Seven or eight years ago I was at a neighbor’s house when I was introduced to his brother in law, some dude named Aaron Handelman. I liked the guy immediately. He was smart and expressive and passionate, and he knew absolutely, positively everything about rap and hip-hop. Toward the end of our conversation he said, without a morsel of cockiness, “I was in a group that got some MTV play a while back. It’s on YouTube.”
I was skeptical until, moments later, we hit the nearby computer and (dang!) there was Aaron, starring in Bad Ronald’s “Let’s Begin” video, rising out of a garbage can with a load of marijuana smoke, then dancing around with a bunch of hot girls in diapers (I can’t make this up).
Over the ensuing months, weeks and years, Aaron (aka MC White Owl) have developed a wonderful friendship, and even a working relationship. He agreed to do a Walter Payton rap for the release of Sweetness—and it was phenomenal. He also did a piece to celebrate the ’86 Mets–equally kick-ass. Best of all, he has a pretty amazing story to tell: A musical dream fulfilled, then lost in the aftermath of 9.11; an undying love of hip-hop and for making music; a devotion to weed and a pursuit of the perfect song.
Here, in Quaz No. 76, MC White Owl discusses what it takes to make it in the music business; why Bad Ronald didn’t last and why, for him, writing a song is equal to creating a child. Oh, and he thinks aliens might exist.
One can listen to White Owl’s latest songs here, and follow him on Twitter here. You can download—for free—much of his work here.
MC White Owl, kick it …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so I love your saga, because it’s so crazy. In 2000, you hit the musical jackpot, signing a record deal with Warner. You’re not Bad Ronald yet. It’s just you and a pal from Long Island named Doug Ray. Lame phrasing for a first question, but please tell the story … what happened to make Bad Ronald?
MC WHITE OWL: First of all, thanks you so much for interviewing me. My name is Aaron Handelman, from Greenburgh, NY. My stage names are DJ WhiteOwl1, aka DJ Sweat, aka MC WhiteOwl aka MC DiggumSmax, and together with Mr. Bruno Beatz, we are 1State Hip Hop. 1State Hip Hop is a music and movie production company that we started this past January, so that we can produce hip-hop, r&b, soul and reggae—from A to Z.
I have worked as a DJ and as an MC, in some capacity, from age 11. I DJed at BBQs, school dances, backyard and house parties, and anywhere that would have me. I started rapping in the lunchroom at school, and on the playground. I had always written music in my mind, but in fifth grade I started to write down the lyrics and actually spin vinyl that my parents had.
I fell in love with hip-hop on 98.7 Kiss FM, and on 107.5 WBLS FM. This was before Yo! MTV Raps, and the radio meant everything.
DJ Red Alert and DJ Chuck Chillout were my idols. If they played a song, more than 50 percent of the time I loved it. I stayed up late at night to record cassettes of them mixing music live on the airwaves. FM radio was fun, accessible, and I was a native New Yorker, ahead of the curve.
I first realized the possibilities of home production when I realized that some of my parents’ funk and rock records had drum solos. Now I realized that I could sample the same music and make hit records. I continued DJing and MCing throughout my years at Woodlands High School in Greenburgh N.Y. I spent my senior year doing an internship for the “WISE,” aka Woodlands Senior Individual Experience, which was a program at Woodlands High School. I worked at Wild Pitch Records. Many greats MCs and DJs were signed to the label, including Main Source, Lord Finesse, DJ Mike Smooth, N-Tyce, Ultramagnetic M.C.s, The U.M.C.’s, Gang Starr, Large Professor and THE COUP.
At SUNY Binghamton I DJed on the radio station, WHRW. My demos began to receive attention. My first Hip-Hop mix CD was in the store named Burkina, on Houston and Orchard, in the Lower East Side. I have the original tapes.
I had several hip-hop and reggae mixes, and being paid to do what you love is empowering.
In 1997, Dale Blackwood, my program director at WHRW at SUNY, took me on an all-expenses-paid journey to the Gavin Radio Convention in Atlanta . I met many famous DJs and MCs, and I felt right at home. I drove down to Atlanta and we had a great trip. I got to hang out with my favorite Brooklyn MC at the time, Buckshot of Black Moon and Boot Camp Click. He said that I could make it if I gave it my all. He heard me freestyle and said I was talented. I was in heaven. I met Lauryn Hill, and we talked for a quick 10 minutes after she performed with the Fugees. She was sweet and kind and gave me some great advice.
When I graduated Binghamton in 1998, I got a job at a music studio named Sacred Noise. They produced music for TV, movies and commercials. Michael Montes and Jeff Rosner, the owners, saw that I had talent. They let me scratch records on some TV spots. I did a song with Robert Dukes for a movie named “Whipped.” One of the Producers there, Ravi Krishnaswami, sent my demo into a production team, who had an ad in the Village Voice.
I went to Pop Roxxx Recordings in early 2000, and I met the producers who assembled Bad Ronald. Kaz Gamble was a singer who worked for Pop Roxxx. He was also our engineer. DJ Deetalx was a DJ from Minnesota, who went to NYU. I was one year out of college, 23. Strike Foul was the second MC, from Long Island.
However, after one month of work Strike Foul was called to the armed forces. Pop Roxxx believed we needed two MC’s one singer and one DJ. So I invited my friend’s little brother into the group. He was also from Greenburgh. His name was Doug Ray.
J.P.: You had a song, Let’s Begin, that was all over MTV, and can be heard in the backdrop of a dozen or so TV shows and movies. When I play it for people, they always know it, even if they can’t ID the name of the song or the group. How did Let’s Begin come to be? Who wrote it? How long did it take? And now, a decade later, do you see value in it? Do you like the song?
OWL: I see the value, but I do not like the forced-for-radio rock/rap combo.
At the time I was 24, underpaid at my 9-to-7, working 10-hour days … and I needed to rhyme. I used to do open mics at least 2 times a week in New York City. I DJed for the Concrete Jungle at Wetlands. I DJed all over Brooklyn. I was a young man, loose in New York City, with my mind wide open to the possibilities of the world and the universe at large. I was living with my future wife, we were both gainfully employed, and The Dream was to have a hit record, and go on tour, not to work in an office.
I was a huge herb smoker, and I wanted to help legalize medicinal marijuana, and Warner Brothers/Reprise gave me a chance to have my voice heard. “Let’s Begin” was our first written and recorded song as Bad Ronald. The song was supposed to make a simple statement—relax and have fun.
I wrote half of the chorus and my verse, Kaz wrote his verse, and Doug wrote half the chorus and his verse. I think Kaz and Doug made the beat. When Warner put the song on the radio in July of 2001, the public response was good enough to warrant a $400,000 digital video concept and direction by Marc Klasfield. We were on TRL for a short time, and movies and TV shows picked up the song.
That said, it felt very cold and businesslike. The guys in the group did not get along well, and traveling in a bus with five guys is not cool. I prefer a jet or a Coach Liner.
J.P.: You have a recurring theme in your songs—marijuana smoking, and lots of marijuana smoking. I’m wondering, as the father of two young children, do you worry about this? Like, at some point they’re gonna listen to your songs and it’s gonna snap—“Dad says it’s awesome to get high … all the time.”
OWL: I am not worried. Herb doesn’t change your personality. It amplifies aspects, but I am a happy person, and I love my children forever. I’d take a bullet for them no problem.
I do not smoke around them. Not in the house. I smoke when I meditate in private. In Hebrew, Kaneh-Bosm is Cannabis. Ancient sources identify this with the sweet calmus. The scent of the Kings. Marijuana was buried with King Solomon, and many other important leaders throughout time and space. It is a plant. The late, great Bob Marley said “The more herb is burned, the more Babylon shall fall.” Herb frees the mind of society’s mental shackles.
Albert Einstein on cannabis: “The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”
Personally, marijuana frees my soul. I feel relaxed when smoking and closer to God. The herb is here for us. The seeds are nourishment, hemp oil is clean and good for you, and the U.S. encouraged farmers to grow hemp during the Civil War and World War I. Hemp is a fantastic fiber and food and a life-sustaining plant. It’s a seed-bearing herb. Marijuana helps cancer patients during chemotherapy, causing them to stomach solid foods that they normally could not eat. It is good for glaucoma, relieving pressure on the eyes. It is good for many mood disorders, like anxiety and bi-polar.
J.P.: September 11, 2001, obviously, caused a LOT more harm than destroying a hip-hop group’s musical journey. But it did destroy your journey, didn’t it? And, if so, how?
OWL: It did not destroy my journey or my vision. I love hip-hop and all music, and I make music as a therapy for myself. Music as Medicine!
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I traveled to Tower Records in Union Square NYC, and at 9:38 am, I took pictures in front of my album cover, which was blown up inside the store window. I still have the Bad Ronald CD I bought, and the original receipt.
The album had an American flag on the cover, which was from the Easy Rider “Stars and Stripes” motorcycle helmet. Warner put it there, we did not choose the art. Kaz had the helmet, and someone from the label photographed it. Anyway, my wife took pictures, and I kissed her goodbye. She headed downtown to Hudson and Spring Street.
I went home to 34th and Third, and went to the roof of my building to smoke herb. I saw one of the twin towers get hit. I ran down stairs, and I still haven’t come to terms with what happened.
My cousin Greg called me and said it was an attack. I feared what I had since I was little—World War III.
Bad Ronald went on tour for October and November of 2001, but there was no energy. We did not get along. We did not see eye to eye.
I got a studio in Hell’s Kitchen for six months and made my own songs. The Pop Roxxx guys tried to get us to make another album. I thought they were joking. I decided that for my sophomore album, I would do it right. When the time was right! When I had my own money and didn’t have to take orders from pop music fans.
Of course, 9/11/01 crushed me, and I still am not fully accepting that it happened. It is a deep wound in the soul of every New Yorker, and every American. It was a heinous act by psychopaths. However, I believe that love is the only solution. All nations must group together to find solutions. Peaceful solutions. How does the United States stockpile weapons, and expect other countries to not follow the leader?
J.P.: After Bad Ronald went belly up, you sort of distanced yourself from hip-hop. Got married, got jobs, etc. Why? And did you miss it?
OWL: I actually did not distance myself. I just stopped dealing with the Pop Roxxx camp. I went back to my roots.
I stayed out four nights a week in New York City, from 2002 to 2008, rhyming, writing, DJing, and generally causing a fucking ruckus. I was always greeted with open arms. New York has shown me a ton of love, and New York City is the ultimate muse. I’ve crossed paths with many famous MC’s and DJ’s. I’ve battled many rappers, and I always hold my own. In 2004 and 2005, Manny DeCastillo, a promoter in New York City, got me a bunch of amazing DJ jobs. I also wrote and wrote and wrote, and thanks to my great friend Chip Love, who has put out three albums, I continued honing my skills in the studio.
J.P.: I hate asking the clichéd white rapper question, but here it is. Do you think your path was harder or easier via pigmentation? Did it make you more unique (ie: was Warner looking for white kids), or more suspect? And do you think, in 2012, skin color no longer matters?
OWL: I believe that I am a great MC and DJ because of the love I have for the art. My path was harder in middle school and high school, because I was surrounded by great MCs and DJs. Towns like Greenburgh, White Plains, Hartsdale, Irvington, Tarrytown, Peekskill, New Rochelle, Mt. Vernon, Yonkers and Port Chester have deep talent. My friends always teased me, until they realized I was a great DJ and good MC.
I got a record deal because I was a white MC. However, I would have gotten a record deal one way or another, no matter what. Right place, right time, every time. The universe makes no mistakes.
J.P.: You’re on something of a comeback movement. Here you are, approaching 40, no label deal since the early 2000s, a suburban dad and husband. A. Why? B. How has the industry changed since you last had a deal? C. What are the goals?
OWL: I am 36-years young. I am in peak physical shape. Lift weights five days a week, and bike six days. I am a true MC. I write and write and freestyle and DJ and produce. I write intelligent music and lyrics for intelligent people.
If you listen to my word play, you have to think about what is being said. I speak what is on my mind. I make very catchy beats, and I use samples and original work. I know how to make people relax and enjoy life.
J.P.: What do you say to people who make comments like, “I hate rap. The violence, the sexism, the horrible messages. I just hate it.”
OWL: You are listening to the wrong hip-hop. Record companies and advertising agencies have used hip-hop music to advance their own greedy agendas. Real hip-hop is about peace, love, unity, respect and love for your neighbor. Real hip-hop doesn’t encourage violence or drug use. Go buy some KRS ONE, BDP, 3xDope, Public Enemy, X-Clan, PRT, Tribe Called Quest, Native Tongues, D.I.T.C. and of course anything from the Mighty Zulu Nation. There are hundreds of positive MCs and DJs who do not encourage violence. Violence is never the answer.
J.P.: Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you think aliens populated the earth at one time …
OWL: Honestly, I am not sure how to answer this. I believe “We are what we have been waiting for.” I believe that DNA is the code for all life in the entire universe. It is possible that intelligent life is everywhere, and it might resemble us. It might not.
With the quantum physics and quantum mechanics, breakthroughs are now happening, and anything is possible. I believe we all create our own reality. There are particles that move faster than the speed of light. Our brains are super computers.
Time travel is possible during certain psychedelic use. Perhaps we are of this planet earth, perhaps we are not. Maybe the twelve Tribes of Israel were twelve ships that landed on earth 5,773 years ago and populated areas. Perhaps we are all made in the spirit of the one unifying energy known as G-D?
I’m not committed to an answer. Anything is possible.
J.P.: How do you write a song? Literally, what’s the process like, from beginning to end? How does your mind work?
OWL: Songs are like children. Some come easy, and quick, no struggle, as if you’re subconscious wanted the material to be delivered ASAP. “The Secret” is a song I wrote in two hours. The beat took one day. It is a sample of the reggae group The Twinkle Brothers. After the beat was done, I wrote to it.
If I write on a subject like the 1986 Mets or Walter Payton, I research and attempt to illuminate the best features and qualities of the subject at hand. I write the lyrics first, or freestyle them and record them, and then make several beats to fit.
With word play and battle raps, the writing process for one verse could be three hours. It is a loving process. I do it all for fun and love of music.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DJ WHITE OWL:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall: Yes, the bumps were wicked and the plane was shaking and I figured that it was all over. Seemed like it was going to break apart in the air. I was on the way home from Florida , with my dad, from visiting my 93-year-old grandma. I said my peace to G-d, prayed for my family and children.
• Here’s the 20-second challenge: Write a quick rap that incorporates Fig Newtons, Eli Manning, Starbucks and the number 2,543: I’ve eaten two thousand, five hundred, and 43 fig newtons / Starbucks extra grandes before debating Rasputin / Eli Manning is the man, number 10 on his back / I’m big enough to hit him, and create a mass attack / My flow is never wack, you should play the back / Or the skin on your cheek, might get a slap.
• Rank in order (favorite the least): Phil Simms, tuna salad, 2008 Ford Focus, Celine Dion, Kid n Play, tile, pot brownies, Chinese takeout, your left foot, Big Pun, Paul Ryan, Emmitt Smith, Toy Story 3, Angry Birds, iPhone 5, Cracker Barrel: 1. Chinese takeout; 2. Kid n Play; 3. Big Pun; 4. Pot brownies (I’d rather vaporize my herb or bong hit it); 5. My left foot; 6. Phil Simms; 7. Toy Story 3; 8. Angry Birds; 9. Iphone 5; 10. Emmitt Smith; 11. 2008 Ford Focus; 12. Cracker Barrel; 14. Celine Dion; 14. Paul Ryan.
• 10 Greatest Hip-hop albums of all time: 1. Eric B. and Rakim—Follow the Leader; 2. De La Soul—3 Feet High and Rising; 3. Nas—Illmatic; 4. 3 X Dope—Original Stylin; 5. Nice & Smooth—Nice and Smooth; 6. A Tribe Called Quest—People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm; 7. Eric B and Rakim—Paid in Full; 8. EPmD—Strictly Business; 9. Redman—Whut The Album; 10. Cypress Hill—Cypress Hill.
• You recently did a song that morphed hip-hop and Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone.” Why?: I loved the concept that the She’s Gone chorus helped me say “She Never left.” Hall and Oates are sampled saying “Hip-hop is gone,” and I’m screaming back to the music, “No, she’s with us!” Hip-hop is not gone, she’s being cared for by thugs and hippies and a lot of humans, worldwide. But New York City has the best hip-hop at all times, always. Trust I.
• If you had to guess, what three scents do you think Andy Griffith smelled like?: Whiskey, cigars, herbs.
• Would you rather eat the carcass of a 30-day-old rotting slab of salmon, or go on a three-week vacation with Doug Ray?: Eat the fish—can’t do vacations with ex-band members.
• Why do you think the Wonder Twins never got their due?: Who are they? Not sure to be honest.
• Celine Dion calls, wants you to go on tour with her for a year to do hip-hop versions of all her hits. She’ll pay $5 million, but ever show ends with you running across the stage in a chicken suit, screaming, “Celine and I are Egg-zactly alike?” You in?: Yes. All in. Balls to the wall or until somebody falls. I might run around naked. I’ve done it before in front if a big crowd. That’s my word. Or with a mink and no boxers.
• Finish the joke: “Flavor Flav walks into a bar …”: And he drinks for free, forever. I love you, Flav. You the Mandingo, my G.