Monday Music: Rap for Rabbis

(Originally appeared at the Jewish Daily Forward)

A lot of my favorite music could be described as religious hip-hop. It probably has to do with my obsession with the Dirty South, even though all of that music is Christian. Take “True Hero Under God” by Z-Ro, which includes lines like “But I am just a man, trying to Satan free / Through hell, is where they’re taking me.” At least he only refers to Jesus once, so I can pretend I’m not being preached at. But in most of this music the theology is about sin and Satan and salvation through prayer. I can relate to the person singing the song, but I don’t want to relate to the message.

Now I’m listening to “Infinity,” the first album by the nice Jewish boys in Shtar. “Infinity” is religious. Song titles include prayers like “Adon Olam,” “Kel Adon,” and “Shir Hamaalos.” But is this just rap for rabbis?

The first thing that comes across on this album is that every song is about God. Every verse is about God. God is for Shtar like “the trap” is for Young Jeezy, which makes sense. The Orthodox lifestyle, with its routines of prayer and study, is pretty all encompassing. And I can’t really expect guys from rabbinical school to make strip club anthems or sex jams.

Instead, Shtar songs have their own formula. They feature a melodic, live-band beat, a smooth vocal hook, usually in Hebrew, and a sophisticated “smart guy” rapping. “Adon Olam” sounds a bit like the classic “Hotel” by Cassidy and R. Kelly, but there will be no “after party one bed for freak on” nonsense here. MC Ori Murray raps “the King is back, he never left, and you’ll be feeling that / you’ll be seeing that,” and he’s not talking about a god of the mic.

This is the odd part of Shtar’s music — it has none of the egocentrism of hip-hop. This can be a good thing. It’s cool that they’re making music about what they care about, and in terms of Jewish rappers, I’d rather listen to Shtar drop knowledge than to hear Drake say something lame about his “struggle,” which doesn’t exist. (Listen to the verse on “Shir Hamaalos” about the redemption from exile: “When will Hashem return us to Zion so we can be like dreamers again?” I agree.)

At the same time, the songs here don’t have the introspection that other religious acts, like UGK and Z-Ro, bring to the table. It can be hard to hear the people behind the songs. That may be my American bias — Judaism isn’t caught up on men of constant sorrow like rural Christianity is. On the other hand, so many great Jewish musicians are able to take their music to some dark places emotionally — take Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” or Leonard Cohen’s “Last Year’s Man.”

Don’t get it twisted, every track here is great. The production is superb, the rapping subtle, with a different flow for every beat, and the messages are thought out. I can definitely see myself playing any of these tracks early in the morning, when I’d rather hear spiritual and Jewish than grimy. For the Orthodox hip-hop fan or the older head who has gotten tired of the usual tropes, this is a good buy.

How an Israeli village rescues kids from the brink

(Originally appeared at the Jewish Advocate)

Chaim Peri has made it his life’s mission to keep kids from slipping through the cracks. Peri is director emeritus of Yemin Orde Youth Village, where he has worked for the past 30 years. Founded in 1953, the Mount Carmel community provides a home, a family and education to 500 at-risk immigrant children from more than 20 countries.

In the last few years, Peri has been expanding Yemin Orde from a single program to a nationwide educational initiative serving Israel’s marginalized communities. He stopped in Boston this month to promote his new book, “Teenaged Educated The Village Way,” and to meet with Friends of Yemin Orde, a nonprofit that raises money for the village and its graduates.

In an interview with The Advocate, Peri talked about education and social division in Israel.  The interview has been edited and condensed.

 

Q. You say “Israel is not a perfect country.” How are you addressing that?

A. There is a lot of poverty and there are too many people left in the gutters, and this is to me inconceivable, we didn’t go along for 2000 years to create a country just like any other country. My focus is on the thousands of at risk youth who are left in the gutter, and they could be the stars of Israel. We don’t give up on a Jewish child. The kids I work with are largely first-generation Israelis who the system has failed, high school dropouts.

 

Q. Ethiopians and Russians?

A. Exactly. They don’t know what the average Israeli knows  to succeed. We take kids who come from brokenness, and we give them years of wholeness, of cohesiveness. They walk out different menschen; we have a method of doing that. The African proverb, it takes a village, we take the village system of Israel, and we replant it in devastated schools, chaotic environments, in the margins of Israel.

 

Q. What are the margins of Israel?

A. First of all, first generation Israelis, people who are confused about their identity. If you come from Russia and your mother isn’t Jewish, but you’re eligible to be an Israeli because your father was Jewish, your grandfather was Jewish, whatever, and you’re told you’re not Jewish, you’re not kosher, you grow to hate Israel. You say what do you want from me? They want from them to get converted, but then these conversions are almost impossible.

 

Q. It’s much harder to get converted in Israel than here?

A. Yes, because a kid doesn’t convert out of conviction. He converts because he feels Jewish, because in Russia they told him “you are a Jew.” So what does Israel want from him? I mean these are marginal kids, sometimes they form gangs. They hate Israel, the religious people, because they don’t include them. Then there are those who are poverty stricken, and dysfunctional life is transferred from generation to generation. Then there are those who had a very significant protest [last summer], the middle class, who said, “We did everything the book says. We work hard, we have degrees, and we cannot raise a family.”

This is not why we went through so many sacrifices to have a Jewish state.

 

Q. What of the Russian Jews who may come from backgrounds not viewed as halachically Jewish?

A. They’re welcome at Yemin Orde. I am Modern Orthodox; we are shomer Shabbat and everything. We have Muslim kids in our programs, Muslim kids from Darfur, and they survived genocide. They ran to Egypt, were subject to human trade, ran for freedom to Israel, and in Israel they are jailed! It’s unheard of. It’s a very controversial point in Israel, people say if you embrace them, millions are going to pour in. You can’t block the borders, so what’s going to happen to the Jewish state? It is not my concern; I am not in charge of the border guards, I am in charge of education.

We  were attacked: How can you put Muslim kids in a shomer Shabbat school? I said, this is my Judaism.

 

Q. Who’s making these attacks?

A. People who are intimidated by it. I really believe if you are not generous to your guest residents, what you say is I did not make the transformation from a ghetto mentality to being the master of the land. The master of the land must be generous to those who come; if you are not generous, if you are suspicious, your mentality is of a besieged human being.

There is a problem with cohesiveness in Israel. Before the state was established, you had the revisionist wing, the labor wing, but there was the shared goal of Jewish sovereignty. Today, there are so many camps: having a small state, giving land back; having a big Israel. Left, right – there’s no coherence.

I don’t define myself as any camp, I am K’lal Israel. We don’t have to be based off divisions. Just be a Jew. Take terms like “light unto the nations” seriously. If Rwandans come to us to learn how to transform kids who are genocide survivors, this is “light unto the nations.” So Yemin Orde is like an educational laboratory, a grassroots movement of educators. If you look at countries like Finland and South Korea, places with [high] scholastic results, educators are respected. It used to be like that in Israel, but it’s fragmented now.

 

Q. It must be fragmented with the multiple school systems, too.

A. We are approaching Arab schools, and they are approaching us. They’re Israeli citizens, they’re 20 percent of our population, and we have to communicate with them. And we have to show that whatever we offer, we offer it to them too.

 

Q. How is Yemin Orde dealing with last December’s Mount Carmel fire?

 

A. Israel was not prepared. We lost 22 buildings in the fire, we were safely evacuated. For four months we were living in a military installation in Hagira. It was a trauma for kids who are homeless and then they lost everything. The good news is, first of all, we are raising the funds to rebuild the village. Second, we got a lot of attention in Israel. The ministry of education has come out with a statement to all the school systems in Israel, which says look beyond the fire, what this village Yemin Orde stands for, its spirit, its leadership.

Monday Music: Orthodox Hipster Hip-Hop at CMJ

(This piece appeared in full at the Jewish Daily Forward. An excerpt is printed here).

Around 11:00, Khaled M goes on stage. Khaled is the son of Libyan dissidents by way of Kentucky. He talks with a good ol’ boy drawl, but he’s no redneck. “I grew up with the fake names, moving from country to country. My father was arrested for being part of a student dissident group, he was tortured for five years, he has the scars on his back. This is a really common story for Libyan dissident families — the headquarters of the movement are in Lexington, Kentucky, which is how I ended up there.”

Khaled raps densely, with a lot of rhymes and syllable-packed lines. It’s impressive that he kicks his verses perfectly without a hype man. All the rap acts this night are dope — there’s none of the low energy and sloppy performance that characterize a lot of live hip-hop.

 

Hipsters and Tzitzit

(Originally appeared at the YU beacon as part of my CMJ coverage)

People think of CMJ music marathon as a hipster thing, and that’s
probably fair, but that’s not really what I’m seeing in Park Slope,
Brooklyn, on Tuesday. I’m at Littlefield to cover the Shemspeed
showcase. Something about this show was different. One, people know
who I am. Two, the bouncers don’t hassle me. Three, all the hipsters
at the show have tzittzit.
The first band goes on around 8:00. Most of the audience hasn’t shown

up yet but that doesn’t stop Yellow Red Sky (“our name metaphorically symbolizes sundown as the end of time, as in the threshold of Moshiach”)  from going in for almost an hour on some intense hard rock jams. They only played six songs in their set, but they made them last. Tracks like “Ad Mossai” (“Until When?”) turn  into pounding, guitar and drum driven bangers, the kind you expect to hear coming out of a pickup truck. This isn’t necessarily music I’d normally seek out but seeing these guys perform live, I’m struck by their intensity. They play  like they were headlining the show.

“So, you guys from Brooklyn?” I ask bandleader Shevach Tamir.
“Yes, Crown Heights,” he replies. “We’re Lubavitch. We’re here to inspire people about Judaism, about being religious, even if they are not Jewish. Just be proud of who you are and follow God’s ways.”
“Are there a lot of Chassidic hard rock bands?”
“There are rock bands, but I haven’t heard many Chassidic hard rock bands.”
After Yellow Red Sky, Max Jared takes the stage. Jared bears an uncanny resemblance to Goldstein from the Harold and Kumar movies, and his music kind of sounds like that. In a good way. He starts off singing his own backup vocals into a looping pedal, playing some acoustic pop. Once his band joins him onstage, the energy level increases. Jared is beatboxing, his drummer is playing breakbeats, and the whole sound is like the “folk-pop-funk” he’d told me to expect. Very much summer music.
Kosha Dillz comes on stage between most of the sets, doing his hypeman thing. He does his trademark “object freestyle” where he asks people to put whatever’s in their pockets on stage, so he can construct a story around it. I’d seen him do this in Boston; there always seems to be condoms and a weed pipe.
Later on he drops his new Sweatpants video. You know the dude’s a hustler when he made a song about Sweatpants so that he could sell sweatpants. And he will sell you sweatpants.
It was a dope show. I don’t the space to cover all the headline acts here but you can check that out at the “Arty Semite” section of the Jewish Daily Forward. But any show where I can interview all the acts, get free cds, and not leave with big sharpie X’s on my hands is already way way better than anything I’d see in Boston.

Fighting for Justice: Attorney Itzik Dessie advocates for Israel’s Ethiopian Jews

Itzik Dessie’s journey to becoming the first Ethiopian-born lawyer in Israel began nearly 28 years ago with a perilous 100-mile hike to Sudan.
Today, more than two decades later, Dessie is executive director of Tebeka, an Israeli
charity that provides legal aid to Ethiopians.He was in town last month on a fund-raising trip. Boston’s Jewish community was among the first in America to mobilize on behalf of the Ethiopian exodus to Israel.
As part of Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ Boston-Haifa part, the Jewish Community Relations Council runs a grass-roots campaign to empower Ethiopian Jews in Haifa.
Tebeka itself receives aid from the Boston-based Friends of Ethiopian Jews.
In a wide-ranging interview, Dessie talked about his own story, his fight to protect the rights of Ethiopian Jews and his community’s views of President Barack Obama. Here is an edited version.

Q. When I googled you, the first result was for a song on YouTube about
Ethiopians. Can you tell me about that?
A. I composed it last year, and performed it last year at Memorial Day. We had around 4,000 people who couldn’t arrive in Israel, and died of hunger or thirst in Sudan. For many people in the community, it was a very traumatic issue, and we don’t speak about it. I decided to write the song, so people might listen to the music, and come forward with the sadness and scars they had.

Q. What was your experience going from Ethiopia to Israel?
A. I left Ethiopia in January 1984. I was lucky in that it took about a month, and I was only in the Sudan for a week. I came into Sudan on a Saturday, and left the next Saturday. We were a group of 24 young Ethiopians. I was 13; the others were around 17 or older. It was around 100 miles on foot, hiding from robbers and the Ethiopian soldiers. When you arrive in Sudan, you have to hide your identity, any evidence that you are a Jew. Otherwise you are endangering your life.
We didn’t leave Ethiopia to have a better life in Israel. We weren’t wealthy in Ethiopia,but we were happy. The reason we left is because we believe Israel is the Holy Land; we had yearnings for generations to live there. People knew they were going to encounter hunger, dizziness.
Now there are around 150 Ethiopians a month trying to make it to Israel. They are mostly Falash Mura, who are Ethiopians who were forcibly converted to Christianity over the centuries who are trying to reclaim their Judaism.

Q. What’s the process for that?
A. Once they complete the conversion process, they are full citizens in Israel. People are waiting 10 years or more just to come to Israel, and the conversion process itself takes years. It becomes a humanitarian issue, in that there are children who left their parents and are living in Israel, parents who left their children and are living in Israel. It’s about reuniting families.

Q. I’d heard that Ethiopians suffer religious discrimination – their practices are
not seen as normative Judaism.
A. That is not an issue as much anymore. It was very insulting, saying who is and who is not a Jew. In our view, we have traditions going back over 2,000 years. But in 1985 we had a large demonstration in front of the prime minister’s office; after that, things changed. It may be with Haredim that they do not accept us, but I have Ashkenazim in my family, I have Mizrahim in my family.

Q. Speaking of protests, how did the Ethiopian community view or participate in
the recent tent city protests?
A. They gave it the name of middle-class protests, but if life is difficult for the middle class, it is very difficult for the poor. We do not so much live in Tel Aviv [where the protests were centered], but in cities near Tel Aviv – Ramla, Rehovot – we have a large presence, and we had our tents there. I hope these protests will change the government’s attitude toward easing life in Israel.

Q. How does discrimination or racism affect economic advancement?
A. In the army, for example, you may encounter the phenomenon of discrimination. In terms of who becomes the commanders and officers, when you look at how many Ethiopians are holding the position of officer or are stationed in elite units, there are some. Case by case you can say it isn’t discrimination; however, there are not Ethiopians at higher levels in the army. If you don’t see them there, something’s wrong.
Israel is a good country, in that we are equal before the law, and there are anti-
discriminatory laws. Like any community, there are problems, but in Israel the issue is to make sure that we are aware of our rights, and that the law is enforced. There are prohibitions against discrimination for color, background, ethnicity.

Q. Can you give an example of a case Tebeka took?
A. We had an Ethiopian college student who tried to get onto a bus, and the driver wouldn’t let her on. He made the statement that “you are an Ethiopian, you came here on foot, you can keep going on foot. I won’t let you on this bus.” We brought criminal charges against him, and he was convicted.
In another case, there were five Ethiopian children in a kindergarten in Arad, and in the middle of the year they were taken out of the school, because there were “too many students” in the kindergarten, but only the Ethiopians were taken out. We took that into court and the families were awarded around 300,000 shekels discrimination for this.

Q. As members of the African diaspora, how does the Ethiopian community view Obama?
A. We were very happy when he was elected. Some Israelis had fears that he would not be a friend to Israel, not be in favor of the Jewish people in the UN. But for the Ethiopian community, seeing a black man hold this position, not only leader of America but of the world, it makes us proud. If there were children who were saying, I can never get that far, Obama being elected was a historical moment – it changed that.
If you give a person chances, and they have the motivation, they can make it. I had good grades and performance in school, but my scores on the psychometry exam, which measures not only intelligence, but also cultural background, were low. My university overlooked that and said I could prove myself after I matriculated, so I benefited from affirmative action.
People ask how it feels to be the first Ethiopian lawyer, and it’s nice to be the first, but it’s unfortunate that we didn’t have the opportunity before then.
Now there are 80 Ethiopian lawyers in Israel, and every year there are 120 law students, so now that we have the opportunity, we are advancing.

For more on Tebeka, visit http://www.tebeka.org.il; for more on Friends of Ethiopian Jews,
visit friendsofethiopianjews.org.

Y-Love in The End of Days

(Originally appeared in New Voices as part of my column, The Product)

 

For me, hip hop is my secular music. After I’ve been working a shift at the Hillel for like 10 hours surrounded by Hillel-y Jews, I want to put on some grimy stretch and bobbito freestyles or some dirty south trap music. So I wasn’t sure how I felt about Shemspeedartist Y-Love, a Chassidic convert from Baltimore, especially since I heard he mostly rapped about religious life–in Aramaic.

The first/title track I heard off his 2008 LP “This Is Babylon” had me interested though. The production is classic low-budget hip hop—a kick kick snap drum pattern and droning, oppressive synths. The synths don’t let up for the whole song, their minor chords and too-bright timbres sounding like the droning of flies. “Babylon, land of the law that crime pays,” Y-Love chants for a few bars, as close to a hook as he gets. His rapid-fire, offbeat flow and commanding voice fits the budget production. This is street preaching music that makes you want Moshiach. A chunky bass noise rises up in the middle of the song, something like the sound in Wu-Tang’s classic “Can It Be All So Simple.” But the sound is dominated by those looming synths and Y-Love’s voice.

“Bring It On Down” combines an old school breakbeat and wailing synths for as close as dude gets to a party track. “Remind me what the angels said, I forgot/All my peoples stay rabbinical, we up in the spot/Thunder and lightning, smoke and the flames, all the people gon’ drop at the sound of his name,” he raps, his voice swelling with emotion. It’s a song equally informed by old school party joints and apocalyptic fervor, turning “Bring It On Down” into a call to tear down the roof and the golden calf.

“6000” (the title is a reference to the year some Jewish traditions predict the world will end; we are in 5772 now) mixes pro-Black messages with Jewish nationalism. In 2011, it reminds one how nightmarish Bush seemed at the time—Y-Love talks about how elections aren’t enough to remove Bush from office. I thought that at the time too.

If there’s a problem with this album, it’s a problem almost all political hip hop has. It’s hard to listen to this album all at once. Every track is filled with anger, righteous though it may be, and the prophetic tone is overwhelming at times. But the individual tracks are so high energy, and Y-Love is such a strong MC, that by themselves they’re great listens. And the rapping in Aramaic is surprisingly dope—even if you don’t understand the language (I don’t), dude knows how to manipulate sounds and his flow is always on point. When he’s switching between English and other languages nearly every line, like on “Mehadrin Rhyming,” there’s a glossolalia-like effect. He sounds like a man speaking prophecy. The experimental, UK-jungle-like production doesn’t hurt.

“This is Babylon” is technically incredibly adept and the production is frightening; song-by-song, it’s great. It could be more cohesive as an album, not to mention more melodic, but Y-Love’s later work hints in that direction. And I have to give props for making such a weird LP—the beats are too hardcore for Chasids, the lyrics too esoteric for the hip-hop market and the party tracks too apocalyptic for parties. It’s out there for anything, let alone Jewish music.This is going to stay on iPod status.

“The Jew” in Rap

(Originally appeared at New Voices in my column “The Product”)

During my interview with Kosha Dillz, he mentioned how rappers often portray Jews as “record label executives and lawyers who hoard rappers’ cash.” I decided to do a bit of research, and it turns out that he’s right – pretty much all the references to Jews in hippity-hop are as lawyers or rich kids—in fact, Jewishness is often set up as being diametrically opposed to the street mentality of the authentic rapper (Redman on Def Jammable: “I’m trying to be set for life like a Jew kid”). At the same time, the Jew in rap is clever, especially at manipulating the law.

Jay-Z references the Jewish lawyer a few times in his pre-retirement work (post-retirement Jay-z shouts “L’CHAIM” in his songs to access the coveted Bar Mitzvah market). On Cam’ron’s 2002 single “Welcome To New York City”, Jay-Z raps “Coverage at Centre Street/Got Brafman defending me/’Cause New York will miss me if I’m locked in the penitentiary/The judge says ‘is this that thug/From the kit kat club/But I got enough chips stacked up to make that bitch back up.”  He’s talking about a 1999 stabbing incident at a nightclub, playfully referencing his own guilt.  The chips that Jay stacks (“came in the came 400 deep”), both from illegal hustling and rapping mean he can afford the best lawyer, which means 3 years probation, and no jail time.

On “Can I Live”, off his own 1996 debut album, the lawyer appears as “Channel 7 News, ’round seven Jews, head dead in the mic/Forgetting all I ever knew, convenient amnesia/I suggest you call my lawyer, I know the procedure.” It’s very visual, with Jay-Z talking to a reporter while surrounded by Jewish lawyers. Rappers from Jim Jones to Jadakiss have used the Jewish lawyer line, to the point that you could call it a trope of New York gangster rap.

Looking at rap outside New York, however, references to Jews are less common and more hostile. The most famous may be Ice Cube’s “It’s a case of divide and conquer, cause you let a Jew break up my crew…You can’t be the n**** for life crew, with a white Jew telling you what to do.” It’s hard to see this as anything but hateful—Cube was known for his essentialist racial views at the time (around 1991), endorsing The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, a book which blames Jews for the slave trade. Cube marks the Jew as an Other—not only White but somehow more sinister. The Jew subverts brotherhood and destroys society. Isn’t that from Henry Ford?

I can’t find many references to Jews in more new school stuff – as rap migrated commercially from New York to the South, where there are fewer Jews, I think we became less of a reference point. Additionally, as rap moves away from the street-hustler narrative that dominated the music of the 90s, references to lawyers become as dated as slinging crack and gunplay.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a comeback. Shanah tova.

What is Jewish Music?

(Originally appeared in Koach)

 

“I didn’t realize this was a Jewish publication,” the singer told me. “I don’t want to talk about Israel.”

After I assured her that I was writing for a music site she agreed to an interview. Her husband explained that as an electro-pop group, the band was trying to avoid being thought of as “Israeli.” They had offers to play Jewish music festivals, which they turned down. Onstage, they introduced themselves as from Brooklyn. And they scrupulously avoided coverage in Jewish magazines. This was non-political, they told me. They weren’t anti-Zionist or anti-anything. They just didn’t want to be associated with Jewish music.

I encountered a more moderate variation of this practice when I talked to Soul Khan, a Jewish rapper, for New Voices magazine. Khan was eager to discuss his Jewish upbringing and religious practices, but when I asked him what he thought was “Jewish music”, the first thing he said was “klezmer”. He thought that Jewishness could be a part of who a musician was without being part of their music. “You run the risk of being a mascot if you wear it on your sleeve” were his exact words. Both Khan and the electro-pop group were willing to identify as Jews, but not to identify their music as Jewish. To me this seemed paradoxical. Isn’t music by Jews by definition Jewish?

True, the music at concerts sponsored by the Federation or a synagogue might tend to be more influenced by religious music, or more traditional, but to define Jewish music as that which can be linked to traditional music of our people would be to define most of the music made by Jews as something else. There are recognizably Jewish themes and motifs in the music of the Ramones (who write about fear of latent anti-Semitism in “Bonzo goes to Bitburg”), George Gershwin (“Rhapsody in Blue”), and Bob Dylan (who quotes Pirkei Avot in “Not Dark Yet”). Jewishness as a component of an artist’s identity will obviously be reflected in their music. It may not be as explicit in some cases as others (I can’t argue that Joey Ramone’s music is as Jewish as the Klezmatics’, for example), but art reflects life. If most Jews in America grow up apart from traditional Jewish music, whether liturgical or secular, the music they produce will reflect that.

In essence, to use a narrow definition of Jewish music is to negate the Jewishness of many artists’ identities. An inclusive definition of Jewish music, that of “music made by Jews” produces a canon of music that, while not rooted in tradition, spans the whole spectrum of Jewish life, from Polish cantors to American MCs. Just as there are religious Jews, secular Jews and assimilated Jews, there are different kinds of music that reflect the diversity of the people. I heard Jewishness in the sarcastic lyrics of the electro-pop group, and in the very tension between their identity as Israelis and their identity as indie musicians. They were making Diaspora music.

Battle rapping for the Jews

(Originally appeared in edited form as an article at New Voices)

I first heard Soul Khan when he battled QP over Grindtime—Grindtime is a battle league where rappers battle each other with prewritten verses, three each, and everything goes on YouTube. QP came at Soul Khan with lines about his “Jew Nose” and how the Jews killed Jesus—Soul Khan came back with this line: “You know that Soul’s blessed with it, I’m one of the chosen people/We wrote the Old Testament/You follow the phony sequel.” There aren’t that many Jewish rappers. I was hooked.

Later that year, his free album “Soul Like Khan dropped. It spent a fair amount of time on my iPod. The production was strings and soul samples (produced mostly by J57), and the rapping was intense, sarcastic punchlines mixed with autobiographical reflection. In June, I interviewed the man outside the Middle East club in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Max Elstein Keisler: What was the extent of your Jewish upbringing?

Soul Khan: I was schooled in the Jewish religion, both institutionally in synagogues, to the point of being confirmed…

MEK: You were reform?

SK: I went to some reform synagogues, and some conservative synagogues, under the tutelage of some Reconstructionist synagogues, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Rabbi Ed Feinstein. It wasn’t a philosophy I was either enthusiastically behind or against. I didn’t really have too much of a philosophy either way, I’m more of the mindset that the Torah was meant to be more instructive than narrative, so I agreed with that.

MEK: Do you see yourself as completely secular, or partly religious?

SK: Right now, in practice, more secular but I had a very long religious life, and I would like to return to it in some capacity. My family was less religious than I was but they put forth all the tools, every resource available to enable me to pursue a religious life.

MEK: On your track “Soul like Khan,” you talk about your absent father in really a very literary way. I’m interested that you say, “She gave us faith while he was still godless.” Can you elaborate on this?

SK: Oh yeah, my mom was from a family of German Bundists [labor supporters]. She herself was not especially religious, but I guess she saw it as part of her culture, even the religious aspects, and she made sure we grew up with that.

MEK: Do you speak Hebrew?

SK: Ah, no. I was instructed in it for years, but I did not pick it up. The American Hebrew school institution, especially when tacked on to a long day of public schooling is really not always so palatable.

MEK: It’s not necessarily sufficient either.

SK: No, it’s not. Mine at least, was ill suited in real language instruction.

MEK: Just teaching the alphabet?

SK: And words, but with no grammatical sense. It wasn’t sufficient. But it gave me a cultural foundation, I appreciate it.

MEK: So right now, you’re not going to synagogues?

SK: No, getting acclimated to New York City is difficult in itself, and it’s been tough to do that, pursue my music, and find a synagogue I’m comfortable with.

MEK: You’re where in New York?

SK: I’m in Bensonhurst right now. It’s a hop, skip and a jump away from Boro Park, but that’s not exactly what I’m looking for.

MEK: How would you say your Jewish upbringing affected your music?

SK: I would say that the sense of ethics I got from my Jewish upbringing affected it, an abiding concern for those who suffer for one, that sort of thing, my social values, I think, are imbued in my music, and that I think, comes from my Jewish upbringing

MEK: Not lyrically?

SK: You run the risk of wearing it on your sleeve and becoming a mascot.

MEK: This is not to hate, but I saw Kosha Dillz a few days ago.

SK: That’s what he does, I don’t do that.

MEK: He was wearing a kippah and performing on Shavuot.

SK: Exactly, that’s not what I like to do. I feel it would be dishonest to who I am right now.

MEK: If you’re secular, you’re secular You have a very distinct, shouty voice in your music. How did you develop it?

SK: The voice is a combination of my natural voice and smoking cigarettes, which I don’t recommend, by the way. I try to do a lot of singing in my rapping. I don’t like how a lot of rappers just talk into the mic. It doesn’t help with people saying it isn’t music.

MEK: A question I think about is, what is Jewish music?

SK: You could say klezmer is Jewish music, there’s a large pool of Jewish musicians but they don’t

really make music about Judaism, it’s informed by their Jewish values.

MEK: I wonder if it can be read as a Jewish text, any song by a Jewish musician, you’d do the same thing for a novel or film.

SK: I think so, I think a certain curiosity, a certain introspection often accompanies a Jewish perspective, and is often found in music made by Jews.

MEK: I sometimes hear a cynicism, a distance.

SK: There can be a cynicism, but I also feel that there is a compassion behind it, not compassion in a moralizing or didactic way when you put those items across, but a concern for everyone’s story. We’re storytellers, we all want tell everyone’s stories.

MEK: There’s not that many Jewish rappers in hip hop…

SK: No, and they certainly don’t rep it..

MEK: You, Kosha Dillz,

SK: Ill Bill,Rick Rove…

MEK: Hoodie Allen

SK: MC Serch from 3rd Bass.

MEK: Alchemist.

SK: Alchemist is Jewish, yes. It’s a part of who the rapper is, but not necessarily in their rap.

MEK: Serch always felt so Jewish to me, he had skills, but he was such a clown, always comedic.

SK: Yeah, definitely.

MEK: In a lot of your rap battles, your opponents for Jewish jokes. Specifically I remember seeing Aspire make some graphic holocaust references It’s cool to see you flip those lines on them, but watching these videos it seems like it sets you off. What’s it like when one of your opponents says something anti-Semitic, especially about the holocaust?

SK: One of the things I learned in my Jewish upbringing is we are stronger than the animosities that fuel the prejudice against us, whether genuine prejudice, or prejudice used as a joke. I let it fall off me, everything that I do is, I like to think more powerful than something that in a base fashion mocks my religion or culture. Sometimes the jokes are good, sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re witty, bad rap is about being offensive. I know what I signed up for.

MEK: It seems weird to me, because nobody would ever say anything to an African American about slavery.

SK: Well, that’s just because there’s nothing funny you can say about that, and because they invented hip hop. It’s almost like, because the Holocaust is so much more recent, it’s easier to joke about. It’s not right necessarily, but it’s the price Jews pay for white status in America, that in battle rap, they can be attacked like that.

MEK: Any plans for battle rapping?

SK: I’m done with battle rapping. That was something I did to gain exposure, it worked. I’m about making music now.

MEK: So we’re never going to see you versus Conceited [another Grindtime rapper who Khan had previously challenged]?

SK: If Conceited wants to compete with me in making music, that’s fine. I’m done with battle rapping.

MEK: Do you see Judaism as an ethnicity, a religion?

SK: Both. More so an ethnicity.

MEK: I feel like the more secular you are, the more it’s an ethnicity.

SK: Yeah, people may dispute that, but we do have among many strata of Jewish people, unified cultural practices including language, food, common genetic descent, to some degree. I think it’s fair to say we’re an ethnicity but informed by a religious background across all of it.

Afterwards, inside the club, Khan performed with his crew, the Brown Bag All Stars. When I’d seen them in New York, they had clear sound and a big stage. In Boston, one of their mics broke down, forcing one of the four MCs to act as a hypeman on the side of the stage while not rapping. But the old school energy of the crew cut through the muddy sound and they had the crowd, many of whom had gone for the local opening acts, shouting their choruses like long time fans. It felt good knowing a conspicuously Jewish, bespectacled intellectual could carve out a place in rap.

Elzhi and Yuck try to recreate the 90s

(originally appeared at HipsterJew)

I’m not old enough to have real nostalgia for the 1990s–the oldest music I heard as a kid that I still listen to has to be the singles off Speakerboxx/The Love Below. But I’ve heard more than enough about it—bands were ethically purer, less willing to sell out, hip hop wasn’t commercialized, the Simpsons was still funny. Maybe people just miss Bill Clinton. I really don’t know.

For hip hop, the early 1990s were a crucial time. Especially in New York, where in one year, Biggie Smalls’ Ready to Die and Nas’ Illmatic dropped (Illmatic came first—Ready to Die copied the album cover). Illmatic’s cast a long shadow on many rappers, most of all Nas, who unlike the narrator of Illmatic, had to age and fall off. But everthing about it’s been incredibly influential–Memory Lane begot 50 Cent’s Hate it or Love It, Cam’ron’s Killa Cam, and every other New York rapper’s autobiographical “this is where I get deep” song. It Ain’t Hard To Tell basically invented the enigmatic “lyricism” of underground rap. Even to this day, people want another Illmatic.

So this Detroit rapper Elzhi gave it to them. Elmatic, which dropped for free on May 10th, is literally a track-for-track recreation of 1994′s Illmatic (shades of Borges). Producer Will Sessions used a live band in the studio to make live versions of every beat on Illmatic. The Ahmad Jamal piano of “The World is Yours” sounds fuller interpolated on Elmatic than it did when Pete Rock sampled it. In fact, it sounds thicker than it did on “I Love Music”. When Elzhi begins a verse “to my man J Dilla, god bless your life”, he is simultaneously referencing Nas’ tribute to his dead homie Ill Will, and recontextualizing it in a modern, Detroit-focused context. Throughout Elmatic, Elzhi rephrases old lines Nas used, or echoes their rhythmic cadence, resulting in a fascinating text that clearly aches for the sounds of 90s rap. You can read this as a commentary on the fundamental conservatism epidemic to hip hop, a commentary on the end to New York’s commercial and critical dominance in the music, or as personal expression. Elzhi sounds a lot like Nas vocally, and while he isn’t quite the lyricist the street’s disciple was back in the day, he can drop a dope line. And the beats are invariably dope—at a good price too.

London indie rock band Yuck approach the 90s from a more guitar based context. Singers/guitarists/songwriters Max Bloom and Daniel Blumberg (yes, they’re Jewish) write music that sounds like an amalgamation of all the big sounds of 90s indie—Pavement, Dinosaur Jr, and all those British shoegaze groups which were too ethereal for me to tell apart. Their self titled album dropped February 15. Unlike Elmatic, it isn’t free, but you can’t hate on a band for trying to eat.

For me, it was a mixed bag. But like I said, I’m not old enough for 90s nostalgia. I was disappointed when the lyrics to “Shook Down” turned out to be “You can be my destiny/you can mean that much to me” instead of “you can be my lunch for me”. What I’d heard as a Positively 4th St-esque putdown/come-on was actually just regular indie lyrics. And while I felt the simple, 4 bar figure of “The Wall” for a while, I don’t know if it sustains itself for four minutes. But the last two tracks of the album are both brilliant, easily ipod status. “Rose Gives a Lily” is a melancholy instrumental that suggests so much without explicitly saying it, and the guitar lines stick in your head long after the song is over. “Rubber” is a long noise rock number, all droning guitars and cooing vocals that changes mood and texture several times. You can listen to it closely or have it on in the background, and it sounds tight either way. But a lot of the album was forgettable, especially the cliched rhyming (fire/desire and dreaming/believing were two of the worst offenders). If Yuck always had great songwriting behind the 90s haze, they’d be a force. As of now, they’re interesting, but more like a civil war re-enactment. They have potential though.