NEW YORK — THE world found out about the rap group 3rd Bass when they came under the scrutiny of the Village Voice almost two years ago. The close-ups were so tight, so large, you could see the screws in MC Serch's glasses. The camera seemed incredulous. Rappers? But aren't these boys white?"Two Funky White Boys," observed the headline, approvingly. Now Serch, known to his parents as Michael Berrin, and Prime Minister Pete Nice, known to his as Peter Nash, are tired of being singled out for their race. It bores them. And as if to silence the "white rappers" label, they've added a Jamaican-American to the group: DJ Richie Rich (known to his folks as Richard Lawson). 3rd Bass's most recent album, "Derelicts of Dialect," is on the way to platinum - sales of 1 million. Their first record, "The Cactus Album," released in 1989, prompted a lot of hype about the whiteness of Serch and Pete, but that has subsided into respect, from almost all quarters, for their ability to handle the medium. The Voice writer, African-American Playthell Benjamin, concluded: "These two pilgrims from the white middle class have managed to traverse the great cultural divide.... by immersing the mselves in the def [hip] black urban milieu in which the rhythmic rhymes of rap were created." But Serch, Pete, and Rich aren't content to be a multiracial group that earns street credibility. Two of these three boys may be white, but all three are purists in a black tradition, defending it against, in Serch's words, "falsifiers and perpetrators."
On their hit single, "Pop Goes the Weasel," 3rd Bass says: Hip hop got turned into hit pop The second a record was number one on the pop charts But don't skip on the heart It got its start in the ghetto, Let no one forget about the hard part... We got to make sure that the real rap has got to endure.
This song was widely seen as a put down of the hugely successful white rapper Vanilla Ice, whom Serch likes to call Vanilla Wafer, but "Weasel" is also a general critique of rap's booming commercialism. At this year's New Music Seminar, a summertime conclave of music performers, producers, and critics, most of the rap panels focused on how to keep rap pure. And that doesn't mean racially pure. A line in "Weasel" mocks "gettin' paid to peddle sneakers and soda pop," a reference to commercial endorsements by MC Hammer, the hugely successful black performer. Hammer recently dropped the MC from his name, suggesting that he is formally forsaking hip hop for hit pop, even though his latest album is called "Too Legit To Quit." Serch may slam white performers like Vanilla Ice, but he has no scorn for his often white audiences. "I find great pleasure to go into Keene, N.H.," he says in an interview, "where there's maybe a handful of [African-American] kids and the only reason they're there is because they're at college, and I'm in front of a thousand white kids." And many of these kids rap right along with them, word for word. A popular rhyme: "Black cat is bad luck, bad guys wear black/ Must have been a white guy that started a ll that." This lyric, from 3rd Bass's 1989 release, is "about the stereotype of the word 'black' in American culture," says Serch. "Wall Street was 'Black Monday,' but I don't know any black investment people that were involved.... We switched that around to: ... Real men wear black." Of course the switch is everywhere. Consider the popularity of caps and clothes promoting the Los Angeles Raiders, whose colors are black and silver. Now hip-hop fashion is no respecter of race: A lot of white kids couldn't dress wit hout oversize sneakers and ultra-baggy overalls with one strap hanging down. Serch himself is wearing not one but two oversize T-shirts, baggy jeans, and the obligatory baseball cap. In many of his videos, Serch's African-American style fade haircut features a bas-relief "3rd Bass" stretching from one ear to the other. On "Derelicts of Dialect" the group again faces race. "Wake up," urges one track, "it's time to respect the Nubian flag, of a people/ Fighting everyday for their own say, so children can go out to play, and stray from the tyranny." Later on 3rd Bass tells us to "discover as a people we have to take our place/ There is no master plan because there is no master race." "In North America," Serch explains,"a lot of black culture has been completely washed out due to slavery, due to lack of education." One answer is for rap and hip-hop music to educate as it entertains. "KRS says it best," Serch points out, quoting the rapper KRS-One: "It's edutainment." DJ Richie Rich explains his view of the group's place in rap's racial dialogue: "Certain people's roles," he says about other rappers, "are to educate people. Certain people's roles are to talk about how fat their gold chains are. Certain people's roles are to talk about how much of pimps they are. As far as 3rd Bass goes, you can see what we're all about: Two white guys and a black guy.... We are showing by example that we're the middle ground." "A lot of kids," adds Pete, "will look at 3rd Bass and see me, Serch, and Rich together and it'll be normal to them, and back, like 10 years ago, most likely that wouldn't have been too normal. "White people in general," adds Pete, "have, you know, just inherent racism.... [Say] you're brought up in a family and your father's calling black people niggers.... However if someone can listen to our music and try to formulate something a bit deeper and even correct, look at their parents not as like that they're the devil or whatever, but as, you know, people who are basically ignorant... [they will] try to step above that." THE music, says Serch, should always be "soulful, honest, truthful, inspiring, agitating." To what end? "To agitate you enough that you want to just drip with sweat on the dance floor. To agitate you enough that you want to grab your professor by the neck and say, 'Yo, you're not teaching me the truth,' or agitate you enough to grab your priest and say, 'Jesus wasn't white he was brown,' or agitate you to grab your father, and say, 'You were never a figure to me, you were never a leader,' or ... to write rhymes and become an MC." The racial implications of religion in North America are important to Serch. He tells a story about his youth in Far Rockaway, Queens, where communities of different races and religions abut each other. "I was the head Torah reader in my school, in my synagogue," he says. "And one day after synagogue I threw on my grips [sneakers] and I went out with my man Shamik and this kid Mathematics and we went to ... play ball, which is what I would do everyday.... And my rabbi saw me. So the next day in Torah sch ool he pulled me in, he said, 'Why do you want to be a shvartzer [a derogatory Yiddish word for a black person]?' "And I said, 'See ya.... I'm outta here. 'Cause that's not what you're supposed to teach me, he recalls. Serch continues, drawing from the current debate over the racial identity of Biblical peoples: "We're all black.... Moses was Ethiopian and the original sea scrolls that the Torahs were written on say ... Egypt was lush and we were all bronze with hair of wool. That sounds like a brother to me."