On that day a quarter-century when the irate loser of a battle rap — a sort of rhyme-off between rival hip-hop DJs — went ragingly literal and shot a microphone right out of his hands, it probably seemed a little unlikely that MC Serch had a future hosting a TV show where he counseled wayward kids. Or maybe even a future at all. “That guy had a .38, and he was really blasting away,” Serch recalls quite unnostalgically. “I managed to duck and dive and get out alive, but it wasn’t a sure thing.”
But after a richly varied career that includes, in addition to dodging bullets, being probably the first white Jewish rapper, bitter feuds with Vanilla Ice and the Beastie Boys, radio DJing in Miami and Detroit, record promotion and hosting TV talent shows, Serch on Monday opens a new chapter, this one as a daytime television talk host.
Serch debuts at noon Monday on WSFL-CW 39, one of eight major-market stations around the country giving the new show a monthlong tryout. Television programmers are trying to find out if the daytime audience is ready for something new: a talk-show host who tries to help his guests rather than encouraging them to break chairs over one another’s heads.
“You’ve never gonna see a fistfight on my show,” Serch insists. “Instead of watching conflict for conflict’s sake, I think people would like to see a show that gives them resolution. ... People will be interested in the conflict — oh, look what that guy has gotten himself into — but also the resolution — oh, look at this guy, he’s finally getting some help.”
Serch’s guests will be people down on their luck but genuinely interested in turning their lives around. “Kids flirting with the gang-banger life,” he says, ticking off a list of dysfuncions. “An obese guy who hasn’t left the house in two years. Feuding sisters. Young mothers going it alone. A woman who literally drugged her kids away, who did so many drugs that her kids were taken away from her and she didn’t even know.”
Serch offers them jobs, financial help and tough-love counseling to get them to commit to change. Clips from the show include a teenage tough who, asked to raise his shirt, reveals a mass of ugly scars left by three bullet wounds. To the shocked murmur of the studio audience, he sneers: “You have to die sooner or later.” Retorts Serch: “How tough you gonna be in a wheelchair?”
To skeptics who think social work is best performed by professionals rather than TV hosts, Serch just shrugs. Many of his guests don’t need much more than a quick breather from real life coupled with a bit of simple advice to get things back on track.
“I grew up in Queens, in a neighborhood called Rockaway that had some tough places, and I saw this all the time,” he recalls. “When you’re grinding it out on a daily basis just to put food on the table, you sometimes lose your moral compass. You limit your options without even knowing it.
“My show is about how we can take people out of their grind, out of their hustle, for just a couple of hours, help them to learn some stuff they didn’t know, and have some time to think about it.
Serch’s real name is Michael Berrin; His stage name is a corruption of his teenage nickname, Search, which he got because he was always asking questions of friends who got into the late-’80s fads of novelty religions and philosophies.
There were times during his hip-hop years, admits, when his own moral compass went askew. “Hip-hop wasn’t a safe environment in the 1980s,” he acknowledges. “It was rough around the edges, and you kind of dealt with it if you wanted to be in the rap game.”
All the more so when you’re one of the first white faces in the crowd, and Jewish to boot. Serch, who picked up the rap bug from classmates he heard freestyling in the high school basement, soon learned that the new music had a color line as indelible as the one that demarcated pop and R&B in the 1950s.
“There were definitely moments, lots of them, where the racism card did get played,” he remembers. “But you had to fight back with your skill and your abilities to make music.”
He eventually hooked up with one of hip-hop’s first multiracial groups, 3rd Bass, which had some chart success but ironically became best known for feuding with white rappers like the Beastie Boys and Vanilla Ice. The group’s biggest hit, 1991’s Pop Goes The Weasel, was a scathing attack on Vanilla Ice: I guess it's the fact that you can't be artistic/Intricate raps, becomin' so simplistic...
Serch still defends the feuding: “Vanilla Ice was like a clown, a really poor imitation of what rap really was. That people were enjoying his music when they didn’t know Public Enemy or Queen Latifah was a joke.” But, he adds, the quarrel — unlike so many hip-hop squabbles — never went beyond words.
“I never rhymed about glorification of violence,” Serch says. “Mostly we rapped about having a good time and not being disrespectful to women.”
Hip-hop is a young man’s game, and as his chart action faded over the years, Serch moved first into radio — including a two-year stint at the Miami station then known as 103.5 The Beat — and then television, hosting a couple of hip-hop talent-search shows on VH1.
“I‘m not at all surprised that he’s doing TV,” says Eddie Mix, a South Florida record executive who programmed the Miami rock station Power 96 for two decades and knows Serch both as a record promoter and an on-air personality. “He has hustle and the gift of gab.
“Trying to convince people to play records on a top 40 station, where you’re getting 100 new records a day and have room for maybe one, is about the toughest job there, and he was very good at it. And when he went on the air, people loved him. He has a very relatable personality.”
But will TV audiences accept him as a gruff but loving uncle giving advice rather than a hip-hop bad boy? Serch thinks so: “Why not learn about sins from the sinner?”