Passover is a special time for Jews, not just because the mandated eight-day retreat from carbs helps most of us lose all that bagel weight, but because of the Passover Seder, when we retell the story of how the Israelites were freed from slavery and taken out of Egypt by God and his trusty sidekick, Moses. When told correctly, the Passover story is meant to be inspiring and evoke a sense of appreciation for tradition, and more importantly, freedom.
However, not even Judy Blume could retell the same story for over 2000 years without losing some of its original panache. As a result, many seders have become less about appreciating our peoplehood and freedoms, and more about trying to get drunk off of four cups of wine as grandma complains that she can’t hear shit anymore.
The internet is rife with suggestions on how to spruce up the modern-day seder, ranging from creating Facebook profiles for Moses and Pharaoh, to retelling the entire story as a hip-hopera. And while nothing sounds more painful to me than listening to a bunch of Jews try to rap their way through a seder, that particular suggestion got my mind racing. What if hip-hop had its own version of the seder?
I thought long and hard about who would play who in the hip-hop Passover story. Before I could assign rappers their parts, I had to narrow down which part of hip-hop’s 40+ year history would serve as our setting; after all, the Passover story is just one part of the Jewish people’s history. Even though the Israelites were a people long before their stint as slaves in Egypt, the period in which they went from being slaves in Egypt to freemen at Mt. Sinai is unquestionably the defining moment in history that changed everything for them going forward. I think that defining moment in the history of hip-hop was the era of mid-’90s gangsta rap.
Groups like the Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC and Public Enemy would be our Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — the ones who got it all started — but gangsta rappers would be our Moses and Aaron, the ones to move the story forward in a way we’d never seen nor recovered from.
If the gangsta rap years were the slavery years, then the following decade was the wandering years in the hip-hop desert.
Pharaoh would have to be Suge Knight, controlling Death Row Records and the rap game much like Ramses ruled Egypt. Moses, who was raised as an Egyptian prince but chased off as an Israelite slave, would be analogous to Dr. Dre, and his transition from founding member of NWA to peaceful rapper/producer. His request of Suge Knight to be released from Death Row Records would be equivalent to Moses telling Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Snoop Lion (Snoop Doggy Dogg at the time of the story) would be Aaron, Moses’ right-hand man and protege of sorts.
The plague of blood would still be blood, frogs would be gold-diggers, locusts would be cops and lawyers, and boils would be herpes acquired from groupies. The death of the first born, the plague which finally broke Pharaoh down and temporarily moved him to free the slaves, would be the death of Tupac, which probably softened Suge, if only for a brief moment. I’ll stop there with the direct analogies and begin speaking to a broader, more abstract point, which is that both Israelite slavery and unfortunate violence and death in rap were the necessary evils that got us to a better place in the end.
As the Passover story would ultimately play out, the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert before reaching their Promised Land. It’s been said by several biblical commentators that although Egypt is within spitting distance from Israel, the Jews had to wander the desert for 40 years so the older generation would die out; they lived their lives as slaves, and thus continued on with a slave mentality. Had they been the ones to rebuild their community in the land of milk and honey, not much would have changed. The new generation, though, born during the wandering years, didn’t recognize themselves as slaves, and thus was ready to turn the page on their people’s history and start anew. The Israelites had to suffer through slavery and circle the desert for four decades to end up free people in a land of their own. Life wasn’t perfect in their new land, and there would always be traces of their unfortunate history in their self-deprecating present, but they still ended up in a much better, healthier place than where they started.
If the gangsta rap years were the slavery years, then the following decade of hip-hop dominated by bling and the occasional corny Will Smith song was the wandering years in the hip-hop desert. Sure there are still elements of thug life, materialism, and mainstream marketing at play in the current world of hip-hop, but by and large, the voice with which hip-hop artists can speak now casts a wider net than ever before, largely because the “shoot-em-up/buy-it-all” lifestyle of rappers is no longer the dominant paradigm in rap. The Master Ps and Coolios had to pass in the desert to make room for the Lupe Fiascos and B.O.Bs, who have something else to say in the new landscape of hip-hop.
If there’s one thing both the Israelites and “wander year” rappers had in common, it’s that they both badly wanted someone to make it rain. If there’s one thing I can appreciate about both the Jews and the modern-day rappers, it’s the freedom we all now have to express ourselves on account of the journey and events it took to get us there.
I don’t know that I’ll incorporate hip-hop into my seder this year, but if I do, I’ll be glad to know that if I say “bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks,” it will represent a faded, past mentality, and that my grandma won’t be able to hear me.