Swamp City Beats: Humble Beginnings
February is a tough month. It’s cold, and anything that was fun about winter is totally over by now. As I write this, I’m wearing two tanks tops, a vest, a standard cardigan, and some sort of snuggly super-cardigan that is more of a bathrobe than anything else — and I live in the tropical paradise of Tel Aviv. Sucks to be you if you’re anywhere else.
By now you might be thinking, this girl’s English is T I G H T for a Tel Avivian, and you’re not wrong. I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker who landed in Israel about a year and a half ago with two suitcases and a ten-month job contract. It’s all fun and games until you apply for citizenship, and since September 2013 I’m an (on paper) Israeli living and working the twenty-something dream.
Live music is my jam, but it took me a year to even start scratching the surface of the Israeli scene. There are shows every night in Tel Aviv, but they’re not so easy to find, and it doesn’t help that success is measured in time spent abroad. The thing is, though, that even though I complain all the time, my heart is deep in this swampy, humid capital of instant coffee and I’m dying to share what I’m seeing.
Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week, so every Wednesday I’m going to throw you a little bit of Middle Eastern flavor — a show recap, a band feature, an album review, a photo gallery, whatever. It’s my column, so I choose.
So, as the natives say, yalla smalla, let’s go.
The 2013 In D Negev festival was my first foray into Israel’s indie scene. It doesn’t usually happen this way. In D Negev is, essentially, Israel’s biggest alternative/indie music festival, and it happens every fall over the course of three days, four stages, and ~100 bands. This past festival had an opening night showcase by a label I was (and am) really into, and three or four other names I recognized, so I roped some friends into //an adventure// and we jetted down to the desert.
We got to the festival a few hours later than expected, due to human error (stopping for snacks) and an unplanned drive into the Gaza border (Google Maps, I will never forgive you) — but such is life. We put up our tents in record time (with the help of some kind Israelis, who are camping ninjas) and got to exploring the festival. This is when I realized I was hopeless. By not bringing a schedule (the festival had run out 300 people before me), and not recognizing 90% of the performers by name or face, I basically had to wander the desert like my ancestors until I found something I liked — and that’s what happened.
It may have taken until the next morning for me to get back to my camp, figure out my camera settings, and find a festival schedule, but In D still ended up being a pivotal weekend in my Israeli music experience. I got back to Tel Aviv sunburned, covered in sand, and ready to work — and I’ve been on it ever since. A city that I had dismissed as a music-less capital of no music opened itself up to me within a week, and I’m still in shock about how much there is to learn.
It is important to take note of exactly how small Israel is — the population of the entire country is less than that of New York City. There aren’t a ton of professional musicians, but there are a lot of bands; even musicians on world tour still have two or three more bands waiting for them. The bassist of your favorite indie band with 1,000 Facebook likes is probably also the touring bassist of a band that was sampled by 2 Chainz (this is a true story, you can check out his solo project here).
Music is coming out of Tel Aviv at a frantic place — and, more often that not, going straight to Berlin and/or the States. At a recent Vaadat Charigim show at OzenBar, the singer told the audience that he had that morning secured an artist’s visa to the States — the band is Tel Aviv-based but affiliated with Burger Records and Warm Ratio, which are both American labels.
Before the OzenBar show, I read up a little bit on VC and saw that someone somewhere described them as a ‘shoegaze’ band. I still don’t understand what the fuck that could possibly mean, but I think it’s something about very skinny jeans and heroin addiction — in which case, loads of Israeli musicians across many genres are ‘shoegaze’ artists. The big difference between Vaadat Charigim and the rest of South Tel Aviv’s underfed underground, though, is that VC writes and performs in Hebrew.
In 2014, when everything is available on le Internet and seemingly everyone everywhere speaks English, high-quality music in Hebrew is hard to come by. The choice to write and perform in Hebrew grounds the music in Israeli culture, which can either isolate or intrigue. Personally, I greatly admire and respect Israeli bands that perform in Hebrew; there is nothing like your native language, and performing in Hebrew creates a much more honest musical experience.
Tel Aviv is a world capital, which has opened it up to global influence. The city has a first-world Western vibe that separates it from the rest of Israel, and though Tel Aviv is distinctly non-American, American cultural forces are pervasive throughout society — just usually a few years behind. This is why it’s not entirely surprising that there is nothing hotter here right now than Detroit late 90’s-early 2000’s hip hop; over here, it’s Dilla city.
Hip hop is undergoing a renaissance in Tel Aviv. When I got here, I would have said I was ‘into’ hip hop, but I was wrong. My relative fluency in Aesop Rock can’t compare to the depth of knowledge, interest, and passion in Tel Aviv’s underground.
Israeli hip hop culture is two-sided: Not only is the music coming out of here high, high, high quality, but the appreciation of the old school is real and deep. There are a number of can’t-miss Israeli MCs and producers putting out material in Hebrew and English at a constant pace, but there’s also a steady stream of music coming in from abroad, with DJs regularly coming in from the States and Europe. For Dilla’s birthday, DJ Day came to deliver alongside local names Mesh and Nadav Neeman, throwing down a set of Detroit classics to a packed audience. It’s not just that the DJs make it over here — it’s that they’re met by an enthusiastic crowd. Day was mobbed by Israeli girls in flat brims and Timberlands who knew every Dilla hook and drop, dropping it low in fur hoods like they were in a music video from the days of…well, music videos.
The label that drew me to In D Negev, Raw Tapes, is a crucial part of Tel Aviv’s hip hop landscape. The RT vision is ‘roughly unlimited but revolves around one thing, beats’ and that’s plain in everything they put out. Most of the hip hop that you can find in Tel Aviv is in some way connected to their studio in South Tel Aviv — so it’s no surprise that most of the international talent is coming through them as well. This is the label that, in the last year, brought Samiyam, Peanut Butter Wolf, DJ Day, and DJ Werd, among other global hip hop all-stars. Raw Tapes deserves their own column, and they will soon get it, but there can’t be a discussion of Israeli hip hop without them.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be hitting my official year-and-a-half anniversary of being in Israel, and there’s still a lot I don’t know. I’m learning fast, though — and I’m really happy to have you with me.
~Originally posted on www.slhodkin.com~