Almost since its inception, hip-hop has had a Jewish element. But for every group with street cred — think the Beastie Boys — there seems to be twice as many kitschy outfits like Two Live Jew and MC Paul Barman. Enter Sneakas, ne Yoni Ben-Yehuda, a 22-year-old budding hip-hop artist who is striving to take Jewish hip-hop out of the novelty category and into the ears of serious rap fans. And he may be succeeding: He will be opening next month in Sacramento for De La Soul, the legendary hip-hop group whose 1988 debut, “Three Feet High and Rising,” was one of the first albums to cross over to white audiences.
Sneakas is part of a wave of Jewish hip-hop artists, including Wu-Tang Clan protege Remedy, who want to be taken seriously for their lyrics and beats while addressing weighty issues such as antisemitism and the Holocaust.
“A lot of them try to be funny and Woody Allenize their hip-hop,” Sneakas said of Jewish hip-hop artists. “I think an MC’s skill speaks for itself, and if you don’t approach your music as a novelty act — and try to put some deep messages in your songs — then you won’t be perceived as one.”
If his upcoming album offers any clue, Sneakas is following his own advice. His rhymes confront hefty issues, including AIDS, the globalization of hip-hop culture and the experience of his grandmother, who escaped from a Polish concentration camp by walking to Russia. In the song “Listen to My Demo,” he raps:
Another song, “CNN” (which stands for Clearly Not the News), was written as a reaction to witnessing the bloody aftermath of a 2001 Tel Aviv suicide bombing that left 21 people dead.
Sneakas’s lyrics also highlight his belief that good rap does not have to be misogynistic. Also from “Listen to My Demo”:
The layering of heavy bass with other instruments including piano and even sitar creates more complex beats than what is typically heard on mainstream urban radio.
Sneakas was classically trained in bass and drums, but it was always clear to him that hip-hop would be the platform for his lyrics. He and his mother emigrated from Israel to the United States in 1993, when he was 12. His deep voice still bears a faint trace of an Israeli accent. As a teenager on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Sneakas discovered underground New York hip-hop artists like Mos Def and Talib Qweli, two artists who, he felt, didn’t glorify violence or use derogatory terms for women. He also found he identified with the culture they came from, despite the difference in race.
“I found myself immersed and belonging to hip-hop culture, and at some point it transcended race and social status for me,” he said. “I felt like I understood it, even though my background was so different from that of other hip-hop artists.”
Despite feeling at home within hip-hop culture, Sneakas admits that there is a strain of antisemitism within it:
“Growing up, I knew some kids who grew up in the projects [in Manhattan], and if something was stolen from one of them, they would say, ‘Yo, I got Jewed,’” he recalled. “I think it goes beyond words and into stereotypes, like how Jews are often considered to be business people. But I try to challenge these stereotypes in my music, and not just in a serious way but in humorous ways, too.”
In 2002, he guest MCed on the Israeli hip-hop single “Non-Stop” by his friend Subliminal, which was later certified gold — for selling 20,000 copies — on the Israeli pop charts. In the song, which praises the international capabilities of hip-hop music’s “local flow on a global track,” Sneakas first showcased the fast flow of his MC style while giving shout-outs to all of the hip-hop artists who had ever inspired him. After the success of “Non-Stop,” he realized he wanted to try to make it in the U.S. His mother sent his lyrics to an acquaintance, Yaron Fuchs, an owner-producer at the Nu-Media NY music production company.
“As soon as I read his lyrics, I was blown away and signed him on,” said Fuchs, whose clients include Bob Dylan and Madonna.
Sneakas is currently finishing his first album, tentatively titled “In It for the Change,” and is assisting with the production of the record’s beats. There are no obvious, radio-friendly hooks in Sneakas’s songs. Instead, his beats are inspired, and sound like they came from, vintage records, similar to the beats from some of the records by his musical idols. The smooth pacing of his delivery as an MC illuminates his subject matter, without sounding preachy or pedantic.
“I’m not a street prophet; I can laugh at myself and try to be real,” he said. “Like the name of where I come from — Is Real. There’s no doubt about it.”
Rachel Zuckerman is a writer living in Manhattan.