Photo by Glynnis McDaris
Is it such a surprise that Brooklyn's most disturbing brutality rapper is responsible for a heartrending New York story of redemption? Is it so hard to believe that the paranoid psycho rap star Ill Bill—he of the alarmist Illuminati rhymes—opened his heart and home to a half-dead, homeless junkie? And is it such a Hallmark-card impossibility that Bill tenderly nursed said junkie back to perfect health of body and spirit?
What's wrong with you? Are you that fucking cynical? It shouldn't be surprising at all. Blood is thicker than horror rap reputations, and the junkie in question just happens to be Bill's uncle Howie. For the last 36 years, Howard Tanenbaum was addicted to heroin, methadone, and crack cocaine. But after Bill took charge, Howie got rid of his addiction in four months flat. Now the man who spent most of his life a hopeless vagabond is power-moving behind the scenes of a record label that was named after him. How much do you love your uncle?
VICE: Bill, what are your earliest recollections of Howie?
Bill: He would come to my house after getting his methadone and he would lay down on the couch, read my comics, and eat cereal. This is, like, in ‘82 or ‘83. Howie was always big on cereal, Cap'n Crunch, so we used to keep it in the house for him. He'd eat the whole box in one sitting and then burn cigarette holes in his T-shirt from nodding out. And I'd be watching TV next to him, just bugging. But one day, he showed up at the house with a bass guitar for me. I was always a huge Kiss fan, but even more than Kiss, I was a big Gene Simmons fan. And Gene Simmons played bass. So I asked my mom to get me a bass guitar, I asked my father to get me a bass guitar, I asked my grandmother, God bless her soul, she didn't even know what a bass guitar was. The last person I thought would've came through at that time was my uncle. Not because he wasn't a great guy, you know, but he was a junkie. I didn't expect him to really pay attention to my needs.
Howie: I opened up that mind when he was so young. You know how proud I feel that he took that little guitar, taught himself, went into metal, then went into hip-hop, then started with the record label, and named the fucking thing after me? When I pass away, something will last forever. I have records with my picture on them!
Why Uncle Howie Records? Weren't you sad that your uncle was going through all this?
Bill: Of course, it felt terrible. I think everybody from my mom to my brother felt helpless. And in a lot of ways we gave up, because we felt like he had given up. We didn't really see him trying to make a change. He'd go into rehab and get addicted again, and if it wasn't rehab it was jail. So when I started calling the label Uncle Howie, it wasn't because of anything other than a tribute to somebody who we thought was gone. We wanted to have him close to us and that's why the name came about. It was also to try to give his name a positive light, because a lot of people who knew my uncle looked at him negatively. People tend to look down on someone who's a homeless drug addict, which is how he was for many, many years.
Howie: Let me tell you how it all started. You got to understand, I was born in Israel. When I came to this country I couldn't speak English. I had a hard time becoming someone. I wanted to be part of something. You know how everybody has these little groups? Well, I wanted to be the best of what I was a part of. Like you have the bullies and the best bully, you have the academics and the smartest guy. I wanted to be the best junkie on the corner. Because at that time, when you were a junkie and when you used drugs and were on the corner, nobody fucked with you and you got to fuck with everybody. It was just like a posse. Believe me, I turned out to be the best junkie. It was the worst thing that happened to me in my life. Everybody else died. I know nobody from my past who is still alive.
So how did Bill save your life?
Bill: It wasn't even something that I tried to make happen. He just called me up one day and said that he had gotten beat up by a bunch of security guards at Coney Island Hospital. He had just gotten out of jail and he was living in the basement of a convenience store on Avenue X and Coney Island Avenue. But he was also trying to find shelter in Coney Island Hospital and his erratic behavior led to him having beef with the guards over there. When he showed up at my house, he was a bloody mess. He moved in and kicked crack, methadone, and heroin on my couch.
Howie: It's not a matter of saving my life. The important thing is, I found something I never had in my life. I always felt alone. I never felt like anyone cared about me and I never cared about anybody. The most important thing in my life was drugs. When I kicked in his living room, I went to hell. It was horrible. I said to myself, "Why is this guy going through all this with me?" I mean, we're in the same apartment and I'm in the living room flying through the air on the couch! So one day, I asked him and he said, "You're my uncle. I don't want you to die." And I looked in his face when he said that, and he wasn't lying or making believe. He was serious. Someone cared about me. I just can't believe that my little baby nephew cared. And he didn't expect to mold me into whatever they wanted, like a mother or a wife would. He just wanted me to be his uncle, and try to help myself.
How does it feel, Bill?
Bill: Just to see him now––his mind is clear, he's able to actually get across his thoughts and really just be a whole person again–– it's a beautiful thing to me. I mean, it's bananas. The fact that he's still alive now is a sign from a higher power that drugs is not what he was meant to do. What we're doing right now, being involved in the everyday operations of Uncle Howie Records, is his true calling. He's about to be 51 years old and this is the happiest he's ever been. What do you think, Howie?
Howie: I feel like a little kid, I'm so happy. I never realized that life is good. The life that I led, it was nothing good, it was always bad. I used to lay down at night and pray to God to kill me because I didn't have the balls to kill myself. And every time I did OD, or have seizures, or whatever, when they woke me up in the emergency room, I was pissed. Now I feel like a would-be artist who got his wish and is around creative people all the time. I go to the studio with them and I'm always surrounded by music. This hip-hop, I wasn't ever into it, but it's fucking wonderful. I have no idea why I'm alive, and maybe it's because I'm straight now. Maybe it all led to this path. I don't even know what the path is, but I know it starts with being clean.
Ill Bill's solo album What's Wrong With Bill? is in stores now. Check unclehowie.com for more info.