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Taking Jewish Harvard Rap to the Max

By Kurt P. Slawitschka, Contributing Writer

Friday morning set the tone for what was certain to be a rap battle for the ages—one He-bro versus another. Yes, two Jewish rappers, Maxbetter S. Vizelberg ’14 and Max Elstein Keisler—a third-year Extension School student—were set to have a rap battle near Harvard Hillel. Just as things were heating up, disaster struck: “I’m a pacifist,” Vizelberg said.

Indeed, both were uncomfortable with the idea of a “battle.” Elstein Keisler—or “DR K”—cited logistical problems and said that there wasn’t a good beat to rap to, and Vizelberg said plainly, “I don’t freestyle.”

Just as it looked like there wouldn’t be a battle after all, they both agreed to take a new approach and have, as DR K coined it, “the Harvard Cipher.” According to DR K, a cipher is a collaboration of two or more rappers freestyling with each other. The two rappers proceeded to show off their skills and elaborate on the role that Judiasm plays in their lives as rappers.

Vizelburg, who has had moderate YouTube success with Harvard- and Jewish-themed raps, shies away from categorization. “Personally, I would brand myself as a student and wouldn’t necessarily take the term rapper,” Vizelberg said. “I just happen to write poetry, which can be delivered in the form of raps, like with a beat in the background.” He maintained that he only raps occasionally: “I enjoy making raps for my friends for their birthdays or special events, maybe a holiday.” He thinks that the image of himself as a “Jewish rapper” might come from a YouTube video he made for but does not think it is an accurate representation of his work. “I wouldn’t label myself as a ‘Jewish rapper,’” Vizelberg said.

DR K also resists the idea of being categorized by his religion. “I do rap about Jewish issues, and I don’t avoid them, and I’m not going to be like, ‘Oh, don’t call me a Jewish rapper,’ but I’m not going to market myself as a Jewish rapper, you feel me?” he asked. DR K also recently released an album. “You know, I rap for myself man. I rap stuff I think about, stuff I care about,” DR K said. His album, called “Pay To The Order Of DR K,” covers a range of ideas, including uniquely Jewish issues. “I have a track on my album called ‘Where I’m From’ where I kind of rap the history of the Zionist movement in the whole 20th century.” His second album,which is in production, is a collaboration with other native Bostonian rappers.

Both acknowledge that Judaism is an influence in their art to different extents. Vizelberg said that he only writes about Judaism in his lyrics on an infrequent basis. “I’ll cater [raps] to important things that are relevant in [audience members’] lives, so if they’re not Jewish, then clearly the content wouldn’t be related to Judaism, but if they’re Jewish, then I’ll throw in some [relevant] aspects,” he said.

DR K presented a slightly different view on the role of Judaism in his lyrics. “I would say that it does play a pretty large influence, just because I’m a rapper, and…the culture I came from, what books I read growing up, and what politics I have—that’s very influenced by Judaism,” he said. DR K elaborated on the specific themes that Judaism brings into his work. “I’d say the feeling of being somewhat of an outsider in America shows up in my lyrics. That’s just the American Jewish experience of, you know, ‘You’re not quite in this one culture, and you’re not quite in this other one,’” he said.

What was supposed to be a rap battle ended in a short and simple cipher. It displayed the capabilities of these two very different students who refuse to be classified—even as rappers. “Shout out to your favorite Adams resident,” Max Vizelberg and the “real and trill” DR K for showing their lyrical capabilities and defining themselves outside of the Jewish Harvard rap community.

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