Rappers' delight

A tightly knit froup of rappers, musicians and DJs keep underground hip-hop alive in the capital city.

jlem rap rappers 88.298 (photo credit: )
jlem rap rappers 88.298
(photo credit: )
Throughout the world, rappers are telling their stories in their own language, dancers are learning to breakdance, DJs are spinning rap music and NYC-style graffiti is "gracing" public buildings. More than any other US pop-culture export, hip-hop has conquered the world. From its humble NYC origins in the late '70s (see box), hip-hop has become an international phenomenon. It is clearly one of the most influential musical-cultural forms of all time and it's alive and well in Israel, too. Over the last few years, Israeli rappers have ascended to the highest echelons of celebrity, pushing the music into the mainstream. Artists such as Subliminal, Mook E and the Hadag Nahash band have become household names. As happened in the United States over the past two decades, this previously marginalized music of hard-core aficionados has taken over the music establishment. With a difference. Unlike the US, where party jams about girls, marijuana and fancy cars have become dominant, in Israel even the best-known rappers never stray far from politics, spirituality or the matzav (situation). Tel Aviv based Subliminal (Kobi Shimoni), whose breakthrough 2001 album The Light from Zion went platinum and was the catalyst that made Hebrew-language hip-hop part of the mainstream, has built his image around a proud Zionistic stance and strong political statements. Jerusalem, most political of all Israeli cities, is home to a dedicated crew of hip-hop artists who speak their minds at parties, shows, recordings and on the street. These diverse movers and shakers are united by their love of the art and by a DIY philosophy that harks back to the early days of US hip-hop. "It's not real [in America] anymore, the way the record companies have pushed it. It's like cartoons and comic books now - how many times can you be shot and not die? How much crack can you actually smoke?" asks America-to-Jerusalem transplant Yoel Covington, a.k.a. Rebel Sun. "But here there is a renaissance." Jerusalem-bred DJ Caress agrees. "Hip-hop in Jerusalem is in a blooming phase," he says. The young DJ/producer is just 21 but he's been spinning records at parties and clubs for six years. "I used to be much more in the scene, playing shows with [rappers] Rocky B or Sagol 59, or at the Corner Prophets sessions. Now I am producing from my home studio and working on my own projects. But for a good party I will go out." Sagol 59 is arguably the foremost Jerusalem rapper. He appears unassuming and friendly - a stocky former kibbutznik with baggy clothes and lines around his eyes from lots of smiling. One could pass him in the street and have no idea that his last album went gold or that he is considered a elder on the scene. He reveals his true nature when he grabs a microphone and begins "freestyling," unleashing a flowing torrent of extemporaneous rhyming poetry. Good freestyling is a mark of distinction in the hip-hop world, and Sagol 59 is a master, effortlessly switching between Hebrew and English to drive his point home. It's a longstanding tradition for hip-hoppers to use a handle or stage name, and Sagol's real name is Khen Rotem. "I starting listening to hip-hop around '87," he recalls. "It was hard to get records in Israel then. Someone had brought some albums from the States - The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy. I started writing [raps] in the mid '90s, and my first album came out in 2000." His fourth album, Hip-Hop Einstein, will be released next month on NMC, the biggest record company in Israel. Dan Sieradski, a.k.a. Mobius, is another influential figure. A relative newcomer to the scene, he came to Jerusalem from the US in 2004 on a Dorot Fellowship, a program that provides a year of semi-independent study to potential Jewish lay leaders from North America. Mobius has decided to stay on and is in the beginning stages of making aliya. An event promoter, organizer and professional Web-master, he maintains a dizzying array of popular Web sites and blogs, most of them devoted to new Jewish thought and paradigms. Through the people at JDub Records, the original record company of hassidic reggae sensation Matisyahu, and other mutual acquaintances, he met Sagol 59 and many others who were involved in various aspects of hip-hop in Jerusalem. Because "that is what I do," he quickly organized, along with Sagol, a monthly 'cypher' (freestyle session) under the name The Corner Prophets (Nevi'im Bepina). The first event was held on January 27, 2005. With little promotion, it drew over 400 people to the small Galia club downtown, including the members of the well-known, Lod-based Palestinian rap group DAM (blood), who rocked the crowd with their rapid-fire raps in Arabic and Hebrew. It was their only appearance at the Corner Prophets, but other Arab rappers did show up occasionally. "There may be a lot of Palestinian MCs," explains Mobius, "but not many can make it across the border. We don't have money so we can't pay for transportation. I still reach out to them and I have a dream of a hip-hop opera where Israelis and Palestinians rap about the situation. But in the current climate, I can understand how both sides are less interested in dialogue." The Corner Prophets sessions evolved month by month, culminating in a multilingual performance at the C-Sides festival last summer, after which the project went on hiatus because Mobius went back to the States for a few months and Sagol was working on his new album. "It takes a lot to organize an event," Sagol explains. "And we don't do it for money." Now that Mobius is back and Sagol's album is about to drop, they are searching for a new venue and could start up the sessions as early as the end of February. Another rapper who is starting up a session is Omen X, originally from Birmingham, England. Currently at work on his first album, his raps are fire-and-brimstone sermons filled with Biblical imagery about the day of judgment and spiritual repentance. "I'm a black Jew rapping to the whole world about Jerusalem in English, not many can say that," he explains. Working together with Rebel Sun, he is opening up a new evening of open-mike freestyling with DJs, guest artists and live music at Mikes Place starting Sunday, February 12. "Over the last five years the scene in Jerusalem has increased so much - it's just unbelievable," says veteran DJ Marky Funk in Russian-accented English. Called by some the best underground DJ in Jerusalem, he spins at clubs at least once a week, either in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv. "Things have really started moving, especially over the past two years. The only problem is that the people who have succeeded in getting closer to fame sometimes forget their underground pals. There are people here who love hip-hop who don't know who [rapper] Rocky B is." By far the most successful Jerusalem-based hip-hoppers are the band Hadag Nahash (The Snakefish). They are one of the most popular bands in Israel and have toured to sold-out crowds in the US many times. (In fact, In Jerusalem was unable to reach them because of their intense touring schedule.) Their smash hit, "Shirat Hasticker" (The Sticker Song), from their last album is a collection of juxtaposed slogans and sayings culled from bumper stickers. Co-written by novelist David Grossman, the song was influential enough to inspire some Jewish education groups in the States to use is as part of their curriculum on Israel. Their sound is live. This band is a group of seasoned musicians with a horn section and they have a DJ who provides scratches and sound effects. In the tradition of seminal US acts such as the Roots or the Beastie Boys, they use their live instruments while retaining the feel of studio-produced hip-hop. Their sound is also an example of the newer wave of Israeli hip-hop, which draws less on traditional US sounds and brings Middle-Eastern and reggae influences into the basic mix. Coolooloosh is another live hip-hop outfit in Jerusalem. He is fronted by rapper Rebel Sun, an import from the US who provides an authentic East Coast vibe to the jazz/breakbeat influenced ensemble. Originally from Baltimore, Rebel Sun has been in Israel for years and has had a clear influence in the Jerusalem rap scene because of his rap style is straight from the source-roots, Afro-American flow. "I can't say enough about Rebel Sun," his friend Omen X relates. As reported in In Jerusalem, ("Waiting in Zion," November 4, 2005), Rebel Sun, who also is known as A7, has been in an extended six-year bureaucratic visa snafu with the Interior Ministry. For reasons that remain unclear, he and his family (his wife and two Jerusalem-born daughters) are living with a threat of imminent deportation. His situation has received extensive coverage in the Israeli media and Coolooloosh has decided to confront the issue directly by releasing a Hebrew and English battle-rap anthem called "Fight Rebel Sun," which hit the Israeli airwaves last week and features guest artists Sha'anan Streett from Hadag Nahash, who despite his success seems to have not forgotten his underground Jerusalem crew. Other guests on the recording are the ubiquitous Sagol 59, MC Karolina from Funset and Tel Aviv rappers Kashi and Kwami. The video is due to go on the air in the coming weeks and their campaign is already bearing fruit as lawyers, politicians and fans have begun to contact the group to offer their support. Coolooloosh also has organized a series of concerts around the country including one at Hama'abada in Jerusalem on February 25 which will feature the all the artists from the "Fight Rebel Sun" single as well as many guests. The proceeds from this event will go to the legal fees incurred by Rebel Sun in his struggle to stay in Israel and convert to Judaism. The scene extends far and away, a tribute to the deep impact hip-hop culture has had in the city. Speaking with teens on Jerusalem streets, it sometimes seems as though every young person is a potential rapper, breaker - or at least a fan. Also part of the wider trend, a group of 20 to 30 dancers and fans gather every Thursday night at the big chessboard on the Ben-Yehuda mall to practice different styles of breakdancing. "There a few groups that meet at the chess point, even beginners can get out there and dance a little," explains Ariel Mermelstein a.k.a. SRC, a regular. "Even if it's raining a bit we are out there." Among the English-speaking communities of yeshiva students, new olim and especially among the newly religious, rapping has become a standard way to express oneself. Shabbat dinners offer the perfect chance and it is not uncommon to hear young religious Jews rapping about Torah and life in general at Shabbat tables throughout the city. "Most of the people in the English-speaking religious communities grew up with hip-hop as part of popular expression. It is a powerful medium for conveying one's ideas. It has become a universal thing, not just a black thing," Mobius explains. "For those who are interested in spiritual ideas, the idea of freestyling, the stream-of-consciousness thing is like riding a comet whipping around the universe - observant Jewish people who are into hip-hop take rap to a level more relevant to their spirituality than their ego. "My friend Shir-Yaakov was all about running a freestyle cypher at the Simchat Schlomo yeshiva - they would rhyme over Talmud." The Jerusalem scene is as varied as the identities and viewpoints in the city itself. At the cyphers produced by the Corner Prophets, it is possible to hear raps delivered in English, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, French and more. Despite all the differences, everyone seems to get along - the love of hip-hop transcends differing opinions and cultures. But no one seems to make any money at it - even Sagol 59 commutes to a day job in Tel Aviv. "Jerusalem has a small-town mentality," he says, "There are 600,000 people here, but if you take away most of the haredim and the Arabs, there is really only a small population who is interested. City center is just one square mile, so when you come here, you can't front, you can't be something you are not. Nobody is going to become a millionaire." Upcoming Events: DJ Marky Funk spins this Friday night at Noch at 31 Jaffa Road - near Kikar Hatulot downtown. Omen X and Rebel Sun start up the sessions on Sunday, February 12 at Mike's Place, 37 Jaffa Road downtown. The Fight Rebel Sun benefit concert will be held in Jerusalem on Saturday February 25 at Hama'abada, 28 Hebron Road in Talpiot. The concert starts at 10 p.m. Web resources: www.cornerprophets.com www.coolooloosh.com www.agitpoprecords.com (A local label involved with some of the artists mentioned in this article)