HaSofer, known as DeScribe, soon finishes his short set on this June night. Kenny Handler, a 25-year-old actor from the East Village, has never heard of DeScribe before. He has no idea the man he has just seen is a former sharpshooter in the Israeli Army. He is not aware that the artist is someone who used to roam the streets. He hasn’t heard that DeScribe uses music and technology to promote racial harmony and helps Jewish teens learn how to record and produce music. And he doesn’t know the singer has five music videos but doesn’t own a TV. He hasn’t heard that DeScribe warns against materialism but also wants to make that dough. But he does know one thing.
“He’s got it,” Handler says. “I took one look at him and I knew that he would either be great or be terrible. “He was great. He’s the best since Matisyahu.”
It was in January of 2006 that Matthew Miller, known as Matisyahu, appeared on the David Letterman Show and performed “King Without A Crown,” while wearing a black hat, a black coat and sporting a beard. The singer, who would open for O.A.R as thousands joined along with him singing about moshiach, was able to pull off the seemingly insurmountable feat of crossing over into the mainstream.
To many Jewish music fans, his ascension bordered on the messianic, so five years later, the question is: can there be a second coming?
Every musician knows that being compared to another artist can be both a blessing and a curse. It can mean high praise that can lead to positive exposure. But it can also make it difficult for an artist to carve out his or her own identity and niche. DeScribe says there are some who say religious Jews should not be involved in hip hop at all. He says he appreciates their point of view but respectfully disagrees. Then there are people he refers to as haters, whom he addresses in his music, specifically on his track, “Make It.”
He says some have told him that there is only room for one religious artist to crossover into mainstream.
“People say things,” says the twenty-something who lives in Crown Heights. “Everybody says things. I don''t remember Matisyahu copyrighting being the only Hasidic popular music artist in the world. Just because he made it, that doesn’t mean other people cannot make it. Matisyahu happened to be the first so it''s obvious that anyone who rises after him will receive comparisons and whatnot, but that''s the way it goes. I have much respect for Matisyahu. He is a super-talented artist. He is amazing and his accomplishments are absolutely phenomenal. He is a groundbreaker and a pioneer who had the guts to do something that no one has ever done before him and I can credit him that had he not broken through I might not have had the courage to do what I did. He’s the man.”
Asked about DeScribe, Matisyahu was complimentary without hesitation but offered no prognostication.
“I like him and he’s very talented,” Matisyahu said. “Let’s see what happens.”
A Video On An Issue That Is Rarely Tackled
DeScribe said he is proud of his song and video “Pure Soul,” that includes Matisyahu and is likely the first ever hip hop song for children with special needs.
DeScribe’s modus operandi is to shoot powerful videos for his songs. “Change,” shot with Yitz Jordan, known as Y-Love, deals with the beast of politics and transformation.
“Make It,” is a jab to the haters and “Harmony” is about racial and cultural understanding. After seeing the video for “Harmony” on YouTube, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of the Livingston, New Jersey, branch of The Friendship Circle, asked him to produce a song and video.
Grossbaum said his organization seeks to change the way society views people with special needs and figured that while it was a tall and order, he thought DeScribe should take a swing at it.
“He hit a grand slam,” Grossbaum said. “Typically any song related to helping children is slow. This is not. This is power. People also forget about the families who work 24/7 for their children and to see and hear something so unique, the impact is tremendous.”
The song is pulsating and the vocals are delivered with ferocity. The video, which is in the editing process and will be released in March, includes children with special needs dancing, he said.
“At first, it was a big challenge,” DeScribe said of coming up with the song. “There is almost no real info about kids with special needs. You don’t really hear what’s great about them. It’s usually just from a pity point of view. But the challenge disappeared once I spent time with them. They have a special light and they do not put up any walls.”
Breaking down walls is something that DeScribe says is one of his missions. He smiles on a day in August as he sits next to someone who seems like he has been friends with for years. It is Rohan Marley, the son of Bob Marley. DeScribe tells a bunch of mesmerized reporters how he saw the dreadlocked man, who seemed interesting as he walked down Broadway. He stopped him and asked who he was.
Upon hearing both the first and last name, he asked: “Marley, Marley?” It is the press conference for DeScribe’s “Harmony” video. DeScribe later explains that a catalyst was a video he saw on YouTube of racist comments about President Obama from Jewish youth that he felt to be ignorant. At the same time, he said, it was imperative to continue racial understanding between blacks and Jews, nearly two decades after the Crown Heights riots.
“What he’s doing is really great,” Marley says with a smile. “I like what he sings and I like what he says. He has a good heart.”
While Describe is praised by a plethora of people, including Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz, Marley looks at the video approvingly. He later asked DeScribe to come up with a song to promote Marley Coffee Company. The result is “Living for The Grind,” a recently released track. It’s quite an endorsement from Marley, who not only chose DeScribe for the song, but also joined in on the track saying “Israel meets Jamaica.”
DeScribe recalls going to Israel at a tumultuous time in his life where he left home as a teen. Growing up in Australia, he said school wasn’t for him.
“Class was boring for me,” he said. “I guess I made trouble and skipped school. It was torturous for me. When I was a kid they didn''t have systems implemented for ADHD kids, it was just like ''that kid has to be out of the class because he''s disturbing.'' These days, teachers are much more educated and there are different protocols as to how to deal with different types of kids. They didn''t have it when I was a kid so I was kicked out. I am very happy to see that they have systems in place now and they are more accommodating.”
A Traumatic Experience
DeScribe, who did not graduate high school, said he knew it was important to help disillusioned youth. So his studio, iJam, he teaches classes on how to record and use musical equipment and how to write songs. The goal is for the students to learn to run the studio on their own.
“A lot of these kids feel crappy and think there’s nothing they can offer the world but being stoned on a couch,” he said. “I refuse to accept that.”
HaSofer says the students remind him of himself in his troubled days. Sent to a yeshiva in Israel, he recalls it being nightmarish and like a prison. He says he begged his parents to take him home. He said he remembers being in school in Australia and being curious about things that were forbidden, namely television.
“I felt deprived,” he says. When everyone talks about it and you don’t know what the hell is going on, it’s frustrating. I would go by friends that had one but sometimes my parents would call up before and say I wasn’t allowed to watch. I would get there and the TV was unplugged and if I plugged it in and they caught me, they’d call my parents. It was a traumatic experience.”
Today, he does not own a TV and said there are some elements of it that can be terrible for children. HaSofer credits his parents for being supportive of him throughout the years and also credits his mother the singer known as “Devorah,” for genetically helping him. HaSofer says he remembers roaming the streets in Israel and evading police.
One time, when he became involved with unsavory characters a friend of his was stabbed, he said.
HaSofer says that his experiences, both good and bad have helped him get to where he is today. And while some question his role in music as not something fit for someone who is religious, he says he understands their point, but respectfully disagrees. He isn’t losing any sleep over it. But he is losing sleep. After serving three years in the Israeli Army during the height of the Intifada, in 2000 he has difficulty sleeping from the training process.
“To this day, it’s something that I am struggling with,” he says. “I’ve tried medication, I’ve tried therapy. I’ve seen psychologists. Nothing helps.”
Somehow he is able to sleep well on the Sabbath, perhaps because he knows he can’t check his text messages or e-mails.
A Remedy and a Controversial Cloth
It was in Israel where DeScribe met Ross Filler, a.k.a Remedy of the famed Wu Tang Clan. It is September 1 and Remedy has taken a seat next to Describe at Ocean Hall in Brooklyn. As they watch an under card bout before DeScribe’s friend Dmitriy Salita heads to the ring, Remedy is asked to describe DeScribe from his days in the Holy Land.
“I have a question,” he says. “Do you want me to keep it clean or do you want the X-rated version? I always loved him and he was a standup guy but I thought he was a little out there. As the years went on he developed into his artist and I respect him. He''s very talented. It''s not like Matisyahu and it''s not like regular rap. It''s in between somewhere. It helps to be original when you''re trying to get to the masses. It''s more than just being Jewish. You work and you pour everything into it. People either respect you or they don’t.”
Remedy has collaborated with DeScribe on the song “My Keffiah.” DeScribe says the Israeli keffiah, designed by Baruch Chertok and marketed by Shemspeed simply helps honor Jewish identity with something that was worn years ago. DeScribe wears the keffiyah during his live shows.
There was some controversy over it as some Palestinian artists objected to it and it was even the subject of a New York Times article.
One of the main people responsible for discovering DeScribe is Erez Safar. The CEO of Shemspeed, the Jewish music label he founded, says DeScribe is a force to be reckoned with.
“What sets him apart is that he has great versatility, a clear and powerful message and a lot of passion,” says Safar, who also performs under the name Diwon. “We’ve been working with him as he’s grown in popularity and more and more people are seeing his videos and hearing his music so it’s only a matter of time.”
A Dynamic Duo
Safar decided to pair describe with one of the label’s featured artists, Yitz Jordan, known as Y-Love. Their EP “Change,” culminated with a powerful video for the song the same title. Jordan holds up a copy of the Amsterdam News with the front story of Barack Obama’s victory. Jordan, who was featured in an article in XXL, one of America’s best known hip-hop magazines, converted to Judaism. He, DeScribe and Diwon are shown to have great chemistry in the 2009 CBS Religion Special “Faith Music and Culture,” where Y-Love tells DeScribe that there is a "daled" in the word "echad" that he needs to properly annunciate.
At Le Poisson Rouge, Y-Love and DeScribe are backstage after a performance, where they threw down the track “Move On.” Y-Love raps about Rush Limbaugh’s addiction to oxycontin as well as the Sean Bell shooting. DeScribe, in the chorus, sings about being “stuck in this place for so long,’ which he later explains refers to exile. The two are laughing about something or maybe about nothing. They tell a reporter to have a seat, and even offer their own. It is no matter.
“With DeScribe, what you see is what you get,” Jordan says. “There are some people in the game that put on airs or act fake and they might be one way one time and another way another time or be insincere or inconsistent. He’s not one of those people and he definitely has a spark and a dedication.”
They are interesting pair. Describe is white and stocky, Y-Love is black and very thin. DeScribe speaks with a deliberate tone of a sage. Y-Love speaks at a bottleneck pace as if he might have to stop when an imaginary timer goes off. And there’s another big difference.
“I try not to get into politics,” he says. “But when it comes to Israel, he and I are polar opposites. I think almost everything he says (politically) is wrong. He probably thinks the same about me. You could say I am way to the right and is way to the left. The point is that even though we disagree we are brothers and we want to show that you have to embrace differences and unite.”
DeScribe says he has already gotten feedback that his music has made a difference. A woman moved by his song “Ani Ma’amin,” confided in him that her husband was abusive and the song helped her have the courage to divorce him. Later, she came in contact with another man who also liked DeScribe’s music and after first communicating in a chat room, they eventually married.
Lenny Bass, the director of “Harmony,” as well as “Pure Soul,” has worked with such artists as Fantasia Barrino. Bass said DeScribe has the tools to make it.
“The talent is there, the passion is there and the creativity is there,” Bass said. ‘I think that one of the things he has going for him is that his content is not strictly about religion, it’s about universal themes and it’s about humanity.”
Impressed by his performance at City Winery, Sivan Hadari said she was happy she asked DeScribe to perform at Isramerica, a showcase for Israeli and American artists.
“He is talented, he has charisma and I think it’s great that he cares about important causes,” Hadari said.
Yossi Klein, a 22-year-old from Brooklyn also praised the artist and said he respects that he gives back to the community.
“He’s an amazing talent and there’s no question he will make it big,” Klein says. “But it’s awesome that twice a week he will teach kids all about recording and hip hop and it’s free. It’s very cool of him to take his time to do that.”
I Remember His Eyes
DeScribe says that after spending time in Israel leading a secular lifestyle, he experienced some difficulties and his stress level was extremely high. DeScribe, whose last name HaSofer is Hebrew for “the scribe,” says he remembers returning to a life of observance.
“Something just clicked,” he says. “I realized that my parents were trying to help me and some of the things I had thought were not correct.” Since DeScribe has returned to Hasidism, he’s kept it kosher-literally. He works as a mashgiach at New York University’s kosher kitchen, where students call him rabbi.
But his stomach isn’t great one night at OPM, a club on Emmons Avenue in Brooklyn. It is the afterparty for Salita’s September victory and DeScribe is slated to take the stage. He says he is unsure if he will perform because he has a cold. He takes the stage anyway and in the next room, Helen Challenger is serving drinks. The brunette stops and walks over to get a better view.
“He’s pretty good,” she says. “I didn’t expect him to look like that. He has a genuine sound. I would go see him at his next concert and I will check him out online.”
Will DeScribe be the breakout artist of 2011? Nothing is certain but all signs point to that being the case. On stage, he often performs with such zeal, it seems he’s singing as if his life depended on the performance. Speaking to him, he has the joy of a child that has gotten great news. What drives him?
“I still remember meeting the Lubavitcher Rebbe when I was a little boy,” he says. “I remember his eyes. There was such a focus and power so I feel that in my music and in my message I need to have focus and I need to bring my power.”
And he will never forget what one of his teachers once told him.
“I had a teacher that flat out said I wouldn’t make anything of myself,” he recalls. “When a teacher says that, it hurts. I have to admit it was definitely a motivator.”
He starts to get excited and talk in a much louder voice and he gives his last motivation.
“It’s kind of crazy that you have Jewish college kids who walk on eggshells,” he says. “Jews should not have to apologize for being Jewish and we should never apologize for having Israel as our homeland. My music is about unity and we all have one God whether we are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, we are brothers and we share this world together.”
He adds that he’s made many friends and he is closer with “some of my black brothers than I am with my Chabad brothers.”
Reflecting on his career, he says this is his year and this is his time. And he isn’t taking anything for granted because no matter what happens, he says he will keep in mind how he once roamed the streets aimlessly and was trapped in a monotonous malaise of melancholy.
“I was a little pisher,” he says, explaining that he was no big-shot.
Will it be the year that DeScribe brings some magic from behind the curtain? One thing is certain. Soon everyone will know that this former pisher now has some flow.