with characteristic vigor. "My relationship is this: I'm the baddest white boy out here, period," he declared. "That's always gonna be my relationship."
MC Serch's Career
MC Serch's Awards
Gold Records for 3rd Bass albums The Cactus Album and Derelicts of Dialect and for single "Pop Goes the Weasel."
- Selective Works
- With 3rd Bass The Cactus Album (includes "Steppin' to the A.M." and "The Gas Face"), Def Jam, 1989.
- The Cactus Revisited Def Jam, 1990.
- Derelicts of Dialect (includes "Pop Goes the Weasel"), Def Jam, 1991.
- Solo releases "Melissa," Warlock.
- "Hey Boy"/"Go White Boy," Idlers.
- Return of the Product Def Jam/Columbia, 1992.
- Black Beat, December 1992.
- Bomb, September 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, September 4, 1992.
- Interview, April 1991.
- Option, November 1992.
- Paper, September 1992.
- People, September 16, 1991.
- Rap Masters, November 1992.
- Reflex, November 10, 1992.
- Request, September 1992.
- Rolling Stone, January 11, 1990; August 8, 1991; October 3, 1991; October 1, 1992.
- Seed, October 1992.
- Source, September 1992; January 1993.
- Spin, September 1991; October 1992.
- Tafrija, November 1992.
- Toronto Sun, October 23, 1992.
- Vibe, Fall 1992.
- Village Voice, January 9, 1990.
- YSB, November 1992.
- --Simon Glickman
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