Rap Shoah

There have been other Jewish rap acts, but none quite as outspoken as the 420 Boyz of Greenhouse Records, Aaron Joskowitz (right) and Mason Lerner.
Deron Neblett

In rap, the most down-and-out muthafuckas get the most respect. They're the most "real" -- whatever that means. So somewhere near the bottom of the totem pole of equality, right next to Roman slaves, Russian peasants, indigenous Americans and African-Americans are two Jewish guys from Houston. You wanna talk about dissed? Aaron "Garr Goyle" Joskowitz and Mason "Bug-Z" Lerner say their heritage bespeaks the biggest dis of all: the holocaust.

"Put it like this," says Lerner, sitting outside a bar on the patio of Bayou Place, not too far from the duo's studio on Main Street. "The word 'ghetto' was invented for us. We lived in the original ghettos [in Germany]. Americans don't know what a ghetto is. A ghetto means you're in that muthafucka, and you're not out. I mean, you're in. That's what the ghetto is."

In the same way Eazy-E bragged about growing up in the urban jungle of Compton, or Eminem boasted about his drug-abusing mom, Joskowitz and Lerner wear the Jewish tragedy like a badge of honor. They don't rap about it. They just let people know, in casual conversation or with the Stars of David that hang around their necks, that on the inside they're not all vanilla. Both say they want to appeal to audiences from all over, not just rap fans in Houston or slighted Jewish kids. "We're ready to go international," says Joskowitz.

Clinging to their Jewishness is their way of finding validation in an industry that values an artist's music as much as -- if not more than -- his personal history. "In rap, there's a lot of anger, you know," says Joskowitz, who recently adopted his grandfather's surname out of respect for the holocaust survivor. "And I think the reason that we've fit into rap so well is because I got a lot of anger, you know? Jews were treated as slaves since the beginning of time. We were exterminated, basically. They tried to get rid of us."

The genre has already been infiltrated by urban orators who favor Yom Kippur over Lent -- artists like the Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass front man MC Serch and the Blood of Abraham. But rap has never seen the likes of Lerner and Joskowitz, even if their pose in person is much different from their music, which addresses the stereotypical hip-hop subjects of bitches and money.

It was Joskowitz who first caught the bug to bust a rhyme. He discovered his love at Westbury High School, where he would sit around the lunchroom table with his boys and drop a verse or two. "I was known as being the white boy with the flow," Joskowitz says, "even though I'm not white."

In the mid-1990s Joskowitz, who quickly developed a reputation as a diligent MC, joined the pale-faced rap trio T.O.A.K. (Thugs of Another Kind), which landed a deal with local label D.I.M.E. Records. But even when the group released its first and only album, 1997's Assume Nothing, and went on a national tour, Joskowitz found the whole experience disheartening, citing pettiness, backbiting and ineptitude as causes for the malaise. Joskowitz left with plans to start a record label himself.

At the time Greenhouse Records was a gleam in Joskowitz's eye, Lerner was just returning from spending time in Tel Aviv with his uncle. Lerner was intrigued by the venture. "He knew I was interested [in rapping]," says Lerner, "and when I was able to come back to Houston, it kinda coincided at the time when he and those boys weren't getting along no more. And I was like, 'I could do this.' He said, 'Well, show me.' I showed him, and baaaah -- here we are."

Joskowitz formed Greenhouse, situating himself as CEO and owner and his mother as vice president and managing operator of Greenhouse Studios. Lerner is a solo artist on the Greenhouse roster and a member of the 420 Boyz, which comprises himself and Joskowitz. The label didn't have a home of its own until a few months ago, when the duo opened its studio and started laying down tracks. "I wanted to be behind as well as in front of the scenes," Joskowitz says. "I wanted artists of my own, you know. I didn't only want to be the artist. I'm CEO. I'm doing what I love to do."

In general, the rap is informed by the usual Houston sonic flair: synthesizers and drum machines behind rapid-fire, ghettolicious rhymes. But Joskowitz and Lerner camp up their compositions, going so far as to sample sound bites of "The Hustle" and even TV show themes, like The People's Court. A perfect example of the duo's sonic shenanigans can be found on the hook for its upcoming single "What a Thug Wants," a takeoff on Christina Aguilera's "What a Girl Wants." As the chorus goes: "What a thug wants / What a thug needs / Whatever keeps me paid long as I stay free / With two women buck-naked and a fat sack of weed."

Joskowitz and Lerner's history and religion obviously don't play a huge role in their music. The issues rarely come up when they perform live. Anthony Frazier, owner of the popular black music store High Volume Music, says that rappers who aren't melanin-compatible rarely win the approval of listeners. "Black people tend to feel that rap belongs to them," he says. "They feel like it's an invasion when white guys or Jewish guys embark on black music." Yet Frazier thinks Joskowitz and Lerner can sway rap listeners if they -- you guessed it -- keep it real. Fronting like a holocaust survivor may not qualify on that count, but rapping well may. "If they're coming correct," he says, "staying true to who they are, then I think, yes, they could succeed."

After touring with T.O.A.K. and performing with Lerner at such local venues as Club Ambiance and Scott Gertner's Skybar, Joskowitz has found that rap audiences always judge MCs by quality. "I get a lot of love from the brothas and the sistas," Joskowitz says. "It's very surprising." Lerner insists that rap audiences appreciate anyone who has the nerve and moxie to get on the mike and flow. "Just the fact that you got the nuts to get out there and get on the stage," Lerner says, "it shows them you got product."

Bernard Theriot, of Joskowitz's ex-label, D.I.M.E., says Joskowitz's beliefs and background really are not important to listeners, either. "Being Jewish or being white or being black, I don't think it's an obstacle. I think the people that you surround yourself with and the product you put out there is the thing that you have to convince people of."

Greenhouse recently had a video shot for "Get It Hot," the first single from Joskowitz'ssoon-to-be-released album, Thug of Another Kind, which will be the label's first release when the album hits shelves in mid-July. Then, Joskowitz will hook up with Lerner and cut a 420 Boyz album. Although they haven't received much radio airplay, both Joskowitz and Lerner know that what they're doing isn't falling on deaf ears. Whenever the guys finish up a single, they hand-deliver it to various clubs in the downtown area. When they see patrons at Spy or Jones Bar grooving on one of Greenhouse's songs, they know they must be doing something right. "If the shit's tight, it doesn't matter," Lerner says. "Music is music. It sells itself, you know what I mean? If something makes your body move, you know it's the 21st century. We gotta get over all that shit."

And for Joskowitz, success is predetermined: "Both my grandparents were in the holocaust. For me to even be here is a blessing, for one thing. Honestly, I know I'm gonna be successful. I know I'm here for a reason."

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