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.

Hip-hop in the Jewish diaspora

(Appeared in Haaretz)


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.

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.


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.

‘Hustling to Survive': The Only Zionist Rapper in The Room

(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.

That’s hip-hop.

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.

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.

Beastie Boys — Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Call it arthritis rap.

(Originally posted at New Voices, to much controversy)

Maybe hip hop has just moved on from the Beastie Boys.

I don’t want to be the one to say it, but listening to Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is, while not painful, not something I’d do more than twice. All the problems of the album you can hear on track 3, “OK”; a keyboardy beat that sounds like it’s going for dubstep influence but ends up just sounding budget, a cheesy vocoded hook, and (this is key), flows that just sound dated. The Beastie Boys have never been the lyrical cats with flow for days, but here they come off as old dudes trying to do what the kids are doing, and pulling a back muscle in the process.

Look at the colors, maaaaan

A Nas guest verse on “Too Many Rappers” has some interesting bars, but more because they sound like something Jay-Z could have used in Takeover. Seriously, doesn’t “You ain’t a shot, a mobster, or a drug dealer/a slug peeler you’re not, mafioso, no” sound more like it’s about Escobar himself than the archetypical sucker MC? The bars from the Yidden aren’t too great either.

This is not to say that that there’s no good ish on the album— leadoff track “Make Some Noise” brings the punk energy the Beasties always had over a buzzy, bluesy guitar riff and boom-bap drums. But so many of the beats here are just not good, honestly just embarrassing— I respect that the Beastie Boys are trying to get experimental, but it doesn’t feel like they have the musical vocabulary to expand that much. And their flows are very limited—when Andre 3000 or MF Doom put together bizarre soundscapes, they brought weird offbeat flows too, but the Beastie Boys still rap like they did in the 1980s. If they want to get further away from their classic sound, they seriously need to improve their flows.

This is not to in any way spit on their legacy—just today I was thinking how the Beastie Boys were the first cats to really be callous about sex and violence like that. It’s a short walk from “”Now my name is M.C.A. I’ve got a license to kill/I think you know what time it is it’s time to get ill/Now what do we have here an outlaw and his beer/I run this land, you understand I make myself clear” to Jay’s “Y’all don’t want to witness s—/we squeeze hammers mang/bullets breeze bayou/like Lousiana mang”. It’s the same attitude, same cynical distance. It’s Jewishness in rap. Tell me Asher Roth and Mac Miller aren’t just doing “You Gotta Fight For Your Right to Party” minus the irony, swag, and credibility. The Beastie Boys are pioneers.

But that doesn’t change the hard fact— this isn’t a good album. It’s always hard when punks get old, especially when they don’t know music theory. Right now, the Beastie Boys are old school cats trying to make beats that don’t bump, sounding out of date. Call it arthritis rap.

Maybe hip hop has just moved on from the Beastie Boys.

I don’t want to be the one to say it, but listening to Hot Sauce Committee Part Two is, while not painful, not something I’d do more than twice. All the problems of the album you can hear on track 3, “OK”; a keyboardy beat that sounds like it’s going for dubstep influence but ends up just sounding budget, a cheesy vocoded hook, and (this is key), flows that just sound dated. The Beastie Boys have never been the lyrical cats with flow for days, but here they come off as old dudes trying to do what the kids are doing, and pulling a back muscle in the process.

Step in the arena

(Originally appeared at New Voices)

When I’m in a cypher, I don’t have time to plan my rhyme, I don’t even want to use that part of the brain. I start thinking about your rhyme scheme, or even consciously formulate a rhyme and I lose the beat– and the beat is everything. A rapper who establishes a rhythm with their voice might not say anything meaningful, anything funny, anything dope, but they won’t get laughed out of the cypher. And yes, I’ve been laughed out of the cypher.
The only thing worse than losing the beat is choking—when you open your mouth and no words come out. Think 8 mile. That’s never been me, but I’ve seen it happen a lot. My boy’s a talented producer, but he isn’t a rapper. Sometimes he drops a hot verse when he freestyles. Sometimes he raps about anime characters. Once he shouted out fake dead homies (“Rest in piece Li’l Jamal, and Li’l Bobby….what did I say?”). But about half the time he just says one line, pauses to think, and never stops pausing. Verbal impotency.

It’s not easy to think of words at 88 BPM—anyone who tries to drop a freestyle without having practiced just won’t, it’s a skill that’s hard to earn. The great freestylers– Mos Def, Ludacris, Black Thought, they’ve been doing it for years, maybe their whole lives. What a real MC does in a cypher is different, it isn’t like the mortals. Look at this Ludacris freestyle“Snatch the furniture, here’s the plan, kidnap Big Tigger and hold him for ten grand/tell BET if they want to see him again, bring free Sinaa Lathan and a bottle of gin.”

He freestyles a punchline, shouting the last line, audibly laughing after he finishes it. The energy he puts into his delivery is something else.

“Jump back, I can’t stand myself/just bought a crib in Miami just to tan myself.”

The wordplay here is incredible, from the assonance in jump back/just bought/just to, to the multisyllabic rhyme that makes the punchline. Thematically, he parodies the commercialist aspects of rap, with “enough money in the chain to keep a country fed”, at the same time embodying them.. He’s thinking so fast, poetic virtuosity, improvising like a jazz cat, with words. That “WHAT?” he shouts at the end, extemporaneous to the text and several seconds after his last line, like it’s taken him time to process just how dope his freestyle was, doesn’t add anything to the freestyle, but it’s a good appraisal of it. In a minute and a half, Ludacris freestyles a better verse than most could write.
For people who aren’t mic gods, it isn’t like that. A few times I’ve heard someone drop a great verse, I’ve been like “word, that was freestyled?”, and I’ve heard the rappers answer “Nah, that was a pre.” There’s always some guilt in their voices, they know you shouldn’t pass off a pre as a free, claim you’re something you’re not. I’ve heard too many average verses which rhyme, which have no screwups, but sound like every other verse in every other cypher.  And I’ve heard great freestyles, from cats who can’t normally rap that well, who just go in for two minutes like they can’t even stop, who have the people nodding to their lyrics, not even hearing the flaws in the moment, who only stop rapping when they’re physically out of breath. Once in a while, I’ve been that cat.