Hip-hop Musician Returns to His Funky Roots
Josh Dolgin thinks the Yiddish revival is over.
“Enough talk of this f—-ing revival,” the 28-year-old musician bellowed during a recent phone interview from his home in Montreal. “It’s not a revival anymore — because it’s alive.”
And he would know. Dolgin, aka DJ So Called, has pushed Yiddish closer to what is cool and hip with his infectious love for the language and culture, and an intriguing repertoire of Yiddish rap (yes, rap). So whether Dolgin likes it or not, Yiddish revivalists, among others, are eagerly awaiting his newest venture: a re-release by JDub records of his popular “The So Called Seder,” a hip-hop take on traditional Passover melodies. Slated for release next month, this version of the album features half a dozen new songs, including a cameo by Wu Tang Clan’s Killa Priest.
Can the mamaloshn (mother tongue) be revived any more than that?
At his concerts, Dolgin courts throngs of 20- and 30-somethings who dance to re-mixed Yiddish theater songs from the 1920s. By his own estimate, Dolgin owns 5,000 records that he mixes to create a new sound with sometimes-traditional music. Lest “traditional” imply anything about Dolgin’s personal life, however, he quickly clarifies that his songs do not have any religious connotation. Forgoing confusion stemming from the fact that he lives in a Hasidic neighborhood in Montreal where children listen to his music from outside his window, Dolgin admits he doesn’t believe in God and that he thinks the ritual of religious observance is “hilarious.”
But Yiddish is “amaaazing,” he drawled. “I don’t want to be part of the Jewish f—-ing music world,” he lamented in one breath, but admitted in another that he fell hard for Yiddish after seeing Aaron Lebedeff jamming at a KlezKanada concert.
Now it’s a virtual “Yiddish-o-rama” for Dolgin, who performs more than a dozen songs in Yiddish. While what he’s doing with the language seems unconventional, Dolgin noted that historically, Yiddish was often used to create offbeat art: “When Jews came to America, their language was Yiddish. And it was the Yiddish folk language of these people, who were funky people. We were musicians, actors, jesters and writers!”
Dolgin brought his enthusiasm to a performance for more than 100 fans at The Slipper Room, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a few weeks ago. “I can’t hear ya! What happened to the niggunim culture?” he screamed into a microphone, his wrist flicking in time with the umph-umphs projecting from his beat box. “Lada-day-day,” he crooned along with an eager crowd. By the time his five backup musicians — two trumpets, a flute, a sax and a tuba — joined in the klezmer niggun, or tune, Dolgin was jumping on stage and stamping a beat with his Converse sneakers.
This was just the sort of concert his fans love.
“They’re awesome, he’s awesome, So Called is awesome,” said Sarah Margles, who stopped dancing for a few minutes during a break in the music. “There’s something about certain music that pushes the boundaries that makes it exciting.”
“The melodies brought you back and the hip-hop brought you forward. It jives well,” said DJ Handler, a member of the break-beat klezmer-jazz band Juez, and the man behind the indie record label Modular Moods.
Dolgin doesn’t wax poetic about his music’s inherent message. “You don’t have to talk about the message, because it’s implied in the dope music and the culture,” he said when asked what the heck his fusion of Yiddish, klezmer and rap means, exactly. “The message is that you can be culturally unique and culturally specific, and we Jews have this Yiddish thing.”