Hip-hop hora

Meet Shaanan Streett, the lead singer and songwriter of Israel's most popular band.

Hip-hop hora  (photo credit: HADAG NAHASH)
Hip-hop hora
(photo credit: HADAG NAHASH)
Riding the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem late in 1995, a self-admitted, late-blooming 25-year-old, fresh from the IDF and a two-year, world-circling sightseeing tour, sat up suddenly, mesmerized by the almost musical tempo of the bus engine – “chica chaca, chica chaca.”
Taking out pen and notebook, he began writing lyrics to fit the hypnotic, repetitive, sound. Forty-five minutes later, arriving in Jerusalem, his birthplace, Shaanan Streett had written his first rap song, “Shalom, Salaam, Peace.”
He used simple, but powerful words.
“Mellow rap, not hard-core like gangster rap,” Streett tells The Jerusalem Report.
Unaware of how to distribute a record – “I didn’t know what I was doing” – Streett took 2,000 shekels of his own, recorded the bus engine-driven song and then peddled 15 copies of the 300 singles he made to each of Jerusalem’s 15 record stores.
Sixteen years later, Streett is Israel’s most renowned rapper, frontman for one of the nation’s most popular bands, Hadag Nahash, a spoonerism meaning “Snake Fish” that plays on the Hebrew car sticker for a new driver (Nahag Hadash). Known for such songs as Hine Ani Ba (Here I Come), Shir Nechama (Condolence Song) and his most famous, Shirat Hasticker (The Sticker Song), Streett writes and raps with a distinctive, iconoclastic left-wing tinge that is a far cry from traditional nationalistic Israeli tunes such as Tzena, Tzena or Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.
In the space of those 16 years, Streett went from backpacker to bard, a musician and lyricist with such promise that David Grossman, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, took notice. In 2003, Grossman approached Streett with a proposal to turn dozens of Israel’s political slogans, stuck on seemingly every car bumper, into a rap song. Streett loved the idea, barely changing the novelist’s words.
Before reaching his musical pinnacle today, Streett, the son of American-born parents, drifted through his early years with no observable musical interest or talent.
His brother Eyal plays classical music on the bassoon, and a love of music courses through the family. Reaching ninth grade, Streett left home to attend a boarding school in the Negev. “My instincts were to get out of the house,” he says.
Serving in the Nahal infantry brigade during his army stint, he was close to where Israeli soldiers and Palestinians were seriously wounded and killed in the West Bank town of Jenin and in the Gaza Strip. He had stones – and one refrigerator – thrown at him and, as a result, his sense of Israeli nationalism hardened. “I was into it. I wanted my unit to be the fastest, the strongest.”
But, frustrated that Israel was not moving fast enough to end the conflict with the Arabs, and conscious of how much he disliked taking orders, Streett shifted to the political left. He opted out of IDF reserve duty, fearful that he might turn his gun on the next person to give him an order.
The army released him on psychological grounds.
Today, Streett has a receding hairline and alternates between a face full of black stubble and a beardless look with sculpted sideburns. In contrast with his machinegun- like rap patter, in private conversation Streett speaks unhurriedly, thoughtfully.
He seems easygoing, with none of the anger often associated with similar artistes.
First exposed to rap music in 1988 when a high school friend suggested he listen to the music of Run-D.M.C.and the Beastie Boys, Streett was initially turned off. “I didn’t really like it,” he says. “It wasn’t musical enough. I couldn’t understand why the rappers were yelling.” Besides, his preferred musical taste ran to classic rock and roll.
Then, during a global post-army trip, he bought a car in California and tuned in to a San Francisco Bay area hip-hop radio station – playing the same African- American sounds that spawned rap music.
This time, Streett was drawn to the in-your-face honesty: “The rappers weren’t wasting time or beating around the bush.”
By becoming a Hebrew-language rapper, Streett believed that he might contribute a new honesty into Israel’s musical culture.
It was a culture, in his view, that despite the existence of a deep-seated military conflict and poverty, had steeped itself in meaningless love songs. Experimenting, he wrote lyrics to see if the style made any sense in Hebrew, feeling his way and eventually adopting the conventional rap form of 16 bars for each of the three verses.
Returning to Israel in early 1995, Streett “screwed around” for six months, toyed with going to university but had no idea what to study. Today he fantasizes about studying art at the college level, but between his career and his family, he concedes that such a step is unlikely in the near future. One major reason is that he cherishes the time he spends with his wife Bali and children Shali, 9, Ari, 6, and Ana, 2.
Devoid of a “master plan,” Streett brought back to Israel two hours of tapes of American hip-hop music, more to amuse himself than to use to build a career. Though he studied black rap intensively, Streett still thought the music style alien, finding it difficult to understand the words, especially the slang. Still, he admired the rappers’ candid descriptions of their everyday struggles, something he found lacking in Israeli music.
Meanwhile, he opened a bar in Jerusalem called Gotham City and moved into an apartment in the city’s open-air market Machane Yehuda. It was “like a movie,” he says.
Shalom, Salam, Peace, did not become an overnight sensation. “I heard it once or twice on the radio,” he recalls. In 1996, Streett joined an instrumental band that morphed into Hadag Nahash. Within two months the five band members – six today – produced three songs. All local Jerusalemites, the band members knew they would probably be better off ensconced in the Tel Aviv music scene, but they remained in the Holy City.
“If we had been in Tel Aviv, everyone in the band would have had an uncle, a sister, a father who knew somebody,” says Streett. “But we were Jerusalem boys and so, knowing nothing, we just started performing.” From 1996 to 1998, they played only in Jerusalem.
Deliberately choosing a name that played on the “new driver” car sign, Streett dreamed that every Israeli would put the band’s name on the back bumper of their cars. To his lasting regret, no national fad resulted and he knew of only one person who actually placed the name on his car – Streett himself.
No set way
The chance to emerge from the Jerusalem cocoon came in 1998. Hadag Nahash was invited to perform in Tel Aviv. It was not, however, as if he and the band had made a dent in the Tel Aviv music scene: of the 500 tickets, 400 were sold to Jerusalemites. That performance did, though, lead to another Tel Aviv gig at the highly popular Barby Club, where they met Kobi Oz, lead singer of Teapacks. Oz, a hugely influential Israeli rock star, was just starting his own record label. He immediately signed up Hadag Nahash. “He gave us our chance,” says Streett.
Streett says he has no set way of writing a rap song. “We’re not married to any one method. Sometimes the song may come from a joke or a catchphrase, a hook. Sometimes one of us will bring an entire song finished from top to bottom.”
However it gets written, a Hadag Nahash song focuses around two themes – peace and equality or, as Streett puts it, “Sanity in the region and having a good time. Our main goal is for the audience to enjoy themselves. But we don’t hide anything. We tell the truth the way it is.”
Since the release of the band’s sixth album in 2010, Streett says that Hadag Nahash has become Israel’s most successful music group, performing more – over 100 concerts a year – and selling more tickets than any other Israeli band.
Much of their fame and success derive from a single song that resonates with both their chosen musical and political slices of Israeli culture. Mention Hadag Nahash to many Israelis and the 2004 Sticker Song comes instantly to mind, its words replicating politically charged car stickers that in the past decade have become a part of Israel’s highway landscape.
“It’s an idiosyncrasy in this country that, if somebody has a political opinion, it’s on the back of his car,” Street explains.
The song became an instant surprise hit, selling 15,000 copies the first two months.
“A kind of aural collage of the fractious and volatile political environment here,” wrote The New York Times, establishing the song as an internationally-known Israeli cultural icon. The Sticker Song juxtaposed slogans such as “A strong people make peace,” and “Let the IDF kick ass!” to show the passionate, seemingly irreconcilable, level of political and religious discourse within Israeli society.
Streett and the band are gaining international popularity. Since 2004, they have performed up to 30 times a year in the United States and Canada. In July 2012 the band will perform in Lublin, Poland, before returning to the US in December. Several Israeli appearances are also scheduled.
For a twenty-something who had no clear-cut career plan, Streett has turned into a top-flight multi-tasking entertainer. His screenplay Wonders will debut in Israel in the summer of 2013, a semi-autobiographical tale of a bartender and graffiti artist, who tries to solve a criminal mystery that is embroiled in religious themes. Hadag Nahash performs music for the soundtrack.
Steadfastly devoted to Jerusalem, Streett admits that remaining in the city is impractical.
“My main career is the music business and that’s happening in Tel Aviv.” But it is by staying in Jerusalem that he believes he can have the most political impact. That remains a priority for him.
As he watches Jerusalem’s Jews and Arabs mingle and work together – not often enough, in his view – he regards the city as a possible incubator that could eventually lead to a peaceful Middle East.
“If people can find common ground here in Jerusalem, we’ll be OK in the whole Middle East. If they can’t, we’re screwed. I want to be part of the solution. I want to push this wagon forward.”
He feels he is doing just that by sending his three children to one of the few Jewish-Arab schools in Israel, the Jerusalembased Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School for Jewish Arab Education, which hopes to show that Jews and Arabs can study and live together.
In September, Streett and the band will begin recording a seventh album, which will most likely be released in early 2013. He is also working on a television comedy for Israel TV. As he walks around Jerusalem, fans sometimes stop Streett to chat, but when he walks with his children, he puts on what he calls his “don’t mess with me face,” hoping for a few moments of peace and quiet with his family in his home town.
For relaxation, Streett retreats to Casino de Paris, a bar that he owns in the heart of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open-air market place. He lives a few minutes away. He converted the bar into a modern incarnation of the barcum- brothel that existed on the same spot in the 1930s. Proudly, Streett notes that he named the cocktails on the menu. They include the Arab Spring, the German Colony, and the Yitzhak Rabin (scotch and soda with an olive branch). He dislikes performing there, though he does occasionally. “I love my music, but I want to have a place to unwind.”