Behind the Scenes and on the Mic

Hip Hop

By Dimitri Ehrlich

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Jews have a long history in hip hop and much to be proud of — both behind the scenes and on the microphone. The presence is especially significant on the business side of things: For many years, Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest and Slick Rick were all managed by Lyor Cohen, who went on to run a major rap label, and Eminem is managed by Paul Rosenberg. But artistically, too, there’s a long list of innovators, from Rick Rubin, who co-founded Def Jam Records and produced early Run-DMC (and more recently, Jay Z) to The Beastie Boys and MC Serch. From any angle, the impact of Jews on rap music is enormous.

A recent independent release called “Celebrate Hip Hop: Jewish Artists From Around the Globe,” while intermittently interesting from a musicological point of view, provides less in the way of entertainment value than it does to serve as a reminder of the way rap has become the pop cultural equivalent of the English language — everyone seems to speak it, to some degree.

The album begins with a track called “Ocho Kandelikas” (“Eight Candles”), a hip-hop Hanukkah song by a Jewish-Latino crew called Hip-Hop Hoodios. It’s an odd way to start the album, since it sounds the least like a rap song than any of the 12 tracks assembled here. Hoodios is a play on the Spanish word for Jews (Judios) as well as, presumably, a pun on the term hoods or “young thugs from the hood.” The song is a rollicking punk-rock sing-along with a shouted, thrashing chorus; the only thing nominally hip hop about it is a rather weak spoken-word interlude.

Mook E. from Israel contributes “Cross That Bridge,” which is more promising, but again, not exactly what diehard fans of the genre would call hip hop. It’s much closer to Jamaican dancehall, except that instead of “toasting” in rapid-fire patois, Mook E. spits out his lyrics out in Hebrew. It’s fractious and jarring, in the way most dancehall is. Another Israeli rapper, Sagol 59 (featuring A7), offers a track called “Big Ben,” which emulates the dark, gritty sound of the Wu-Tang Clan. An ominous synthesizer line drifts like black smoke over a simple loop, while Sagol 59 raps in Hebrew and A7 kicks it in English. This track manages to capture the street cred that long ago faded from most American hip hop: a sense of rawness and real menace. And this being Israeli hip hop, the menace is no joke: The song is a tribute to Sagol’s disc jockey, who was murdered in a suicide attack in 2002.

With five songs out of 12 on this album, Americans represent the noisy majority, and Brimstone 127 featuring Mariposa is a credible contender for the album’s coolest underground cut. While his song, ‘I’m Guessing,” isn’t going to get much play on commercial rap radio (the production is a little outdated, and the content is too arcane), the track probably would earn some respect from serious hip-hop fans. Mariposa sings a simple hook, while Brimstone adds complex rhymes over a slightly psychedelic soundscape, reminiscent of the early 1990s Los Angeles rap quintet The Pharcyde.

Blood of Abraham, a rap duo from Los Angeles, are among the best rappers on this collection. Their lyrical flow is fast, fluid and intricate, and while, like everything else on this album, their production is a few years behind current trends, it’s well executed, funky and appealingly grim. The only rapper here with a platinum track record is Remedy, who, rather than being a good imitator, is actually a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and in 1998 released a Holocaust remembrance song with them, called “Never Again,” that has since sold a million copies. A song from the album, “Muslim and a Jew,” performed by Remedy, featuring RZA & Cilva Ringz, begins with a sample of a news broadcast about a suicide bombing in Israel.

Some of the tracks here are more fascinating than they are listenable: Solomon and Socalled, a Canadian duo, offer “Hophopkele,” which is more like a klezmer comedy record than like hip hop. While the vocal performance might not be what most of what us call “rapping,” it is, after all, in Yiddish.

But other cuts here, while far from the rap mainstream, are intriguing and innovative. ISquad is a quartet of Russian Jews who met on a Russian hip-hop Web site and collaborated over the Internet, recording online without ever meeting one another in person. Their song, “History,” is recorded in Russian, and works surprisingly well. The language is chunky, angular and gruff, and exudes a brash, streetwise attitude, while the music has a loose, banging flow. It’s pleasantly discombobulated and undeniably funky.

Hailing from the United Kingdom, Emunah contribute a song called “Sweetness,” which, like a lot of British rap, owes a debt to the style known as 2 Step, a fast-paced, jittery British take on dance music. The track is a hectic, dense and fascinating experiment.

It’s impossible to come to any simple conclusions about the Jewish rap diaspora, but the reason is an optimistic one: The music is, like the Jewish people, simply too varied and engaged with global cultural influences.

Dimitri Ehrlich, along with his brother, Gregor, is the author of “Move the Crowd: Voices and Faces of the Hip-Hop Nation” (MTV Books/Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, 1999). He also writes for Vibe and for Interview magazine.

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