Fat Man Saves Israeli Hip-Hop
How Itay Lukach and YouTube defeated the bombast of Subliminal to revive Israeli rap
All that Holocaust stuff was too much for some of Subliminal’s admirers to take. It didn’t help that he also embarked on a wave of commercials, including one endorsing chocolate milk. They accused him not exactly of selling out, but of buying in—he had become the perfect embodiment of the establishment.
And then came the accusations of mismanagement, with several of Tact’s artists grumbling that Subliminal was binding them in punishing contracts in order to ensure their success never overshadowed his. Chief among the accusers was Hatzel, Subliminal’s partner and closest friend. In 2009, Hatzel quit the label and gave press interviews accusing Subliminal of betrayal. “He chose money and success over friendship,” Hatzel said of his former friend to whomever would listen.
Subliminal remained largely quiet. By then, he had outgrown the image of the angry Zionist with the Star of David bling. He wore suits now. He hardly preformed live, except for huge concerts on special occasions like Independence Day. He released no new albums. When he did record new songs, they were heavily influenced by dance and electronica. Which, naturally, made him even easier to hate: The young rappers growing up in his shadow were now defining themselves against Subliminal, engaged in joyful patricide and demonizing the man who had inspired so many of them to pick up a mic. All the fighting, and the plethora of truly terrible rappers who drowned out the handful of great ones, mortally wounded Israel’s hip-hop scene. As the aughts drew to a close, there were no hip-hop albums on the local charts, and no songs on the radio. Slightly more than a decade after its miraculous birth, Israeli hip-hop appeared to be dead.
In the winter of 2009, an Israeli bar mitzvah boy named Ben Dadaya chose to celebrate his passage into manhood by replacing the traditional speech with a rap song. He convinced his parents to hire the services of a local company that stripped well-known hip-hop songs of everything but their beats and allowed young amateur rappers to try their hand at the craft. Like Rebecca Black, another notable musical neophyte who procured the services of a do-it-yourself studio and found herself an unwitting Internet sensation, Ben’s music video, uploaded to YouTube, soon registered hundreds of thousands of views and nearly as many comments mocking his crude rhymes and difficulty pronouncing basic Hebrew words.
One of those who found the video hilarious was Lukach. In the decade that passed since he first performed on stage and knocked Subliminal to the ground, the corpulent MC joined a successful hip-hop group, went on to a solo career, put out a couple of well-received albums, and starred in several cable television shows. He was a well-known figure in Israel, but he was more famous for his food-themed show, Lukach Goes Eating, than he was for his remarkable talent as an MC. He didn’t much mind; what he truly enjoyed was writing and performing, and the specific medium didn’t really matter. When he saw Ben Dadaya’s video, Lukach was in a mood for a bit of fun. He wrote a parody that, brilliantly, not only exaggerated Dadaya’s shortcomings—that alone would have been cruel, considering the hapless rapper’s young age—but also poked fun at a whole swath of young adults who grew up on Subliminal and considered themselves hip-hop lovers without really knowing anything about the genre. He called a few friends, and within a day uploaded his own video, a satirical remake of Dadaya’s, to YouTube.
“What happened next was, simply, hysteria,” Lukach told me. “My life changed. Every line in my song now had its own fan page on Facebook, each with tens of thousands of members. I was used to performing for a few hundred people; suddenly, I was being asked to play with some of Israel’s biggest artists in front of 7,000 fans, and each one of them screamed out all the words to the song. Only then did I realize how big the song was. I remember one show, there was a food stand backstage, maybe 10 feet away, and I was hungry. But it took me maybe 40 minutes to cross that distance, and not because I’m fat. Kids crowded me, asking for my autograph. I got a big show on TV. The scale changed.”
Inspired by American models like The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg’s musical comedy group, Lukach realized that humor appealed, and that the Web now gave him a way to reach more people than listened to all the radio stations in Israel combined; the Dadaya parody had nearly three-quarters of a million views. And so, Lukach began making videos and experimenting with various musical genres. There was “Brandon Walsh,” a Raggamuffin jam named after Jason Priestly’s character from the hit TV show Beverly Hills 90210, as well as the gangsta rap parody “Etzlenu Ba’Shchuna” and “Don’t Blame It on the Pro,” a tribute to Lukach’s favorite video game franchise, Pro Evolution Soccer. The videos’ humor, and the fans’ exuberant reactions, recalled the early days of Shabak Samech, that heady time before anyone knew what Israeli hip-hop might sound like and all sorts of possibilities seemed viable and the most important thing was just to experiment and have fun.
Lukach was having a blast. To mock his former idol, Subliminal, he recorded a song called “Lights Out.” In the video, Lukach is featured standing in the middle of Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, wearing Subliminal’s trademark Star of David bling and singing in his baritone voice. Instead of singing about terrorism and Zionism, however, Lukach’s Subliminal rapped about the need to conserve electricity, about how important it is to be kind to the elderly, and about what a pity it is that so many people ignore Tel Aviv’s parking regulations.
“Subliminal destroyed Israeli hip-hop,” Lukach said. “He took ownership over it, and instead of supporting people, he bad-mouthed us in the press.” Lukach was determined not to do the same thing. He himself, he realized, had too many artistic interests and pursuits to ever be considered a pure rapper. But he could use his renown in the industry to find and promote young and gifted MCs who perhaps, one day, would bring about another renaissance for Hebrew hip-hop.
Before his Dadaya parody video went viral, Lukach had received a CD in the mail. It was amateurishly recorded, but its first two minutes were enough to blow him away. The group, Produx, was comprised of two Ethiopian-born Israelis and one plump Ashkenazi kid who called himself Nechi Nech. And Nechi, Lukach could instantly tell, was a world-class rapper, great not only by local standards but even in comparison to MCs from New York or L.A.
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