May 15, 2008
Israeli rapper Subliminal has built a music empire
"I always wrote about things that are not cool," said Shimoni, a.k.a. Subliminal, Israel's reigning hip-hop mogul, who will be the headlining act at this year's Israeli Independence Day Festival on May 18.
As a young Israeli rapper in the '90s, he shopped his demo tapes around to various music distributors. He was given the following advice: "Don't ever rap about politics again. It'll never sell."
Subliminal proved them wrong.
The stocky 28-year-old has built a multiplatinum music empire on songs that tout Israeli pride, serving in the army, the hope for peace and, during the height of the second intifada, a hawkish stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is widely credited with being a founding force behind "Zionist hip-hop" along with his long-time rapping partner, Ha'tzel or "The Shadow," one of several members of Subliminal's powerhouse team of performers, the T.A.C.T. Family. In addition to Yoav Aliasi, other artists that have ridden the wave of success along with Subliminal include Shai 360 (Shai Hadad), Booskills, Sivan and Itzik Shamly.
Subliminal's first album, "The Light From Zion" (2000), broadcast an unabashedly pro-Israel message to the world with songs like "Living From Day to Day." The explicitly political lyrics were startling to an Israeli audience used to lighthearted dance beats. He received a harsh rebuke in the media, labeled an "extreme rightist" and a "producer of hatred music" by some, according to the rapper's official biography. But his young audience, seething from rising violence in the streets, was surprisingly responsive and the album eventually went gold.
Plowing ahead, Subliminal became more provocative as his T.A.C.T. (Tel Aviv Street Team) label grew in influence with its own professional recording studios, street teams and Tel Aviv clubs. His single, "Divide and Conquer," was lambasted by left-leaning Israeli journalists, but embraced by the public as a patriotic anthem to counter the raging intifada. In a public retort to the Palestinians' demand for territory, Subliminal wrote "Biladi" ("My Land"), naming the song in Arabic so that his message would reach the desired target. In the song's lyrics he asserts: "We're here and we'll never leave."
Bat 60, with English subtitles
Subliminal believes he is making a difference not only in the lives of his fans but also in the minds of his detractors. Performing in France, where hip-hop created largely by Arabs and Muslims rules the airwaves, he has been greeted with angry mobs of protesters and a hostile press.
"I speak to them in their language, the language of hip-hop, and you know what, so many of them have come up to me and said, 'We're Muslims and we love your music. Big up!'" he said.
More importantly, Subliminal said, he's a breath of fresh air to the Jews in France. Fans paint their faces in blue and white, wave Israeli flags and proudly wear Stars of David in a country where they often fear to show Jewish pride.
"My performances are like Yom Ha'Atzmaut for them," he said.
Having recorded more than 250 songs and establishing an international name for himself and T.A.C.T. Records, Subliminal is a megastar in his home country.
While Shabak Samech was the first hip-hop act in Israel, Subliminal helped open the door so other hip-hop artists could succeed. He is largely responsible for bringing the American-born genre into the Israeli mainstream and giving it a uniquely Israeli flavor, starting with the very language of the rhymes.
Born to Iranian and Tunisian parents in Tel Aviv, Subliminal began rapping at 12 -- in English.
"I was sure that rapping in Hebrew would sound terrible," he said.
Everyone else in the fledgling Israeli hip-hop scene felt the same way.
But a trip to Los Angeles changed Subliminal's mind. He met a DJ from Power 106 FM, Los Angeles' largest hip-hop radio station, who asked to hear him freestyle in Hebrew. Subliminal, a 15-year-old kid at the time, hesitated. When he finally acquiesced, the DJ was blown away.
"Here was this Hispanic guy who had nothing to do with Israel or Judaism and he was telling me that my holy mission was to invent hip-hop in the holy language," said Subliminal in a telephone interview from his home, which he shares with his mother.
Taking the DJ's advice, Subliminal set out to mold the nature of Israeli hip-hop, which he asserts is distinctly different from American rap.
"If you're a drug dealer or just came out of jail, it's considered cool," he said of the American rap scene. "Here, it's different. It's the exact opposite. Israeli rappers rap about pride and Zionism and positive things."
Subliminal's greatest show of Zionist pride is also his most wildly successful hit to date. The trailblazing rapper was tapped by the Israeli government months ago to record Israel's official 60th anniversary anthem, "Bat 60," a collaboration with the legendary Israeli folk band, Gevatron, which made the song famous in the early days of the Jewish homeland.
With an enormous diamond-studded Star of David dangling from his neck and a baseball hat cocked on his head, Subliminal went into the studio and recorded a remix of the favorite with members of the nonprofit singing troupe from Kibbutz Geva, whose average age is 65. The result is a pulsating, uplifting tribute to Israel that has broken through all musical barriers.
"For she is real, and no symbol/And no flag nor sign/The past is behind her/
She looks out on what is to come."