‘Rhyming Was No Longer a Symptom, But a Cure’: From Stroke Survivor to Rap Legend

In the late ’80s, Sherman Hershfield, a white doctor from Beverly Hills, had a stroke. As a result, he began to slur and stutter, and suddenly became obsessed with reading and writing poetry. And when he rhymed, his speech stumbles disappeared; rapping kept his seizures under control.

Eager to hone his rhyming skills, Hershfield discovered Leimert Park, an area in South Central that had been the center of African American culture in Los Angeles since the ’60s. There, he became a regular at Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop for budding rappers. For Hershfield — who later became known as Dr. Rapp — “rhyming was no longer a symptom, but a cure.”

At the Atlantic, Jeff Maysh tells Hershfield’s incredible story: how he became an underground rap star, befriended hip hop legend KRS-One, and found his flow.

Undeterred, Hershfield put aside his Tchaikovsky records and listened to NWA and Run-DMC. He played rap music in the bath, Michiko told me. When she found out he was preparing for rap battles in South Central, she told him, “You’re crazy!” But she couldn’t stop him from returning to Project Blowed every week, sometimes making the six-and-a-half-mile journey from Beverly Hills on foot.

“Sherman’s leaving at 10 o’clock at night and going to Crenshaw,” she told her son, Scott. “He’s hanging out with kids and rapping.” Scott, who had transitioned from a teenaged professional skateboarder into a hip-hop DJ, was now in his 20s and was scoring regular gigs at Hollywood’s celebrity-filled clubs. When he saw his stepfather rapping at home, he felt embarrassed.

“Sherman, you’re kinda just rhyming, putting words together, but you know so many Latin words, you should rap about neurology, really get into the science of it … that would be amazing,” he said. Scott encouraged his stepfather to be more like the hip-hop rappers he admired. “Even though I’m from the West Coast, most of the stuff I really liked was East Coast ’90s hip-hop … I was into KRS-One.”

In the mid-1980s, KRS-One had emerged from the Bronx as the emcee of Boogie Down Productions, with the seminal album Criminal Minded. As a solo artist, he’d created one of hip-hop’s most enduring records, Sound of Da Police, and was now a leading rap scholar and lecturer. One evening in October 1999, Hershfield heard that KRS-One was speaking about rap history at an event for hip-hoppers in Hollywood, and decided to swing by. “Try to imagine a hip-hop gathering,” KRS-One told me late last year. “You know, emcees from the hood, breakers, DJs, music is blasting. I’m giving you permission to stereotype. Then in walks this dude.” It was like Larry David had wandered into a Snoop Dogg music video.

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