Kosher Rap

By Mordechai Shinefield

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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Some 1,900 years ago, talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students perished in a divinely decreed plague. To mourn, many observant Jews will not get a haircut, shave, wed or listen to instrumental music during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. To a cynic, then, the proliferation of noninstrumental, or sefirah, music is a sneaky way to circumvent the rules. To date, most sefirah albums have been duds — a cappella renditions of hit songs that pale in comparison to the originals. But get a solid producer and an agile beatboxer, and deduction of the horn section is only a boon. This year, Orthodox rap artist Yizchak “Y-Love” Jordan released the first sefirah hip-hop album with “Count It,” a concept record about the Jewish holidays.

Y-Love, who has a Puerto Rican mother and an Ethiopian American father, converted to Judaism in 2000 at Brooklyn’s Conversion to Judaism Resource Center. One of his earliest Jewish memories, though, predates that to a Passover Seder he attended when he was 7 — foreshadowing the holiday sefirah album. (“Sefirah” also refers to the Counting of the Omer, the commandment to count the 49 days between the second night of Passover and Shavuot.)

Released by Modular Moods and arranged by DJ Handler, the album takes its cues from old school hip-hop and freestyle battles. The music, all vocal percussions, evokes such 1980s rap legends as Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. DJ Handler wrote all the beats for “Count It” and sent them to Yuri Lane, who used his throat to mimic turntables and drum machines. Despite Lane’s skill, though, the music throws an inordinate weight on the lyrics, which can only seldom shoulder the burden.

When Y-Love succeeds, it’s with humor and tongue-in-cheek wit. On “Watch,” a song about Passover, he begins a verse by paraphrasing the Four Questions, only to finally slip into the question on everyone’s mind: “God, what makes tonight different?/Why we double dipping?/Why we all leaning?/Head toward the kitchen. Why tonight we gotta wait three hours for the chicken?” On “Shake It,” a song about Sukkot, he raps about the makeshift shacks that the Israelites used in the desert for 40 years. He also breaks down the minutiae of appeasing a nation of people, to humorous effect: “In the midbar [desert], taking care of all needs/Six million loads daily of dirty laundry.”

Oftentimes, though, Y-Love uses too much Yiddish slang and too many Hebrew words, keeping the album from garnering wide appeal. Anticipating the niche market, Modular Moods arranged only to sell the album online and through Brooklyn Jewish music stores. There, it has sold well: Modular Moods claims the Brooklyn music store Gal Paz has been unable to keep it in stock.

“Count It” makes other Jewish experiments in sefirah music, like the Lev Tahor series, sound like undeveloped write-offs. But the foreign and sometimes esoteric lyrics still make “Count It” more similar to those Orthodox projects than to professional a cappella groups. Y-Love and Lane are preaching to the choir here: people who have already decided not to listen to instrumental music between Passover and Shavuot. “Count It” won’t inspire anyone new to pack away his music for 49 days, though.

That may not be the album’s only purpose. As a preview album for Y-Love’s upcoming debut, “Count It” falls into a long rap tradition of hyping albums through advance underground mixed tapes. Though Eichler’s Judaica is not your standard Washington Heights corner mixed tape distributor, it may be fulfilling the same function: building a word-of-mouth fanbase.

For Orthodox Jews, “Count It” is a condoned way to listen to decent music throughout the sefirah. For everyone else, it previews Y-Love’s unique talent and suggests the heir to Matisyahu’s Jewish-rapping throne.

Mordechai Shinefield, a music critic and freelance writer, has been published in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and New York Press.

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