The journey from Eden Pearlstein to Eprhyme took a bit more than a creative name change and the discovery of some Jewish liturgy to set against catchy beats.
Today Pearlstein, a beard-sporting, skullcap-wearing, rapper, looks the epitome of an Orthodox man with granola leanings, and in fact, hes the son-in-law of one of the founding members of Moshav Mevo Modiim, known as a center of Jewish hippiedom.
But growing up in a Reform household in Phoenix, Arizona, Pearlstein had to overcome his seedy beginnings as a bad boy, to become Eprhyme (pronounced E-Prime), learning to fuse ancient Jewish literary tradition with post-modern hip-hop music along the way.
Speaking with Haaretz upon the recent release of his sophomore solo album from Olympias K-Records, Dopestylevsky, the rapper recalls how a decade and a half ago he was a skateboard punk who didnt care about the world.
In middle school, he started doing drugs, carrying knives and guns with his friends, committing petty crimes, and confronting authority figures on a regular basis. Then at 17, he attended an inter-cultural arts program for youth who were talented but troubled. After a week in the woods, he had an emotional epiphany, he says, and discovered the power of poetry.
He cleaned up and enlisted at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where there were no grades or majors, a place where he could pursue knowledge for the love of learning and develop his diverse interests.
At Evergreen, Eprhyme dove deep into the science of comparative religion. I studied every religion I could come across. I was starving for spirituality. As many different meditation techniques as I could learn, rituals I could participate in, dietary adjustments I could make.
Whatever, I did it. Except for Judaism, says Eprhyme. Hed had a bar-mitzvah, but hadnt found meaning in the religious rituals that he grew up with. It wasnt until his early twenties, when he was invited to North Dakota to participate in a Native American Sun Dance ceremony that he had a peak spiritual experience. He felt the interconnectedness of all things, he says, and it made him want to rediscover his own Jewish roots.
Exploring his Jewish heritage and developing his slam poetry skills with equal earnest, Eprhyme developed a name for himself in the Pacific Northwest both for leading alternative Jewish study classes, and for organizing and performing at indie hip hop shows. Olympias alternative Weekly Volcano paper called him a major player in the creation of the citys indie hip hop scene.
I got lucky enough. I didnt have to listen to gangster rap, and then find the more poetic, conscious stuff. I immediately just got into underground hip hop, he says.
Eprhymes lyrics reflect his diverse identities, from mean kid to new Jew and indie hip-hop poster boy: Im a lounge lizard / lost-and-found wizard / been around down sinners / who found out about their inner / struggle for sanity / not a hustle for vanity / I stand in solidarity / with all of humanity.
The music reflects Eprhymes own eclectic record collection, the studio skills of producer Smoke from the crew Oldominion, and live performances by West Coast Klezmer band Erev Rav. The result is a stew of kosher gumbo, a musical mix of Jewish thought and black oral tradition.
I think that our tradition, as well as many other world spiritual and cultural traditions, has some amazing insights and stories and inspirations that are like spiritual multi-vitamins for any human, says Eprhyme. We have things in our tradition that I think could be useful for the rest of the world, and Im trying to share them in a way that the rest of the world will be able to hear.
Beyond putting on a good show, the rapper says his music is a sort of outreach effort.
Because its not like the rest of the world is going to want to come to a Torah study class, he says. But a lot of people might want to come to a hip hop show.
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