December 9, 2004
Hip-Hop’s Jew Crew Takes Center Stage
Jews have been part of hip-hop since its beginning," said Josh Noreck of the Hip Hop Hoodios, a Latino Jewish rap group based out of Los Angeles and New York. "Rick Rubin founded Def Jam records. Lyor Cohen started working for it right after. The Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass were huge old-school rappers. Way before Eminem, pretty much the only white rappers were Jewish. When I was growing up, I was conscious of that."
And yet, hip-hop video producer Jeremy Goldscheider said, "Nobody realizes there is a Jewish hip-hop scene spread out in different parts of the world." Eager to educate hip-hop fans about international Jewish rappers, Goldscheider recently joined forces with local Jewish singer, songwriter and music producer Craig Taubman, co-producing a new album, "Celebrate Hip Hop: Jewish Artists From Around the Globe" -- the latest in Taubman's "Celebrate" series.
From Israeli MC Sagol 59 to American MC Remedy, and from British group Antithesis to Russian group iSQUAD, the CD brings together mainstream and underground artists with diverse approaches to hip-hop. Canadian group Solomon & Socalled rap in Yiddish to a classic sthetl groove; Israeli artist Mook E raps in Jamaican-style dancehall; and American group Blood of Abraham raps in classic inner-city style.
Despite these marked differences, Goldscheider said, there are several factors uniting all the songs: "Every song on [the album] has a very strong point of view and a lot of heart, whether addressing political or personal topics. There were a number of artists I didn't put on here because they had typical rap songs about women, partying, bling-bling. To me, they didn't have anything unique to say about a Jewish experience. Every song on here has something Jewish about it, something positive, something that has some meaning."
Goldscheider's ultimate goal is to provide youth a new avenue for expressing Jewish identity: "I'm interested in how young people connect to Judaism. I don't think there are a lot of interesting, unique, cool ways of doing it. I wanted to create a product that would help make young people proud of being Jewish...[This CD] is about being part of a larger hip-hop community, being proud of a Jewish voice in it. I felt this music would create new interest for a 15-year-old Jewish kid who doesn't care about Judaism."
"I think Jewish hip-hop is really important to Jewish identity today," said Noreck, whose group is on the album singing "Ocho Kandelikas" -- a rock/salsa/rap version of the traditional Ladino Chanukah song (see box). "Music like klezmer is for an older generation. You have to bring Jewish music up to date, and the most youth-driven genre today is hip-hop. To me, it makes perfect sense that someone does a compilation like this.... I think [it's] long overdue."
For some, however, hip-hop and Jewish music seem as far removed from each other as can be: Shortly after Goldscheider approached Taubman with the idea for this album, Taubman saw a "Jewish hip-hop" posting on the Jewish music listserv to which he subscribes. "One hundred people responded to the posting," Taubman recalled, "saying that [Jewish hip-hop] is a joke, that if it does exist it shouldn't." That reaction made up Taubman's mind to go ahead with the project. "I e-mailed back," Taubman said. "I never e-mail in response to postings, but I was so incensed that I wrote and said I'm doing a compilation CD of Jewish hip-hop music."
"The opposition is only within the Jewish community," said L.A. rapper Etan G., whose song, "South Side of the Synagogue," appears on the compilation. "With the exception of the Beastie Boys, there has never been a prominent Jewish hip-hop act that wasn't about bagels and lox and dreidels and shmaltz and gelt and every other idiotic Yiddish word you can throw into a song.... Jews have no respect for Jewish hip-hop. They all listen to mainstream hip-hop, but when you come out as a Jewish rapper, they are not as into it, because it's generally not as good. There is seemingly nothing authentic in Jewish rap; nothing that captures anything."
"A lot of Jewish rap up to now has been about parody," Noreck said. "I can't stand it. If Jewish rap music wants a place of its own and wants to be taken seriously, it can't be parody all the time."
Goldscheider steered clear of such acts in this compilation CD. "First and foremost," he said, "I tried to choose artists that were serious about their music.... I stayed away from Jewish hip-hop artists that do a shtick. I chose music that had something to say -- musically or lyrically."
Through songs like "Remember Ben" by Israeli rappers Sagol 59 and A7, the album does come through in addressing significant and timely topics: "I've seen many rappers come and go/I've seen many DJs with inflated egos/But I've never seen anyone quite like you/One hand on the turntables/One hand flipping through the Torah/You didn't care if it was in a small club in front of three people/Or if in a huge festival in front of three thousand/You played Cube and Snoop, Common and Cyprus/I remember you always said, 'I don't spin on Shabbos'/But now you're not here/You've fallen victim to the stupid war of small-minded people."
"DJ Benny the B was an Orthodox Jewish guy from Pennsylvania," said Sagol 59, who raps in Hebrew. "He came to study Torah in Jerusalem. He was a hip-hop DJ by night, with his kippah and tzitzit and four earrings in each ear, spinning Snoop Doggy Dog. The day before he was supposed to go back to America, he went to say goodbye to some friends at Hebrew University. He actually had the plane ticket in his pocket when he was blown up by a suicide bomber in the school cafeteria. He was one of nine people killed.... It was really difficult to record this song, and I still get choked up when I perform it."
A7 freestyled his part of the song in English, taking his opening line from the words on a poster in the recording studio, "Eternal reflections: All things are destined to go back to the creator." Growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, immersed in East Coast hip-hop, A7 began freestyling in first grade -- going on to rap with Baltimore's local group Triad and local crew Testament. At 21, however, he left his fellow musicians, family and friends, in pursuit of a new spiritual path -- Judaism. "I started to read the Torah," he said, "and it spoke to me.... I decided these are my beliefs, and I'm really serious about it. So there was only one place for me to be: here in Israel."
Israeli hip-hop artists, A7 asserts, have something to teach hip-hop artists in America: "Because hip-hop is so international right now, rappers need to pay attention to the messages they are putting out there. As black rappers in America, we can get rich making albums about killing white people. For this reason, American rappers are not cognizant of the image we portray globally. But it's more than our block now, more than our neighborhood, our side of town, our state, America. It goes around the world. So we have to be cognizant not to look like fools.
"One thing that the rest of the world has an understanding of, which American musicians don't, is that what you say affects other people. In America, people can say anything they want, and whatever happens so be it. Here in Israel, you have to be cognizant of the words coming out of your mouth, because they can incite something negative. And you don't want to do that in a place like this, where things are extremely sensitive and tense. As a Jew, I can't make an album talking about killing Palestinians. If I'm a Palestinian, I can't make an album talking about killing Jews. Only one message needs to come out in Israel -- and that is peace."
Peace is the message on Remedy's track with RZA and Cliva Ringz, "Muslim and a Jew" -- which encourages Jews and Arabs to remember that we come from the same blood line; and it also is the message in Antithesis's track, "Just Peace," chronicling the struggles of Israel since 1948. Goldscheider hopes these and other songs will get Jews talking -- even more than usual: "There is discussion to be had from the songs, whether formally or informally, backstage among artists, or among listeners in classrooms and camps," he said. "There are opportunities for discussion about Israel and about being Jewish and about working or playing in the secular world and also being very proud of your Jewishness."
Among other topics, Goldscheider hopes this album will spur conversations about Jewish diversity: "Another intention of the record, from an educational point of view, is to make people understand there are Jews in Mexico, that there are Jewish rappers who sing in Russian. That's an important thing to know about Jewish music and the scene: It's global."
Featuring rappers who are white and people of color, from Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds, the album definitely takes a step towards representing the global Jewish experience. Nonetheless, with no female rappers, and none of the prominent hip-hop artists from Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jewish communities, the album falls short of offering a complete Jewish hip-hop experience.
The artists who are on this album nonetheless make a strong case for Jewish hip-hop, and open the door for additional exploration of the scene's thriving diversity. Whether the album's message will make into the mainstream market, however, remains to be seen. A few factors are in favor of this possibility: As part of the popular Wu Tang clan, MC Remedy already has enjoyed mainstream success, with his single, "Never Again," -- about his family's experience in the Holocaust -- selling 250,000 copies since its release two years ago. In addition, the Hip Hop Hoodios have a strong cross-over appeal in the Latino market -- as evidenced by the appearance of their videos on MTV Espanol.
As album sales get under way, Taubman is actively targeting the mainstream market, promoting it at Walgreens, Costco, and Ralphs, as well as at Jewish organizations -- an endeavor made possible by the fact that there is very little cursing on the album. "It's a very clean record, a family record," Goldscheider said. Despite opening up numerous markets, there were some drawbacks in making the CD family friendly: "That caused limitations -- some artists couldn't get on, because the intention was to make it something palatable to schools and camps," Goldscheider said. But the trade-off, he concludes, was ultimately worth it: "I want it to get into those places. I want it used by Jewish organizations, youth organizations, Hillels on college campuses.... It's just edgy enough but clean enough. The intention was to find that balance."
Taubman reports that Jewish high schools already have begun ordering copies of the CD, and that a curriculum program will be available to schools in early January. Meanwhile, Goldscheider is hoping to embark on an additional complementary project -- creating a college campus tour and music documentary that follows artists on the album as they tour around the world. "What I hope the record does is create more interest in the music," Goldscheider said, "and I want to document this interest."
"Celebrate Chanukah," featuring the release party for "Celebrate Hip Hop" and MC Hyim, Dec. 13, 7:30 p.m. at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 463-0204. www.knittingfactory.com. $10.
Loolwa Khazzoom is a freelance writer, editor of "The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage" and author of "Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape." Visit her on the Web site at www.loolwa.com.