The famous rapper tells of life in prison and thriving as a Jew.
Ten years ago, 21-year-old Shyne had it all: a debut album hurtling toward a million copies sold, appearances on MTV and Jay Leno, and concert crowds of 50,000. Shyne was at the height of his youthful creativity, enjoying unparalleled fame and its accessories like a Lamborghini and private plane.
And then in a flash, it all went poof. A murky nightclub shooting where three people were injured put him in a maximum security prison for nine years.
Today, Shyne – officially, Moshe Levy Ben-David – lives in Jerusalem and observes Shabbat, kashrut, the whole nine yards. By day, he studies Torah with a chassidic rabbinic judge, a rabbi in the Mir Yeshiva, and with the indefatigable Jeff Seidel.
By night, he continues to make hip-hop music for the Def Jam label. Gone are the diamond-studded teeth, but the chic dark sunglasses remain.
In a wide-ranging interview at the Aish World Center in Jerusalem, Shyne discussed his inner city upbringing, the rise and fall of his musical career – and how through it all he retained a steadfast faith in God.
Aish.com: You’re an anomaly – dressed in chassidic garb, with a Pink Floyd t-shirt underneath. Who was your role model growing up?
Shyne: Dovid HaMelech (King David). He came from the bottom. He was the outcast of the family. I see that in myself. People thought I was worthless and wouldn’t amount to anything. David never gave up and was always determined, no matter whether he was a shepherd or a king. I hesitate to draw parallels, because I don’t want to appear to be saying that I come anywhere near the level of Dovid HaMelech. But in some way, all Jews are spiritual branches of the biblical giants, and I see the parallels in my own life.
Exactly how does the Bible inspire you?
I am a man of emet, truth. One thing I especially love about Judaism is that it indicts everyone. If Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it – he gets called to task. If Sarah laughs, she is indicted. Nobody gets a pass. And that’s one of the ways I know it’s true that the Jews walked through the Red Sea and stood at Mount Sinai. Other religions tend to falsify and romanticize, with saints and infallibility. But with the Torah heroes, the truth of their entire life is laid bare. That means I can connect it to my own life. After everything they went through and succeeded, by the grace of God, I know that I can get through it all, too.
Your relationship with God began when you were young, growing up in Belize.
My grandmother wasn’t religious, but she was always peppering her conversations with Bible stories. So from the earliest age, I knew to call out to Someone greater than myself. I was an advanced child; I started speaking before age one. At about age 7, we moved to Brooklyn. I came to the realization that just as there is a hierarchy in our lives – parents, teachers, presidents – there must also be a hierarchy to all existence. I intuited the existence of God, and built a relationship with Him through prayer, conversations and pleas.
How did that relationship mature over time?
A lot of people ask Hashem (God) to help when they get into trouble. But they don’t always like the answer. Whenever I went through difficulties, did bad things and made mistakes, I would make a promise to God: “I’m sorry I did it, and I won’t do it again. Now please help me get out of this.” Teshuva (repentance) is not only saying “I’m sorry.” Teshuva means that when the same opportunity presents itself again, this time you make the right choice.
So when I got into trouble for stealing, I made my promise to Hashem: I will never steal again. From then on, I would not hop the turnstile in the subway station and I would not steal a piece of chewing gum. I got into fights with guys who tried to draw me into the bad things they were doing. I was being tested and I took my bumps and bruises. But my environment never defined me. I always had the courage to be me.
What were some of your roughest moments as a teen?
When I was 15, I got shot. Got my shoulder ripped off. When people grow up surrounded by drugs and alcohol abuse, with fathers beating mothers, almost anything can trigger a situation where a guy pulls out a 12-guage and tries to blow your head off. Because he doesn’t want to live. And if he doesn’t value his own life, he won’t value yours.
At one point they wanted to put me in reform school, but one principal recognized that would be a mistake. He told me, “You should be at a school for gifted children.” So he sent me to Urban Academy in Manhattan which is like a university for high school kids. That took my development to a whole new level. I dodged that bullet. I always saw the Divine providence leading me through.
How did you get involved in music?
I aspire to the luxuries of life, and I knew if I worked hard enough I could get nice things – the right way. I promised God that I would never again be involved in criminal activity. So the day I graduated from high school, I bought an 18-speed bike. While other guys were selling crack and doing all types of godless things, I paid for myself to go to college. I delivered messages all day to earn money, through rain and cold, and then I went to classes in the evenings.
During this time, I’d be riding across the Brooklyn Bridge and rap songs would come into my head. I’ve always been an avid music fan – Bob Marley, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Run DMC – but I never imagined I could make my own music. Everybody is a karaoke, everybody sings in the shower. But I knew with certitude that these songs were great. And I knew that if I could get them presented to the right people, I’d be one of the next musical titans.
So your goal was to become a great rap artist?
I was not thinking to be a rapper. I was focusing on not ending up in jail or in the grave. Most rappers sing about a fantasy life of riding off into the sunset. But it’s not like that. It’s a lot of pain and scars that can’t be healed. Kids are being sold a lifestyle that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies. There’s so much destruction and the music that’s being pushed on them is glorifying and romanticizing a life that deep down, nobody wants.
Kids need to stop acting like they’re in the Wild West.
These kids need to stop acting like they’re in the Wild West and call a truce. All men have the capacity to be bloodthirsty killers. But they can also aspire to be like God, in His image as they were created. That’s what Hillel said: “Love thy neighbor as thyself; the rest is commentary.”
So I said to God: “If you let me be a music giant, I promise I will use my influence for the right thing. I’ll let these kids know in a very candid way that violence is not the life they should want.“ That’s the deal.
Your first album was pretty raw in terms of cursing and misogyny.
I knew that I couldn’t come out “holier than thou” and pointing my finger. I had to first connect with the audience I’m trying to reach and let them know that I’m one of them. Who better to speak to these kids than a fellow veteran who was on that battlefield and earned his purple heart. That’s why some of my earlier music is not what I’d recommend a rabbi listen to, because I was talking to a different audience. In order to bring these zombies to life, I had to let them know I was once dead, too.
Things clicked, and all my dreams came true.
In the midst of it came your big test – the nightclub shooting that sent you to jail.
All men are great in their minds, heroes in theory. But what happens in real time, on the ground? Whatever greatness you want to achieve, you have to go through a challenge to get there. You need to pass the test in order to “own” that greatness. So God created a force to tempt us, to give us that phenomenal uniquely human pleasure of “free will.” By this time I had already been through so much adversity. That was the preparation, and this was the final exam.
I was someone who spoke about character and integrity, with high standards and big ambitions. So God said: Okay, you got to this level and now you’re with the big boys. But if you want me to continue making investments in you, to trust you with the keys, I need to know that you’re with me 100 percent. So let’s pull out the carpet and let’s see – is he gonna believe? Instead of flying in a private jet, he’s in Rykers Island with a toilet next to head and rats running under his feet. What’s he gonna do now? Will he remain loyal?
How did you hope to pass such an enormous test?
I never lost sight of Hashem. I knew that Dovid HaMelech survived his own enormous challenges; his son even tried to kill him. So I told God: “I’m not happy with this. I don’t understand this. But you are not going to lose me because of this. I am sticking with You 100 percent.”
I didn’t blame nobody. It was ordained for the entire situation to go down that way.
God in His wisdom made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had gotten every single thing I wanted. The car I wanted, the house I wanted, and most importantly the critical acclaim I wanted. Guys that I used to look up to were now coming to me and saying, “Incredible – I love your album.” I was living a dream. And so when the nightmare hit, I had the dream to remember. Some people say it’s better not to have had it, than to have lost it. In prison I knew this was false, because I was sitting with young kids facing 50 years-to-life that never had a chance for one moment of glory.
So I stayed focused on how grateful I am. God took me out of the slums to the top tier of entertainment. So even if I don’t sell one more record, even if I never again perform in front of an audience, I am so grateful that all of my dreams have come true. I just focus on everything that God has done for me – which is beyond belief. Unimaginable.
What was the hardest part about being locked behind bars?
It was tough to be away from my mom and to break her heart. It was devastating not to be creative. It was torture not to be able to walk down the block. Last night I took a walk, just to look at the stars. I couldn’t do that for ten years! But let me tell you – Hashem balanced it out with a lot of kindness. A prison officer would curse me out, and the next thing a magazine would arrive with my picture on the cover, or my video would appear on the screen. God’s kindness and judgment is always in perfect balance.
I took the Moses approach: We just saw a miracle, and it’s gonna be alright.
I looked at my success as a miracle, like I’d walked through the Red Sea. So if I ended up wandering in the desert, I wasn’t going to think that’s a bad thing. I didn’t take the approach like those complainers who wanted to go back to Egypt. I took the Moses approach: We just saw a miracle, and it’s gonna be alright. I’ve got a t-shirt that says “Guns ‘n Moses.”
When it came time to make my first album, I did everything myself – I picked every beat, the marketing plan, everything. I knew I wanted to be the mogul, the entrepreneur. For the Israelites, there were certain comforts to being under Pharaoh’s rule. But they wanted freedom. So with me, going to prison was an ultimate freedom. I didn’t have a recording contract anymore. I was totally on my own.
I didn’t look at it as punishment, but rather as tikkun (spiritual repair). What happened to me was a wake-up call, like Hashem saying to Adam, “Where are you?” Where is your soul? This was my “Adam moment.” I’m a very ambitious guy. My dreams are grandiose. And that costs a lot. The accountant in Heaven cuts no corners.
You speak about personal freedom. But some people perceive observant Judaism – with all its restrictions – as the antithesis of freedom.
My philosophy is that it’s better to be a slave to God than a slave to man. I gotta serve somebody. Serving God makes me a master. I will bow down to God, but not to man. My subservience to God allows me to be free from man. I can rely on Hashem every day, every way. But man is susceptible to dishonor and immorality. You have athletes and entertainers that overdose on drugs, because they have no limits. They have become masters without being servants of God. There is no one to divine boundaries and tell them when to stop. So they snort cocaine and drink, but one day their heart explodes. I understood that possibility for me, and I knew that I needed boundaries, to set limits for myself.
How, for example, does following the Torah make you a master?
Not working on Shabbat. I never looked at it as a burden, but as something that any successful person would do. You need time to reflect, to introspect, and to look forward as a visionary. I started keeping Shabbos seven years ago. I understood the genius of how it gives life definition and form. You see so many guys who just go and go and go – until one day they snap and end up in rehab. Guys who are famous with tens of millions of dollars, who can buy anything they want. But they’re still miserable. So how am I gonna be any different?
Obviously the animal in me rejects these boundaries, because it just wants to be wild and free. But the higher part of me understands how unrestrained freedom is destructive. I wore a t-shirt the other day with a picture of Kurt Cobain, a rock star who blew his brains out. I wore that to remind me why I’m a Torah Jew, because if I don’t follow these laws, this could be me. If you set boundaries for yourself, when you are clear on the lines not to cross, you’re alright. I want to know the laws. I don’t want to know the leniencies.
I came from the slums, and I understand that nobody is infallible. Nobody is beyond reproach. I’ve seen them all go down, crash and burn. The commandments are the training for how not to destroy yourself – because man is his own worst enemy. Dovid HaMelech taught me: Be a slave to Hashem and a master among men.
You’ve been through so much adversity, and have come through strong and proud.
On my mother’s side, it’s a genetic Jewish trait to transform the most destructive situations into a benefit to the soul. From Mount Sinai to the Holocaust, throughout history, the Israelite always finds a way. The origin of the shtreimel (a fur hat work by many Chassidim) is that European Jews were forced to wear foxtails to identify them as Jews. They weren’t beaten down by it; instead they transformed it into something majestic and regal.
You have two new albums coming out, Gangland and Messiah. How do they differ from your previous releases?
My music is a result of who I am. There’s still outrage and fury, but it’s channeled in the right place. So rather than speaking about killing guys in the inner city, I want the heads of the politicians and the business leaders who don’t care about the desolation and poverty around the world. The real power is not in blowing anyone’s head off, but in exposing and indicting those responsible for the problems. Dovid HaMelech represented “fire,” and that’s me.
My rabbis told me that I couldn’t curse on the new albums. I looked at them and said, “You don’t understand. That’s impossible!” But I did it. My name is Ben-David, son of David. I’m still a warrior on the front line. But it’s clean.
What message are you trying to send the inner city kids?
I could be in Paris right now hanging out with Lady Gaga. But when kids see me in Jerusalem, that bears a message of transformation and growth. Who wants to be selling crack all day to poor people? Everybody wants a normal, peaceful life. I was there in hell, and I want to show these kids an alternative. The Israelites are ambassadors for God. I’m not afraid to shout that I got everything from God – the good and the bad. Somebody asked me the other day, “What if your Judaism hurts your record sales?” And I said, “I don’t count on statistics. I just stay loyal to Hashem, and follow my soul.”