September 13, 2007
Trio of performers aiming for bite of pop music pie
The odds on scoring a hit record are not much better.
Jacob Harris, co-founder of JDub Records, the label that first gave us Matisyahu, notes, "The statistic I've heard is that of the 40,000 records released in the United States every year, 85 percent sell less than a thousand copies."
Of course, almost every musician who makes a record believes that he or she will be one of the lucky few whose record sells 500,000 copies (gold album), a million copies (platinum) or 2 million copies (multiplatinum). Perhaps only the truly mad think they will get a diamond record, given to a recording that sells more than 10 million units. As of this writing, only 101 albums have achieved this exalted level.
Matisyahu is generally believed to be the most successful explicitly Jewish-themed recording artist in American history. Harris estimates that his last two records for JDub, "Live at Stubbs" and "Youth," each sold in the vicinity of 650,000 copies.
"Those numbers are amazing for any artist, particularly for a live recording," Harris said, referring to Matisyahu's "Stubbs."
For an artist crossing over from a very small niche market -- or two niche markets, reggae and Jewish music -- that is nothing short of extraordinary. Although Harris would love for one of his label's artists to duplicate Matisyahu's success, he thinks that his crossover appeal is the product of a unique set of circumstances.
When asked if it is repeatable, he simply laughs.
"Absolutely not," he said. "There are hits every year, and it's a huge business, but there rarely are things like that -- a wave that starts at a grass-roots level and achieves this kind of success and does so from a niche market. Even reggae does not sell this well. And from a Jewish perspective, it's going to be very difficult to duplicate. There isn't the quality of artists out there yet."
Erez Laufer, who heads Modular Moods and is better known by his hip-hop nom de musique, DJ Handler, is more guardedly optimistic. His label is not a specifically Jewish music company, but its stable includes rapper Y-Love and beatboxer Yuri Lane, two strong candidates for carrying a Jewish message to a wider audience.
"I think that there's more of a chance now," he said. "Both of them are doing Jewish music, but it's so rooted in the [hip-hop] genres that it has mass appeal."
He's certainly not ambivalent about the possibilities.
"The starving artists thing is romantic for a while," Laufer said. "But if something like [Matisyahu's success] happens, it makes it a lot easier."
The Chasidic reggae singer's success has bred a whole new kind of dream among Jewish music acts. Even if most of them won't say it, one suspects that every one of them wants to be "the next Matisyahu."
There are many talented Jewish bands and individuals chasing that crown, trying to find an audience that goes beyond the Jewish world, without compromising their Jewish values, a difficult balancing feat that Matisyahu has thus far achieved.
Here are three gifted candidates for crossover success:
Y-Love: "Not Your Grandfather's Orthodox Judaism"
Yitz Jordan -- better known as Y-Love -- is not the first African American to become a Chasid, and he's not the first Chasid to be a rapper. But he probably is the first African American Chasidic rapper, for whatever that might be worth in itself. And he's definitely the first hip-hop artist to rap in Aramaic.
But what is more important is that he's very, very good, rapping about the things he cares about -- God's plan for the Jews and the world -- with precision, imagination and flow.
And while he has respect for Matisyahu, he doesn't envy him.
"The more I see his name on all these celebrity gossip Web sites, I feel really sad for him," Y-Love said in a phone conversation during a recording break. "When I see Matisyahu being treated in the media like [actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman] Jared Leto, that makes me sad. But the best message will fall on some deaf ears."
The Baltimore-born rapper is blunt about what his role is in popular culture.
"I want to carry the message of Judaism to the most people possible," he said. "If that means I have to be on MTV2, so be it. Fifty percent of American Jews will never receive a Jewish education, so if people are spending more time in front of the TV, put the Jewish education on TV."
That is an understandable attitude. After all, it was a television program that clued a 6-year-old Jordan to Judaism.
"I was watching the TV and saw a message that said, 'Happy Passover from Channel 2,'" he recalls. "Pretty soon, I was drawing six-pointed stars on everything."
He said his mother, who was Catholic, was not religious so "any time I opened a Bible, it was because I wanted to."
On the other hand, his Puerto Rican grandmother had maintained a lifelong interest in Judaism; when Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, she threw a party.
By the time he was 14, Y-Love was observing many of the mitzvoth, and when he was 22, in 2000, he underwent an Orthodox conversion in Brooklyn. He was totally uninvolved in hip-hop until he began studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, where his chevruta (study partner), David Singer, was an emcee in his spare time. By the time they had returned to Brooklyn, the duo were appearing together as Y-Love and Cels-1. (They parted company amicably in 2003.)
Y-Love doesn't dismiss speculation about crossover success, but he clearly has something more in mind than platinum records.