Fat Man Saves Israeli Hip-Hop
How Itay Lukach and YouTube defeated the bombast of Subliminal to revive Israeli rap
Resembling a flying saucer that hovered too low, Kikar Atarim is the perpetual promise of Tel Aviv. With 200 stores housed inside the structure, shoppers could amble out onto the boardwalk, breathe the salted air, and admire the perfect union of nature and commerce. So, at least, went the plan when Kikar Atarim was built in 1975; if it succeeded, other spots just like it would be built along the shore. Tel Aviv would become one part Nice and one part Hong Kong—charming and modern, inimitable. Within three years, however, Kikar Atarim started falling apart. The cheap, low-quality materials with which it was built were gnawed away by the salty air, and the building began to crumble. Renovations were insufficient and haphazard, and the sandstone cliff on which the structure was built tumbled into the Mediterranean.
By the early 1980s, there was nothing left in Kikar Atarim but illegal gambling joints, a shady disco, and the heavy stench of urine. The edifice was briefly renamed after Shlomo Namir, Tel Aviv’s former mayor, but his widow begged the municipality to give the place back its old name, not wishing to associate her late husband with the city’s worst eyesore. During the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein trained his Scud missiles on Tel Aviv, then-mayor Shlomo Lahat mused that some good might come of the war should one of the Scuds hit Kikar Atarim and raze it to the ground.
Abandoned and dirty, an urban morality tale, and a rebuke to the city’s false pride, Kikar Atarim was a natural place for a local musician named DJ Supreme to start a club dedicated solely to hip-hop music in the mid 1990s. The club, called the G Spot, was little more than a shabby room with speakers, a DJ stand, and a small stage—the perfect setting to showcase a musical genre that was, at the time, entirely peripheral. The few stars that the Israeli hip-hop scene did have were featured on a series of mix tapes called Yisraelim Atzbanim—pissed-off Israelis. Every now and then DJ Supreme invited some of those homegrown rappers to lead open-mic nights. The most popular MC on those nights, by far, was a young man named Koby Shimony, who had grown up a few miles to the north of Kikar Atarim in a tony neighborhood of Tel Aviv. He called himself Subliminal—the rapper who would later become the biggest star in all of Israel and the global face of Israeli rap.
Subliminal was on stage at the G Spot one night in 1999 when he looked down and saw 15-year-old Itay Lukach. Hugely obese, with his dirty blond hair woven into one massive dreadlock, Lukach was the odd man out in a club otherwise dense with muscular dudes wearing baggy pants. He had never rapped before, but he spent his days filling up notebooks with rhymes, many of them about food. He was fond of one in particular, an ode to a favorite dish, “Hummus with Mushrooms.” He asked Subliminal if he could have the mic.
Intoxicated and amused, Subliminal agreed and introduced the aspiring young rapper, but, not knowing Lukach’s name, he improvised. “And now,” he told the few dozen people who showed up that night, “give it up for a good friend of mine, the Caveman.” Lukach had hardly heard a word. Wearing an enormous backpack, an affectation he believed made him look more like the American rappers he admired, he charged the stage, grabbed the microphone, and started rapping. And dancing: As his enormous frame spun around on the G Spot’s minuscule stage, he crashed into Subliminal, who lost his footing, flew off the stage, and fell flat on the floor. Lukach didn’t notice. He went on about hummus and mushrooms. It was his turn on the mic, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take it away.
Lukach was too young to know it at the time, but Israeli hip-hop, still busy being born, would soon die. Having risen as music for the poor and the peripheral, the music quickly became politicized, then popular, and then it faded away, written off as a mere curiosity until Lukach himself helped resurrect it.
But to understand how much Israeli hip-hop meant to those who clung to it early on, you have to first understand what was there before, which means you have to understand Shlomo Artzi. For decades Israel’s most popular singer, Artzi began his career as a combat soldier; then he was the lead singer in the Israeli Navy band; then Israel’s official representative in the Eurovision song contest; then a popular singer and songwriter whose favorite topics included unrequited love, midlife crises, fallen comrades, and the Holocaust. Artzi was not so much an entertainer as the embodiment of entertainment in a small, socialist country with a chronic, tingling sense of existential anxiety. Israelis flocked to his monthly concerts at the Roman amphitheater in Caesarea the way their ancestors had once made the annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, not always joyfully but out of a sense of obligation. Artzi was a rite of passage, a repository for collective identity, and a totemic presence that made Israelis feel safe and strong.
With very few exceptions, much the same could be said about every Israeli popular entertainer between the years of 1948 and 1994. To become a star, you first had to serve in one of the army’s official bands and sing some rousing, patriotic anthem (Artzi’s best-known number in the navy band was called “The Third Mother,” a ballad about bereavement and sacrifice), then record a tender album thick with poetic love lyrics to soften your militaristic image, and then skip a bit to the left and position yourself as a brooding rocker. Ideologically, this meant that there would be no real rebellion in Israeli rock, because its practitioners were always just a step removed from their roots as singing soldiers. Practically, it meant that Israel’s rock royalty was an astoundingly homogenous group: With very, very few exceptions, they were Ashkenazi, well-educated, hailing from kibbutzim or from Tel Aviv, and resembled in every way their brothers and cousins who enlisted in the army’s elite fighting units before going into politics and business.
The only musical alternative to the solid and sentimental sound of Israeli rock was known as Mizrachi music, which sounded like Arabic pop and was sung exclusively by entertainers whose families hailed from Morocco, Lybia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Unable to find any mass distribution for their work—it was considered uncultured—these entertainers recorded their own albums in makeshift studios, made thousands of copies on low-quality cassette tapes, and sold them in outdoor stands, usually located in the vicinity of central bus stations. If you wanted to score an easy laugh with your sophisticated friends, all you had to do was undo three or four buttons in your shirt—the preferred style of Mizrachi musicians—and belt out a few bars from one of the few songs that managed to somehow make it into the playlist in one of the five state-run radio stations or the country’s solitary television channel. If you didn’t care for Mizrachi music, were living in the periphery, were disinterested in military lore, had little patience for Shlomo Artzi and his clones, liked to party, were horny, believed sex and drugs were indispensable to rock ’n’ roll, and felt as if the cultural scene in Israel was airless, you had no choice but to look for your thrills elsewhere.
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