February 24, 2005
The King of Israeli Hip-Hop
With angry lyrics that court controversy, two multiplatinum albums and a third on the way, his own clothing line, record label, legions of fans and glittering religious jewelry, Subliminal could easily be mistaken for a Jewish P.Diddy.
The lyrics are mostly in Hebrew (although he's now branched into English, French and Arabic), the record label has spawned a plethora of new artists, the clothing line has a Star of David on every item and his fame (or notoriety) is bringing him to U.S. shores next week.
At 25, Subliminal (né Kobi Shimoni) is the king of Israeli hip-hop. And right now, it appears he can do no wrong. On March 2, Subliminal, along with his sidekick The Shadow (Yoav Eliasi), and 12 members off his record label TACT (Tel Aviv CityTeam) under the banner of Architects of Israeli Hip Hop, will kick off their seven-state American and Canadian tour at The Canyon Club in Agoura Hills.
And with the recent launch of his third album -- TACT All-Stars -- Subliminal is recording with the industry's cream of the crop, including Killah Priest and Remedy of Wu-Tang Clan, Ashanti, Wyclef Jean and Israel's own hip-hop violinist Miri Ben Ari, who just won a Grammy for her work with Kanye West.
So it's hard to believe that less than eight months ago Subliminal was officially uninvited to the Prospect Park bash in Brooklyn, N.Y., by JDub Records, a nonprofit Jewish record label. Deemed too right-wing for the event, Subliminal apparently didn't fall under the concert's banner of "openness and peace."
Certainly, Subliminal's lyrics did much to raise eyebrows even within Israel, where there has always been room for political dissension. He managed to capture the frustrations and fears of Israeli youth at the height of the Intifada. His lyrics included such gems as:
To think that an olive branch symbolizes peace, sorry it doesn't live here anymore; it's been kidnapped or murdered...."
And perhaps his most controversial lyric is the one that states, "The country's still dangling like a cigarette in Arafat's mouth."
It's this kind of in-your-face, pull-no-punches attitude that sets Subliminal apart from other emerging hip-hop artists, including Mookee and Hadag Nachash, all of whom are enjoying success in the field. But neither has aroused the controversy that Subliminal has.
Now he's mulling over the strange twists and turns that have come with his fame and, yes, fortune. On the brink of his U.S. tour, he cannot help but reflect on the fact that it's due to the backing provided by Israel's Foreign Ministry, and the prime minister himself.
"It's great," he said. "For the first time, the Israeli government is pushing us and supporting us. We're being sent as ambassadors for Israel. And even though that's what we're trying to be on a daily basis, to get official support from the government, that's a huge recognition and we're really grateful for that."
In the wake of Arafat's death (no more dangling cigarettes), the upcoming Gaza pullout and the steps Mahmoud Abbas is making, Subliminal said, "I'm very, very happy that there's this first chance finally for peace, for the Palestinians, they're making a real effort and they have a chance to become a democracy."
He also spoke about his first two albums "The Light From Zion" and "Light and Shadow" -- released at the height of the Intifada -- which include songs that state, "United we stand, divided we fall."
"It's militant," he conceded. "We're saying we have to have peace but first we have to live, we have to survive, to remain in one piece."
Now, he said, his third album is much more hopeful, with softer lyrics and a stronger message of hope with one of the songs titled "Peace in the Middle East," which is sung in both Hebrew and English.
"It's more of a prayer," he said. "We want people all over the world to understand that even the strongest soldiers have peace as the prayer in their heart all the time."
Yet while Subliminal has raised both eyebrows and consciences, it has much to do with the fact that he's coming from a deeply personal place.
"My father is from Tunisia, my mother from Iran. They both escaped persecution," he said. "I was brought up in a world where I have my own country. But I understand Arabic, my parents speak fluent Arabic; we would hear Arafat's speeches about driving the Jews into the sea."
And it's this that makes Subliminal's messages so strident. A recent trip to France opened his eyes to the amount of hate outsiders have toward Israel.
"The strongest hip-hop artists in France are immigrants from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, and most of them preach hate toward the Jewish people and Israel," he said.
In his own controversial style, Subliminal actually challenged Sniper, the biggest French anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rapper, to an onstage "battle" where the artists respond to each other's raps.
"He chickened out," Subliminal said, "and we even invited him to Tel Aviv just so that he could see what it is he hates so much about Israel."And that, he said, is the biggest challenge of this tour: "To deliver the important message to those who are radical and fanatic and extreme. To open their eyes and let them know that there is still hope for peace, that there can be no better solution than peace and that we're willing to open up a debate. Through hip hop we can do that."
Subliminal performs March 2, 8 p.m., at The Canyon Club, 28912 Roadside Drive, Agoura Hills. For more info, call (310) 273-2824 or visit www.canyonclub.net.