Leah Koenig
The So Called Jewish Cultural Revolution, p. 2

It is this shift (or as he called it, conspiracy) that the tie-clad employee picked up on when he stumbled across my interview with So Called. Ten years ago, the likelihood that So Called would have been sitting in the organizational heart of mainstream Jewish philanthropy would be slim to none. But there he was, tucked away within the beige federation walls Ė an innovative Jewish musician produced by a ground-breaking Jewish organization and being interviewed for a progressive Jewish journal.

Indeed, my dreamboat-foundation-funded sociologist was just one more case in point. Although the foundations and philanthropists are hedging their bets that these innovative upstarts can help revive the waning pulse of contemporary Judaism, they want to make sure they are getting their moneyís worth, and budding sociologists are happy to accept grant money to investigate it. Welcome to the Jewish Cultural Revolution (this revolution may be monitored for quality control purposes).

The So Called Emergence

Like many Jewish youngsters, Josh Dolgin did not grow up listening to Yiddish music, nor did he have any strong connection to Judaism. The only Jewish kid in his hometown of Chelsea, Quebec, he attended Hebrew school in the more Jewishly populous Ottawa. "I hated Hebrew school," he said. "I learned how to read this language but not understand it. It all seemed kind of silly to me. My family would go to our synagogue for high holidays Ė I wasnít really into it."

From a young age, however, Josh was really into music. He started with classical piano, learning to read music a little, but mostly picking things up by ear. "There are pictures of me when I was two at the piano Ė I was always a musical guy," he recalled. Later on he added jazz lessons. He also began filling in from time to time for his piano teacherís salsa band and eventually ended up recording with them. It was through his connections with the salsa band that Josh began to get into gospel music as well as the sequencing, sampling, and beat making that members of the gospel band he joined were doing in their basements. "I first got into the technology of music-making through them," Josh said.

By high school, Josh was deeply into the music of Parliament and James Brown. To him, beat-making and hip hop seemed like the next logical step of the funky music he was listening to. Before long, he started experimenting with making his own beats and soon realized that he needed musical fuel for his fire. He began to search local thrift stores and alleyways for records that he could pull samples from. "This was over 10 years ago when people were just throwing out their records," he said. "I would just take them out of the garbage and bring them to my house." Not surprisingly, a number of the 5,000 records Josh collected during the last decade were Klezmer and Yiddish records that people had thrown out. Two of the first Jewish records Josh remembers finding were Mickey Katzís Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and Brisses and Aaron Lebedeff sings Fourteen Yiddish Theatre Classics.

As the old adage goes, other peopleís trash turned out to be Joshís treasure. "Iíd always thought that Jewish music sucked because it was corny, Debbie Friedman crap. But these records were just full of these little breakdowns and sounds that I could use, so I started to seek them out more than others." Throughout college he continued to play with several different bands, put out a hip hop album, and stayed connected to the hip hop community both as a musician and through his job as a rap columnist for a Montrealís weekly paper. Meanwhile, he worked on his own songwriting and beat-making, featuring samples from Klezmer records. Over time, he started to develop the signature sound for which So Called is known. "It was hip hop that really got me into learning traditional Yiddish songs. Which is kind of insane."

So Called has not been content to take his discovery of Jewish music at face value. "Iím not just slapping a Jewish melody on top of a beat, he said. "Iím actually learning the stuff from the bottom up." The attention to technique, language, and tradition has paid off. Listening to So Called play an accordion or sing in Yiddish, one would swear that he was raised a century ago on the Lower East Side Ė in a good way. The "bottom up method," however, has been a challenge. Hip hop is a living music form, with a wealth of teachers, styles and examples in which aspiring musicians can root their own creative ideas. Such is not the case with early twentieth-century Yiddish music. It takes a certain amount of extra patience, skill, and chutzpah to learn a genre of music that has been marginalized to the point of near-cultural extinction, notwithstanding the recent klezmer revivals. "Because of the rupture that happened in the culture, itís really hard to learn [this music]," Josh admits. "I piece it together like an archaeologist [and] use technology to slow the music down and learn the old ways."

So Calledís sincere interest in learning the music has brought him into contact with some of the remaining klezmer music all-stars, like Elaine Hoffman Watts, the 75-year old Yiddish drummer from Philadelphia. "I sample her all the time," So Called said. "She is playing the music she learned from her father. Itís this amazing funky beat that no one ever hears." So what do So Calledís teachers think of the hip hop twist he incorporates with their traditional tunes? "My showing interest in this culture is what makes [them] happy, he says. "Theyíre ok with [my doing something new], as long as Iím respecting it."

And what about the fans? As with Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae superstar, there is a certain amount of novelty inherent in matching Yiddish tunes with the Wu Tang Clan (So Called collaborates with WTCís Killa Priest on his new album). And So Calledís audience seems to pick up on and appreciate his "not-your-bubbeís -music" kitsch appeal. But So Called has come a long way from his first baruch atah adonai mother fóker rapping attempts. Being kitschy is not the point. The point, So Called insists, is to get people to dance. To have fun, to feel something Ė the way that all good hip hop (and klezmer) can. All the while, So Calledís hip hop draws out Judaismís "incredibly rich, textured, and deep tradition [that has a] flow and a spunk that has been forgotten and pushed aside." Seems Bubbe was on to something after all.

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June 2005

Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis
Jay Michaelson

The So-Called Jewish Cultural Revolution
Leah Koenig

Witnessing Marshall Meyer
Josh Feigelson

We Will Destroy the Museums
Dan Friedman on Ashes and Snow

Clive Firestone
Nicole Taylor

Heart of Pinkness
Michael Kuratin

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Three Jewish Books on Sadness
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