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Michael Berrin stepped into the A.M. in NYC as a member of rap group 3rd Bass. Now, Berrin has the “D” steppin’ to him as the morning host of “Serch in the A.M.” on WJLB-FM 97.9, the first white DJ at the station since Casey Kasem worked for the old WJLB-AM in the 1950s.
Berrin’s knack for asking endless questions — thus “serching” for truth — earned him his rap moniker, MC Serch. He solidified his place in history when he introduced hip-hop fans to “The Gas Face.” As a member of the trio 3rd Bass, Serch along with Pete Nice and DJ Daddy Rich, broke the mold of typical hip-hop artists.
First, MC Serch was white, his dad was a stockbroker, and he was Jewish. But that didn’t stop 3rd Bass from becoming one of the first white MCs to go gold in 1989 with The Cactus Album and return in 1991 with the gilded Derelicts of Dialect. He kicked the rap door off the hinges and opened it wide as outdoors for Eminem.
“He is the truth,” says Proof, a member of rap group D12 (aka DeShaun Holton). “He was there before the struggle of even today’s top artists. He had to fight. 3rd Bass and the Beastie Boys showed that hip hop can show racial harmony.”
After the success of 3rd Bass, Serch transcended the rap game and did A&R at the now-defunct Wild Pitch label, and later founded a production company, Serchlite Music. With the start-up of his company, Serch realized that he liked the business end of the rap industry. “My second year as a recording artist, I knew that I wanted to be on the other side,” he says. “I was always business-oriented.”
When Serch geared superstar Nas for stardom by including his “Halftime” on the Zebrahead sound track, and later working with him on Illmatic — Serch was executive producer of both — it only helped confirm that his love of hip hop saw him move from beyond the mic to helping other artists who were “One Mic” away from success.
MC Serch didn’t plan to put the mic back in his hand, but he did just that when he moved to Detroit in November to host the morning show on WJLB-FM.
“Serch brings a presence to hip hop — not just through the radio, but the underground scene too,” says Proof, who says his fave 3rd Bass track is “Step Into the A.M.”
Paying homage to 3rd Bass, Serch introduced “Gas Face Fridays” on WJLB, where callers voiced cringe-inducing wack situations. He also has a daily vocabulary lesson called “White Man Word of the Day” which throws out words like “antagonist” and “perpetuate.”
The station gives the actual meaning of the word and program regular Foolish takes it to the street with his own definition. “We try to pick words that are complex and not used in typical conversation,” Serch explains. Foolish uses “antagonist” this way: “I saw this girl at the club and tried to holla’ and she said ‘Ant-taggin’ dis.”
He even brings out his old-school bag of tricks and spits freestyle with Foolish. Serch describes the show as a collaborative effort — from the producer to the engineer — and connects the dots between himself, CoCo and Foolish. “Out of their minds,” he says of his crew.
In between music and jokes from CoCo and Foolish (they’re also local comedians), Serch keeps listeners abreast of the haps on the hip-hop scene via interviews with artists and moguls including Common, Eminem, 50 Cent, Genuwine, and Russell Simmons. With Simmons, Serch coordinated the Detroit Hip-Hop Summit, which will be held April 26 at Cobo Hall.
For this interview, Serch is chillin’ in the conference room at WJLB. He’s both boastful and unpretentious, kind, and unafraid to tell it like he sees it.
Metro Times: What brought you to Detroit?
MC Serch: The station gave me the opportunity to be here and do something that’s never been done before.
Metro Times: Why did you think it was important to have a hip-hop summit in Detroit?
MC Serch: After coming here and realizing the power the hip-hop community had, especially politically, I knew this was the perfect forum for a hip-hop summit.
Metro Times: What do you think of Detroit’s hip-hop scene?
MC Serch: I think Detroit’s hip-hop scene is amazing and more diverse than people give it credit for. There are always hard-edged records. Being a New Yorker your whole life, you become disenfranchised. You hear rap about a hood but not a community. People represent the ‘D’ and I feel like I’ve become part of the ‘D’.
Metro Times: Do you have any plans to record another album?
MC Serch: No. I’m behind the mic every day. That gives me the chance to freestyle. I love to rhyme. I am going to do several Serch in the A.M. compilations with a couple of original songs along with Foolish and CoCo. Running this show is about all I can muster. I want this to be No. 1 in Detroit and I want to crush everything in my way.
Metro Times: What’s your proudest accomplishment?
MC Serch: It’s a toss-up. If I died today, I would want people to remember that Serchlite as a business put out two classic, underrated albums in the annals of hip hop. Nas’ Illmatic and O.C.’s Word Life. The second is that I am a good husband, father and friend. Nothing can eclipse that. (Serch has three children).
Metro Times: What role has radio played in the expansion of hip hop?
MC Serch: I think radio is a double-edged sword. Radio helped capitalize on this groundswell of music that came from the street and helped build it. At first, radio didn’t know how to pick hits; it had to look to the streets for information. The club, vibe, the buzz — that’s what picked a hit. And after the hit came from the street, then radio would pick up on it. Then radio became corporate and no longer looked at streets to find a hit. And hip hop doesn’t work like that.
Metro Times: How does it work?
MC Serch: There are two ways (to get music to the listeners): The first is to give it to a DJ and he’ll play the shit out of it. He’ll tell two friends and so on. The second is to get a demo, sign to a record label and work the system inside out — work the street, freestyles and underground records. 50 Cent came from the street. He did not fall into a preordained system.
Radio is doing a lot to build hip hop, but it is not doing a lot to increase the build. Now, it’s based on what they can position in retail and what they can put in the store. Radio looks at hits and there are so many artists that don’t step out.
Metro Times: What do you think is the formula for success in hip hop?
MC Serch: Originality and not being afraid to experiment. Being uninhibited, relentless and passionate.
Metro Times: Who’s your favorite artist?
MC Serch: Sade. As far as rap, it fluctuates — Scarface, Nas and Rakim.
Metro Times: Who is the greatest lyricist of all time?
MC Serch: There are a lot of great lyricists. If rap stopped today, no more rap records got put out ... memorable lyrics that carry on generation to generation ... [long pause] Tupac. His “Thug Mansion” sounds as if he wrote it this week when it was written seven years ago.
Metro Times: Do you think 3rd Bass opened the hip-hop door for Eminem and other white rappers?
MC Serch: Absolutely. There is a cross-reverse color line when it comes to our music. People didn’t see white — just a dope group. I love that my ghetto past is that genuine. People don’t know that I’m white. It certainly gave people a barometer to judge what’s real and not real. You can’t deny Em’s talents. He would have gone far regardless.
Metro Times: Where do you see hip hop in the next five to 10 years?
MC Serch: More diverse and more styles taking the forefront of popular culture. Like the Nappy Roots. I see other formats playing hip hop and hip hop as a part of country music. … Hip hop will be the popular music enjoyed by everyone — whites, black, Asians, Palestinians.
Hip hop is a great travel guide. You learn what it feels like to live in other places — even if you don’t travel. … You know what streets to avoid in LA and the South Bronx.
Metro Times: What feedback are you receiving from your listeners?
MC Serch: They like how crazy I am. That I can be funny and serious. That I’m grounded, happily married and I’m community oriented. They have an opinion and they will share it. Everybody here is a bigger star than you.
Curtrise Garner is a Detroit-area freelance writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.