On a recent evening, Daniel Seliger leaned against the rickety steps of a graffiti-covered loft building in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, his left hand wrapped around a crumpled paper bag from which the mangled pop-top of a once-frosty Heineken peeked out. Like anyone who has been in the music industry for more than a decade, the 33-year-old has that jaded, been-there-done-that look down to an indifferent science. But Seliger is not like anyone else who’s been in the music industry for so long. An Orthodox Jew since birth, he dons a yarmulke and tzitzit in a business that mocks religion and its values, and is awfully sure that the next big thing will be a little-known phenomenon he calls “shuckle music.”
“You have grunge. You have punk rock. You have shuckle,” he said, using the Yiddish term for the swaying that frequently accompanies prayer in Orthodox circles. “You shuckle when you daven, and you shuckle when you listen to reggae… it’s shuckle music.”
Indeed, “shuckle music” is perhaps the best term to use to describe the fresh urban sound that Seliger and partner Alon Cohen, 37, mix and produce as part of 12 Tribe Sound, a production company they founded in order to cultivate and promote Orthodox hip-hop acts. Both acknowledge the as-yet-unprofitable nature of their fledgling, niche production company. But they also stress that this moment in pop culture — which is finally, unfathomably, set to the soundtrack of the music they’ve always wanted to make — is as good a time as any to risk it.
Seliger and Cohen, who is not observant (“I have my own relationship with God,” he noted), are hopeful that the sudden flood of religious hip-hop artists is the birth of a new musical movement — one that will communicate Torah values and Torah ideas to a generation accustomed to receiving its religion served with a heaping helping of skepticism and a side order of sarcasm.
“This is unique for our times that Jews are comfortable enough to enter the belly of the beast and keep their yarmulkes on and their tzitzit out,” Seliger said excitedly. “For cynics, this whole movement is a fluke. But for believers like me, it’s messianic.”
After a chance meeting, the music-biz veterans — Seliger headed Rawkus Records’ marketing department for nearly a decade; Cohen was the drummer for Israeli rock band Nosay Ha’Mikbaat — decided to pool their love of Judaism and hip-hop into an entity that, according to the marketing materials, will “Re-Jew-vinate the community through Jewish music.”
They put the word out that they were looking for Jewish performers who had a hip-hop vibe, and quickly discovered reggae’s reigning Semitic royal, Matisyahu. They produced his now-classic debut album, “Shake Off the Dust… Arise,” released on JDub Records in 2003. After seeing their comrade soar to success, Seliger and Cohen decided their new mission in life would be to locate acts that were equally if not more talented, and equally if not more Jewish.
What they got after searching far and wide is a slate of artists who sound like Shaggy or Eminem, but look like Moses or Maimonides — side curls and all.
The Hasidic-heavy roster includes Y-Love, a black convert who raps about God; Ta’Shma, a hip-hop twosome whose name means “Come, listen” in Aramaic; Merkavah, a Phish for the phylactery crowd, and The Admor, an honest-to-goodness Jamaican-born Breslov Hasid, dancehall emcee and martial arts master.
They found so many acts, in fact, that Seliger was finally forced to quit his day job in order to focus on 12 Tribe. (By that time, he was working as vice president of content and programming for France-based Lagardere’s mobile content division in New York — a job he took after Rawkus was sold to Universal in 2004.)
But while Seliger and Cohen share a deep and abiding affection for hip-hop, they also understand that for many would-be listeners of 12 Tribe’s acts, it’s often hard to reconcile the righteous message of a Jewish rapper riffing on the wonders of God with the violent imagery (and sometimes behavior) characteristic of hip-hop.
“We’re not trying to take any of the cultural elements of hip-hop — the violence,” Seliger said. “We’re more interested in the raw elemental music sound. The medium of poetry over beats lends itself to communicating ideas more so than that with a singer/songwriter. Music should be about the boom of that bass drum, the kick of that snare. There shouldn’t be any negativity associated with it.”
Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.