Born Alex Bernstein and hailing from suburban Maryland, DJ Kool Jew has come a long way since his days back at Beth Shalom Hebrew School. “Even when I was in services, I was always humming, always dreaming of big things.”
As a teen, Bernstein played in a bunch of bands, performing at spots as varied as DC’s dingy Black Cat and the famed Fletcher’s in Baltimore. He enrolled at Bard College last year, intending to study music and literature, but it didn’t last. “I had to figure some shit out,” he says cryptically. Bernstein did what the Jewish refugees of the past have always done in times of turmoil—he moved to NY. While his persona is still shrouded in mystery, the DJ’s musical skills couldn’t be more obvious. We spoke to DJ Kool Jew in his recording studio slash apartment in Brooklyn.
Why call yourself DJ Kool Jew?
It just sort of happened. It reflects how I connect my Judaism with a hip DJ perspective.
For those who haven’t heard your music, how would you describe it?
It’s an eclectic-yet-danceable blend of contemporary Internet culture — using YouTube videos and club-minded back beats.
Who are your musical influences?
I take inspiration from all over the place. I definitely, from a production stand point, look at people like Danger Mouse, Soulico, Timbaland, and all the Shemspeed stuff for guidance. At the same time, I can’t rule out Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, Lee Scratch Perry, or my main man, Matisyahu.
You seem to have some sort of association with Heeb Magazine. Care to share?
I played at their Heebonism event this year, but that’s about it. But I have always loved their magazine. It’s edgy and at times controversial. I admire their ‘we’re not here to please everybody’ attitude. It’s really as ‘street’ as a Jewish organization can be outside of, say, an unfriendly Chasidic man or something.
You had some unusual samples at your premiere performance at Heebonism in NYC this past Christmas Eve. I faintly made out the sound of Zack Galifianakis screaming at one point. Am I nuts?
Ha! Well, no, you’re not nuts, at least in regards to the Zach Galifianakis sample. As I said, my compositions try to bring together disparate elements of Internet and club culture, whether obnoxious, subtle, well-known, or arguably random. The Zach Galifianakis sample, while abrasive, had a musicality to it once it was brought into a sample-context. That is the beauty of sampling as well as YouTube: You can find gems. Something as wild as CBS’s Public Access Holiday Pap Smear Campaign that would otherwise just be regarded as strange on television. YouTube allows anyone to reevaluate commercials, Internet personalities, clips, etc. – and, whether intentional or not, it lets DJs sample these bits of pure, innocent genius to make something larger, new, and most important, danceable out of it. It’s the diamond in the rough effect.
Do you think it’s cool to be a Jew?
In my opinion, absolutely. Because for me, as well as many others I know, the identity associated with being Jewish is one of enigma and experimentalization. You do not need to wear a particular hat, yarmulke or mask to be Jewish and can really find your own niche within it. For me, I use my own heritage and religion to fuel my music, identify with partygoers, fans — those who understand on a deeper and similar level our Judaism. It’s also a religion that puts heavy emphasis on enjoying the moment, being revelrous and loving those around you regardless of differences, at least in theory. This is the part of being Jewish I feel I enjoy the most and find the coolest. That’s why people attending my parties are having the best time.
Listen to DJ Kool Jew’s beats at www.myspace.com/djkooljew.