Fat Man Saves Israeli Hip-Hop
How Itay Lukach and YouTube defeated the bombast of Subliminal to revive Israeli rap
Looking outside, however, was a risky proposition. When Shabak, for example, were ready to record their second album, they exchanged one of their MCs, Fuck A, for the popular children’s television host Nimrod Reshef, known as Nimi Nim. Reshef was a terrific rapper and a charismatic performer, but some of the genre’s basic outlines were lost on him. In a bid to imitate the baggy clothes he’d seen on MTV, for example, he wore oversized jerseys of a sport he must have assumed was big in the ghetto—hockey.
By 1997, Shabak were filling up the largest venues in Israel. They were played on mainstream radio. They had music videos on TV. Even more important, there were seven of them, Menudo-style, so if you thought Muki D. was too militant and political or that Nimi Nim was too much of an airhead you had Hemi, Pilony, Plompy, James, or Davidi to choose from. To a generation growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Oslo Accords, normalcy was the mantra. And Shabak was party music, with songs about smoking weed and getting laid.
Within three or four years, a slew of other bands replicated more or less the same formula. Hadag Nahash, for example, came out of Jerusalem and sang socially conscious songs; and Fishy Hagadol, a tall and lanky Shabak protégé, spiced up his act with Jamaican patois.
Yet the ways in which Israel was unlike the American version of normal became clearer in the early 2000s, when the Camp David peace talks collapsed and a new Palestinian uprising broke out. You could track the change in the zeitgeist just by looking at the names of Shabak Samech’s albums: Their second, released in 1997, was titled Wrapped Up Like Candy; their third, released in 2000, had the more biblically tinged name Canaan 2000; by 2001, the band had disbanded, and Muki D., going solo, named his political, angry album after Judaism’s seminal prayer, Shema Yisrael.
Some in the scene argued that Israeli hip-hop would not be able to sustain the shock of the real, that the new conflict would bring with it a return to melancholic soft rockers singing about important things. But they didn’t count on Subliminal. Together with his childhood friend Yoav Eliasy, nicknamed Hatzel, or the shadow, Subliminal plowed his path to hip-hop stardom the hard way. He performed in dozens of small clubs, crisscrossed the country, and built a substantial fan base. In 2001, he released his first album, Ha’or Me’Tzion, the light out of Zion.
Two things were immediately evident. First, the album sounded better than anything else produced in Israel to that point. Unlike Shabak’s records, which sounded like nothing more than the sum of the instruments and the voices gathered in the studio, Subliminal’s had layers upon layers of instrumentation and effects, the result being a deep and rich sound that won you over even before the rapper dropped his first verse. When he did, however, you were in for another surprise: Subliminal was political, and his politics were unexpected.
Just how unexpected became clear a year later, when Subliminal released his second album, Ha’or ve’Hatzel. Its cover featured a muddy, bronzed fist clenching an enormous Star of David pendant that looked just like the one the rapper had taken to wearing. Subliminal’s voice had grown much deeper, and his subject matter followed suit. “My enemies are united, they want to destroy me,” he rapped, “and we, like maniacs, give arms to those who hate us.” In case the subtle reference to the Palestinians was lost, Subliminal warmed up to his theme in another song. “My country,” he rapped, “has become a punching bag /for all sorts of international entities /that will tell me if I’m to be or not to be /and we keep our heads down and accept the blows /our eyes are closed /so I’m screaming, live and let live /all those bleeding hearts aren’t my people, they’re delusional.” He named the song “Biladi,” Arabic for my land and the title of a popular nationalistic Palestinian song.
As the Israeli left crumbled into electoral dust and right-of-center parties gained unprecedented strength, Subliminal captured the political esprit of the moment better than anyone. Even more important, he gave large swaths of the population, traditionally feeling unrepresented by what they perceived as a snobbish and sanctimonious media and entertainment elite, a voice that sounded authentic and proud. Ha’or ve’Hatzel went double platinum, selling more than 100,000 copies, a tremendous achievement in local standards.
Subliminal bluntly expressed his worldview when he told an interviewer that “our reality is not the reality [in the United States]. Here, you see a policeman chase someone and you’re going to help the policeman, because that person [running away] is probably a terrorist or a purse-snatcher. Here we are all like family.” But Subliminal’s political persona, Dorchin believes, was influenced by much more than mere ideology. Subliminal, he said, “is made of the stuff stars are made of. He wanted to be a successful rapper, he wanted his music to sound and look good, and, if possible, sell well.” In other words, Subliminal was the Bibi Netanyahu of Israeli hip-hop—what he said hardly mattered; it was his way of saying it that came to define him.
Like Bibi, Subliminal realized the importance of building an organization to support his ambitions. He started his own record label, Tact, and began signing up artists. Also like Bibi, he realized that no dominant coalition could be completed without making overtures to the great masses of voters who lived in Be’er Sheva and Kiryat Shmona and elsewhere far from the corridor that connected Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. To attract them, Subliminal added a tinge of Mizrachi music. He invited Ron Shoval, a star of the genre, to croon on one of the album’s key songs, “Ani Yachol.” It was a perfect gambit, and Subliminal was now seen not only as the best rapper in town but also as the svengali who managed to dress up the long-derided Mizrachi music in baggy pants and march it straight into the heart of the mainstream.
Overnight, scores of rap acts were hastily signed up and put on TV or on the radio, and Subliminal got written up in Rolling Stone. In 2007, he collaborated with the Grammy Award-winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari on a hip-hop song about the Holocaust, designed to increase youth awareness. In 2008, as part of the extravagant official celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary, Subliminal teamed up with the Gevatron, a legendary choir of kibbutz members singing traditional folk songs from the nation’s early years. He strode on stage, the legion of bewildered-looking kibbutzniks behind him, rapping about Israel’s achievements. “We will never succeed,” he rapped at one point, “if we don’t remember where we came from.” Just then, the giant screen behind him displayed the famous photo of the young boy in the Warsaw ghetto, hands reaching up in surrender.
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