What's a nice Jewish boy from Newton doing in Senegal, hanging out with hip-hop artists and recording "sick" MCs?
For Ben Herson, the 31-year-old chief executive of Nomadic Wax, he's shunning cubicle life for the out-of-the-box career of running a mobile "guerrilla-style" hip-hop production company and record label. And, oh yes, back in the states he moonlights as a banquet waiter.
How did Herson get from the halls of Newton South High School to the streets of Dakar, while donning a white tuxedo in between to serve up hors d'oeurves?
Let's cut to the chase. What do your parents think of all this?
My dad is a cardiologist and my mom's a folk musician who started an environmental education program. They know it's a struggle and wish that there were more security in it, but they like that I'm so serious about it.
You wrote a thesis documenting the rise of Senegalese hip-hop and the power of hip-hop as a means of political and social expression. Translate that for us.
Young people in Africa are using hip-hop as more than a means of entertainment, a way to brag and boast about what you have or don't have. The MCs (rappers) in Senegal are more politically and socially conscious, and a lot of well-educated young people with no economic opportunities have seized upon rap music instead of rioting to express their frustration."
So what's with the guerrilla recording?
I take a hard disk recorder, laptop computer, and a couple of microphones and record people wherever they are, whether in a bedroom, basement, or community center. It's super bare-bones. We take the tracks, mix them in a professional studio, and have released CDs like African Underground Vol. 1 "Hip-Hop Senegal," a compilation featuring 14 of Dakar's ill-est MCs.
But one small detail. Your company's not making money.
I worked for a few months as glorified administrator and project manager, looking at spreadsheets and working in a cubicle. At the end of three weeks, my girlfriend was like, "You're not looking good." I wasn't sleeping, eating poorly, drinking too much coffee. I can see how people come home and want to drink 12 beers and go to bed. I can't function in that world. I can't sit there and do mindless crap for the whole day. I don't want to be a pawn in that game. I'd rather do what I'm passionate about and while still doing what I need to do to make ends meet.
So you like wearing a tuxedo and waiting on people?
I actually have one regular tuxedo and one white polyester tuxedo. That's the one I wear most frequently. I put it in my suit bag, take the train to work, pour wine and set up food, and then come home at 1:30 in the morning. It's crazy hours but real human interaction.
So people should drop everything and move to Africa too?
Well, my first inclination is to say, "Don't do it." You have to believe in it 100, 200, 300 percent. It's difficult to make it work as a business. It defies all rationality, doing what you love in the arts. But if you feel like it's in you, you don't have a choice.