The Arts: Hip-Hop Conquers Israel
A music genre that swept America over two decades ago is captivating the Jewish state, giving contemporary issues—both political and social—a fresh, exciting vibe.
When the Beastie Boys came to Israel about 10 years ago, Eyal Freedman—known by his rap handle Quami de la Fox—was both painfully shy and a huge fan.
As music editor at Galgalatz (Israel Army Radio), the country’s most popular station, Freedman jumped at the opportunity to be the second interviewer during the Beastie Boys’ radio appearance.
“I didn’t know even how to express myself,” Freedman says. “I asked all kinds of serious questions about West Coast rap and gangsta rap, but all they wanted was to make jokes and talk about bagels.
“When the mike was closed,” Freedman continues, “Leron Teeni—the show’s host—said, ‘My man here knows the words to “Get It Together.” Why don’t you rap it together?’
“I was like, ‘No, no, no, no!’ But then Teeni flicked on live radio and said it again. So I just stepped to the plate and rapped with the Beastie Boys.”
To help promote the band’s Israeli tour, Freedman made a 30-second Hebrew rap jingle using the Beastie Boys’ “What You Want.” The group loved it, asked Freedman for the rights and included it on their next album.
In 1995, Teeni and Freedman joined forces to create Esek Shahor(Black Work), the first all hip-hop radio show in Israel. “The first two or three months of the show were a mess,” Freedman, 30, recalls, laughing. “Leron was cursing and shouting all the time, and I was speaking in a voice that was barely audible.” Within a year, however, Freedman had loosened up and the two D.J.’s developed a groove. By its 5th birthday, Esek Shahor was the most popular program on Galgalatz and today remains a leader in Israel’s hip-hop world.
In addition to playing classic and contemporary rap hits from around the world, the program features homegrown Hebrew and Arabic rap—a genre that began over a decade ago with Nigel Admor and Yossi Fine.
“I always had a Jewish upbringing with black instincts,” says Fine, explaining his natural affinity for the music. “In 1979, I’d heard ‘Rappers Delight’ by SugarHill Gang—the first rap song that made it huge. That was it for me!”
The son of an Ashkenazi Israeli and an Afro-Jamaican Jew-by-choice, Fine had become Israel’s premier funk, soul and R&B bass player by 1981, when he was 17. That same year he became the disc jockey on a small show on Galgalatz called The Funk Corner with Yossi Fine. “I was playing rap music from the get-go,” he recalls.
In 1984, Fine was recruited as the bass player for Bushrock, a popular American band, and he moved to New York to work with them. From there, he went on to play with David Bowie, Naughty by Nature and Lou Reed. But fate would soon bring him back to Israel. “In 1992,” Fine recounts, “a friend of mine said, ‘You have to check out this rapper here in Jerusalem, a Jewish Jamaican guy!’ I met the guy and read his lyrics. They were the best Israeli rap lyrics ever, right up through today.” Fine immediately produced the young man’s album, propelling Nigel Admor to the status of an historical figure in Israel’s music history—the father of Israeli hip-hop.
Rap was taken from the Jewish people,” Admor, a Bratslav Hasid from birth, evenly asserts “It’s an ancient tool of ours. We rapped to God many times a day through our prayers. Our psalms are rap. Our entire tradition was given over in rap.” To prove his point, Admor belts out an ancient Middle Eastern Jewish prayer, and the similarities between the traditional chant and the rhythm and rhyming lyrics of modern-day rap are indeed striking. “It’s just that our prayers have spiritual overtones and undertones,” he continues, “whereas everything in rap now has become bitter and vile.”
Born in Jamaica as Yehoshua Sofer and raised there, in Israel and in the United States, Admor became interested in rap because of his roots in Israel and his Caribbean surroundings. “My family lived in Israel for 100 generations,” Admor explains, “since the time of Saraya Sofer—a royal scribe and warrior who served the kingdom of Israel.” Both ancient Israelite writing and martial arts traditions, Admor says, were handed down in his family from generation to generation. “In my house in Jamaica, my mother listened to the ska music of that time—Byron Lee, Don Drummond, the Ska-talites. I began rapping Ragamuffin style [a type of reggae that includes digitized backing instrumentals] by listening to the music around me, at home and on the streets. I imitated the music and dance moves.”
Ultimately, however, Admor began creating a brand new sound. “I call what I do Camelmuffin,” Admor says, laughing warmly. “It’s a local fusion of Middle Eastern and Caribbean music.”
While Israeli rap stars like MookE continue their own signature style in the Ragamuffin tradition, Israeli hip-hop now crosses a wide spectrum of musical sounds, a fusion of world beat, jazz, ska, rap and anything else a particular artist feels like throwing in. Hadag Nahash, one of Israel’s chart-topping hip-hop groups, is especially known for this potpourri approach.
“We really understand their words,” says Shlomit Segal, 17, standing in a throng of screaming fans at Barbie’s Bar in Tel Aviv on a Sunday night. “They don’t always sing about girls and drugs. They don’t get you depressed. The songs have a catchy beat, and I enjoy listening to them.”
Segal does not generally like hip-hop. “Subliminal [Israel’s superstar rapper], for example, doesn’t at all speak to me,” she explains.“With Subliminal, everything is sex and girls.”
“We are not that mainstream for the mainstream,” comments Guy Mar, 30, the band’s D.J., “but we are still successful.”
Indeed, the band’s first album, The Groove Machine, came close to platinum (more than 40,000 copies sold in Israel) and its recent album, Local Stuff, passed the gold mark (1,000 copies) just weeks after arriving in stores.
During their Fall 2004 tour in the United States, Hadag Nahash was a big draw. From New York to San Francisco, the band attracted thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike, packing venues to the limit and turning away disappointed crowds. “I didn’t realize there was this kind of pop culture in Israel and that it would translate here so well,” observed Joshua Concepcion, 22, who was in the audience at a Berkeley, California, show.
“It was surprising,” remarks Yaya Cohen Harounoff, 27, bass player for the seven-member band. “It’s like that a lot of the time in Israel; but here they didn’t even know the language, yet they had such great energy!”
As the band cranked out one hit after another—characteristically jumping around the stage and leaping in the air—that energy reached a fevered pitch. Across the country, audience members danced vigorously in the aisles, enthusiastically shouting Hebrew words like “Dai, dai [enough, enough]” and “Lo, lo [no, no]” during impromptu call-and-response moments.
Despite their tremendous popularity, Sha’anan Streett, the band’s lyricist and lead rapper, emphasizes that “the music doesn’t say commercial on its forehead.” Most fans agree, citing Hadag Nahash as the country’s intelligent hip-hop choice—a label the band’s members enjoy, as opposed to another equally common label: “lefties.”
“We are from across the political rainbow, and our lyrics are not political,” contests David Klemes, 31, the band’s keyboard player.
“In this country,” continues Streett, 33, “if someone cares about something and wants to change something…he must be a lefty.”
Asked to describe his band, Streett quotes a fan from the band’s Internet site: “Their message isn’t to be leftists, and they don’t think this country sucks. Their message is to stop being apathetic, to take your head out of your ass, to have compassion for people who are suffering.”
As an example of how the band promotes this message of compassion, Streett names two songs he felt “had to be written.” The first, “Bella Bellissima,” is based on the true story of a harediwoman who saved the life of a terrorist in danger of being lynched by a Jewish mob:
Tuesday, May 12, 1992/ A woman left her home in Jerusalem/ It was a normal standard day, nothing special.… A despicable terrorist/ Tossed a kitchen knife he’d used to stab two innocent teenagers…. He started to run away when a crowd gathered and chased him…. They wanted to settle the score/ I can’t judge them—the whole thing was irrational…. And unclear/ But then a woman came along/ And changed the outcome of the story/ She laid down right on top of the terrorist…. A terrorist, but also a human being who without her body would be a dead body/ I don’t get it, weren’t you scared, with a psycho underneath you/ And a raging mob surrounding you?/ Wouldn’t it have been easier just to get up and leave?/ She replied to the reporter, She didn’t have time to think….
“I felt she was a hero who needed to be acknowledged… who needed to be written about for the good of the Israeli public,” explains Streett.
The second song, “Ze Lo Ani” (It’s Not Me), is about a soldier who dies in a military accident. Nobody is held responsible, and the next death is just around the corner. Streett says he wrote it in memory of a soldier he knew.
Hadag Nahash band members are proud that MC Shiri, 24, Israel’s premier female rapper, got her big break after performing with them and recording on their latest album. With Shiri’s first solo album, The Microphone Princess, about to be released, band members continue to back her efforts. Among other joint endeavors, Shiri and Mar are now planning an American tour, during which Mar will serve as Shiri’s D.J.
Shiri recalls that many other male hip-hop artists tried to keep her back. “Hip-hop is very aggressive,” she says, “and guys have a hard time accepting young women with strength. Because I’m a young woman, guy rappers gave me little parts or background vocals. They didn’t let me say a word about the music or production. And when I performed with them onstage, they wanted me to be soft and gentle, as if being aggressive was their role.”
Since Shiri opened the door for female rappers five years ago, a growing number of women have followed in her footsteps. “A lot of rappers in Israel don’t write about personal stuff,” asserts MC Shorti, 20, who began performing just a few months after Shiri. She raps about love, sex and homosexuality.
“I’m just trying to be as personal and real about things as I can,” Shorty explains. “You can take it or leave it….”
MC’s Safa and Nahwa are equally revolutionary in their duo Arapiot—a hybrid word for Arab female rappers.
“We have families that don’t give us our freedom to choose our husband, to determine our fate, to let us go out with friends, to get an education,” says Safa, 18. “We write about demanding our freedom.”
Reportedly the first Arab female rappers in the world, the duo has regularly performed with popular Israeli Arab rappers Tammer, Dam and the now-defunct MWR.
Rapper Mahmoud Shalavi, 22—the M of MWR (Mahmoud, Waseem and Richard)—has since gone on to work with Issa Halifa, 21, in the creation of Zilzal (Arabic for earthquake). The idea behind Zilzal, Shalavi says, is to create a network of Arab rappers working together and supporting each others’ advancement.
“MWR was a band,” he explains. “Now I want to do something more open, more freeing. I want to work with more MC’s, to do projects together.”
Zilzal, he hopes, will foster a new generation of Israeli Arab rappers and ultimately lead to a rap label with a unique Arab voice. The important thing is what we want to tell, Shalavi explains, “not to take the American pose. We aren’t Americans. We are Arabs…. We can’t behave like blacks because we aren’t black. We want to bring in aspects from our culture, our mentality…. We are the most complicated Arabs in the world. We don’t know what our identity is. We are Palestinians yet also Israelis…. Israelis say, ‘You’re not Israelis, you are like all the Arabs.’ When we go to Arabs outside, they say we are traitors.”
And yet, says Shalavi, there is a benefit in this double identity—namely, freedom to sing openly about issues within the global Arab community. “Despite my feeling that Israel is not a complete democracy, it is a democracy in that I can speak out about everything that I feel.
“From my perspective, the revolt is not just speaking out about oppression [against Arabs],” he continues. “It is also a revolt among ourselves, repairing ourselves before talking about repairing the enemy. Here in Israel I can speak about being against the government. I also can revolt internally, be outspoken about what we need to fix in the Arab community. I am in a democracy, and I am exploiting it to the end. I am not afraid of anyone. I can say what I want in all directions. In most of the Arab countries there is a dictatorship…. Rappers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, can’t say what they want to say.”
“In Arab states,” he adds, “if you speak out, they kill you.”
In Israel, however, free speech can at times lead to contention. MC Tammer—an anti-Zionist Arab nationalist—and Subliminal—a right-wing Zionist—reportedly went from being friends to enemies as their careers took off.
“Everyone has a problem with us,” states MC Hatsel, 27, who performs and records with Subliminal and backup singer Sivan Bahanam, on their platinum-selling albums. “We have so many haters. In the States, player-hating is common. Over here, it’s new. We’re selling albums, we have fans and people hate us because of that.”
Subliminal’s message, Hatsel continues, is simply about loving the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. “Are you wearing a Star of David proudly on your chest?” Subliminal bellows into the mike at numerous performances across the country—regularly packed with thousands of Israeli youth.
“Jews have been ashamed of our symbol because of what we learned from generations of oppression,” says Hatsel. “But our group is not ashamed. In our CD, everyone gets a Star of David as a gift.”
One of Subliminal’s biggest hits is called “Hatikva.” Its verses describe the anguish Israelis experience daily:
I have seen how many of them have gone/ Too many of them have not returned/ Friends separated, homes broken/ Tears of families spilled/ Human buds, now flowers that will never bloom…
“We are mirroring our society,” Hatsel comments. “What we see in the street goes straight into our lyrics.” In the newly released “Israeli Hip Hop Architects,” on their TACT (Tel Aviv City Team) label, Subliminal and Hatsel continue to promote their signature message. They also toured North America last March (for updates on Subliminal and Tact, see english.subliminal.co.il).
Ethiopian rappers are also commenting on what they see around them. “We dreamt of Israel, reuniting with our Jewish brothers and sisters,” says MC Jeremy Cool Habash—the first rapper from the Ethiopian community, “but the dream was broken when we got here. We got hit in the face. These were not the brothers and sisters we expected.” Habash, a yeshiva graduate, also raps about his love for Judaism and concern about youth getting lost in alcohol and drugs.
Adding to the voice of Ethiopian Israeli hip-hop is MC BarB, 19, a female rapper, who addresses gender relations as well as relations between Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians.
“The messages are very individual,” comments 29-year-old Chemi Arzi—rapper for Halutsei Halal (Space Pioneers) and former rapper for the now-defunct band Shabak Sameh, the first band to perform and record mainstream Hebrew hip-hop. “Hip-hop is a tool. Everyone uses it to say what they want.”
When Arzi first began rapping with Shabak Sameh 11 years ago, radio stations refused to play it, asserting that Hebrew hip-hop would fail. Today, however, it sells second only to Mizrahi music. “Now everyone is trying to make a song blending hip-hop and Mizrahi music,” says MC SHI (Supreme Hebrew Intellect), 28, who raps on a number of Subliminal’s tracks.
Barak Itzkovitz, music editor of Galgalatz, agrees that today’s lucrative new sound is the fusion of these two genres. Notably, Sarit Hadad—Israeli pop diva and Mizrahi musician—recently did a duet with Subliminal that is featured on her new album, Hagiga. After just 10 days in stores, the album was well on its way to double platinum.
Hip-hop is so successful that the phenomenon has grabbed the attention of international media. From the BBC to The New York Times, from USA Today to the Associated Press, Israeli rappers have taken the stage on the world platform.
Israeli hip-hop artists have something to teach hip-hop artists in the United States, American-born rapper A7 asserts, “because [it] is so international right now. Rappers need to pay attention to the messages they are putting out. As black rappers in America, we can get rich making albums about killing white people…. But it’s more than our block now, more than our neighborhood, our side of town, our state. It goes around the world….
“One thing the rest of the world has an understanding of, which American musicians don’t, is that what you say affects other people. In [the United States], people can say anything they want, and whatever happens— so be it. Here in Israel, you have to be cognizant of the words coming out of your mouth, because they can incite something negative…. As a Jew, I can’t make an album talking about killing Palestinians. If I’m a Palestinian, I can’t make an album talking about killing Jews. Only one message needs to come out in Israel, and that is peace.”
Shaking up the system and smoothing out differences across the spectrum of ethnic and musical expression, Israeli hip-hop has been catapulted from the country’s margins to its mainstream. The youth are stepping up to the mike. And they’ve got something to say.
Where to Get Them
Interested in hearing (or buying) Hebrew hip-hop chart-toppers? Try www.israel-music.com for the latest albums, many by artists featured in this article.