Jewish Journal

Trio of performers aiming for bite of pop music pie

by George Robinson

Posted on Sep. 13, 2007 at 8:00 pm



Your chances of getting hit by lightning are better than the odds on winning one of roughly 40 state lotteries found in the United States. But people keep buying lottery tickets, presumably with the belief that when the lightning strikes, they'll be the ones to get fried.

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."I think world Jewry needs to take a serious, hard look at itself," he said. "Is success a million kids eating kugel who know nothing about Torah, or a bunch of kids wearing Starter jackets but knowing the 613 commandments?"

But he also cautions the traditionalists who look askance at the hip-hop milieu.

"This is not your grandfather's Orthodoxy," he said. "When you talk about Jewish culture, well, we don't know what Moses dressed like or what King David's music sounded like. A lot of what we call 'Jewish culture' is reverse historical extrapolations."

Despite all this, he says he is hopeful about the future and readily admits that Matisyahu's success has spurred a new wave of Jewish musical creativity.

"In yeshiva, you have a lot more musical talent being expressed in Jewish ways today," Y-Love concludes. "Forget about the 'next Matisyahu,' I would like to see a renaissance in Jewish music in general."

Yuri Lane: "Every Character Has Their Own Rhythm"

Yuri Lane is a musician without an instrument. Or, to be accurate, he is a musician who is an instrument.

Lane is a beatboxer, someone who uses his mouth and his body to create musical sounds in a hip-hop vein.

"It began in algebra class," he admits, a little sheepishly. "The teacher heard me and said, 'Please turn off that radio right now.'"

It also came in handy when kids tried to beat him up, "a Jewish beatboxer being a bit of a minority," he adds.

But for Lane, who began an acting career at 13, beatboxing was also a new way to tell a story, and after college, the Netherlands-born, Bay Area-raised hip-hop artist began creating one-man beatbox plays.

"Every character has their own rhythms and instrument and beat," he explains. "It's a great way to reach out to a new community."

And when that community is Jewish, beatboxing has an excellent side benefit. As Lane notes, "It's an exception to the proscription on instrumental music on Shabbos. We have a hecksher from several rabbis."

Unlike Y-Love, with whom he recently recorded, Lane is a Reform Jew by both upbringing and temperament.

"Actually, my upbringing was very secular. I was a hippy child growing up in Haight-Ashbury," he said. "But I always felt very Jewish culturally, and when I met my wife, who is a Jewish studies scholar, I became more involved.

"I began to teach Hebrew school and learned a lot from working with the kids," he continues. "We went to a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, and now that we've moved to Chicago, we're very active in KAM Isaiah Israel," the oldest synagogue in the city.

Beatboxing has become a way of extending the teaching of Torah for Lane. That is why, among his other projects, he is particularly proud of his performance piece, "From Tel Aviv to Ramallah," a hip-hop documentary/travelogue that tells the stories of Israeli and Palestinian youth in a search for a peaceful solution to the unending conflict in the Middle East.

"I can teach Torah through beatbox from kindergarten to high school, and it sends a message to the kids that you can be Jewish and be proud and be a performer; that the elements of hip-hop and Torah can work together," he said. "I'm very blessed that someone might see me as a Jewish role model. What I love about American Judaism is that it is so diverse."

Lane feels ready for crossover success; he welcomes it.

"It's good Jewish music," he said of his recordings and performances. "I want to get my music out to everyone, to bring out my Jewish identity. Someone said, 'Zion is a state of mind.' I want people to see that Zion is for everybody."

Rav Shmuel: "I'm Too Old to Be a Pop Star" Rav Shmuel
Shmuel Skaist is instantly recognizable. For one thing, he's well above 6 feet tall, his payos dangle below his shoulders and his smile lights up an area the size of Times Square. He certainly doesn't look like a rock star, so much as a young yeshiva student or, at a stretch, a rabbi, which is what he actually is. But on a recent night he was playing his weekly gig at an East Village bar-restaurant, the Sidewalk Cafe, one of the birthplaces of the anti-folk movement.

And as Rav Shmuel, his stage name, he is an active part of that scene, a witty, wry singer-songwriter who combines the reggae-tinged acoustic guitar chops of Jack Johnson with a religious sincerity that he wears lightly and with charm.

Unlike Y-Love, Lane and Matisyahu, Rav Shmuel was born into the Orthodox world. Indeed, he is the latest in a long line of rabbis. At 42, he's also older than the others, and he has six children, ranging in age from 8 to 19. That combination of circumstances subtly alters his attitude toward the musical side of his career in a variety of healthy ways.

"I had a dream of making that big breakthrough years ago, but I wasn't ready musically," he said with a smile. "I'm too old to be a pop star now. I'd like to see myself as a Tom Waits type, an artist with a small but steady following who has the freedom to say what he wants."

Rav Shmuel readily acknowledges that Matisyahu's success has helped him and other Jewish artists gain a piece of the pop music pie, but he takes as much satisfaction from the message that Matisyahu is carrying as he does from any trickle-down effect on his own record sales and live dates.

"He's great, and it's a big Kiddush Hashem that he has done so well," he said. "He's opened up a lot of doors, and he's the right man for the job."His first CD, "Protocols," has been getting very good reviews, his videos on YouTube are downloaded regularly and he has a busy enough performing schedule to suit his desires.

"I have a son in college; he has the ability to work on music full time, if that is what he chooses," Rav Shmuel said. "As for success, I'm always gratified if it happens. But I wouldn't want to give up teaching."

It was teaching, oddly enough, that helped him make the creative breakthrough that allowed him to begin performing his own material.

"When I started writing, all my stuff sounded like 'color war' camp songs, but I kept at it," he recalls. "When I got my first full-time teaching job at a Modern Orthodox school in Queens, I brought my guitar to class, and the kids said, 'Oh, that's so cool.'

"I started listening to the music they were into, and when I heard Pearl Jam's '10,' I was completely blown away," he said. "That inspired me to start writing again. Eddie Vedder is postmodern. He conveys his ideas in snatches and phrases; it's not narrative. That opened me up to all sorts of possibilities."

That was a long time ago, and Rav Shmuel has come a long way as a writer and as a performer. On stage, his manner is cheerful, a little goofy, but friendly and intimate in a way that probably wouldn't translate to the big arenas that Matisyahu is now filling. So for the present, he is happy to be teaching fulltime and playing folk (or anti-folk) clubs.

After all, that's where Bob Dylan started, and he was the first Matisyahu of rock 'n' roll.

Modular Moods has new CDs by Yuri Lane ("Human Beatbox") and Lane and Y-Love ("Count It: Sefirah") available at http://www.modularmoods.com

Y-Love regularly posts new tracks to his MySpace page http://www.myspace.com/Ylove, as does Lane http://www.myspace.com/yurilane.

Rav Shmuel's CD "Protocols" is available on the Jewish Music Group label at http://www.jewishmusicgroup.com/. He is also on MySpace http://www.myspace.com/ravshmuel.

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