The Four Questions: Gangsta Rabbi
JDub Records' first digital-only release, Steve "Gangsta Rabbi" Lieberman's DiKtaToR 17, comes out on April 20. The number refers to the fact that DiKtaToR 17 was the Gangsta Rabbi's 17th CD. That tally doesn't include the 38 cassette albums he recorded previously.
This prolific one-man band combines bass guitar (with the distortion turned way up), vocals, drum machine, and flute. Add that up, and you get a combination that isn't the epitome of commercial appeal. What the Gangsta Rabbi does embody is a dedicated artist who has stayed true to his craft for two decades, with punk aesthetic and a shout-it-out-loud Jewish identity. It's not for everybody. But if JDub signed him, he must be doing something right.
Here he is in his own words.
1. Your album is the first release for JDub Digital. What is it about your music that leads to success in the online niche?
Firstly, to be on JDub Digital is a dream and could be a subject of a future trivia question on Jeopardy! The answer: DiKtaToR 17. What was the first release of JDub Digital? LOL. I've been "stalking" them since the summer of 2008, inviting them to any big show I had. Then, because of their new platform, and my tireless self-promotion, I was able to sign with them.
What may have contributed to my online "success" (my gross income for 22,000+ sales in 7 years has been about $2,000, as Napster and others pay $.0002 per stream--they have to stream a song 50 times for me to earn a penny, but nevertheless a "sale") is I was here as a punk solo artist since 1991, and never went away, building a small but burgeoning cult following. Before the 17 CDs, there were 38 cassette tapes between 1991 and 2001. Then there was the house fire, and I lost my Tascam 4-track and replaced it with a 2002 Korg D1600, which I still use. I got GangstaRabbi.com in 2003 and updated it every day during the Jewish Lightning sessions. In 2005, I joined MySpace, where you first found me right before the release of Punkifier and did your first interview with me. Now I have 42,000 friends there and 137,000 hits to GangstaRabbi.com, ranking it like 4,000,000th in the world. As you know, I blog every aspect of my life, from the details of every show and every record release as well as the more personal aspects, such as my battle with bi-polar/major depressive disorder. Perhaps people relate to this. And musically, some who thought of my early records as "trainwrecks" went there in curiosity and some became devoted. I take many controversial stances, as you know, being ferociously openly Jewish in a time many hide their Judaism for safety purposes and trying to be the spokesman for the downtrodden. All of this adds up but very slowly to "success."
In the "live" arena, however, success is harder to find. In 2009, I played all of 5 shows. 2010 is way better so far. I did the JDub Purim show, where I saw you, and am having at least momentary success in the Long Island Punk Scene. I work very hard for everything. Some love me, many more hate me, and it all adds up.
2. Not too many musicians can claim that they've shared the stage with Weezer at Madison Square Garden. How did that come about?
Now this is kind of cool. A new rock radio station called 101.9 WRXP came on the air in February 2008. At least for the following year, radio was again worth something, for the first time since the '80s anyway. So to promote Weezer's 2008 Red Album tour and their stint at the Garden, WRXP had a contest open for players of guitars, winds, horns, and miscellaneous instruments: the 2 winners from each category would join Weezer on stage for 2 songs--at MSG! For me, I just had to decide which category I should enter. LOL. I was finishing up my Overthrow the Government CD at the time, and there was a song called "I'm Jethro Tull," which has a like 20-second-long a capella flute intro. Right before Shabbos, I think 9/19, I submitted it, not thinking anything would happen. I went on the WRXP site after Shabbos, and there was "Steve L-Overthrow the Government" under 'Wind" entries, going against a very talented classical flute player. So I posted bulletins all over the net to [get people to] vote for me, and when the voting was over, I won with like 60.4% of the vote.
I got a call the next day from the Promotions gal at WRXP with the instructions--to play the Garden! I had 1 day to memorize like 6 possible Weezer tunes. The big problem here was I found out that Weezer tunes everything down 1/2 step, causing the chords to be lots of F#'s, Bb's, and the like, which I avoid in my own compositions. They had picked "Beverly Hills" and "Island in the Sun" for that night. I memorized them. I and the other flute player were asked to stay in front of the guest musicians, which was cool for publicity purposes! The roar of the 20,000+ crowd was overwhelming, but to me, not half as loud or half as important as 20 people who came to see me!
3. You've called yourself "The King of Jewish Punk." In what way does your music capture the essence of "Jewish Punk"?
Michael, I know if anyone would have a degree in all things "Jewish Punk," it would be you, based on your extensive research and writing on the subject, and far more artists in your theses would qualify over me as "king." But what's cool is that both "Jewish" and "punk" are outsider groups, and no researcher can ever deny my outsiderness, or my Jewishness, or my punkdom.
In my own beliefs, I am so not a "king" but a "servitor" based on [the idea that] we all must possess humility to properly serve G-d. But a proper "king" must have gotten there by suffering, toil, battle for one's beliefs, and the like, all of which I did much of just in order to make music. I was in college when the Ramones and Sex Pistols first came out, so unlike most if not all of Jewish punk artists, I witnessed the birth of punk and its evolution and wanted to do something about it when it first died.
Years after my 1st tape, 1991's Bang the Bass Bopmania, as I studied, it was a natural thing to meld this abrasive music with stories of the plights of the Hebrew people, from Biblical times to post-Holocaust. And I did it, in different degrees over the 18 CDs [including one already recorded album that has yet to be released in either CD or digital format], perhaps peaking with #16, 2009's Diaspora, which is a concept CD going historically from Abraham to the 2008-9 Gaza conflict.
I go on stage anywhere from a biker bar, where danger lurks all around for a proud Jew, to a much more safe JDub Records-sponsored event, with the star of David, my heritage, and service of my G-d all shouted proudly to the punk beat and chords. I've been doing this for 20 years and will do it for 20 more. I hope at least some think it's "Cool to Be Hebrew" because of me and proclaim me the "servitor of Jewish punk" (not as catchy as "king" but more true!).
4. Do your Jewish beliefs inform your decision to be vegetarian?
It was actually a very pivotal time in my life, the winter of 1994-1995. I was 36 1/2 and already going through mid-life crisis for years. In December 1994, like 2 weeks before I played my first big show as a solo act, the Freeport First Night New Year's Eve thingy, someone left a gift-wrapped Bible in my office, anonymously. For the 7 years following my bar mitzvah, I was very religious, but I lost my way because of playing in bands and multiple marriages/divorces in a short time. On the night of 12/19/1994, I opened the Bible and read the entire Torah. When I got to Genesis 12, Abram's calling, I thought again, "Wow, I'm one of G-d's Chosen people." By early 1995, I studied feverishly and became observant overnight.
At this same time, for the 3rd time in my life, I pondered vegetarianism. The first 2 times, in 1979 and 1980, after 6 weeks I became progressively quite sick with anemia both times. This seemed like a perfect time to try again. Originally, although G-d gave man dominion over the animals, both were given only plants for food. It wasn't until Genesis 9, after the fall of mankind, that He give Noah and his sons the right to eat their fellow creatures. Although throughout the Scriptures there are Commandments dealing with the kindness to animals, epitomized in Numbers 22, when G-d gives Bala'am's donkey the power of speech after his cruelty to her, much of the Torah and history accounted for in the Books of the Prophets dealt with ritual animal sacrifice to G-d, so vegetarianism is not in itself required to serve G-d.
I went to the Long Island Game farm and was petting a cow, and she licked me, just like my puppy Buttons would do. Buttons was my first dog, a subject of many of my early tunes. If this cow had a related soul to Buttons, I should no longer have her kind killed for my benefit. So on the 18th of Acher'on-13 3445, 3/20/1995, in this spirit, I became vegetarian, never to stray for 15 years this month.