The strokes that created Dr. Rapp
A 63-year-old doctor’s seizures left him obsessed with poetry and speaking in rhymes, said journalist Jeff Maysh in The Atlantic—and made Sherman Hershfield a legend in the L.A. hip-hop scene of the early 2000s.
Dr. Sherman Hershfield woke up one morning and was surprised to find himself behind the wheel of his car. Somewhere between his Beverly Hills apartment and his practice in the San Fernando Valley, the silver-haired physician had blacked out. Somehow, he’d avoided a crash, but this wasn’t the first time. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he admitted.
Apart from his frequent blackouts, Hershfield was in fine health for a man in his 50s. He was tall and lean, ran 6 miles a day, and was a strict vegetarian. Hershfield specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation, and for decades had helped patients with brain injuries learn to walk again and rebuild their lives. Still, Hershfield didn’t know what was wrong inside his own head.
Not long after the blackouts started, Hershfield suffered a grand mal seizure—the type most people imagine when they think about seizures. He was driven to the emergency room, thrashing like a 6-foot-4-inch fish pulled out of the water. The scan revealed that his blackouts were actually a swarm of small strokes, caused by blood clots that could kill him at any moment.
Doctors prescribed blood-thinning medication and forced Hershfield to quit driving. Like many survivors of stroke, his speech became slurred and he sometimes stuttered. 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 couldn’t stop speaking in rhyme. He finished everyday sentences with rhyming couplets, like “Now I have to ride the bus / It’s enough to make me cuss.” And curiously, whenever he rhymed, his speech impediments disappeared.
A stroke or “brain attack” can happen to any of us at any time. One occurs every 40 seconds in the United States, and they can lead to permanent disability and extraordinary side effects. Some patients become hypersexual or compulsive gamblers. “There was a famous guy in Italy who had what they called ‘Pinocchio syndrome,’” said Dr. Alice Flaherty, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “When he told a lie, he would have a seizure. He was crippled as a businessman.”
One of Flaherty’s most famous cases was Tommy McHugh, a 51-year-old British man who suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage—a stroke caused by bleeding around the brain. A grizzled ex-con, McHugh became deeply philosophical and spent 19 hours a day reading poetry, speaking in rhyme, painting, and drawing.
For Hershfield, a love of poetry was also completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1936, and while his mother was a concert pianist, he followed his father into medical school. In 1973, he arrived in Southern California and set up his practice; he had little time for reading anything but medical journals. The practice ran into financial trouble, and by 1987 he’d filed for bankruptcy. That was around the time the blackouts started.
In the 10 years following his stroke, Hershfield dedicated his free time to a Buddhist organization called Soka Gakkai International, where he loved to chant for hours. He had met his second wife there, Michiko, a beautiful Japanese divorcée he impressed with his intellect. Hershfield also embraced his Jewish heritage. “I did the Holocaust in rhyme,” he recalled of an educational poem he’d perform on the bus. The city sounded like a swinging rhythm section: Brakes hissed. Horns honked. Passengers rang the bell.
As Hershfield recited his rhymes alone, he had become just another crazy person talking to himself on public transport. Then, one afternoon, as he waited at a bus stop in Hollywood, a man selling jewelry overheard him and suggested that he take his lyrics to Leimert Park.
Intrigued, he rode a bus headed into South Central, past Crenshaw’s Magic Johnson theater, the neighborhood’s megachurches, and liquor stores. At 43rd and Leimert, he found a crowd of teenagers surrounding a community arts center called the “KAOS Network.” This had to be it: Spontaneous rap battles were breaking out, and dancers writhed on the sidewalk. At the entrance, a young man sized him up.
“Would you like to hear something?” Hershfield asked politely. “Sure, what’s your name?” the man asked. Hershfield looked at him. “My name is Dr. Rapp.”
Established in 1984 as a media-production center, KAOS Network was famous for Project Blowed, an open-mic workshop for up-and-coming rappers. “It was underground, powerful, strong, and scary for people if they weren’t ready, because it was really volatile,” explained the proprietor, Ben Caldwell, a 73-year-old African-American filmmaker. The project was a tough breeding ground for rappers, who hoped to “blow up,” like the underground performer Aceyalone, or more mainstream stars like Jurassic 5. But Hershfield knew nothing about any of this.
“He said he wanted to do a rhyme on the Holocaust,” Caldwell remembered. This was unusual, but not against “da mutha f**ckin rulz” pinned to the door, that began: “PROJECT BLOWED IS PRESENTED FOR THE LOVE OF HIP-HOP ENTIRELY FOR BLACK PEOPLE.” The entrance fee was $2 to perform, $4 to watch. When a rapper forgot his lines, stuttered, or showed up unprepared, the crowd forced him offstage with a devastating chant: “Please pass the mic!”
The DJ demanded Hershfield’s backing music. He handed over a cassette tape of Chopin. Alone on the stage, Hershfield gripped the mic, and began: “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.”
“The first time he was up there, he wasn’t that successful,” Caldwell said. The crowd was silent. Here was an old man, reading a poem. As he emerged into the hot South Central night, Hershfield heard a voice from Fifth Street Dick’s, the neighboring coffee shop: “If you can’t keep up with those kids, then you’d better do something else.”
Undeterred, Hershfield put aside his Tchaikovsky records and listened to N.W.A and Run-DMC. When Michiko 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.
“Sherman’s leaving at 10 o’clock at night and going to Crenshaw,” she told her son, Scott. Scott, who had transitioned from a teenage professional skateboarder into a hip-hop DJ, was now in his 20s. Scott encouraged his stepfather to be more like the hip-hop rappers he admired—among them, 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. One evening in October 1999, Hershfield heard that KRS-One was speaking about rap history at an event in Hollywood and decided to swing by.
During the Q&A, Hershfield grabbed the mic. He explained that he was getting his language back together after a stroke by listening to rap records. “One of which was one of my songs,” KRS-One recalled. Hershfield couldn’t stop himself.
“I started to have a stroke,” he rapped. “Went broke / I started to think and speak in rhyme / I can do it all the time / And I want to get to do the rap / and I won’t take any more of this crap.”
“He got a standing ovation,” recalled KRS-One. He gave the doctor his telephone. When Hershfield told his stepson about his new friend, Scott was stunned. “You know, you should really listen to his music and listen to his lyrics,” he told his stepfather. But inside, Scott was thinking: Let’s see how long this lasts. KRS-One?
KRS-One: Dr. Rapp ‘got a standing ovation.’
Every week for two or three years, Hershfield climbed onstage at Project Blowed and gave his everything, sweat on his brow, steam on his glasses, fists pumping. Sometimes he electrified the crowd, other times: “Please pass the mic!” He learned to self-promote and name-check “Dr. Rapp” in his lyrics just like the pros. He performed on the stage and in impromptu “ciphers” under street lamps, until the sun came up.
“He was tight,” the rapper Myka 9 told me, while he smoked in an alleyway before a performance in Culver City. “He had a little bit of an angular approach. He had flows, he had good lines that were thought out, I remember a couple punch lines that came off pretty cool.”
Hershfield’s double life became strained. His voice became hoarse from shouting rhymes over African drums, and staying out all night. Then, one particularly hot evening, everything went black. “Dr. Rapp had a seizure,” recalled Tasha Wiggins, who worked for KAOS Network. “Other rappers caught him. Everybody stopped what they were doing, trying to nurture Dr. Rapp.” As Hershfield lay unconscious on the floor, the crowd started chanting his name.
Those who have been struck by the strange side effects of brain injuries often speak of their gratitude. Just before he died of cancer, Tommy McHugh, the British convict who became an artist, said his strokes were “the most wonderful thing.” McHugh and Hershfield both experienced symptoms of what the physician and author Oliver Sacks called “sudden musicophilia,” an eruption of creativity following a brain injury or stroke.
But for Hershfield, rhyming was no longer a symptom, but a cure. It was as if one side of Hershfield’s brain that held the rhymes healed the broken side that had short-circuited. Brain scans on rappers carried out by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) discovered that during freestyle rapping, brain activity increased in the brain areas that engage motivation, language, mood, and action. Even after Hershfield collapsed that night in Leimert Park, he used hip-hop to regain his speech and return to the stage.
Soon, Dr. Rapp’s notices at Project Blowed improved. “His name was on the lips of the multitudes,” recalled Ed Boyer, a Los Angeles Times journalist who first heard rumors about South Central’s rapping doctor in April 2000. As Dr. Rapp stepped into the spotlight and the DJ’s needle found the groove, he became lost in his rhymes: “Me, I’m just a beginning medical intern of rap / Trying to express and open my trap….”
Hershfield’s stepson, Scott, remembers the morning he opened the Times and saw a photograph of Dr. Rapp, wearing an Adidas tracksuit, mid-flow, on the paper’s Metro pages. Dr. Rapp had finally “blown up.”
Radio and television crews soon descended on Leimert Park. Ben Caldwell showed me footage from a Japanese television station, which filmed Hershfield waiting to take the mic. He looked like a retiree standing in line for an early-bird dinner special. Then he laid down his rhymes, as the crowd bobbed their heads in appreciation. Afterward, Hershfield took a nap on a couch. “He did that quite regularly,” Caldwell sighed.
“I can’t clearly tell you whether [rap] helped him,” said Michiko, “but I can tell you he was happy when he was doing rap music.” Hershfield represented Project Blowed until ill health forced him to quit both music and medicine. He died from cancer in Los Angeles, on March 29, 2013, at age 76.
Today, Project Blowed lives on, every third Tuesday at KAOS Network in Leimert Park. But Leimert Park is now fighting a new battle, against gentrification. The reason Hershfield was accepted at Project Blowed, said Caldwell, was that he arrived with an open mind, and he listened and learned. “That’s one wonderful thing I like most about black American communities,” he said. “As long as you don’t try to tell them how to do their own culture, you’re good.” Ever since Dr. Rapp’s days, performers of all races and backgrounds have jumped onstage, added Caldwell. But the moment they stutter or slur, it’s always the same:
“Please pass the mic.”
(c) 2019 The Atlantic Media Co. Adapted from an article first published in The Atlantic. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. ■