(Originally appeared in edited form as an article at New Voices)
I first heard Soul Khan when he battled QP over Grindtime—Grindtime is a battle league where rappers battle each other with prewritten verses, three each, and everything goes on YouTube. QP came at Soul Khan with lines about his “Jew Nose” and how the Jews killed Jesus—Soul Khan came back with this line: “You know that Soul’s blessed with it, I’m one of the chosen people/We wrote the Old Testament/You follow the phony sequel.” There aren’t that many Jewish rappers. I was hooked.
Later that year, his free album “Soul Like Khan” dropped. It spent a fair amount of time on my iPod. The production was strings and soul samples (produced mostly by J57), and the rapping was intense, sarcastic punchlines mixed with autobiographical reflection. In June, I interviewed the man outside the Middle East club in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Max Elstein Keisler: What was the extent of your Jewish upbringing?
Soul Khan: I was schooled in the Jewish religion, both institutionally in synagogues, to the point of being confirmed…
MEK: You were reform?
SK: I went to some reform synagogues, and some conservative synagogues, under the tutelage of some Reconstructionist synagogues, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Rabbi Ed Feinstein. It wasn’t a philosophy I was either enthusiastically behind or against. I didn’t really have too much of a philosophy either way, I’m more of the mindset that the Torah was meant to be more instructive than narrative, so I agreed with that.
MEK: Do you see yourself as completely secular, or partly religious?
SK: Right now, in practice, more secular but I had a very long religious life, and I would like to return to it in some capacity. My family was less religious than I was but they put forth all the tools, every resource available to enable me to pursue a religious life.
MEK: On your track “Soul like Khan,” you talk about your absent father in really a very literary way. I’m interested that you say, “She gave us faith while he was still godless.” Can you elaborate on this?
SK: Oh yeah, my mom was from a family of German Bundists [labor supporters]. She herself was not especially religious, but I guess she saw it as part of her culture, even the religious aspects, and she made sure we grew up with that.
MEK: Do you speak Hebrew?
SK: Ah, no. I was instructed in it for years, but I did not pick it up. The American Hebrew school institution, especially when tacked on to a long day of public schooling is really not always so palatable.
MEK: It’s not necessarily sufficient either.
SK: No, it’s not. Mine at least, was ill suited in real language instruction.
MEK: Just teaching the alphabet?
SK: And words, but with no grammatical sense. It wasn’t sufficient. But it gave me a cultural foundation, I appreciate it.
MEK: So right now, you’re not going to synagogues?
SK: No, getting acclimated to New York City is difficult in itself, and it’s been tough to do that, pursue my music, and find a synagogue I’m comfortable with.
MEK: You’re where in New York?
SK: I’m in Bensonhurst right now. It’s a hop, skip and a jump away from Boro Park, but that’s not exactly what I’m looking for.
MEK: How would you say your Jewish upbringing affected your music?
SK: I would say that the sense of ethics I got from my Jewish upbringing affected it, an abiding concern for those who suffer for one, that sort of thing, my social values, I think, are imbued in my music, and that I think, comes from my Jewish upbringing
MEK: Not lyrically?
SK: You run the risk of wearing it on your sleeve and becoming a mascot.
MEK: This is not to hate, but I saw Kosha Dillz a few days ago.
SK: That’s what he does, I don’t do that.
MEK: He was wearing a kippah and performing on Shavuot.
SK: Exactly, that’s not what I like to do. I feel it would be dishonest to who I am right now.
MEK: If you’re secular, you’re secular You have a very distinct, shouty voice in your music. How did you develop it?
SK: The voice is a combination of my natural voice and smoking cigarettes, which I don’t recommend, by the way. I try to do a lot of singing in my rapping. I don’t like how a lot of rappers just talk into the mic. It doesn’t help with people saying it isn’t music.
MEK: A question I think about is, what is Jewish music?
SK: You could say klezmer is Jewish music, there’s a large pool of Jewish musicians but they don’t
really make music about Judaism, it’s informed by their Jewish values.
MEK: I wonder if it can be read as a Jewish text, any song by a Jewish musician, you’d do the same thing for a novel or film.
SK: I think so, I think a certain curiosity, a certain introspection often accompanies a Jewish perspective, and is often found in music made by Jews.
MEK: I sometimes hear a cynicism, a distance.
SK: There can be a cynicism, but I also feel that there is a compassion behind it, not compassion in a moralizing or didactic way when you put those items across, but a concern for everyone’s story. We’re storytellers, we all want tell everyone’s stories.
MEK: There’s not that many Jewish rappers in hip hop…
SK: No, and they certainly don’t rep it..
MEK: You, Kosha Dillz,
SK: Ill Bill,Rick Rove…
MEK: Hoodie Allen
SK: MC Serch from 3rd Bass.
SK: Alchemist is Jewish, yes. It’s a part of who the rapper is, but not necessarily in their rap.
MEK: Serch always felt so Jewish to me, he had skills, but he was such a clown, always comedic.
SK: Yeah, definitely.
MEK: In a lot of your rap battles, your opponents for Jewish jokes. Specifically I remember seeing Aspire make some graphic holocaust references It’s cool to see you flip those lines on them, but watching these videos it seems like it sets you off. What’s it like when one of your opponents says something anti-Semitic, especially about the holocaust?
SK: One of the things I learned in my Jewish upbringing is we are stronger than the animosities that fuel the prejudice against us, whether genuine prejudice, or prejudice used as a joke. I let it fall off me, everything that I do is, I like to think more powerful than something that in a base fashion mocks my religion or culture. Sometimes the jokes are good, sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re witty, bad rap is about being offensive. I know what I signed up for.
MEK: It seems weird to me, because nobody would ever say anything to an African American about slavery.
SK: Well, that’s just because there’s nothing funny you can say about that, and because they invented hip hop. It’s almost like, because the Holocaust is so much more recent, it’s easier to joke about. It’s not right necessarily, but it’s the price Jews pay for white status in America, that in battle rap, they can be attacked like that.
MEK: Any plans for battle rapping?
SK: I’m done with battle rapping. That was something I did to gain exposure, it worked. I’m about making music now.
MEK: So we’re never going to see you versus Conceited [another Grindtime rapper who Khan had previously challenged]?
SK: If Conceited wants to compete with me in making music, that’s fine. I’m done with battle rapping.
MEK: Do you see Judaism as an ethnicity, a religion?
SK: Both. More so an ethnicity.
MEK: I feel like the more secular you are, the more it’s an ethnicity.
SK: Yeah, people may dispute that, but we do have among many strata of Jewish people, unified cultural practices including language, food, common genetic descent, to some degree. I think it’s fair to say we’re an ethnicity but informed by a religious background across all of it.
Afterwards, inside the club, Khan performed with his crew, the Brown Bag All Stars. When I’d seen them in New York, they had clear sound and a big stage. In Boston, one of their mics broke down, forcing one of the four MCs to act as a hypeman on the side of the stage while not rapping. But the old school energy of the crew cut through the muddy sound and they had the crowd, many of whom had gone for the local opening acts, shouting their choruses like long time fans. It felt good knowing a conspicuously Jewish, bespectacled intellectual could carve out a place in rap.