Nobody blinks today when they see a white person on the mic. That wasn’t the case in the 1980s.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of The Cactus Cee/D, the debut of the Brooklyn-based hip-hop trio 3rd Bass. 3rd Bass were a much needed corrective to the empty flash of Vanilla Ice. Through their humor, old school beats and their street cred with African-American rappers, 3rd Bass played a critical, but rarely acknowledged role in making hip-hop safe for caucasian performers like Eminem, El-P, G-Easy, Iggy Azalea, Post Malone and the late Mac Miller.
3rd Bass was a mixed-race rap group fronted by white guys who broke out in a pre-Eminem rap world. Caucasian MCs were a rarity when white boys MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice took center stage while African American DJ Richie Rich backed them on the turntables. They’re best known for their hits “The Gas Face,” and “Pop Goes the Weasel”—the latter on their second album Derelicts of Dialect. The trio rapped hard, went gold and burned out. Three decades on, I was curious to revisit what they produced in the brief time they were on fire.
They had an intense but brief impact on me. I wore out a cassette copy that my brother had of The Cactus. As a teenager, I got excited whenever the cartoonish videos for “The Gas Face” (featuring a cameo by Gilbert Gottfried) and “Brooklyn Queens” came on TV. I never got around to buying a disc of The Cactus. By the time I had went full-on digital, I had moved on from hip-hop. With the original album now something of a collector’s item, I downloaded an MP3 version of The Cactus.
Revisiting the album, it’s clear The Cactus deserves to be ranked as a Def-Jam era classic. After thirty years of absorbing, writing and playing music, I’ve uncovered some of the samples on The Cactus: Aretha Franklin, Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Gary Wright (of “Dream Weaver” and “My Love is Alive” fame), and of course, James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.”
My knowledge of the source material didn’t stop me from flashing back in time hearing The Cactus. 3rd Bass was part of the soundtrack of my early high school years, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t educational. I learned such helpful slang as “5.0” and “yay yo,” which would prove helpful when listening to Ice Cube and later still when I watched The Wire. I was safe in the leafy, New England countryside, but it was interesting to hear something that sounded dangerous.
3rd Bass were legendary at my central Massachusetts high school. It was the age of what you might call “classic rap,” where kids were scrambling to buy new releases by Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Digital Underground, and NWA. One of my white friends—we were almost all white at my school—even shaved 3rd Bass into the back of his head, just like MC Serch did on The Cactus cover.
At the most basic level, rap seemed cool to middle schoolers because it had swear words. It was dangerous music that made parents mad. 3rd Bass walked a fine line between aggressive posturing and good natured clowning around. While Serch and Pete Nice invectively aimed at easy targets like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, 3rd Bass had none of Public Enemy’s urgent politics. Serch and Pete Nice had something of a Flavor Flav/Chuck D dynamic, with Serch acting the clown as Pete stoically leaned on his cane and puffed on a Macanudo.
To be sure, The Cactus earned its parental advisory warning label. But surprisingly, much of its nastiness depended on innuendo and double entendres, not overt profanity. Still, the message behind songs such as “The Cactus” and “Oval Office” were not subtle: Serch and Pete Nice were some randy motherfuckers.
Before the internet and Wikipedia, 3rd Bass inspired its own urban legends. We knew Pete Nice (aka Peter Nash) hadn’t been elected to public office. He was obviously white–hell, he looked like he could be Anthony Michael Hall’s older brother. But what about Serch? Rumor had it he was a “mulatto” (as we called people of mixed race back then). Turns out Serch (aka Michael Berrin) was actually Jewish. His high top fade was deceptive, though.
It was a small pool for white rappers and the most prominent one, Vanilla Ice, was clearly the corniest dude alive. 3rd Bass intuited early on that they needed to show they were different from less authentic white rappers. That impulse and label-pride landed them in a scrap with the Beastie Boys. After the Beasties left Def-Jam following a dispute over royalties (Mike D’s Paul’s Boutique line “Got fat bass lines like Russell Simmons steals money” was in reference to the split), 3rd Bass took their place as the white rap group on Def-Jam’s roster. Serch dissed the Beasties for moving to Capitol Records and added, “Swarm to the lyrics ‘cause Serch is your father/screamin’ ‘hey ladies, why bother?’” The Beasties retorted by calling Serch “big oaf who’s faker than plastic” and mocking his dancing and weight in their Check Your Head song “Professor Booty.”
While 3rd Bass sparred with white boys like the Beasties and Vanilla Ice, they cultivated roots with black members of the hip-hop community. “The Gas Face” song and video featured De La Soul producer Don Newkirk as well as Flavor Flav. Serch and Pete Nice also jammed with Zev Love X of KMD (Kausing Much Damage), who was something of a 3rd Bass protégé. I even bought KMD’s debut Mr. Hood, which had a 3rd Bass-like sense of humor and social awareness.
The Cactus was a hit for Def Jam. Serch and Pete Nice followed up The Cactus with Derelicts of Dialect, a double album length CD worthy of the group’s debut. Double albums, though, are usually a jump the shark moment in a band’s career. For 3rd Bass, there was no follow up to Derelicts. The group broke up not long after. By 1992, the band was no more and I’d moved on.
The Cactus and Derelicts went gold, but the members of 3rd Bass had little later success. MC Serch has drifted from obscure project to obscure project, including hosting a Jerry Springer-style talk show. Pete Nice, exploring a love of baseball that surely informed his former rap group’s name, wrote a book on baseball history and opened a baseball memorabilia store in Cooperstown, N.Y. He later encountered Willie Nelson-level tax and legal problems, including a 2014 misdemeanor tax fraud conviction.
It doesn’t seem like a reunion is happening soon. But the 3rd Bass legacy lives on. Serch has a respectable 13,000 followers on Twitter, and Gilbert Gottfried, who appeared as sleazy agent “Mr. Wesel,” says people still ask him about his appearance the video for “The Gas Face.”