Jewish musicians have figured prominently in some extremely successful, mainstream acts that had punk rock roots but went in a different direction musically. We will focus on the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and P!nk.
The Beastie Boys was a landmark group that helped bring hip-hop to the mainstream in the 1980s. All three members—MCA (Adam Yauch), Mike D. (Mike Diamond), and AdRock (Adam Horovitz)—were Jews who grew up in New York. (It should be noted that MCA later embraced Buddhism.)
The Beastie Boys was originally a hardcore band. Mike D. and MCA were among the original members when the group formed in 1981. They were later joined by AdRock, who had played in the hardcore band The Young and the Useless.
In the group’s early years, the Beastie Boys worked closely with Rick Rubin, a producer and the co-founder of the Def Jam record label. Rubin was Jewish and had played guitar in a punk rock band called the Pricks.
In 1985, the Beastie Boys participated in a cabaret series with a skit called “Three Bad Jewish Brothers.” The band members wore Hasidic garb and rapped versions of Run-DMC songs. One included the lyrics “We are three Jewish brothers” and “Oy!”
Some of the group’s properly released songs also included Jewish references. The 1989 song “Shadrach” mentioned the biblical characters of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The 2004 song “Right Right Now Now” included a line about being a “funky-ass Jew” coupled with a lyric that made a disparaging remark about the KKK.
Relatively speaking, the members of the Beastie Boys did not bring up their Jewish backgrounds too frequently over the course of their long career. But Mike D. at least saw the value in doing so. The following quotation from Mike D. appeared on the back cover of the 2001 book Jews Who Rock:
People who are into our music have mentioned to me that knowing we are Jewish has helped them feel more comfortable in their love of hip-hop and sometimes even more comfortable and reassured in their own identity. If someone reads Jews Who Rock and feels empowered to make music or be creative because they identify with our being Jewish, that to me is a very positive thing.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
The four founders of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were friends from Fairfax High School, in the largely Jewish Fairfax area in Los Angeles. Guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons were both Jewish.
One Peppers manager recalled that Israeli-born Slovak “was a nice Jewish boy,” and bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary remembered that Slovak “was very proud of his [Jewish] heritage.” Slovak and Irons became particularly close after Irons attended Slovak’s 13th birthday party. For his 13th birthday, Slovak received his first guitar as a gift from his uncle.
Slovak got Flea and Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis into punk rock, although they did not embrace it as much as he did. Kiedis has called Slovak “the author of the sound we created” as well as “the heart and soul and the architect of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” Slovak played on the Peppers’ 1985 album, Freaky Styley, which Flea described as “Too funky for white radio, too punk rockin’ for black.” Funk legend George Clinton, who produced Freaky Styley, praised Slovak: “Hillel knew exactly what he wanted. His first run of a solo would always be really slick and jazzy and articulated, just to impress you, and then he’d play it real fast with a punk edge.”
Slovak died of a drug overdose in 1988. Irons was devastated by his friend’s death and left the band.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers would become famous for its mainstream blend of rock and other styles, of which punk rock was not an obvious ingredient. The band’s lineup later included Jewish guitarist Josh Klinghoffer.
Jane’s Addiction has been called “the band that brought metallic punk rock to the mainstream.” The alternative rock band included two Jewish members: drummer Stephen Perkins and singer Perry Farrell. Perkins bought his first drum-set with money he had gotten for his bar mitzvah.
Peretz “Perry Farrell” Bernstein grew up in Queens, New York, where he did not go to synagogue often but would sing before the congregation. In Jane’s Addiction’s heyday in the early 1990s, Farrell told an Amsterdam audience:
I am a Jew by birth! Thanks for hiding my ancestors during the war! No, really, if it weren’t for you people, I wouldn’t be here right now. … Hey, this [shaved head] is not a Nazi look. This is how we looked in the concentration camps. … I guess you don’t understand my humor.
Later on, Farrell would think of himself as more than “a Jew by birth.” He became a ba’al teshuva. According to club promoter Josh Richman, Farrell made pilgrimages to Israel, he prayed with tefillin, and he was the go-to singer for “Dayenu” at Passover seders.
In the pop music world, longtime hit-maker P!nk (pronounced Pink, not “Punk”) has been known for her edge. P!nk (real name Alecia Moore) was born to a Jewish mother (maiden name Kugel). P!nk’s father was not Jewish, and in her youth, she sang gospel music at a church.
As a teenager, P!nk recorded her first original song as the singer of a punk rock band called Middleground. The group was not known outside P!nk’s hometown of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, but it did have a local rivalry with another band, particularly when both performed at a battle of the bands.
P!nk would later become known for performing pop and R&B, not punk rock. Still, at least for those who were not intimately familiar with punk, P!nk was sometimes loosely associated with punk. Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times recalled that when P!nk first surfaced as a pop star, she had “a little bit of that punk thing” and an edge. On her second album, P!nk instead worked with Tim Armstrong of Rancid to create what the documentary P!nk: A Life Less Ordinary called a “harder-edged” album. An engineer who has collaborated with Armstrong noted that P!nk was a Rancid fan who had been into punk rock as a teenager.