September 13, 2007
Trio of performers aiming for bite of pop music pie
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"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"
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."