Berkeley music macher certifies rock bands with an indie hechsher

As the man who runs an indie label called Absolutely Kosher Records, Cory Brown would seem to have a daunting task: injecting some Jewish soul into the heart of rock 'n' roll.

But actually that storyline has been spun before. Take, for example, famous rockers such as Chaim Witz, Jeffrey Hyman and the rappers who gave themselves the biblical monikers of Shadrach, Mescach and Abednego.

The Israeli-born Witz moved to New York and eventually changed his name to Gene Klein — and then to Gene Simmons. Along with fellow Jewish glam rocker Paul Stanley (né Paul Stanley Eisen), Simmons fronted the legendary rock band KISS.

Hyman became the avatar of pimply-faced angst when he changed his name to Joey Ramone and formed the seminal rock band The Ramones. And the biblical references? They belong to Mike Diamond, Adam Yauch, and Adam Horowitz of the Beastie Boys.

Toss in Bob "Zimmerman" Dylan, Perry "Bernstein" Farrell of Jane's Addiction, two-thirds of the acclaimed band Sleater-Kinney — and suddenly Jewish rock 'n' rollers seem a pretty impressive bunch.

Brown is doing his part to add to the tradition. The 30-year-old started Absolutely Kosher Records five years ago and runs the business out of his Berkeley home. The label, which has some Jewish musicians among its acts, has released eight albums, and one of its bands,The Court and Spark, is winning increased attention: The band, whose CD "Bless You" was put out last year, appeared recently on NPR's "All Things Considered.''

As the label has grown, Brown has added on a full-time intern — and he also draws on the help of a "super sympathetic" girlfriend. Running an independent label, he said, is primarily a matter of "endurance."

"When we started five years ago, critics were in the throes of the electronica hype, and the early 1990s independent label boom seemed to be completely over,'' Brown said in a recent interview. "People who ran other labels advised against (starting this label), but when you start out in a climate like that, the only place to move is up.

"Now, of course, we've got a recession, the deregulation of commercial radio — which has basically eliminated any regional favorites in commercial radio — and the deluge of content brought on by new media, which has raised rates everywhere through their own excessive spending of venture capital on publicity."

Brown grew up in New York, in a "secular Reform" household, and attended weekly Workman Circle meetings as a youth. Although he once could recite Yiddish folk songs verbatim, his Yiddish lingual abilities have slipped considerably, as has his conversational Hebrew.

The language that the close-cropped, pierced, tattooed hipster feels most comfortable in is rock 'n' roll, which he has always fused with his outsider sensibility as a Jew. Brown relates a telling anecdote when asked about his influences.

"Leonard Cohen was doing an interview with NPR, and they were asking him all their trademark, dry, analytical questions, when the interviewer asked how his Buddhism influenced his music.

"Cohen paused and then told the interviewer his mother would be very upset if she heard that question. Cohen told the interviewer that he may be involved with Buddhist study but that he was unequivocally Jewish. That's how I identify. I may wear a lot of hats, but I'm Jewish at my core."

Growing up in the suburbs of New York and New Jersey, Brown was told to "go back to Israel" when his peers found out he was Jewish.

"If they only knew that that's where Gene Simmons actually came from, maybe they would've looked at me differently," said Brown with a laugh.

After dropping out of Rutgers University at 19 — a move that drew the disapproval of his mother — Brown headed to the West Coast to delve into the music scene. He toiled at an array of jobs, including stints at a "fine kitsch" gallery, before starting to work at various independent labels, ferreting out underground talent. He worked in the industry for about five years and then decided it was time to take the plunge and start his own label.

Absolutely Kosher Records' first release was by a local band named P.E.E. in late 1997, followed by a second record in 1998, two more in 1999, and four more during the last two years. According to Brown, the records have received steady college-radio airplay, and have wound up on several critics' year-end "best of" lists.

If the name of his company doesn't tip off his identity, Brown is happy to up the ante: He is working on a soon-to-be-released compilation called "Ear of the Yenta" which will feature member-of-the-tribe artists such as Sleater-Kinney, Yo La Tengo, and perhaps even rock icon Lou Reed. (Yeah, he's Jewish.)

Not to mention that he sells Absolutely Kosher logo merchandise that reads "Alta Kocker Indie Rocker."

"I just want to put up a flag that's says Jewish contribution to 20th century American culture was a significant one," said Brown. "In fact, it's completely inseparable from American culture itself."