Canadian-born musician Josh Dolgin, aka DJ Socalled, is reviving the centuries-old Jewish tradition of klezmer music the only way he knows how: by mixing it with obscure samples, superior beats, bilingual rap and the occasional reference to his “ding-a-ling.” Dolgin has inspired his fair share of skeptics — people who disapprove of pairing traditional klezmer music with goofy (and sometimes obscene) wit, others who assume that his blending of this music with hip-hop amounts to nothing more than marketable shtick. But with the release of his third full-length album, it is now officially time to leave the grumblers behind: Socalled’s music is remarkably sophisticated.
Although Dolgin was raised in a Jewish family and learned to play the accordion and piano at a young age, he stumbled onto the trills and syncopated rhythms of klezmer while exploring old records for samples to use in hip-hop beats. The resulting musical hybrid of klezmer melodies, Yiddish folk songs and hip-hop beats and rhymes has been as much an experiment in the aesthetic combination of the two genres as a sort of long road home, a journey back to his Eastern European Jewish roots by way of America’s urban-music landscape.
Dolgin’s two previous albums chart the maturation of his complex craft: the frantic mash-up “Socalled Seder” was a first step: tense, overzealous, but promising. The follow-up, “Hip Hop Khasene”(with violinist Sophie Solomon), both a hip-hop assault on Jewish marriage and a tongue-in-cheek upending of klezmer’s role as traditional wedding entertainment, showed Socalled moving toward a more coherent goal — musically and thematically — at a more leisurely pace. And he seems to have gotten there. “Ghettoblaster,” Dolgin’s new solo album, is his most compelling effort to date, featuring slick hip-hop production and an implausible all-star cast of musicians: Irving Fields, 92, the original lounge lizard, shares space with klezmer virtuoso and Socalled mentor David Krakauer, and a host of other Jewish and non-Jewish artists.
Whereas “Hip Hop Khasene” was skeptical of traditional Judaism’s modern relevance, “Ghettoblaster” is largely an attempt to make sense of Jewish identity within a new global community. A song like “(Rock) The Belz,” which unravels a plaintive piano sample around three requiems for boyhood homes in three different languages — Yiddish, English and French — is literally an attempt to blast away the boundaries among ghettos, past and present. (Something of this song’s power is lost on account of the unfortunate omission of a lyrics sheet.)
“You Are Never Alone,” the album’s standout song, takes a mellow reggae groove as the starting point for another powerful triple union: a whistled klezmer melody doubled by a trumpet atop a sultry R&B vocal hook and a rough spat rap verse. At a time when rap music is experiencing an analogue renaissance (for instance, Jay-Z’s largely unsuccessful attempt to revive a live funk rhythm section in “Kingdom Come”), Socalled’s klezmer hooks are an unusual success: Their tightly wound explosions of exotic melody transcend the tired hip-hop lexicon of pizzicato strings and horn bursts. And with pointed lyrics about alienation, prosecution and perseverance, Socalled pushes the listener to accept the proposition that this musical synergy is a sign of deeper cultural fraternity.
It’s also an argument presented in more whimsical comparisons. Despite its pretense of seriousness, the a cappella bass voice droning “yaba buma-bum bum” on the “Bikel Family Sign” is best listened to if you envision a wry smile: What, you didn’t know that klezmer invented the beatbox? Elsewhere, Socalled smartly plays with other parts of the hip-hop vernacular to uncover more common ground: “Baleboste” (women of the house), a Yiddish folk song set to a driving bass, is peppered with the saucy interjections of an African American woman: “I am the woman of the house!” “Ich Bin a Border” is even more effective. When Socalled takes the original tune — an old Yiddish song about a man who divorces his wife only to begin renting a room in her house as a boarder — and sets it to a pitch-perfect old-school backbeat, it suddenly hits you: Erik B. & Rakim could have written these lyrics.
Elsewhere, the opposite conclusion is striking: No one but Socalled could be behind the manic weirdness of some of these songs. “Masturbate don’t fornicate/salivate never satiate/you can own it all right now why wait/eat what’s on your plate then eat your plate,” raps Socalled in the first verse of the brilliant Casio-tone and accordion-powered inversion of folk wisdom titled “(These Are) the Good Old Days.” With only one slinky riff and Dolgin’s nasal rhymes, it’s a barebones Socalled song, if there is such a thing.
There are places where the album falters. Impatient fans will listen to “Let’s Get Wet” and “Heart Attack Feeling,” the album’s low points, and hear everything they need to dismiss Socalled as shtick. But it would be better to take these overstuffed and underwritten exceptions as proof that what Socalled pulls off so effortlessly elsewhere is no small feat: He may have found a profound pairing with klezmer and hip hop, but that doesn’t mean making it work is easy.
Like any truly ambitious album, “Ghettoblaster” isn’t a flawless or even consistent realization of the aspirations we glimpse in its finest moments. But like a lilting klezmer melody, it sounds breathtaking highs; surprises us with dexterity, humor and passion, and refuses to let go of our senses.
Alexander Benenson is currently an intern at Slate and a senior at Yale University, where he co-edits and writes for Volume, Yale’s music magazine.