If the phrase "Jewish hip-hop" suggests little more than novelty recordings, that's because for a long time that's all it was.
Even though the first prominent whites in rap music were Jews -- including the Beastie Boys, producer and entrepreneur Rick Rubin and members of the group 3rd Bass -- their Jewishness was never much a part of their artistic identity. "It just so happened that they were Jewish," says Bill Adler, who as the founding publicist for Def Jam Recordings worked with the Beasties, 3rd Bass and Rubin. "They weren't Jewish rappers in the sense that they were publicly Jewish."
Instead, the first rappers to play up their Jewish identity did so mainly as shtick. In 1990, a duo calling itself 2 Live Jews released a parody of 2 Live Crew's As Nasty as They Wanna Be called As Kosher as They Wanna Be, which included such tracks as Oy! It's So Humid. Over time, 2 Live Jews were followed by M.O.T. (Members of the Tribe), whose oeuvre included Kosher Nostra, the Woody Allen-ish MC Paul Barman, and a 50 Cent knock-off called 50 Shekel, whose answer to In Da Club was called (what else?) In Da Shul.
Lately, though, things have begun to change. Staten Island-born rapper Remedy, an affiliate of the Wu-Tang Clan, had a minor hit in 2001 with Never Again, a rap dealing with his family and the Holocaust. There are Israeli acts, such as Sagol 59 and the group Hadag Nahash, who rap in Hebrew.
There's the Los Angeles rapper Etan G, who dubbed his debut South Side of the Synagogue, and a Brooklyn crew called the Hip-Hop Hoodios whose lyrics play off their dual ethnicities as Jewish Latinos.
Yet for all their verbal signifying, there's little of Jewish musical tradition in what these rappers do, apart from the occasional sample of Hava Negila. That's one of the reasons Socalled -- the nom de rap of Montrealer Josh Dolgin -- stands apart from the field, for his music relies as heavily on the klezmer tradition of Yiddish folk music as it does on hip-hop rhymes, samples and looped beats.
"It's hip-hop music, it's klezmer music, and it's a combination," Dolgin says of his sound. "My real folk music is hip-hop -- that's what I grew up with as a kid, and danced to and feel at ease and musical and groovy with. And that's what I made for, like, 15 years, just straight-up rap music using machines and loops and samples and drum machines."
Like many kids interested in concocting their own beats from sampled material, Dolgin is an inveterate record collector, and trawled for interesting sounds wherever he could. But when he stumbled onto "these incredible old Yiddish records," his attitude toward music changed dramatically.
Centuries old, Klezmer music arrived in North America with the immigration of Eastern European Jews. It was briefly in vogue during the swing era, earning attention mainly through crossover hits such as the Andrews Sisters' Bei Mir Bist Du Schon -- an adaptation of the Yiddish hit Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn -- and Benny Goodman's And the Angels Sing, but it had been essentially forgotten by the mid-seventies, when it began to revive on the folk circuit.
Dolgin felt an immediate connection with the music. "I never felt that with jazz, or funk or gospel or salsa or whatever were the types of music that I played," he says. "Even hip-hop. And [in hip-hop]you're trying to represent yourself, to speak and present a reality to people. But I couldn't really represent with the hip-hop, because I wasn't black -- I was this weird white kid from the country."
While discovering an ethnic identity through klezmer, Dolgin was also forging a new musical framework. "Once I found those records, I just wanted to chop them up, sample them, reference them," he says. "But in so doing, it made me learn about how to play actual traditional music. I had to learn how to be conversant in the style."
He's succeeded admirably. Taking the stage with an Akai sampler and an accordion, Dolgin confounds the image of both rapper and klezmer musician, but his music is strong enough that he has collaborated both with Wu-Tang rapper Killah Priest and virtuoso klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer.
"He's a guy who's equally influenced by black-American urban music as well as Jewish music," says mandolinist Eric Stein, a member of the Toronto klezmer group Beyond the Pale and an occasional collaborator of Dolgin's. "Josh's music is something that deserves a great amount of attention, because it's something I think is totally accessible to people whether they're interested in Jewish music or not. It's just good music."
Socalled performs tonight in Toronto with Beyond the Pale at the Drake Underground, 1150 Queen St. W. (416-531-5042).