Leaving Behind the Primordial Borscht: Niel Bezrookove’s Cultural Pilgrimage

Image Courtesy of Esra Elhendy
Image Courtesy of Esra Elhendy

Short and pale and young and lovely, the boy from Leiden goes walking by.

Niel Bezrookove, clad in black, had just arrived at my office and sat down with great satisfaction, but seemed a bit frazzled. Strange for a student who has over 10 different musical personas and an ever-growing vault of short stories while researching cognitive science. Just before arriving that morning, he had been made a public-transport chump instead of a champion when three full MTS buses skipped him. Fortunately, sipping his elixir — his daily Arizona Green Tea — had bestowed the student musician with some sense of serenity. He began to settle when that sweet rush of high-fructose corn syrup hit his stomach. It was time to poke and prod. Was he born an artist destined to achieve a mention on Stereogum? Pitchfork? If we’re to take him at his mother’s word, yes.

“I guess it started straight out of the womb because my mom says I came out singing random s—. The theory is that kids can hear things when they’re in the womb, so maybe I heard some stuff seeing as my parents are big music junkies. Just music, as far as I know. My dad was into Van Halen, some metal, and his electric guitar while my mom was really into classical music and Brian Eno,” he told me.

“There was a pedigree of music, but both my parents were refugees so they didn’t really have many opportunities to do something musical growing up. So, I think for that reason they pushed it onto me pretty early. By the age of four, I got selected to be a boy soprano in the choir and take classical piano lessons but this was all in the Netherlands, so this was kind of a different atmosphere. A whole lot of old Lutheran s— in Latin.”

He wasn’t bound to form or medium, however. His Dutch prep school ran its young students through the ringer, going so far as to having them perform an unabridged version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Theater was the first thing I was into and I played Puck in the play. I think we did ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ too. I wasn’t Brando and I wasn’t Stella, though. And one of the ‘Henrys’ by Shakespeare. Prep school was tough. You had to know Latin just to get into university.”

Bezrookove left both the Dutch and school behind at the age of 14 for our shores. Unenrolled in the school system and with idle hands, the eastward move incited his initial foray into electronic sampling.

“My dad had a synthesizer that I really loved but I wouldn’t even make music on it. I’d just record funny sounds and edit them together. My first tape was UFO sounds that I edited together. It was very out there.”

Bezrookove had broken past the strict regimen of practice over play, of getting “better” at music for the sake of improving on it.

“Up to that point, music had been a thing for me to perfect after looking at a sheet. Y’know, the instructor would drill me for 60 hours a week on the proper technique and would whack me on the hands with a long stick when I hit the wrong note, some real ‘Matilda’ s—.”

TV — teacher, mother, secret lover — had stepped in the place of constant practice and school. Now, he spent his days watching hours of Comedy Central and using his cousin’s antiquated plastic Mac to keep up with the rap music first introduced to him by “Chappelle’s Show.” American media and culture had pulled him from the Netherlands like a modern form of cultural pilgrimage with J. Dilla and Erykah Badu as his guiding deities.

“I wrote a short story about Tila Tequila traveling back in time to stop a genocide after watching Tila Tequila’s ‘A Shot of Love’ and wondering, ‘How would Tila Tequila respond to a real problem?’ That’s when I realized that I could put some music to it.”

This was all an education in of itself, as a literal school soon would be. After two years outside of the public school system, he was re-enrolled and used art as a way of lashing out. “I did a bit of graffiti with some punk friends, but I wouldn’t call it art because it wasn’t necessarily that great. It was more petty vandalism. We would also make billboards, write weird s—, and made a lot of skate videos with my dad’s camera. Which I broke.”

Back in the Netherlands, he had prepared to go to college by the age of 12 — the idea being that in three more years he’d be attending a gymnasium (for the mind, not muscles) before heading off to higher education. “I was already studying calculus there, so when I got here, it was like, ‘Here’s basic algebra’ and I thought it was such a waste of my time. I would either sleep in class or read and teachers hated that. I had a 1.21 GPA in high school. I still got into Berkeley and [UC San Diego] because of my SAT scores, but I chose UCSD because I had heard stories from my friend about people poisoning each other and writing fake study guides just to sabotage other people’s grades. It just didn’t seem nice over there.”

Bezrookove opted for what can only be described as a less stressful environment, in relative terms, here at UCSD. With the daily benefit of La Jolla’s coastal breeze making its way through his curls, he continued to work on his writing and art. “I just write for the hell of it, but a lot of my stuff is still laboriously written. Lyrics, even my comedy all come from my writing. Same thing with my Tila Tequila rock opera. I wrote a short story about Tila Tequila travelling back in time to stop a genocide after watching Tila Tequila’s ‘A Shot of Love’ and wondering, ‘How would Tila Tequila respond to a real problem?’ That’s when I realized that I could put some music to it. So they’re all part of the same universe in my head.”

Aside from his excursions into Tequila-land, he’s been asked to create an art exhibit for Sixth College — an immersive experience, as Bezrookove describes it. “The idea is that you go into a room with 18 Macs and each one plays music that it chooses through a computerized decision process. These computers are then going to try and recreate one of those corny cruise commercials where they try to create the sense that you’re out at sea with audible breezes, but I want to make an easy listening sea ocean atmosphere without humans involved.”

Exhausted after speaking for a full 90 minutes on his life and with multiple tangents leading off into “The Simpsons” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” references, Bezrookove managed to get a second wind in to share some final thoughts on UCSD’s future and what it currently offers students.

“I hope that UCSD doesn’t strangle the life out of the Old Student Center here because of what the Food Co-op, KSDT, the [UCSD] Guardian, and Darkstar offer. I think the reason a lot of millenials feel stressed out is because they don’t feel like they have any control over their lives.”

He emphatically argued in favor of student-run initiatives as a means of fostering collaboration and community. “Places like this are of a far greater value to somebody’s development and education than what four classes could offer. I hope these places go on for a long time. I don’t know what the odds are, but I hope they go on.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo Courtesy of Esra Elhendy

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  • S

    Samuel ClemensFeb 22, 2018 at 4:49 pm


  • M

    MadleneFeb 10, 2018 at 1:36 am

    A colourful and rich life full of human qualities. Thanks Niel.

    • J

      Jon SugarFeb 10, 2018 at 4:48 pm

      Niel is a gentle soul . Wishing him well . I saw him in a band. We talked a hundred years ago He and Eagret (his then bandmate) are genuinely good . Wishing him well