The Self-Prescribed Therapy of 'Dr. Rapp'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His friends tell him he is crazy when he asks them to go with him to Leimert Park in Los Angeles' Crenshaw district, asking: "Do I need a gun? Do I need a bulletproof vest?"

Dr. Sherman A. Hershfield, 63, still has not persuaded any of his friends to go with him, but every Thursday night he makes his way by bus to Leimert Park where he is embraced as "Dr. Rapp."

He may practice medicine in the San Fernando Valley and live hard by Beverly Hills, but for the past two years he has been part of the "posse" at Project Blowed, the citadel of Los Angeles' underground rap scene.

"There are a lot of misconceptions by white people about the area," said Hershfield, who is board certified in neurology and physical medicine and rehabilitation. "It's very cultural with a lot of interesting places."

The arts community in Leimert Park is a center of black culture, with galleries, shops, restaurants and clubs featuring jazz and blues. Rap music, part of the scene since the mid-1980s, has evolved from an earlier project called "I Fresh" to Project Blowed--a workshop, its sponsors insist, not a club.

Hershfield travels there by bus because he stopped driving more than a decade ago when he started having seizures, a condition that he now controls with medication. Rap music has been part of his self-prescribed therapy.

"This is getting me more grounded," he said. "This is my foundation. I find it very beneficial, and I can see how it can be beneficial for young people with autism or attention deficit disorder."

Even the most aspiring young rappers can be apprehensive about "throwin' the real" freestyle with "dope" MCs like AceyAlone, AbstractRude, 2Mex, Subtitle, Gel-One and Slant Eyes at "The Blowed," as the workshop is known.

Hershfield may appear tentative at first glance, but he does not hesitate to plunge in.

As he walked a short, dimly lit block to the workshop on Thursday, young blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians stepped from the shadows to greet him.

"This is like the Harvard of rap," Hershfield said, standing outside where about 20 rappers, waiting for the workshop to begin, formed a circle and started to freestyle--reciting extemporaneous rhymes.

He edged closer, his face growing brighter as he listened. Before long he was at the center, once again testing his rhymes against some of the best "Blowdians," as workshop regulars call themselves.

"Oh, I think I'm going to cry," an amazed Gabriela Orozco, 18, of Whittier, said as she listened. "I mean . . . he's doing it."

Orozco is among the growing group of Latinos, Asians and white youngsters who have joined black rappers and made Project Blowed a Thursday night must.

"When you come here, nobody is going to give you an attitude." said Albert Gomez, a workshop deejay. "You're going to see all different races. People come from different states, different countries. You see a white person with a Latino and a black person in the same [rap] group."

Project Blowed has become a magnet, attracting via the Internet a rainbow tribe from as far away as Australia and the Czech Republic, said Cal Arts media professor Ben Caldwell, the moving force behind the workshop.

Although Hershfield didn't know it at the time, his path to the workshop began in the late 1980s when his illness hit him.

"I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I was falling asleep at the wheel. No one ever considered that this could be a seizure disorder."

After he suffered a grand mal seizure, doctors at the UCLA Medical Center first thought he might have contracted AIDS by pricking himself with a needle.

An MRI scan, however, showed that he had suffered multiple small strokes, and his illness was diagnosed as antiphospholipid syndrome.

"The blood clots faster in this illness," Hershfield said. "That leads to these primary little strokes. I have to be on a high level of anticoagulants. I'm on that now. I'm doing very well."

About 10 years ago he noticed that he had started to talk and think in rhyme.

"I was a volunteer at the Simon Weisenthal Center." he said, "and I did the Holocaust in rhyme."

It begins:

God, this is a tough thing to write

The feeling I got in my heart tonight

Just to think of the Holocaust

So deep and sadly blue

And still so many people

Don't think it's true.

He developed an interest in rap music, but he didn't know how to get started.

"I had grown up with Chopin and Tchaikovsky," he said.

His mother was a well-known pianist in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he had grown up, graduated from medical school and followed his father and uncles into medicine.

As he waited for a bus one day, a man selling jewelry on Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue heard his Holocaust rap and told him he should take it to Leimert Park.

"I asked him where is Leimert Park," Hershfield said. "I had never been there."

He found the place that has become as important to him as his medical practice. When a group of youngsters asked him his name, he said, "Dr. Rapp," and began reading from his "Holocaust."

"I had Chopin playing on my tape," he said. "They all were going, 'Uh hunh, uh hunh.' Then a guy said, 'OK. Get rid of that music and let's hear you rap."

The late Richard "5th Street Dick" Fulton came out of his coffee shop and told him: "If you can't keep up with those kids, then you'd better do something else."

Taking the path less traveled is part of Hershfield's nature. When medical malpractice insurance rates skyrocketed in the 1970s, he decided to drop out and went to work in a fish and chips restaurant.

"I learned to bake fish," he said, wryly.

His first marriage failed, the result of his working too many days and too many hours, he said. He married his current wife, Michiko, 14 years ago after meeting her at a meeting of Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist sect.

Record producers have talked to him about a possible contract, and he has kept Fulton's admonition in his head.

He decided to keep on rapping, and his notices at Project Blowed keep getting better.

"I've seen Dr. Rapp rock the whole house," said Tasha Wiggins, 26, who helps run Project Blowed.

She also has been there on nights when he heard the dreaded chant: "Please pass the mike." When your "vibe" isn't right, Wiggins said, the crowd will ask you to leave the stage.

"He's not a kid, though he may be a kid at heart," she said. "He is not 'of color,' but his spice is what contributes to the whole seasoning package here."

A Blowdian who would only identify himself as Babu said he was first suspicious of Hershfield.

"First of all, he's Caucasian around all these people of color. I thought he was some kind of spy. But when he got up there and put his blow down, I said I guess not. He's pretty good. It was his own thing, and that's what rap is about--originality."

Giovanni Marks, 21, known among rappers as "Subtitle," said he first had to get over "the initial, aesthetic image of an older gentleman up there rapping. But once you do that and you realize the circumstances behind his rapping--his seizures--it's pretty interesting. He's come here and flourished. It's really cool."

Rappers at the workshop remember one very hot night when Hershfield gave them a scare.

"Dr. Rapp had a seizure, kinda passed out," Wiggins said. "Other rappers caught him. Everybody stopped what they were doing, trying to nurture Dr. Rapp. They took him outside, gave him water, fanned him, gave him a chair.

"It was love."

As Gomez's turntables drove a throbbing beat through the house on Thursday, Hershfield said: "I can feel it. It's starting to flow."

Then he had the mike:

I have the deepest respect

And no neglect

For all of you

And everyone of the crew . . .

Me, I'm just a beginning medical intern of rap

Trying to express and open my trap . . .

Jaime Solorzano, 22, of Pasadena, and his friend Lori-Ann Schaeffer, 21, of Burbank, were in the crowd cheering and throwing "mad props"--extreme respect--as he left the stage.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°