Fat Man Saves Israeli Hip-Hop
How Itay Lukach and YouTube defeated the bombast of Subliminal to revive Israeli rap
Having spent most of his childhood in a small West Bank settlement, Nechi lost his mother when he was 12 and, shortly thereafter, moved with his father and siblings to a blue-collar neighborhood in Petach Tikva, a small town to the east of Tel Aviv. New to town, and feeling like an outsider, he took comfort in standing outside the door of his older sister’s bedroom and listening to her music, which consisted mainly of hip-hop acts like Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and the Fugees.
“Then, one day when I was 13,” Nechi said, “I went home with a friend, and the friend played me a CD and said it was by this guy called Subliminal. That was the day that changed my life. I said wow, there’s hip-hop in Hebrew! He became my hero. I was living subliminally, walking around with a Star of David and baggy pants. I was such a hip-hop kid, I loved Israeli hip-hop much more than American hip-hop. It was true love.”
A diligent student, Nechi listened to and analyzed an overwhelming number of tracks and developed a style that fell somewhere between Busta Rhymes and Nas, with rhymes that cascade from one bar to the next, threaten to lose the beat altogether, and then breathlessly bounce back and regain control. He started hanging out at the G Spot, borrowing pants from an older cousin to achieve the desired baggy effect. But he found kindred spirits much closer to home: His neighbors, two Ethiopian kids named Shmuel and Shimshon, were into the same kind of music, and together they started a group and called it Produx. What little money he had went to securing a proper studio and recording an album. When it was ready, he sent it to everyone he could think of, including Lukach and Galei Tzahal DJ Liron Te’eny. Te’eny called him a few days later to tell him that the album was one of the best of its kind in Hebrew he’d ever heard. And Lukach followed suit, offering to put together the group’s coming out party at the Barzilay, a trendy spot in the south of Tel Aviv.
When the night came, 300 kids packed the club; they bopped and hopped and shouted out all of the words. A battery of the scene’s luminaries—Fishy Ha’Gadol, Kwame, Cohen et Moshon, Sagol 59—stopped by for cameos and to pay their respects. Shekel’s beats sounded even better live than they did on tape; in the club, you could feel how strange and intricate they were, made up of fragments of soundtracks to old horror movies, old-school east-coast sounds, and slivers of classical Persian music, which Shekel’s Iranian-born parents played for him when he was a child. At 2:30 a.m., after a song that mixed Raggamuffin with a clarinet sample lifted from Fiddler on the Roof, Nechi, visibly moved, addressed the crowd. “A smart man once told me that you don’t need everyone to love you,” he said. “You only need a small minority to love you very much. We started with an audience of a few dozen people, now we have a few hundred, and I hope we’ll one day make it to a few thousand. Thank you very much for coming.”
Like his mentor Lukach, Nechi too recorded ersatz music videos and collaborated as much as he could with friends, including joining the stellar MC Peled for a local riff on Lil’ Wayne that has become immensely popular. He doesn’t even bother sending his singles to the radio and has no grand expectations that the scene would ever regain anything resembling its former glory. But unlike many of his colleagues, he refuses to blame Subliminal or anyone else for destroying Israeli hip-hop.
“People say, he ruined my hip-hop,” Nechi said of Subliminal. “He didn’t. He’s not your dad. He’s not your mom.” He was standing outside the house he still shares in Petach Tikvah with his father, smoking a cigarette and keeping his dog in check. Soon he returned to the computer, uploading another video to YouTube, promoting it on Facebook, thanking the fans who liked it, and sounding genuinely and humbly grateful. Among these fans are kids who, like Nechi and Lukach and Shabak and Subliminal and all the other mavens of Israeli hip-hop, are thrilled to hear, for the first time, a different and exhilarating sound. But unlike their predecessors, these young fans don’t have to look far for verses in Hebrew. They have homegrown heroes, funny and sharp and immensely talented, who can help them build a new culture with groove and meaning and beats for all.
“You’re the only one who’s in charge of your own hip-hop,” Nechi said, addressing himself to his own generation of Israeli music-makers and fans. “The only one keeping my hip-hop alive is me.”
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