Shtar power

The haredi hip hop ensemble create fresh beats and Sephardi melodies on its debut album.

haredi hip hop group Shtar 390 (photo credit: Courtesy Shemspeed)
haredi hip hop group Shtar 390
(photo credit: Courtesy Shemspeed)
Ori Murray was starting to make a name for himself as a skilled rapper and DJ on Seattle’s hip-hop and house music scene when an unexpected, free trip to Israel was plopped in his lap. The menorah in his mother’s china cabinet had been the most Judaism the 21-year-old had been exposed to, but he took the chance to study at the Aish Hatorah seminary, which specializes in educating Jews raised with little tradition, and seven years later Murray is M’Ori, a haredi hip hop master.
Rap lyricist for Shtar, back in his early days at Aish, where he spent five years in intensive learning, Murray recalls considering giving up rapping altogether.
“I just really enjoy learning,” says Murray, tall with glasses and a boyish grin, who always sports the black and white dress and velvet kippa. “I have an all or nothing type of attitude in life. When I became religious it was such an eye-opening experience for me... I got so involved in learning I decided it was better for me not to rap.”
A wise rabbi stepped in, however, and encouraged him to follow his passion, telling him that denying who he is would be a “hilul Hashem” (desecration of God’s name).
“He said Judaism is not there to put you in a box and make everybody alike and cut off who you are. Rapping is a part of who you are and how you express yourself on this planet, and that’s exactly what Hakadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One blessed be He] desires of us,” says Murray, 28, who lives in Beit Shemesh with his wife and two kids.
Shtar, a Hebrew word meaning “contract,” got a major boost signing with Shemspeed Records recently and last week re-released its debut album Infinity, a collection of funk-inspired prayers like “Adom Olam” and “Shir Hamaalot,” original spiritual grooves and smooth, Sephardi choruses alongside eloquent raps.
Murray, songwriter/guitarist Brad Rubinstein, vocalist Dan Isaac, bass player Avi Sommers and drummer Tzvi Solomons are deep into recording the second album, and aim to release a single by Lag Baomer this spring.
The new album features more bass guitar and drums, giving a fuller rock sound, Murray says. And while Infinity reflects a more laid back approach by him and Rubinstein, he says the next album will showcase Shtar as more serious musicians.
“We are pushing the limits as much as we can,” he says. “Hopefully, God willing, it’s going to be another level of an album.”
While Infinity has heavy Jewish overtones, Murray believes the second album explores deep, universal themes. Whether it’s an Orthodox Jew in Israel listening to their music, who Murray says is an unlikely fan, or a non-Jew in the US, or anywhere in between, the music’s fresh quality and depth speaks for itself.
“The music itself is just a vessel to instill positivity into others and make people happy,” he says, something Murray believes secular music does not tend to accomplish. Much of secular rap seems to focus on “how they want to drink champagne with naked women,” he says. “How can you listen to the same garbage all over again? People need more than that.”
Shtar aims for spiritual depth, as Murray raps about performing tikun olam [repairing the world] for the Almighty, God’s infinity, the soul and returning the Jews to Zion. Raps are sandwiched between Rubinstein and Dan harmonizing pure Sephardi and Shlomo Carlebach-feeling melodies with modern beats. The lyrics do not feel heavy-handed, however, and Infinity’s sound is cool and sharp.
BRINGING JEWS closer to the religion is not the goal, though. Ultimately, Murray says, it’s not going to be music that changes a person’s philosophy. “What brings Jews closer to Judaism is Judaism itself. It’s not going to be the one trick pony that shows up. It’s going to be personal connection.”
The men of Shtar found their personal connection, and amid their hectic schedules, Murray says he still finds time to study Jewish texts in the mornings. Everyone juggles family, work and music, and lives in Beit Shemesh, except for Solomons, who is studying in a yeshiva in Beit Ayin. Murray also teaches kung fu and works in real estate.
Growing up in a rough neighborhood, Murray says he started getting into fistfights in his teens, but found solace in writing poetry, and later rapping, singing and drum-bassing.
“I started rapping every moment of my free time,” he says, adding that his friends all became DJs and club promoters, which helped him get more into the scene. Still, he says he missed a sense of meaning in his life. A chance encounter with Ya’akov, an African-American man converting to Judaism in Seattle, brought Murray to synagogue and Judaism classes. He connected with the philosophy and way of life, so when he was offered a free trip to Israel, he did not want to pass it up. After a few months at Aish, he decided he wanted to stay and continue learning.
Murray met Rubinstein, an Essex native and father of six, at Aish around 2006. Before moving to Israel, Brad had been the guitarist and songwriter for Lisp, an electronica band signed to London Records. The two formed Shtar, and began collaborating, with Brad singing and playing guitar and Murray rapping and making the beats.
Over the years, they added the rest of the ensemble, and now play shows around Israel and toured the UK last year.
A US tour with Shemspeed for the winter is in the works. The crew of Shtar, wives and children, including also Isaac's two and Sommers’ three, come to the shows when they can.
Murray feels no regret leaving behind his life or music career in the US, and says he finds far greater meaning on his current path. “When I was more successful in my musical career in America the less nachas ruach [good feeling] I had. I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing anything.”
Now, Murray says he has found “something deeper, something more real,” and he’s not letting go.