The Secret, Untold Story of "Gangsta Dreidel"
We're still smack in the middle of Hanukkah. I know this because Yo La Tengo still has a few of their annual Hanukkah gigs over at Maxwell's to go. And also because people I know on Facebook and Twitter--like they do around this time every year--continue to post this video (typically titled something like "Hanukkah Rap" or "Gangsta Dreidel" and whatnot over on YouTube), usually adding something like "Holy shit, this is the best Hanukkah song of all time!" or citing the immortal opening line: "Back up motherfucker, Hanukkah's here!"
After several years of not knowing who or what the hell was behind this thing, I finally decided to carefully wield the potent powers of the investigative journalisms and figure it out. And figure it out I did. My intensive, 24/7 research (actually, a five-minute Google search and a LinkedIn connection request) eventually led me to Steve Kerper--a 55-year-old Brooklyn-born, Upper West Side-dwelling comedy writer who's one-half of the brains behind this officially unnamed slice of Festival of Lights gold.
"I'm always flattered when people say they found some old bit eight gazillion years later and still think it's funny," says Kerper.
Turns out the clip is from the short-lived-yet-hilarious HBO sketch comedy series Hardcore TV, which ran for one season in 1994 and featured such memorable bits as "Raging Bullwinkle" (which delivered yet another immortal line: "You sucked Mr. Peabody's cock?!") and the brilliantly twisted Bob Ross spoof "Joy of Circumcision" (starring a young Tim Blake Nelson).
Kerper and his former writing partner Dave Kolin were the creators, executive producers, and writers of Hardcore TV--whose cast of actors included future Curb Your Enthusiasm co-star Susie Essman, and which also had Jon Stewart in a behind-the-scenes "punch up the humor" role. Kerper and Kolin had previously created the MTV sketch comedy show Pirate TV, then linked up with famed National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue to develop Hardcore TV for HBO.
One of the show's 15 episodes was a tribute to MTV--Kerper and Kolin had already come up with parodies of The Real World and Cindy Crawford's House of Style, as well as a Zapruder film takeoff with an actress playing Alternative Nation VJ Kennedy. The pair needed another bit, and so this video was born.
"I was seeing people taking traditional songs and turning them into hip-hop songs--a riff or a hook or something--and I said, 'Oh, I'd like to do that, but I have to think of a song,'" says Kerper. "I had to think of the one song that nobody else would do, so I came up with this Hanukkah song. I don't think my idea was that revolutionary, people have done it a million times over the last 20 years, but back then it wasn't as common and I think for the time it had some edge to it."
"I pitched it to Dave and he thought it was funny, and because he comes out of radio and he's much more a musical savant than I was, he kinda put together this hip-hop song with Hanukkah lyrics," says Kerper, who told Kolin he wanted to do something like Onyx's "Slam" and "Throw Ya Gunz" videos.
"I liked Onyx, I guess, because I loved their energy and aggression to the camera," says Kerper.