Hip-Hop Vs. Hebrew?


What better name for a rapper than Michael Rapaport?

"I am Rapaport," says the actor/director who will never be mistaken for Judd Hirsch or, for that matter, the late Cleavon Little, onetime stars of Broadway's "I'm Not Rappaport."

He is that — and so much more. The 41-year-old Rapaport beats rhapsodic about rap, and has done so ever since he was a kid. Indeed, the actor, whose copious film credits include Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite," has found rap and hip-hop as aphrodisiacs that have turned his head — and stolen his soul — since spinning the records of spit-takes and poetry in his native New York.

But how exactly does a member of the tribe — Rapaport is proudly Jewish — direct a film about A Tribe Called Quest, a seminal hip-hop band that was a harbinger of the movement? ("Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" opens in the area on July 22.)

His father, says Michael of "Disco" David, a prominent New York radio program manager, beat others to the sound in the '70s, and his 9-year-old son at home found rapture in rap.

"It was perfect; it was Dr. Seuss come to life," recalls Rapaport, relaxing in a swanky Center City hotel, a perfect contrast to his working-class roots, casual attire and roustabout appeal as an everyman actor.

But not every man names his kid after a rap star — which Michael did with son Maceo Shane, in honor of Vincent "Maseo" Mason of De La Soul.

Is Rapaport the sole Jewish film director to wrap his arms and soul around this music? Could be — but then he's been palling around with black culture for years.

"My core group of friends" in the old neighborhood "was black; I have a nostalgia for that time."

NWA — nostalgia with aptitude? Rapaport made a name for himself realizing a reel version of that friendship. The star of "Zebrahead" — his breakout flick in 1992 — was cast as a Jewish kid in love with a black girl in hell-on-wheels Detroit.

Any wonder he sees his career in black and white, too? " 'Zebrahead,' " he concedes, "was meant to be. It came from my involvement and comfort level" in black culture.

Meanwhile, the kid's Jewish culture was benched a bit because of his love for basketball. Hip-hop and Hebrew were different languages. "I couldn't go to Hebrew school because I had to go to basketball practice," he says of his hoop rather than Haftorah dreams as priority.

"If I wanted to make it in the NBA, I had to practice," says the tall actor who fell somewhat short of his oversized goal — although he was named MVP in last year's NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game. Still, he could size up a hero perfectly in worshiping Dr. J of the Sixers.

Deep six the Bar Mitzvah but number Jewish rights and rituals among his concerns. "I was raised in an open-minded home" with an emphasis on equality of all races. "My parents were big influences" as were their Russian-Polish Jewish ancestry. (Mom June Brody was a radio star.)

"For me being Jewish is more about the cultural" aspect than the religious. "And it's about fighting stereotypes."

And that includes movie myth-takes on what a tough guy should look like. "I always liked that I was a red-headed Jew who played tough characters," says the star of such films as "True Romance," "Copland" and "Higher Learning," which taught him to reach levels he hadn't explored before — which is a natural, he explains with a laugh, when you're a Jew playing a neo-Nazi skinhead on screen.

Friendlier versions were offered in TV's "The War at Home" and roles in "Friends," "Boston Public" and "My Name Is Earl."

But his name is Rapaport. Any problems with hip-hop heroes accepting this white Jewish director? Public enemy-cum-insider? "I was accepted immediately" although there had been reports of A Tribe Called Quest being queasy over the final product.

"The Love Movement" a more apt title for their final release in 1998 than a description of their rap on Rapaport? No, any controversy or recriminations had more to do with their own inner conflicts, claims Rapaport of the band, which disbanded in 1998 only to go on tour in 2008, the focus of the film.

The docu gives an ear to Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White as the Tribe tour and war rages and unravels, with narratives also from big Busta Rhymes and reasons for their success noted by DJ Red Alert and others.

It's all a bigtime achievement for Rapaport — although he concedes he did miss out on one goal he really wanted.

The rap on that? It had nothing to do with hip-hop but everything to do with the Holocaust. "I was fighting for that part," chuckles the actor over wanting to be one of the "Inglorious Basterds," the 2009 Quentin Tarantino flick in which a mythical special war unit of Nazi-hunters uses methods to corral their victims that would have startled even Simon Wiesenthal.

Rapaport made a major effort to land the part of Sergeant Donny Donowitz, the head-bashing Basterd whose Louisville Slugger split open many a Nazi noggin.

Going to bat for the role meant a major-league push: "This is my part!" he says he argued with Tarantino. The role went to Eli Roth. "To this day," Rapaport laughs, "my father is upset I didn't get" that part.

But he'll never part ways with his love of hip-hop, says Rapaport, whose onscreen ode owes much to that love. After all, what could be more natural than this Jew jiving with hip-hop?

This "Red" has cred — including appearances in a number of hip-hop musical videos with Jay Z, Ludacris and Masta Ace.

Master of his domain: Shouldn't that be klezmer, he is kidded? Rapaport laughs; just another stereotype to deflate.

Hip-hop is his happenin'; fight the power of racism, charges Rapaport. "Why not open up lines of communication?"

To that end, A Tribe Called Quest has spoken.

And continues to rap.


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