After a 10-year hiatus, one of the pioneers of Israeli rap – Sagol59 – is returning to his hip hop roots with his new album Pirkei Avot.
Sagol59 is the stage name for Khen Rotem, 50, who produced the first MC rap solo album in Hebrew. However, for the last few years, he got sidetracked on a side project, thanks to the Grateful Dead.
Growing up on Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh listening to rock and blues, he latched on to hip-hop artists such as Ice Cube, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys later on. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate was the album that served as his first creative influence.
“I got my taste from American and British volunteers on the kibbutz,” Rotem said. “In 1991, I went to live in England after my army service and started getting deeper into it.”
Rotem started writing his own hip-hop songs in the late 90s. He acquired his stage name Sagol59, meaning Purple59, from his kibbutz laundry bag identification number. Hip-hop, he said, provides a creative freedom and limitless potential that isn’t as present in a singer/songwriter or rock context. In 2000, he released The Blue Period, the first rap solo album in Hebrew.
“You can be more upfront, twist words, use metaphors, sometimes be outrageous, and speak your mind about politics and what’s going on in the world,” he said. “That’s what attracted me, a part from the musical side.”
Rotem said he was always a person of words. He has experience in copywriting and translating, which encouraged his interest with the use of language and communication.
After nine years of touring and producing successful albums, Rotem expanded his career beyond his comfort zone. He wanted to push boundaries, break tradition and challenge his own abilities to grow into a better storyteller. He left the hip-hop world to go back to his roots in rock. He grew up listening to what is now considered “classic rock” and played the guitar and sang in his teen years.
“As a person and as an artist, I really don’t like to bore myself and be stranded in some comfort zone,” he said. “I like to try a lot of different styles. I’ve always sang and played guitar. I sometimes venture out.”
During his 10-year break from hip-hop Rotem discovered the Dead, the American musical legends who broke up in 1995 after the death of leader Jerry Garcia. He started seriously exploring their music when he met his current girlfriend, whom he referred to as a “true Deadhead.”
That resulted in a multi-year project of translating Dead songs into Hebrew. In 2015, he released the first-ever album of Hebrew Dead songs, which was received wildly in the jam band community in the US and Israel. He toured throughout the US three times as well as performing often in Israel.
Rotem says he worked hard over translating the lyrics. He wanted to give utmost respect to the band for creating such communal music.
Not very often do people associate a hip-hop artist with the Grateful Dead, a band whose unique sound came from long jams and psychedelic guitar riffs. Rotem, however, became fascinated with the sense of freedom and positive vibrations the songs emitted.
“It started as kind of a personal project,” he said. “There’s sense of freedom, unexpectedness and community... It’s very exciting to see musicians stretching out and break their own barriers.”
ABOUT A YEAR and a half ago, Rotem began writing songs back in the hip-hop mode and it turned into Pirkei Avot, named after the ethical teachings passed down from rabbinical sources.
Saying the title is open to personal interpretation, Rotem explained that Pirkei Avot was inspired by personal stories. He said his songs usually consist of three types: personal struggles and stories, humor and light-hearted lyrics and metaphorical lyrics and punchlines.
If there is one message he hopes to relay to fans, it is that art is never outdated and time is an abstract concept people have invented.
“Rappers from generations ago have a right to exist and create today,” he said.
Rotem said he feels that the quality of hip-hop in Israel has improved since he started out, but admits that when he began his hip-hop career in Israel, he was merely finding his way in the dark. He claimed that it was strange to tell people in Israel that he was a rapper.
“We’ve gained more attention in the last five years,” he said. “It’s now embedded inside Israeli music – as it should be.”
Hip-hop has evolved over time into a worldwide phenomenon. Rotem believes that this type of music is always present in the way people speak and represent themselves in that it rhymes, it tells stories and it connects people. This music genre, both lyrically and musically, is quite different today than what it was when Ice Cube and Public Enemy first started out.
“Music is basically just molecules in the air, and everything is changing all the time,” he said.
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