Fat Man Saves Israeli Hip-Hop
How Itay Lukach and YouTube defeated the bombast of Subliminal to revive Israeli rap
Elsewhere meant cable TV, which, in the early 1990s, was just hitting Israel. And the voices that came from abroad were those of the Notorious B.I.G, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur. You didn’t have to pick up on all of their particular cultural references to understand that they were the oppressed. In small and dusty towns around Israel, the new music found eager young fans, and it was only a matter of time before one of them decided to try and rap in Hebrew. Those who contemplated this idea had a godfather in Nigel Ha’Admor, a Jamaican-born Jew who, in addition to being a master of a highly specialized martial art based on the Hebrew alphabet, released an influential album in 1993 that was pure Raggamuffin, a reggae-rap crossover, and included instant hits like “Hummus Makes You Dumb.” But Nigel was an odd-looking man, with a long pointy beard and flowing robes, strictly observant, mystical in speech and practice, as well as being a recluse who hated public attention. If it had any chance of catching on, Israeli hip-hop needed a band that looked and sounded just like its fans, young and angry and ignored by the establishment. It got what it needed the minute Shabak Samech stepped on stage.
It was late in 1993, and word spread out among the small and committed group of hip-hop lovers in Tel Aviv that there was a new group of crazy kids from Yavne—a sleepy town to the south best known for its yeshiva—who spit verses in Hebrew and sounded great and looked cool. A live show, one of the group’s first, attracted a few dozen curious teenagers; what they witnessed was—speaking from a purely historical perspective and without any measure of artistic evaluation—unprecedented.
The Shabak was just one of the bands to play that night at the Roxanne, one of only two or three spaces for live music in town at the time. Located in the heart of what was then an industrial zone littered with warehouses and body shops and today is a bastion of Israeli high tech dotted with espresso bars, the Roxanne was nothing more than an enormous hangar, its walls painted black, with smoke machines constantly oozing smoke into the space to make it look fuller than it was. An MC came on, made some lame attempt to warm up the crowd, already warm with drink, and introduced the first band. Its members were young and enthusiastic, playing guitars and drums and bass, closing their eyes as they sang in an effort to appear profound. The second band was no different, nor was the third; then came the Shabak. There were seven of them, all still in high school. They, too, had guitars and drums, but rather than try to sound like Morrissey, they sounded a lot like the Beastie Boys. They were loud, with three MCs cutting into one another’s flow and one-upping each other with witty and dirty banter. They had lines like “apocalypse up your ass the size of a carob,” and boasted about being from Yavne, a town, they rapped, where people constantly had sex in the streets. They took off their socks and threw them into the crowd. They had swagger.
The audience, which had until that moment been swaying gently and absent-mindedly, looked on with awe. Halfway through the first song, everyone was jumping, head-banging, shouting. The scene was hysterical. And then the Shabak did something even more incredible: They started playing “Mekofef Habananot,” the banana bender, a beloved classic by Arik Einstein, the Elvis of Israeli rock. Such an tender song by such a universally admired artist seemed like an odd choice for a group of pubescent hooligans, but all was soon made clear—Shabak weren’t interested in covering Einstein’s song; they were there to murder it. Using the older song’s refrain as a kind of beat, they rapped their own lyrics, turning Einstein’s sweet fairy tale about a magical man who could bend bananas into a raunchy anthem about decidedly less innocent phallic objects. “Slide on my banana, and give me a receipt,” went one line, “I’m 20 centimeters even after my bris.”
Three or four songs later, Shabak left the stage. Another band soon took it, but no one crowded on the dance floor cared. They were screaming for the Shabak to come back.
Shabak Samech’s first album came out in 1995. That summer, the Beastie Boys played Tel Aviv. That fall, a DJ, Liron Te’eny, and an aspiring rapper, Eyal Freedman, known as Kwame De La Fox, convinced the army radio station, Galei Tzahal, where both had served as soldiers, to give them a weekly late-night show dedicated to hip-hop. The rest of the radio was still dominated by Shlomo Artzi et al., but a different sound was now available. In addition, the rapid deregulation of Israeli media meant a second television channel and an avalanche of local radio stations, which, in turn, meant more platforms for niche music. Yet Hebrew hip-hop’s earliest rappers faced the problem of lacking a tradition on which to build or against which to rebel. “The first generation were all pioneers, they created something out of nothing because they had no local reference points,” said Dr. Uri Dorchin, a visiting scholar at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Real Time, the seminal account of the Israeli hip-hop scene. “They wanted to see if it was even possible to rap in Hebrew.”
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