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Ron Biton Runs the Game

The producer went from emulating The Notorious B.I.G. in his living room to making beats for Israel’s biggest stars

by
Matti Friedman
September 12, 2022
Mor Sidon
Mor Sidon
Mor Sidon
Mor Sidon

When Ron Biton writes a hit, which seems to happen every few hours, he likes to start by freestyling, just like he did when he was 14 and angling to be The Notorious B.I.G. of the ninth-grade rap scene in greater Haifa. So that’s how I’ll start:

Who is Ron Biton? Everyman. His name is the Israeli version of “John Smith.” He wears shorts and slides like everyone in Ramat Gan, which is Anywhere, Israel. If you see him on the street he could be going to his job in real estate or vegetable wholesaling but actually he’s got his divining rod out, feeling the subterranean vibes of the people. He’s the pop doctor, his stethoscope pressed to the sound of now. He’s everywhere and nowhere, always in the credits and never in the clip. If you’re Israeli you’ve heard him, whether you know it or not, and you’ll hear him again, whether you want to or not, probably today.

Biton, who is 32, is at the top of his game but has no obvious affectations and doesn’t brag. When he says that with a laptop and a good producer he can make a hit in a few hours, he’s just describing the way things are. Is the order for sleek pop with that Middle Eastern feel that Israelis crave? No problem: Noa Kirel’s “Pouch,” an ode to the lowly fanny pack, featuring the country’s pop queen and some wailing Turkish zurna, has 38 million views on YouTube—that is, more than four times the number of people who speak Hebrew.

Western pop that could come from anywhere, with a hip-hop verse that uses “fresh” as a Hebrew word and rhymes it with esh, “fire”? That would be “Million Dollar,” as in, “you look like a million bucks”—35 million views. Straight-up feel-good Mizrahi pop? “Good Morning World,” an ode to life in Tel Aviv that will make you want to ride your electric scooter down the beach promenade. A ballad that sounds like something Marvin Gaye might have sung if Marvin Gaye were a Gen Y Israeli with grandparents from Yemen? The first Hebrew K-Pop hit? When do you need it?

Biton isn’t a solo genius. His strengths lie in concept, lyrics, and timing, and he’s always part of a team. “For a song to work, the puzzle has to fit together perfectly: How the singer performs, how they look, their personality. The mix. It has to be the right song, the right sentence, and it has to come out at the right time. It’s roulette with more than 36 numbers,” he told me. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s “cosmic”: “A song has its moment and its fate.”

Fate and teamwork aside, Ron Biton’s name recurs so often in the hits of the past few years that it’s clear he’s figured out something deep about what Israelis want, and thus about who we are. I made the trip to Ramat Gan and we hung out in his living room, under a picture of the deity from his Road to Damascus—Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G.

All of this started in 1997, Biton told me. He was 7 and living in the Haifa suburbs. His parents used to work late at their falafel business and he’d watch MTV alone with a microwave pizza. Commercial television had come to Israel just three years earlier, so his generation was the first group of Israeli kids to grow up plugged into American culture, which was key to the kind of music they’d end up liking and making. When he turned on MTV this time, helicopter rotors thundered in the living room—it was so loud he thought they were real. In those years you used to hear army helicopters ferrying casualties from the fighting in Lebanon to the emergency room in Haifa, so they actually could have been. But this time it was the video for “Hypnotize,” the one where ominous choppers representing the Man hover over a speedboat where B.I.G. is cruising with Puff Daddy, stacks of bills, and a few ’90s hip-hop-video bikini models. Biton couldn’t understand the words because he didn’t know English. He had no idea that Biggie’s videos were on repeat because he’d just been murdered. All he knew was that he was going to make those sounds.

Biton doesn’t remember a lot of music at home when he grew up—not modern Israeli music nor the music of his parents’ families in Morocco. His maternal grandfather, Makhlouf Dahan, had been a drummer for Pétit Armand, a Moroccan performer from the wilderness years of Middle Eastern and North African music in Israel, when those sounds were considered low class and kept in the basement. (When an Israeli version of this genre emerged and went mainstream under the broad name “Mizrahi,” one of the stars was Pétit Armand’s son Kobi Peretz.) But as an elementary school and junior high kid, the music Biton picked up came mainly from his older brother’s DJ gigs, where he was allowed to help set up the speakers and carry crates of CDs until 8:30 p.m., when his dad came to take him home to bed.

His first audience was at a nearby kibbutz with a little shopping center, Ramat Yishai, where he discovered a freestyle circle. He’d practice his rhymes all week and try to make them sound casual. That’s how he met the other kids rapping in northern Israel, their heads full of Tupac from MTV and Mizrahi pop from local radio, recording on primitive computer setups in their teenage bedrooms, going by names like Tal “Baggies” Levine, Maor “Blade” Sheetrit, and Omri 69.

He recorded a few songs as Ron B, going around to clubs to ask the DJ to put him on. He met other young musical aspirants like Yarden Peleg, who was managing a small-time rap crew and would later become famous as Jordie, the hottest pop producer of the current moment, the brains behind the two-headed pop monster Static & Ben-El, and a regular Biton collaborator. Jordie is also from the Haifa suburbs, a strange coincidence—Israelis have long been concerned about the health impact of pollution from the heavy industry around Haifa, but maybe it simply causes infectious beats.

By 11th grade Biton was throwing his own parties, arranging buses from across the north and bringing hip-hop acts from Tel Aviv, like Avi Messika. (I profiled Messika in 2004, after he released his first album, which featured a menacing picture of him glaring at the camera with a silver pistol between his legs. When I showed up at his apartment it turned out he lived with his parents, still recorded on a computer in a tiny room in the back, and didn’t think this was weird or even worth mentioning. He offered me a banana from the fridge, commenting appreciatively that his mom always kept a lot of food around. It taught me something about the difference between life and culture in Israel and America.)

When Biton’s army service in a clerical job brought him to Tel Aviv once a week, he found himself closer than ever to the heart of the scene, and tried to stay over whenever he could, recording with friends in a tiny studio and crashing at the home of Yoav “the Shadow” Eliasi, then famous as one half of the hip-hop duo Subliminal and the Shadow (and now notorious as a far-right internet provocateur). Biton was so broke and so unqualified, he says, that he dropped a resume at a BBB burger franchise and didn’t even get a call back. He started doing PR for a club in Rehovot, then opened his own line of hip-hop parties on Wednesdays in Tel Aviv.

By 2015, Israeli pop had become the commercial Mizrahi-Western-dance juggernaut that it is now, fueled by the blossoming party culture of Tel Aviv and dropping any former aspiration to say things that matter, along with any apology for making money. The new crop of artists wasn’t squeamish about artistic integrity, and the biggest hits were now dance numbers like “Tel Aviv” and “Happiness Revolution.” When a struggling songwriter friend of Biton’s, Pen Hazut, struck gold that year with the Eden Ben-Zaken megahit “Queen of Roses,” Biton decided to try his own luck at writing for others. After years in which the lyrics of pop songs mattered less than the tune and received far less attention, he thought the pendulum had swung back, that young people wanted words that spoke to them, like hip-hop.

After a few false starts, he wrote “Hipster” for the singer Eti Biton (no relation), a song memorable mainly for demonstrating a rough version of his magic formula. The idea is to pick up trendy turns of phrase in spoken Hebrew—in this case “hipster,” a word that had just landed in Tel Aviv—and to sing in the language spoken on the street at that very moment. “IPhone on airplane mode,” the song goes, “I want to fly away with him!”

Biton has refined the trick since then, but it’s recognizably the same one. He keeps one eye on the clubs and the other on TikTok. When COVID shut down the Tel Aviv party scene, for example, he started hearing about evenings that people were calling mo’abet, meaning friends getting together to hang out and drink at someone’s house. The word comes from Ladino, which I know because Biton’s song made the word so famous that the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Jerusalem was actually moved to put out an explanation. If “Ladino” has you imagining a Judeo-Spanish melody with a guitar and a wistful breeze from Cordoba, you probably shouldn’t listen to “Moabet,” which is like having a splitting headache and lying down on the couch just as your upstairs neighbor starts with the jackhammer. Last time I checked it had 27 million views.

When that song came out, one critic decried it as “a day of mourning for Hebrew music.” At issue wasn’t just the shallowness but the drinking culture it describes, which is relatively new in Israel. After one successful Biton collaboration with the pop queen Noa Kirel, another critic wrote that she was “the best example of the absence of internal truth in today’s Israeli music.” When Biton’s K-Pop hit came out, he was slammed for purposely misspelling the title, “Zot Ani” (It’s Me), to draw attention to the song. Israeli pop music, unlike its American counterpart, has traditionally had a respectful attitude toward the Hebrew language, and you’re not supposed to butcher it for sales. “Zot Ani” was also described in one paper as “an unnecessary and deafening cacophony.”

Biton’s work was so pervasive this summer that someone created a video spoofing his formula. Step 1 in “How to Ron Biton” is to pray to God for inspiration while watching gyrating dancers in a hip-hop video. Then have a computer headset feed the entirety of Israeli culture into your brain: traffic jams, a bar mitzvah, the beach, the army, shawarma. Add a generic techno beat with “Mediterranean touches,” lift the chorus idea from the Instagram account of a girl from your statistics class (“Pilates in the morning, mojito at night”), and find used verses on the local equivalent of Craigslist.

I asked Biton if something’s been lost with the rise of computers and the disappearance from the studio of real musicians, and of artists who’d spend years putting their authentic selves on an album. “Tech moves forward, and so do our brains,” he said. “We’re artists, we wake up in the morning to do work that we love, but we have to get things done.” He slapped his hands together like an impatient foreman. “It’s called pop because it’s popular and it has to be now, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have a year to sit at home and think about how it’s going to work.” He typically goes into the studio with a lyric or two on his smartphone, he says, and finishes in one session.

His songs might be commercial products, but there’s nothing simple about them. He pulls phrases from real life not just so the song will sound familiar, but also so day-to-day speech will remind you of the song. If you comment that someone looks like a million bucks, for example, you now can’t help thinking of the Noa Kirel song with his lyrics, and might be tempted to call it up on Spotify. This summer, if someone tells you to write down a phone number—“tirshom”—the number that comes involuntarily to mind is 052-5381648, from the earworm “Who’s That?” sung by Ana Zak. It was Biton’s idea to build the song around her actual phone number. Within a few days of its May release, the song was no more escapable than a heat wave. In the spirit of the times, the video doubles as an ad for nail polish.

What’s Israeli about all of this, I asked the songwriter. Everything, he said, even the parts that come from Bed-Stuy or the Bosphorus. “The Israeliness is to take our language and put it to music and play with it—the Hebrew of daily life, not the language of the past, and not how it’s supposed to be used,” he said. If the music is open to foreign sounds, fast, commercial, and impertinent, thank the country where it was born.

“Israelis complain that we have no money, but we party and throw napkins in the air like millionaires,” he said. “This is a concrete jungle with energy that exists nowhere else.” It’s a theme he fleshed out in “Napkins,” a number with a Moroccan beat performed by the Togolese Israeli star Stéphane Legar, and one of the better summations of this country you’ll ever get in 2 minutes and 49 seconds. Biggie peered down from the wall. Outside the window were traffic and cranes. It was 95 degrees on the street. “There’s no other place like this in the world, bro,” he said. “Nothing’s even close.” 

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.

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