Andy Bernstein knows what it’s like to be an outsider.
He was the only Jewish kid in his high school class when he grew up in the Greektown area of downtown Toronto. When he started writing and performing hip hop, Bernstein was one of the few Jewish white rappers in Canada, if not North America.
Now Bernstein, 38, is embracing the rebel-with-a-cause role as he prepares to release his first hip-hop album without any beats or DJ accompaniment. Instead, Sitting Music features Abdominal – Bernstein’s rap moniker – and the Obliques, a guitarist-percussionist duo providing a more traditional musical layer to the rhymes.
Going acoustic is an about-face for a rapper who’s played shows across Canada and the United Kingdom with a hip-hop DJ. His past two albums were also heavy on traditional hip-hop beats, but now he’s stripping it down to the basics.
“What always drew me to hip hop were the lyrics,” Bernstein says in an interview on a sunny Saturday afternoon on College Street. “I want the lyrics to be heard by the audience… and I always try to write lyrics people wouldn’t consider disposable.”
Sitting Music does indeed stress the words rather than the backing music; Bernstein’s lyrics resonate clearly, the music never muffling the lines. Most tunes slip in a jazzy and chill vibe over top Bernstein’s raps.
His subject matter also reflects the maturity of an artist who’s uninterested in rapping about money, women and self-congratulations. Instead, Bernstein will write one rap about his family – guest-starring his mom actually rapping – and then another about a harsh breakup.
“I’m not 20 years old anymore. I’ve gone through some life experience, and I wanted to be open to being vulnerable and introspective,” Bernstein says.
Then again, Bernstein can be playful, evidenced by his ode to chicken wings on Sitting Music. His fans shouldn’t be too surprised, since on previous albums he’s written about being a bike courier, open relationships and why people should heed the walk-left, stand-right rule on escalators.
Beyond Sitting Music’s release, Bernstein is busy making a living “being behind a microphone,” as he describes it. He hosts a dance party at Supermarket in Kensington Market on Saturday nights, and also co-hosts Hip-Hop Karaoke, a popular monthly show at the Toronto club Revival that allows any rap lover to take the stage to perform songs in a karaoke format. “I’ve hosted one bar mitzvah, too,” Bernstein says, smiling.
Bernstein also ventured into a literary opportunity: he’s worked on Book Tunes, a hip-hop summary of well-known books, such as The Scarlet Letter and Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness. Bernstein calls them a musical Coles Notes, allowing students to better retain the plots and themes of a given book. “It can be challenging to sum up 600 pages into one hip-hop song,” Bernstein admits, “and yeah, would love to do some CanCon sometime, maybe Margaret Atwood or Richler down the road.”
Bernstein gives credit to his parents for encouraging him to pursue a life of music. It helps when your dad is a pun master and your mom is an English teacher/librarian. “They let me do what makes me happy, not pressuring to find a typical nine-to-five career.” He pauses. “Well, maybe a little bit of pressure, it wouldn’t be a Jewish family without that.”