Monday Music: Diaspora Hip-Hop
Hip-hop has always been Diaspora music, or at least since the Jamaican-born Kool Herc started looping James Brown records in the early 1970s. Later on, people like the late Japanese producer Nujabes made the culture truly global. Shi 360, an Israeli raised in Canada by Maghrebi Jewish parents, who plays Afro-American music with roots in West Africa, is true to the culture in that sense. His new album, “Shalom Haters,” from Shemspeed Records, is explicitly concerned with issues of Diaspora, Sephardic, Israeli and Jewish identity.
Diaspora politics are a big part of the track “United,” which samples Helen Thomas’s infamous “Go back to Poland and Germany” screed. The bouncy drums and poppy vocals in the beat fit his flow well, and his Zionist verses (“I know my people can be divided at times…you can hate us, it only makes us stronger and more united”) are unusually sincere. The identity politics here aren’t for everyone, but they’re heartfelt.
“Addiction” is in a similar pop-rap vein, with a heavily processed Shi crooning about being “addicted to the life, addicted to the game.” His verses here are very East Coast boom-bap over the light production; “flashing lights/evaporate like/cracks and pipes/massive hype…in this craft of crashing mics” he says, his dense rhyme scheme recalling long gone acts like DITC.
Shi’s style is more at home on the club joints, like “Shalom Haters,” where he can sneer his lines and ride the beat, and the New York sounding “Protocols Of The Elders,” a standout track where Shi and guest rapper Mordechai talk about poisoning wells and “playing your stocks and pensions like a fiddler on the roof.” Like the Helen Thomas quote, it’s a look at how some see the Jews — the dark side of Diaspora being the power of the oppressor to define your culture.
On “Every Generation,” Shi shows his linguistic prowess, kicking a verse in Arabic, French and English, ending each iteration with “Am Yisrael Chai.” The identity politics are fascinating and pithy, especially in one-liners like “we’ve been chosen but it’s us you choose to oppress,” and the minor keys with hard drums compliment his flow.
For all the problems with hip-hop, the genre still has the potential to cram a book’s worth of knowledge into a song. And while this isn’t a perfect album, there’s a lot I like about it. Shi 360 has obviously spent a lot of time on his lyrics, and doesn’t pretend to freestyle off a Blackberry. I like that each song is specifically about something, instead of a collage of interchangeable verses about the real Noriega and slide parks, or whatever rappers are talking about now. The most interesting moments are when the edges show, when there’s a hard beat and anger in his voice. Pop’s not a bad look for Shi 360, but MC is a better one.