How a stroke turned a 63-year-old man into a legend of rap • Good Assurance


Dr. Sherman Hershfield woke up one morning and was surprised to find himself driving his car. Somewhere between his Beverly Hills apartment and his office in the San Fernando Valley, the silver-haired doctor had fainted. In a way, he had avoided a crash, but it was not the first time. "I did not know what was going on," he admitted.

Hershfield was in good health for a man in his fifties. He was tall and thin, running six kilometers a day and was a strict vegetarian. "I think that a doctor should provide exemplary motivation to patients," he wrote. "I do not smoke and I cut alcohol." Hershfield specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation and had been helping brain injured patients for decades to learn to walk and rebuild their lives. Even with his experience, Hershfield did not know what was wrong in his head.

Maybe the mystery breakdowns were caused by stress, he wondered. Hershfield was the medical director of the rehabilitation center at the San Bernardino Community Hospital, but he also ran a private practice 32 km away at Winnetka, offering non-surgical spine treatments. "Sometimes I worked from 6 am to 3 am," he said, adding that the pressure had cost him his first marriage. At the hospital, Hershfield often slept in the doctor's salon, where his colleagues nicknamed him "Dr. Columbo" according to the disheveled television inspector.

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Shortly after the start of power outages, Hershfield suffered an epileptic fit – the type that most people would imagine when they think of a crisis. He was led to the emergency room, struggling and writhing like a 6-foot-4 inch fish out of the water. Concerned doctors at the UCLA medical center rushed into an MRI machine and, in the late 1980s, wondered if he could have gotten stung with a needle and contracting AIDS. Instead, the analysis revealed that his power outages were actually a swarm of small strokes and that his illness had been diagnosed as an antiphospholipid syndrome. Hershfield's immune system was creating antibodies that made his blood more likely to clot. These clots, if they entered his blood and brain, could kill him at any time.

The doctors prescribed anticoagulants and forced Hershfield to stop driving, but he was still able to practice medicine. Like many survivors of a stroke, his speech became cloudy and he sometimes stammered. His personality also seemed to change. He suddenly became obsessed with reading and writing poetry. Soon, Hershfield's friends noticed another unusual side effect: he could not stop talking rhyming. He finished his sentences every day with verses that rhymed, like, "Now I have to take the bus, it's enough to make me talk." And oddly, every time he rhymed, his speech troubles disappeared.

Brain attack or stroke can occur at any time. One occurs every 40 seconds in the United States and can lead to permanent disability and extraordinary side effects. Some patients become hypersexual or compulsive gamblers. Others even woke up talking with a fake Chinese accent. "There was a famous guy in Italy who had what they called" Pinocchio Syndrome, "said Dr. Alice Flaherty, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "When he lied, he would have a fit. He was crippled as a businessman.

One of Dr. Flaherty's most famous cases is Tommy McHugh, a 51-year-old Briton who had a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a stroke caused by bleeding around the brain. Once a gray-haired ex-prisoner, McHugh's attack changed his personality. He became profoundly philosophical and spent 19 hours a day reading poetry, speaking rhyming, painting and drawing. He had never been to an art gallery before, he joked, "except maybe to steal something".

For Hershfield, his love of poetry was also completely out of place with his past. He was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1936. While his mother was a concert pianist, he followed his father to the faculty of medicine and graduated in 1960. In Flin Flon, a Canadian mining town, he repaired his head injured hockey players. then became resident at the University of Minnesota, before serving in the medical corps of the US Army. In 1973, he came to Southern California and set up his practice, where he had very little time to read anything but medical journals.

His problems began during the medical malpractice crisis in the 1970s. The lawsuits against doctors became popular and the cost of Hershfield's liability insurance increased from $ 864 to $ 3,420. As a sign of protest, he stopped working, except in emergency cases, and started frying fish at Thousand Oaks Fish and Chips for $ 2 an hour. American newspapers have reported on the doctor who was frying fish while wearing hospital clothes, adding that Hershfield "felt like he was about to operate four cod fillets." He explained: "I've always been a person of high moral value. I thought, what do I want from life? And it comes out, I want to be happy.

Hershfield returned to medicine, but things got worse when his business partner and his best friend started abusing drugs. "He was an excellent surgeon, a handsome man who had everything for him … but he was unable to control his constant fears and withdrawal and depression crises, and he tried five times to commit suicide," he said. recalled. Hershfield was present when his friend's heart finally stopped after six days of breathing.

In 1987, he filed for bankruptcy. A year later, he became medical director of the rehab center, where he got the better of his "strange" ideas, such as opening a hospice where pets could stay with their dying owners. It was about the time the blackouts started.

In the 10 years since his stroke, Hershfield has devoted his free time to a Buddhist organization called Soka Gakkai International, where he loved to sing for hours. There he met his second wife, Michiko, a beautiful Japanese divorcee who impressed her with his intellect and three medical certificates. Michiko told me that her husband had "changed a lot" after his stroke. "He loved Japanese haiku poems, you know, five, seven, five."

Hershfield also embraced his Jewish heritage and volunteered at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization. "I made the Holocaust in rhyme," he recalled about the educational poem he was performing on the bus. The city now looked like a rhythmic rhythm section: the brakes whistled. Klaxons. The passengers rang the bell. While Hershfield alone recited his rhymes, he had become just another madman who spoke to himself on public transport. Then, one afternoon, while waiting at a bus stop in Hollywood, a man selling jewelery heard him and suggested he bring his words to Leimert Park.

"Where is Leimert Park?" Asked Hershfield. He had never been there.

Intrigued, he took a bus to the south-central, in front of Crenshaw's Magic Johnson Theater, the neighborhood's mega-churches and liquor stores. At the foot of the Baldwin Hills, he found it – an area with one of the largest African-American populations in the western United States. If Leimert Park had 100 people, only one was white.

Since the 1960s, Leimert Park was the center of African-American culture in Los Angeles: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Ray Charles and Richard Pryor had all lived within five miles of the square. For strangers, it was only known as a hotspot during the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The jazz poet Kamau Daoud told me that locals still referred to the riot as "the rebellion". The village would not quickly forget the four white policemen beat half dead black motorist Rodney King.

It was in the late 1990s when Hershfield got off the bus, dressed as a doctor living in Beverly Hills. He walked in polished shoes to the rhythm of the circle of drums that had gathered in the park, in front of the row of Afrocentric bookshops and shops selling colorful fabrics, where saxophone music emanated from all doors and windows. . At age 43, and in Leimert, he found a crowd of teenagers surrounding a community arts center called "KAOS Network". It must have been that: spontaneous rap battles were starting and dancers were writhing on the sidewalk, like a seizure. At the entrance, a young man gauged him.

"Do you want to hear something?" Hershfield asked politely.

"Of course, what is your name?" Asked the man.

Hershfield looked at him.

"I'm calling Dr. Rapp."

Established in 1984 as a media production center, the KAOS network was renowned for Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop for promising rappers. Since 1995, the project has transformed the dance floor into a living Venn diagram of interpreters from various gang-controlled neighborhoods, mostly African-American teenagers wearing loose-fitting pants, Timberland boots and hats just over the waist. eyes.

"It was clandestine, powerful, loud and scary for people if they were not ready, because it was really volatile," said the owner, Ben Caldwell, a 73-year-old African-American director at the gray beard and clean. . "I had to take a deep breath every time, because it was a group of alpha men." The project was fertile ground for rappers, who were hoping to "blow up," as the l? Aceyalone underground actor, or other more traditional stars. like Jurassic 5. But Hershfield did not know anything about it.

"He said he wanted to do a rhyme on the Holocaust," recalls Caldwell. "I thought it was really insightful. I thought it would be something good to hear for children. It was unusual, but not against "da mutha f ** ckin rulz" pinned at the door, which was starting: "THE BLOWED PROJECT IS PRESENTED FOR HIP LOVE- The sign goes on:" DO NOT YOU DO NOT SEE VIOLENT BECAUSE IT IS A BLACK AND BLACK OPERATED ACTIVITY. "

The entry ticket cost $ 2 to play and $ 4 to watch, and the rappers had to "perform a fine piece of music," wrote Jooyoung Lee in Blowin 'Up, a club story, adding, "The open microphone looks a lot like peer review." Facilitators capable of rap spontaneously – "freestyling" – enjoy the utmost respect. But when a rapper forgets his lines, stutters or unprepared, the crowd forces them to leave the stage with a devastating song:

"Please pass the microphone!"

The DJ demanded the accompaniment music of Hershfield. He gave a cassette of Chopin. Piano music filled the room. Regulars of the public, known as "Blowdians," looked at each other.

"They were all there, uh hunh, hh hunh," recalls Hershfield, but they soon got tired of classical music.

"Agreement," says someone. "Get rid of this music and let yourself hear rap."

Alone on the stage, Hershfield grabbed the microphone and started:

"God, it's a hard thing to write

The feeling that I have in my heart tonight

Just to think of the Holocaust

So deep and sadly blue

And still a lot of people

Do not think it's true. "

The crowd was silent. It was an old man who was reading a poem.

"The first time he was up there, he did not have that success," Caldwell said. But out of respect, the public did not reject it. Project Blowed is called the longest microphone opening session in the world, and they have never seen anyone like Hershfield on stage. "First of all, he is Caucasian around all those people of color," said a regular, Babu. "I thought he was a kind of spy." Hershfield was also the oldest person in the room: "If you were about 30 years old and you still have not had it," a Blowdian named Trenseta would say, "Leave the hop alone, and get you a little job at International House of Pancakes or some shit! "Hershfield was now 63, a dinosaur in the rap years.

Clarence Williams / LA Times

As he emerged in the warm south-central night, Hershfield heard a voice from Fifth Street Dicks, the neighboring cafe: "If you can not follow these kids, you'd better do something else," shouted Richard Fulton. a tall man with graying dreadlocks. The Fulton Jazz Café was home to African-American writers and artists. He had already seen a lot of beaten poets try their luck at Leimert Park – none of them dating back to 90210, America's craziest zip code. "At that time, I thought I was hitting," recalls Hershfield. "I did not hit, I just read poetry. He had no beat. When you're in the street of rap, you must have this rhythm. "

Undeterred, Hershfield put aside his Tchaikovsky records and listened to NWA and Run-DMC. He played rap in the bath, Michiko told me. When she learned that he was preparing for rap fights in South Central, she told him, "You're crazy!" But she could not prevent her from returning to Project Blowed every week, sometimes a mile and a half. walk to Beverly Hills.

"Sherman leaves at 10 pm and goes to Crenshaw," she told her son, Scott. "He spends time with kids and raps." Scott, who went from a teenage professional skateboarder to a hip-hop DJ, was now in his twenties and regularly giving concerts in clubs filled with celebrities in Hollywood. When he saw his father-in-law knocking at home, he felt embarrassed.

"Sherman, you rhyme a little bit, you put words together, but you know so many Latin words, you should rap on neurology, really get into the science of what you would do … that would be great," he says. he. Scott encouraged his stepfather to look more like hip-hop rappers than he admired. "Even though I'm from the west coast, most of the things I really liked were hip-hop from the 90's on the east coast … I liked KRS-One."

By the mid-1980s, KRS-One was out of the Bronx as the emcee of Boogie Down Productions, with the flagship album Criminal Minded. As a solo artist, he had created one of the most enduring records of hip-hop, Sound of Da Police, and was now a prominent scholar and speaker in the rap field. One evening in October 1999, Hershfield heard that KRS-One was talking about the history of rap at a hip-hop event in Hollywood and decided to move on. "Try to imagine a hip-hop gathering," KRS-One told me late last year. "You know, hood animators, breakers, DJs, the music is explosive. I give you permission to stereotype. Then walk, this guy. It was as if Larry David had been walking in a video clip of Snoop Dogg.

During question period, Hershfield caught the microphone and began to tell his story.

He explained that he found his tongue after a stroke while listening to rap records. "One of them was one of my songs," KRS-One recalled.

Hershfield could not stop.

"I started having a stroke," he hit. "We broke down."

The room was silent.

"I started thinking and talking rhyming. I can do it all the time. And I want to rap, and I will not take any more of this shit. "

The crowd broke.

When Hershfield talked about his struggles and not his history lessons, he inspired the audience.

"He was applauded," recalls KRS-One. He gave his phone number to the doctor and suggested he go out.

"I did not know anything about him," recalls Hershfield. "I just knew he was in the same category as Tupac Shakur." When Hershfield spoke to his son-in-law about his new friend, Scott was stunned. "You know, you really should listen to his music and listen to his words," he told his father-in-law. But inside, Scott thought, let's see how long it lasts. KRS-One?

A few days later, the rap icon arrived at the Hershfield office. KRS-One gave the doctor a signed copy of his book, The science of rap. He too was fascinated by neurology, he said, "I was already talking about how rapping synthesizes these two hemispheres of the brain," KRS-One said. He asked Hershfield if he wanted to participate in an experiment and offered him rap lessons.

"When you try to teach rap, you ask him to sing with a song he may have heard," KRS-One told me. He plays Rapper's Delight in the Sugar Hill band. The song started:

"I said a hip-hop / hippie to hippie / hip, hip to hip, and you do not stop …"

Then he pressed rewind and encouraged Hershfield to try it.

"He succeeded," said KRS-One.

"He had the pace and rhythm," he added. But the doctor had to work on his delivery, his control of breathing and his utterance. It is thus that an improbable friendship has developed between the blast master and the Buddhist. Both were interested in spirituality: the name of the rapper, "KRS", came from Hare Krishna volunteers with whom he befriended a young past in the streets of the Bronx. And since Hershfield had lost his business partner to suicide, KRS-One had lost his right-hand man, DJ Scott La Rock, shot dead in 1987. This loss shocked the rapper: his words became more political and more realistic. philosophical; he launched a movement called Stop the Violence.

For KRS-One, Hershfield was a pioneer in the theory of rap. "He was talking about neuroplasticity before I heard about it on PBS," KRS-One recalled.

KRS-One suggested they write a book together or record an album in New York.

He told the doctor, "I see you as revolutionizing hip-hop."

HERSHFIELD returned to the Blowing project, where he swore to win the crowd. The former Leimert Park state men took Hershfield under their wing to make sure he had time to play mic and that he returned safely home. . "People respected him and he could work on his chops, on his brain," Caldwell said. "It was interesting to see how well we all accepted it." Caldwell encouraged Hershfield to experiment. "He wanted to do Jewish songs," he said. "And I thought," It's too tight. "

The youngest members of Project Blowed were also attracted to Hershfield. The rappers in the making of South Central suffered from an "existential emergency", wrote Lee Blowin 'Up. It was a race to "succeed" in hip-hop, before their lives were disrupted by gang violence. Like them, Hershfield struck against the clock, not knowing if the next seizure could take place.

Richard Fulton, the owner of the café, became particularly close to Hershfield. Fulton was a cancer survivor and a former drug addict who had once pushed a shopping cart on the 5th street of Skid Row. It was before he found God – and jazz. Against all odds, Fulton, who was born again, started his coffee and music business. His caffeine was strong and the jazz strong. Like Hershfield, Fulton's second life was dominated by a love of music. His slogan was "Increase Music".

Hershfield and Fulton were related spirits, said Erin Kaplan, a journalist who frequented Leimert Park. The two men enjoyed "second chances", she explained, and lived "on time borrowed". Hershfield crawled at Dick's with beat poets, rappers, chess players and jazz musicians. It's there that he fell into the rhythm of Leimert Park.

Every week, for two or three years, Hershfield went on stage at Project Blowing and gave everything he could, sweat on his forehead, steam on the glasses, fists inflated. Sometimes he electrified the crowd, at other times, "Please, pass the microphone!" He learned to promote himself and verify his name. "Dr. Rapp "in his words, just as the pros; he was wearing custom t-shirts and was learning freestyle. He performed on stage and in impromptu "ciphers" under street lights, until the sun rose.

"It was tight," rapper Myka 9 told me, while he was smoking in an alleyway before a performance at Culver City. "He had a slightly angular approach. He had streams, he had thoughtful lines that were thought of, I remember some pretty cool fist lines. Myka 9 remembered having social relations with Hershfield at home parties in South Central, and described him as "a cult personality in his own right. . "

At home, the doctor's wife was worried. "I do not understand why he goes to this region," Michiko told me. Her husband was too generous and confident, she added. "I bought him some nice clothes, Italian-made suits, and sometimes he came back with dirty clothes, he had entrusted the beautiful suit to someone else." With his designer sons and his notebook, Hershfield was a dream for a mugger.

"I do not stop telling him that it's dangerous," Michiko said.

Hershfield insisted that he was safe. These people were his friends, he said.

In the world of hip-hop, Hershfield has not left his enthusiasm. A letter came from a lawyer representing another Dr. Rap, who advised him to find a new name or to face a lawsuit. Hershfield, who had a Ph.D., changed his name to Dr. Flow, but it was too late. His reputation spread.

In early 2000, Hershfield witnessed a speak on violence and rap at California State University in Los Angeles. One of the pioneers of Gangsta Rap, Ice-T, was one of the pioneers of Gangsta Rap. He claimed that violence was an inevitable part of the rap culture. "I am a person who always deals with violence in my music," he told the audience. "Masculinity rules this world. The violent person takes control. Peace provides nothing. "

Hershfield was furious.

"You can not live with hatred!" He shouted before sharing comments with Ice-T in an ugly scene that required the moderator's intervention.

Hershfield was appalled by gang violence and unnecessary killings. Internally, he fought against the fragility of his existence: he had survived a mortal blow and life was a precious gift.

No one was more devastated than Hershfield when Fifth Street Dick's cancer came back. Hershfield was one of the many regulars in Leimert Park to surround Fulton's bed. He found his friend unable to speak, the tumor in his throat so big that his tongue protruded from his mouth. Fulton could only communicate by writing notes and knew that his life would soon disappear. But Hershfield could not accept it.

"If I can sing it, it will recover," said Hershfield, as decades of medical experience were drowned out in denial.

He started his Buddhist chant:

"Nam Myoho Renge Kyo."

Some friends urged Hershfield to stop, but he was not listening. Fulton, 56, could barely breathe, let alone talk.

"We are going to call on his life force," insisted Hershfield.

But on March 18, 2000, jazz fills Fulton's room while he refuses a last injection of morphine. Instead, he says to the nurses in a note: "Increase the music".

Back at Project Blowed, Hershfield stepped up his efforts to dominate the mic. But his double life soon became tense, as his two worlds separated. "His friends in Beverly Hills do not approve of that," said Kaplan, a journalist friend from Hershfield. "They were so shocked. Let's just say that none of his friends came to the party at the open mic. By choosing rap nights rather than night shifts, Hershfield quickly fell into another financial crisis. "I think he was more obsessed with rap than with work," said his son-in-law Scott. Sometimes, Michiko told me that the guys from Leimert Park were lending money to Hershfield for the bus.

Soon, Hershfield's voice became hoarse after shouting rhymes on African drums and staying out all night. Then, during a particularly hot evening, everything went black. "Dr. Rapp had a crisis, "said Tasha Wiggins, who worked for the KAOS network. "Other rappers caught him. Everyone stopped what he was doing, trying to feed Dr. Rapp. While Hershfield was unconscious on the floor, the crowd began to sing his name.

Those who have been struck by the strange side effects of brain damage often speak of their gratitude. Just before dying of cancer, Tommy McHugh, the British convict who became an artist, said his blows were "the most wonderful thing that has happened". He added that they had given him "eleven years of a wonderful adventure that no one could have expected. Dr. Flaherty described McHugh's haemorrhage as "a crack letting the light through." McHugh and Hershfield both had symptoms of what physician and author Oliver Sacks called "sudden musicophilia," a brainwashing creativity after a brain injury or stroke. But for Hershfield, rhyme was no longer a symptom, but a cure.

It was as if one side of Hershfield's brain holding rhymes was healing the broken side that had been bypassed. Brain tests performed by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) on rappers found that, during free strikes, brain activity increased in areas of the brain that engage motivation , language, mood and action. Hershfield said the batter had mastered his fits, and even after collapsing that night at Leimert Park, he had used hip-hop to get back on track and return to the scene.

Soon, Dr. Rapp's notices to Project Blowed began to improve.

"His name was on the lips of the multitudes," remembers Ed Boyer, a Los Angeles Times A journalist who first heard of the rumor that the doctor struck South Central was found in his office and visited Project Blowed to hear him perform. "I saw Dr. Rapp swinging the whole house," Tasha Wiggins said Boyer, as Hershfield came on the scene. Gabriela Orozco, another Project Blowed member, said, "Oh, I think I'm going to cry. I mean … he does it. "

When Dr. Rapp appeared in the spotlight and the DJ's needle found the rhythm, he lost his rhyme:

"I'm just a beginner in rap medicine

Trying to express and open my trap … "

Hershfield's son-in-law, Scott, remembers the morning he opened the Time et vu une photo du Dr Rapp, portant un survêtement Adidas, à mi-chemin, sur les pages Metro du journal. «Tout était si bizarre», a-t-il déclaré.

Le Dr Rapp avait finalement "explosé".

Des équipes de radio et de télévision du Canada et de l'Angleterre se sont rapidement rendues au parc Leimert à la recherche de Hershfield. Ben Caldwell m'a montré des images d'une chaîne de télévision japonaise, qui a filmé Hershfield en attente de prendre le micro. Il ressemblait à un retraité faisant la queue pour un dîner spécial lève-tôt. Puis il a déposé ses rimes, alors que la foule leur faisait des grimaces d'appréciation. Ensuite, Hershfield a fait une sieste sur un canapé. "Il l'a fait assez régulièrement", soupira Caldwell. "Tout le monde a aimé le médecin, même les types de gangsters hardcore", a-t-il ajouté. "Ils l'ont aimé pour son chutzpah."

Hershfield a déclaré aux journalistes que Leimert Park lui avait ouvert les yeux sur un tout nouveau monde. "Il y a beaucoup d'idées fausses sur la région de la part des Blancs", a-t-il déclaré. "C’est très culturel avec beaucoup d’endroits intéressants." Project Blowed était "le Harvard du rap", a-t-il déclaré. “Ceci est ma fondation. Je trouve cela très bénéfique. "

Bien qu'il n'ait jamais enregistré d'album avec KRS-One, Hershfield devait sa carrière de rap underground au Blastmaster. KRS-One, qui vit maintenant à Topanga Canyon, en Californie, m'a dit: «Il a mentionné qu'une de mes chansons l'avait ramené. Il était dans le coma, ils jouaient de la musique pour qu’il essaye de le réveiller. »Il a ajouté:« J’ai rencontré beaucoup de personnes, mais quelques personnes que je n’oublierai jamais. [Hershfield] Le rap l'a guéri… ça me reste… Cela fait partie de ma confiance en le hip-hop. "

Au lieu de se lancer dans une tournée mondiale, le Dr Rapp a continué de payer ses contributions chaque semaine au Project Blowed. En tant que véritable star underground, il a fui le succès grand public. Il est apparu dans un documentaire sur le parc Leimert, non pas en tant qu'acte de nouveauté, mais en tant que membre régulier de l'équipe. "Je ne peux pas vous dire clairement si [rap] dit Michiko, mais je peux vous dire qu'il était heureux quand il faisait de la musique rap. »Hershfield a représenté Project Blowing jusqu'à ce que sa mauvaise santé l'oblige à quitter la musique et les médicaments. Il est décédé d'un cancer à Los Angeles le 29 mars 2013 à l'âge de 76 ans.

Aujourd'hui, Project Blowed vit chaque mardi du réseau KAOS du parc Leimert. La région reste le "coin le plus branché de Los Angeles", selon l’enregistrement sur le répondeur du club. Mais le parc Leimert mène maintenant une nouvelle bataille contre la flambée des prix de l’immobilier et la gentrification. La raison pour laquelle Hershfield a été accepté à Project Blowed, a déclaré Caldwell, est qu’il est arrivé avec un esprit ouvert, il a écouté et a appris. «C’est une chose merveilleuse que j’aime le plus dans les communautés noires américaines», a-t-il déclaré. "Tant que vous n'essayez pas de leur dire comment créer leur propre culture, c'est bon." Depuis le Dr Rapp, des artistes de toutes les races et de tous les milieux ont sauté sur la scène, a ajouté Caldwell. Mais au moment où ils bégaient ou se moquent, c’est toujours pareil:

"S'il vous plaît passer le micro."