Urban Desert Holy Land Hip-Hop

Music

By Micah Kelber

Published November 11, 2009, issue of November 20, 2009.
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The hip-hop bravado of Soulico, the Israeli DJ collective, comes with an undercurrent of adorable self-consciousness. Although the members are veterans of the business, they seem surprised by their breakthrough with an album and an American tour. Their affect is an excited, “Can you believe it?” Because of the vibrant complexity they create, you shouldn’t be surprised by feelings of happy mindlessness on the dance floor. But if you do decide to pay attention, the album lends itself to bigger ideas and more important questions.

Making the Desert Boom: Soulico breaking records for fun.
COURTESY JDUB
Making the Desert Boom: Soulico breaking records for fun.

“Exotic on the Speaker,” Soulico’s first album, comes not from the ghetto but from the Bauhaus-infused streets of Tel Aviv — more dusty than dangerous. It thrives on the hip-hop tropes that, in general, brought a fuller picture of the possibilities of musical expression to straight rap. Using melody, texture and instrumentation, hip hop incorporates more complex ideas. Instead of chiefly being a mode of passionate syncopated rhyme describing problems and desires, hip hop has driven toward a musical urban renewal: stressing creation over destruction.

Soulico represents the “global urban” sub-genre of hip hop: Their music comes from the sounds all around them, and since what is all around them are different cultures, the songs become pied amalgams from diverse sources in the city. On the same corner in Tel Aviv, an Arab peddler stands outside a Jamaican juice shop, next to a Thai restaurant owned by Californian transplants whose underpaid workers buy their mango juice at the sabich place next door and joke with underdressed young Israeli girls. Soulico, and global urban music in general, draws from these rich and cacophonous streets.

Soulico comes to America via JDub Records founder Aaron Bisman, who picked up one of the group’s mixtapes in Israel. For 10 years, Soulico had been making compilations for parties, skimming from the group’s favorite sounds, but the DJs had never thought to build something major from the ground up. A DJ himself until recently, Bisman sensed that the group’s sound would appeal to Americans who have become increasingly drawn to the global urban genre.

In addition to tapping the group members’ network and collaborating with such Middle Eastern all-stars as the Palestinian rapper Saz, Oren Barzilay, Onili and Tomer Yosef, Soulico gave Bisman a list of artists with whom the members dreamed of recording. In exchange for helping them get their sound into Middle Eastern markets, Bisman and his team wangled the participation of American artists including 19-year-old Baltimorean Rye Rye, Asian-American rapper Lyrics Born and Los Angeles’s Pigeon John.

The Soulico DJ’s and their worldwide collaborators exchanged beats, ideas and audio tracks via e-mail. The first time that the quartet met some of the artists on the record was during the recent tour, playing at venues from Seattle to New York. So, while Soulico’s ideas stem from the members’ experiences on the multicultural corners of Israel, the roads that lead there are from all over the world — posing implicit but broad cultural questions about the particularity of experience and the universalizability of music.

The biggest surprise for Soulico was when Bisman managed to get one of the group’s longtime favorites, Ghostface Killah from Wu-Tang, to participate. “If someone said 15 years ago that I would be working with Ghostface, I would have been like, yeah, man, you’re tripping,” Soulico member DJ Eyal Rob said. “But then when JDub made it happen, and we were sitting there, waiting for the zip file to be opened, and then when I heard the a cappella, I was like, yo, goose-bumping all over me.”

Despite not being kibbutzniks, the four DJs who make up Soulico (the other three are Sabbo, Wido and Shimi Sonic) exemplify the idea of a collective. They cooperate and fill in for one another, asking each other for advice and input. Their decisions are made by consensus, and their successes are shared. The music is an outgrowth of their ability to work together. “By the time anything makes it onto the album,” DJ Rob said, “it has gone through four — no, eight — ears.”

The first two songs on the album are the best: “El-Nur” (with Ghostface) and the title track, “Exotic on the Speaker” (with Rye Rye). They are made to ratchet up the dancing at clubs, encouraging the kind of jump-around exuberance with which Israelis let down their hair. They employ surprising tempo changes and have under-beats that complement the major drives of the songs. Furthermore, the vocalists on these songs have voices that are somehow soothing despite their insistent forcefulness.

The album makes some wrong turns, too. Listening to “Politrix” is how I imagine it would feel if someone were continually touching your stitches. And despite the fact that most people now buy individual songs instead of albums, as DJs, the group should have managed the song-to-song flow better. When they try, they excel at it. You can hear how good they are in the transition between “Put Em Up” and “DarboukaTron.” That split second is easily worth the price of the two songs.

The group insists that the music is not political, and most of the songs bear this out. This apolitical interpretation, however, is undercut — in at least one of the songs — by Sameh Zakout, aka Saz. Known as the “rapper for peace,” Saz sings something hard-hitting and real, but eyebrow raising. It’s a curious decision for Soulico to include it:

Every word hits like a bullet
Every eye sight
as exact as a snipe
I won’t say much
I’ll straight jump to the conclusion
Just before I end, always remember Mofassa of “The Lion King”
Do not think every smile is a smile in real
As what usually follows a smile, is an attack of a predator
You get hit, beaten, banged and then released
Yet in the end, I’m up, firm and standing… but angry
That’s the anger of bin Zakout… ain’t of bin Laden — got it?
(translation provided by JDub)

The idea of working with Palestinian artists is exciting for Israelis and worthwhile artistically and politically. But when Saz raps that he is not to be trusted, what is one to think? Isn’t this precisely not only what lurks in the back of the Israelis liberal psyche and at the front of the discourse of the right — that those who seem to be our friends are not really our friends?

Bisman, who does not believe in censoring his artists, responds to this, thoughtfully saying:

“Through Soulico, we’re sharing a slice of real Israeli life and culture. Saz is an Israeli citizen, and his voice is an important one in Israeli culture. [It] may not be comfortable, easy or popular, but it’s real. And imagine from his perspective what it means and what it says to his fans and community for him to participate in an album made by Israeli Jews for an American Jewish not-for-profit organization that contains two songs with Arabic in them but a majority in Hebrew.”

If Soulico turns it up just one more notch and cuts tracks with more edge, the group can really do something magnificent. But the members will have to face the fact that politics pervades the music of these diverse corners. Because even if ultimately they are hoping for us to simply wave our hands in the air, it’s pretty hard to do it like we just don’t care.


Listen to Soulico’s “El-Nur”:

Listen to Soulico’s “Exotic on the Speaker”:


Micah Kelber is a writer and freelance rabbi in Brooklyn. He is currently writing a screenplay about divorce in New York in the 1940s.


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