Make Some Noise
Nadav Samin was a nice Jewish boy in Brooklyn who made it big at a key moment in hip-hop history and then walked away to take up Middle East studies. Now it turns out he never really left rap behind.
Samin began, in his words, to “drift musically,” which meant losing interest in hip-hop. He started practicing the piano three hours a day, taking lessons, and discovering just how much was packed into every measure of Debussy and Bartók. (He had already sampled the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt for “Repetition,” the A-side of his solo single.) The piano was comforting, resonant, and durable in ways that his walls of gear, and their unconscious drive to eat digital files alive, just weren’t.
Samin got increasingly serious about the piano, and after a brief post-college gig as a bike messenger, started a day job at a nonprofit journal for international affairs in 1999. The summer before, he had begun work on “Hairy Bird,” a suite of heavily electronic hip-hop whose structure was based on classical forms. He briefly reunited with Yeshua, who had since moved to the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, an hour away from Manhattan Beach. Their subsequent break-up was almost anti-climactic; Samin swears there was no drama to it. (Of course, when you are talking about the dissolution of one of the great duos of mid-’90s underground rap, you want drama, but that’s not our story.)
For his part, Yeshua recently said on the hip-hop podcast Uncommon Radio that Samin had “a lot of people who were into him and a lot of fans, and I don’t know how comfortable he was with that. He was like, ‘I just want to be with my music.’ I know he’s still got the fire in him, but it’s just not his path.”
“Pyrite”, the B-side of that lone single, anticipates the problem, and Samin knew it at the time. “That song is where I run up against perhaps the main existential conundrum of any hip-hop artist: Once I’ve totally annihilated the competition rhetorically and destroyed any would-be pretenders, what do I do?” The chorus announced, caustically, that he had “Nothing to say about nothing to say,” and the verse was even more desultory: “Time won’t stop even if I ask nicely/ So nightly, I write the sweet nothing/ That’s seducing everybody and the hella fit/ Produce inadequate battle shit that’ll get me amped for like a week/ And then it’s just another freak.”
“I guess I answered the question by deciding not to say much at all anymore,” he said.
Samin’s undergraduate work had focused on the history and politics of the Middle East, and in 2000 Samin entered a master’s program at Johns Hopkins University. He found a mentor in Francis Fukuyama, the influential political scientist, and while the two didn’t always see eye-to-eye, Samin would end up co-authoring Fukuyama’s influential 2002 paper “Modernizing Islam,” which argues that while radical Islam posed a serious threat to the international community, its destabilizing influence could make it easier for the social and political structures of the Middle East to change. Samin began to learn Arabic, lived in Morocco, and returned to New York shortly before the attacks of Sept. 11.
That year’s “Hairy Bird: Reprise” marked the last time he really gave hip-hop a shot. There followed poetry, composition, dabbling in Egyptian music while living and traveling on a fellowship in Cairo in 2002 and 2003, but no more straight hip-hop. Once he finishes at Princeton, planned for 2013, there’s a good chance he will score a tenure-track job and teach kids who have no idea that mild-mannered Professor Samin was once one of the underground’s leading lights.
There was, however, one project in 2005 that seemed to bring together all of Samin’s interests. “The Long Night” is a decentered, tri-lingual account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with professional jazz and Middle Eastern musicians as backing. The vibe may be remarkably similar to some of Samin’s work from almost a decade earlier, and yet, conceptually, “The Long Night” really exists in its own space. Asked by a friend to provide some music he could use in a soundtrack about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Samin decided to realize an idea he’d had at Hopkins. “I wanted to articulate a sense of the conflict as it was understood from the perspectives of the parties themselves,” he said. “I realized I couldn’t do that without the voices of those parties.” For Samin, that meant calling on friends around the world—while putting together the song in the studio. “I did this with some friends in Israel, with a Palestinian friend in Washington—she was calling her parents in the West Bank,” Samin said. “I was talking with my dad, he was helping me. I got other people involved in this process, and they were almost writing the lyrics for me.” This process also meant making sure he had the correct dialect of Arabic, and making sure that his Hebrew would pass muster with a modern Israeli.
Listen to “The Long Night”:
“The Long Night” isn’t a mish-mash of other people’s sentences, but rather a cohesive, rhythmic whole. But that process, or various processes, of translation, might be why he doesn’t point to it as a return to hip-hop. Or maybe it’s because he didn’t write and record as himself: He was the orchestrator, the arranger, who just happened to see a role for himself. Also, as Samin added sharply, the English language viewpoint, including his own, is almost as relevant to the conflict as anything said in Hebrew or Arabic. “The Long Night” was released only on the Rooftop Roots compilation and Samin’s MySpace page. “And the music plays on even after we’re gone,/ from Brooklyn to Qadima to Ramallah and on.”
Samin was inspired to write “Lyrics for Palin and Gingrich” after Fox News condemned President Barack Obama for inviting rapper Common to the White House in May. The lyrics haven’t been recorded, but unlike “The Long Night,” they are unmistakably Samin going back to his roots, or coming full circle—to battle hymns in rhyme, the DNA of hip-hop lyrics and the first stuff any would-be rapper tries writing. “My love for hip-hop persists,” he said. “If this goes well, who knows? I might start doing these things more frequently.”
Lyrics for Palin and Gingrich
by Nadav Samin 2011
Sarah Barracuda here’s a rap clinic
your iceberg’s melting better grab on quick
to any or everything, still the middle won’t swing
cause you’re a feather that the weather floated into the ring.
It’s clear—the motion of poetry makes you queasy
we can slow the teleprompter take it nice and easy.
You and Newt would make a real good tandem
you’d wink at Muslims, he’d prod and brand ’em.
That so maniacally smiley aisle filler
whose voice echoes shades of sly killers
crossed with a gecko, that’s always out for tail
and when he speaks he blows wind—out of his sail.
He’ll promise diamonds, promise the Holy Grail
but all he cares for the cross is another nail.
I’m hollowing out around your Facebook race nook
it falls to pieces, like all your thesis.
The Jews are good now, said Father Coughlin from his coffin
so Party people, back up off ’em.
So Mr. Shutdown, as you’re known on the circuit
you’re the only man alive who’s famous for not working.
In the autobiographical novel Life on Sandpaper, Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk revisits the time he spent living among the artists and musicians of New York in the 1950s