Resembling a flying saucer that hovered too low, Kikar Atarim is the perpetual promise of Tel Aviv. With 200 stores housed inside the structure, shoppers could amble out onto the boardwalk, breathe the salted air, and admire the perfect union of nature and commerce. So, at least, went the plan when Kikar Atarim was built in 1975; if it succeeded, other spots just like it would be built along the shore. Tel Aviv would become one part Nice and one part Hong Kong—charming and modern, inimitable. Within three years, however, Kikar Atarim started falling apart. The cheap, low-quality materials with which it was built were gnawed away by the salty air, and the building began to crumble. Renovations were insufficient and haphazard, and the sandstone cliff on which the structure was built tumbled into the Mediterranean.
By the early 1980s, there was nothing left in Kikar Atarim but illegal gambling joints, a shady disco, and the heavy stench of urine. The edifice was briefly renamed after Shlomo Namir, Tel Aviv’s former mayor, but his widow begged the municipality to give the place back its old name, not wishing to associate her late husband with the city’s worst eyesore. During the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein trained his Scud missiles on Tel Aviv, then-mayor Shlomo Lahat mused that some good might come of the war should one of the Scuds hit Kikar Atarim and raze it to the ground.
Abandoned and dirty, an urban morality tale, and a rebuke to the city’s false pride, Kikar Atarim was a natural place for a local musician named DJ Supreme to start a club dedicated solely to hip-hop music in the mid 1990s. The club, called the G Spot, was little more than a shabby room with speakers, a DJ stand, and a small stage—the perfect setting to showcase a musical genre that was, at the time, entirely peripheral. The few stars that the Israeli hip-hop scene did have were featured on a series of mix tapes called Yisraelim Atzbanim—pissed-off Israelis. Every now and then DJ Supreme invited some of those homegrown rappers to lead open-mic nights. The most popular MC on those nights, by far, was a young man named Koby Shimony, who had grown up a few miles to the north of Kikar Atarim in a tony neighborhood of Tel Aviv. He called himself Subliminal—the rapper who would later become the biggest star in all of Israel and the global face of Israeli rap.
Subliminal was on stage at the G Spot one night in 1999 when he looked down and saw 15-year-old Itay Lukach. Hugely obese, with his dirty blond hair woven into one massive dreadlock, Lukach was the odd man out in a club otherwise dense with muscular dudes wearing baggy pants. He had never rapped before, but he spent his days filling up notebooks with rhymes, many of them about food. He was fond of one in particular, an ode to a favorite dish, “Hummus with Mushrooms.” He asked Subliminal if he could have the mic.
Intoxicated and amused, Subliminal agreed and introduced the aspiring young rapper, but, not knowing Lukach’s name, he improvised. “And now,” he told the few dozen people who showed up that night, “give it up for a good friend of mine, the Caveman.” Lukach had hardly heard a word. Wearing an enormous backpack, an affectation he believed made him look more like the American rappers he admired, he charged the stage, grabbed the microphone, and started rapping. And dancing: As his enormous frame spun around on the G Spot’s minuscule stage, he crashed into Subliminal, who lost his footing, flew off the stage, and fell flat on the floor. Lukach didn’t notice. He went on about hummus and mushrooms. It was his turn on the mic, and he wasn’t going to let anyone take it away.
Lukach was too young to know it at the time, but Israeli hip-hop, still busy being born, would soon die. Having risen as music for the poor and the peripheral, the music quickly became politicized, then popular, and then it faded away, written off as a mere curiosity until Lukach himself helped resurrect it.
But to understand how much Israeli hip-hop meant to those who clung to it early on, you have to first understand what was there before, which means you have to understand Shlomo Artzi. For decades Israel’s most popular singer, Artzi began his career as a combat soldier; then he was the lead singer in the Israeli Navy band; then Israel’s official representative in the Eurovision song contest; then a popular singer and songwriter whose favorite topics included unrequited love, midlife crises, fallen comrades, and the Holocaust. Artzi was not so much an entertainer as the embodiment of entertainment in a small, socialist country with a chronic, tingling sense of existential anxiety. Israelis flocked to his monthly concerts at the Roman amphitheater in Caesarea the way their ancestors had once made the annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, not always joyfully but out of a sense of obligation. Artzi was a rite of passage, a repository for collective identity, and a totemic presence that made Israelis feel safe and strong.
With very few exceptions, much the same could be said about every Israeli popular entertainer between the years of 1948 and 1994. To become a star, you first had to serve in one of the army’s official bands and sing some rousing, patriotic anthem (Artzi’s best-known number in the navy band was called “The Third Mother,” a ballad about bereavement and sacrifice), then record a tender album thick with poetic love lyrics to soften your militaristic image, and then skip a bit to the left and position yourself as a brooding rocker. Ideologically, this meant that there would be no real rebellion in Israeli rock, because its practitioners were always just a step removed from their roots as singing soldiers. Practically, it meant that Israel’s rock royalty was an astoundingly homogenous group: With very, very few exceptions, they were Ashkenazi, well-educated, hailing from kibbutzim or from Tel Aviv, and resembled in every way their brothers and cousins who enlisted in the army’s elite fighting units before going into politics and business.
The only musical alternative to the solid and sentimental sound of Israeli rock was known as Mizrachi music, which sounded like Arabic pop and was sung exclusively by entertainers whose families hailed from Morocco, Lybia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Unable to find any mass distribution for their work—it was considered uncultured—these entertainers recorded their own albums in makeshift studios, made thousands of copies on low-quality cassette tapes, and sold them in outdoor stands, usually located in the vicinity of central bus stations. If you wanted to score an easy laugh with your sophisticated friends, all you had to do was undo three or four buttons in your shirt—the preferred style of Mizrachi musicians—and belt out a few bars from one of the few songs that managed to somehow make it into the playlist in one of the five state-run radio stations or the country’s solitary television channel. If you didn’t care for Mizrachi music, were living in the periphery, were disinterested in military lore, had little patience for Shlomo Artzi and his clones, liked to party, were horny, believed sex and drugs were indispensable to rock ’n’ roll, and felt as if the cultural scene in Israel was airless, you had no choice but to look for your thrills elsewhere.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.