Pimpin Ain’t Easy For A Jewish Rapper
A day in the life of Aaron Schechter of the rap duo Divine Rhyme. Read More
“Today was one of my more awkward days,” admitted Aaron Schechter when he sat down at a bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He had arrived late, he explained, for a planning meeting at the financial accounting firm where he worked. It’s a job that the 23-year-old, one half of the hip-hop duo Divine Rhyme, didn’t like to publicize. “Kinda ruins the image I’m going for,” he said.
It was a funny story. The “big shot partners,” as he described them, had been waiting in the conference room, but no one mentioned his tardiness. Instead, one said, “Hey man, do you have a twin brother?” When Schechter told him no, the guy replied, “Well, this looks and sounds just like you,” and played a YouTube clip of Divine Rhyme performing, as a few of the guys burst out laughing. It was nothing new; at his previous job, Schechter said, “Every time I fucked up or did something wrong, my boss would say, ‘It must have been those blunts you were rapping about smoking the other day.'”
When he wasn’t enduring razzing from coworkers, Schechter, who is from the Philadelphia suburbs, spent his time writing rap lyrics or recording them with his partner-in-crime, Jason Majlessi. They started Divine Rhyme in 2006 at Lehigh University, where Majlessi, one year younger, graduated in May of 2010. By June, he had moved to New York to join Schechter. The pair calls each other “Sheck” and “Jahizzi,” but it’s hard to be gangsta when you graduated from a fancy liberal arts school in the northeast.
1 Persian + 1 Jew = Jewish group
A year later, Majlessi is working for a real estate firm in midtown, Schechter is with the same accounting group, and they still have their eyes on the prize. But they also have to hold down steady jobs. Divine Rhyme isn’t big yet. Far from it: they don’t have music for sale on iTunes. But they’ve opened shows for The Roots, Ben Folds Five, The Cool Kids, and the Boston rapper Sam Adams. And this year they’ve played gigs in New York (most recently at 310 Lounge on Bowery) and returned to Lehigh for a few more. For now, they’re trying to get fans the hard way: blasting their shit on social media platforms. They post songs to Myspace and the mixtape destination DatPiff. They put videos on YouTube, amass fans on Facebook and Twitter, and hold out hope that their time will come. They remain optimistic—“We’re working hard to keep Divine Rhyme alive even while pursuing full-time jobs,” Schechter says—but you can sense that they know all too well it’s a tough road ahead.
Majlessi, originally from San Francisco, is Persian. “I don’t know much about it,” fumbles Schechter, who is (surprise!) Jewish. He needn’t worry, though—his buddy exhibits the same blasé attitude about personal background right back at him. “He’s not that Jewish, but I mean, he goes home for Yom Kippur or whatever,” says Majlessi. Meanwhile, the duo’s good friend Julian Holguin, who was previously their manager, is half Italian, half Dominican. “He’s at a disadvantage in the music industry because he’s not Jewish,” jokes Schechter.
Growing up, Schechter’s last name gave him away; kids knew it was Jewish, but didn’t know enough to pronounce it right. “It used to make me really upset,” he says. “They would butcher it.” He speaks about Hebrew school like it was serving time. “I did my eight years, had the bar mitzvah. Stuck around for confirmation. But I got annoyed with it.”
Before Schechter got to Lehigh, Hillel sent him a letter about joining. It left him confused. “I really didn’t know why they would have sent me that. My dad probably checked some box and never told me.” His Judaism is sporadic, like most every young, Jewish hip-hop enthusiast in New York, but inevitably, he does want to go on Birthright at some point. And when his parents came to see him perform at Hiro Ballroom in New York City in March 2010, his mom brought him a big package of matzah.
Still, Schechter said that Judaism doesn’t much enter his lyrics: “There’s a way that you could make it your whole thing, but that’s not the route I’ve gone.” And yet, in the eyes of listeners, Majlessi admitted, “Sheck being Jewish affects both of us.” For those quick to judge, the equation seems to be: 1 Persian + 1 Jew = Jewish group. When a popular Boston culture blog, Barstool Sports, announced that Divine Rhyme would be opening for the 2010 Stoolapalooza music tour, one tough critic commented, “the jew crew (divine rhyme) will make sam adams sound real good.” Schechter shrugs off the comment: “That guy probably saw me and said ‘Oh, look at this Jew. Another Asher Roth.’”
He’s right that the instant comparison is annoying, but at the same time, he’s certainly more Roth than Matisyahu. Roth, like Schechter—and maybe it’s universal—can’t seem to escape the label of Jewish rapper, even though he’s only half-Jewish, and even though there’s nothing Jewy about his music. Just like Schechter’s. And that omission isn’t some conscious play for more street cred, but happens because, as Schechter wonders, how the hell do you rap about it? “I think I bring elements of being raised as a Jew, but in subtle ways,” he says. “A lot of my lyrics are self-doubting; same vein as Woody Allen or Larry David.” But most college kids don’t want to watch Larry David rap.
Sheck and Jahizzi would much rather take after the characters in a different HBO series: How to Make it in America, which is currently shooting its second season on the Lower East Side. It’s no surprise they’re big fans of the show, with its buddy pairing of Cam and Ben, a short, loud Dominican kid and a tall, Jewish ginger. “We joke about how we embody the two main characters,” says Schechter. “Jason can be just like Cam, with his hustling attitude, and I can be like Ben in the sense that I’m more low key and try to do more of the behind-the-scenes stuff. We identify with the show in terms of what we’re trying to do.” Of course, the show is hardly realistic (the friends breezily come up with a line of t-shirts called Crisp), and these two know that in real life, they can turn down any street in Williamsburg and find two other young rappers hoping to “make it.”
For now, the religious dichotomy of Divine Rhyme only appears occasionally, like on their new track “WorldWide” when Majlessi says he’s “the flyest member on the no-fly list… We smilin’ as they screenin’ us because I’m Persian,” or on one of their best songs, “For the Ages,” when they rap: “Blue, 42, it’s the Persian with the Jew / And the crowd goes crazy every time we come through.” But both boys have vague plans to better incorporate it in the future. After all, if they’re going to try and pursue an eventual career in music, they need to get serious. “We can’t just rap about poppin’ bottles in the club, that’s not original,” says Majlessi, though three minutes later he admits, “Man, I love the bottles.”
For now, the guys have to stay in the rat race until they’re lucky enough to pursue music exclusively. In the long term, they want to make albums and rock packed stadiums. But who doesn’t? “The beauty of it right now is that money’s not the goal,” says Majlessi. “We just care about making music and getting our name out. We can only measure success in people coming up to us saying ‘Yo, I love your stuff, you guys are the shit.’ But we also check the link every day to see how many times the EP was downloaded, and we look at plays of our tracks on Myspace. Plus, rocking a stage in front of 3,000 people at UMass, that counts for something.”
Not everyone approves of the viral marketing. A classmate of theirs from Lehigh tells me: “I actually had to delete Jason as a friend on Facebook due to his barrage of event invites. One day I just said that’s it, this guy is gone. Their music is decent, though.”
Sheck and Jahizzi will hope to keep earning new fans, and to show people that “the Persian and the Jew” are far more than decent. That, or they’ll move on.
– Listen to some new Divine Rhyme tracks
– Check out their YouTube videos
– Find them on Facebook