(Originally appeared at New Voices)
Israeli-American Kosha Dillz Raps About Politics And Old School Ways
When it comes to Jewish rappers, there aren’t that many names—MC Serch, the Beastie Boyz, Shyne. The biggest one out right now is Kosha Dillz, an Israeli-American from New Jersey who raps everything from grimy battle raps to hasbara (staunchly pro-Israel messages). He plays festivals from Summer Jam in his home state of New Jersey to South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
He’s a hustler. Before I even heard his music, I saw him on twitter, hitting up Israeli celebrities to promote his music. When I saw him at the Middle East nightclub in Cambidge, Mass. Back in June, he was in the crowd a half hour before his set, passing out bumper stickers and pins.
I called him up a few days ago to talk hip-hop, business and politics. A lot of politics.
Max Elstein Keisler: How did your family end up in America?
Kosha Dillz: They came over here for furthering education, a little more money, a better life. My family came here in 1976, to the Bronx. My father went to school out here. My mom went to school out here. They came here completely broke, the whole story of holes in their sneakers. My dad always said he doesn’t want his wife to have a hole in her shoe.
Did you grow in a Hebrew-speaking household?
Do you think growing up on the East coast affected your sound?
Yeah, I grew up on Wu Tang, Boot Camp Clik, the whole New York hip-hop scene, in the late 90s.
Were you in the Nas camp or the Jay-Z camp (Nas and Jay-Z had a highly-publicized feud around 2001. Nas was seen by many as the more “underground” and “conscious” rapper while Jay-Z was topping the charts)?
I listened to Nas, I remember bumping “Nas is Like” in the car when I was 18, playing Nas at parties. I started listening to Jay-Z in college, but Nas I was up on first. I would probably choose Nas as a lyricist, Jay-Z was more a businessman. I really liked Jay-Z for his business stuff, you know? With “Streets is Watching” [a 1998 soundtrack and film produced by Jay-Z], his films, the Roc-A-Wear clothing line, he was an entity in himself. With my hustling mentality, I really like Jay-Z.
People like Jay and Master P, who were multimedia way back in the late 90s, almost anticipated what you’re doing, where they’re rappers but they’re also media figures. How did you get into this rapper/media guy thing?
I sold a lot of drugs, you know? I’ve always sold something. I sold firecrackers; I sold candy for more money than I was supposed to.
You were a grade school hustler?
Yeah, always. I remember one time my mom made me go around the block and give everyone back a dollar. “I’m sorry, I messed up. This was only supposed to be one dollar, I’m sorry”. I sang Christmas carols one time, for cash, it was so funny to me, I remember selling the worst beach towels in high school for the wrestling team. Selling stuff, to me, was what I really enjoyed. Even when I made my first record in 2005, they had it in the store at Fat Beats, and I was selling it outside for less money. You know, undercutting them.
Since this isn’t for a hip-hop audience, can you explain the hustling mentality?
I love getting my music to the people. It’s a very insatiable quest, cause there’s so many people and only so much music, so you can never sell too many, and you can always sell another person a CD, and in music, you never know who you’re going to meet, and you never know who’s going to be the next person. You’re peddling, you’re rapping for people.
And in the Jewish market, it’s really interesting. I’ve toured with Matisyahu, and I’ve toured with Wu Tang and Snoop Dogg. I have my own video game character. I’m the Jewish underground kid who’s broken mainstream. People know me all over the world for how hard I work. I don’t know if it’s because my grandfather was exchanging money for less or better in Haifa when we’d go there. We come from a very good background of hustlers. I think Jews in general are just really good businessmen, it’s in our blood, we try to get a better deal to survive.
Yeah, you’re hustling to survive you know? For me, I really enjoy being the Jewish representative, meeting other Jews, being a good representation. I’m not some guy on Hollywood boulevard selling you random stuff. Everything’s well packaged, it’s nice, it’s good. I know I’m talented. I’ve developed over the years where I’ve polished the product.
What was it like working with RZA?
Working with RZA’s really cool. I think he thinks I’m a little bit crazy.
How’s he going to think you’re crazy? He was Bobby Digital [a superhero alter-ego RZA performed as beginning in 1999] for like 10 years!
Well you know, I don’t really party or anything. I’m just working, spitting a lot of bars. He’s really about rap. He’s still creating a lot of beats. I’ve recorded with him in the Wu-Mansion, with Kool G Rap, and that’s where they’ve sold more records than there are Jews in the world, you know what I mean? Working with him, I wrote my best verse in like 15 minutes.
Let’s talk politics. You’re an artist who’s very open about their Zionism, and hip-hip’s not a field I’d think of as all that open to that. High-profile artists like Mos Def have been critical of Israel in their lyrics. What has your experience been as an Israeli-American and as a Zionist in hip-hop?
People are going to hate. They’re going to hate for one reason or another, but that’s when I know I’m winning. Hip-hop is a society where people are just looking to fill themselves up with something. Everyone has issues in hip-hop, man. Hip-hop’s the voice of the people. Everyone expresses their opinion. Mine happens to be the one no one else has. My family’s fought in every war for Israel and it’s the reason why I am alive. If my parents weren’t born there, I wouldn’t be who I am today. So I’m grateful for that.
I have friends who are Muslim and it’s all good. It’s not about bashing other people. I’m not trying to bash anything; I’m representing mine, the Jewish people. That’s my Jewish heritage and my Israeli fam. However that speaks to people, they can interpret it for whatever it is, but I’m never going to back down on what it means for me to be a Jew, because there’s no reason to.
People can be negative about my stance, but that’s only because they’re not coming from the same experience my friends and family have. I’m not saying I agree with all Israeli politics. I stand for peace. also to the existence of a Jewish state. For me, it’s natural. I’m rapping in Hebrew, I’m repping where we’re from and things that concern Jewish youth, you know, a home to live. Many people I meet attempt to separate themselves from the political issues and reality of what TV portrays to the public. Hip-hop is all about being authentic, and that’s where my family’s from, you know? If your whole family’s from Harlem, you’re going to shout out Harlem. If your fam is from China, rep China. My fam is from Israel, so I rep that.
Do you ever feel like in the art world, that Zionism is a less trendy position than non- or anti-Zionism?
It’s less trendy. Zionism is losing the P.R. war. There’s so many other things that are more trendy. Zionism is like black coffee. Then you got lattes, cappuccinos, organic natural flavors. It’s always less trendy.
The place where I am coming from is a good place. It’s to defend the state of my family, and believe that our state, Israel, has a right to exist. Since revolution and individual self-expression is at the core of hip-hop, and hip-hop is used as a voice of the oppressed people, anyone portrayed as that will start a trend. Since Jews have been portrayed as the oppressor, as media, record label executives and the lawyers who hoard our favorite rappers’ hard-earned cash, it’s only natural for Israel not to be trendy.