Israeli hip-hop is no oxymoron
Rapper Nechi Nech, formerly of Produx, borrows beats from dancehall and reggae for his new solo album.
"Don't come here with a song you wrote five minutes ago in the bathroom," Liron Teeni warned the group of 17-year-olds from Petah Tikva, who dreamed of becoming rappers and came to perform on his show, "Esek Shahor" (Black Business ).
"They brought a crappy song with them," Teeni recalled, "so I let them down gently. But I think a few good things have happened to those kids since then" - and that's putting it mildly. The group was composed of teenagers from the periphery, who didn't give up on the dream, and last year the group, Produx, released "Resurrection of the Dead" (Tehiyat Hamatim, in Hebrew ), one of the best hip-hop albums to come out of Israel. It wasn't long after the release of the much praised album (including in the pages of this newspaper ) that the group split up, at the height of its success. That left many hip-hop fans hoping for a solo album from the band member known as Nechi Nech (Ravid Plotnik, 23 ), who was already considered one of the most talented and sharpest rappers in the small Israeli hip-hop scene.
The much awaited album, "Tzadik Ehad B'sdom" (A Saint in Sodom ), had a limited release last August. The outstanding producer Eyal "Shekel" Davidi, who also produced the beats for Produx , is responsible for the beats on the new album. Also involved in the production are Ori Shochat (who has worked with Peled and Ortega and Cohen@Moshon ) and Plotnik's hero, none other than the bassist Yossi Fine - the man who produced albums for two of his favorite bands, Hadag Nachash and Shabak Samech - does the mastering.
It would be logical to think that "Tzadik Ehad B'Sdom" would continue along the musical path of Produx. But despite the roughness of the rap, the street language and the laughs that can still be heard on the tracks, this album features elements borrowed from a much broader range of styles: from reggae and dance hall to Middle Eastern music. The sounds that open the album and recur throughout the first half or so may surprise anyone who may have been expecting "Resurrection of the Dead - 2."
The intro that opens "Tzadik Ehad B'Sdom" has a heavy dancehall beat, on top of which is a recording from a Druze wedding. In a dramatic shift, the album moves to the song "Debka", and the name attests to the beat. "Israeli rasta" is a kind of Petah Tikva version of the Jamaican Buju Banton.
The song, "Meantezet" sounds like Jackie Makaitan meets a New York rapper. "When I came to play my album for Nimrod Reshef (of Shabak Samech )," says Nechi Nech. "he told me he's had enough of all this lousy Middle Eastern rap that's around today, and he was happy to hear that I'm releasing a rap album. It was a little nerve-racking. My approach is to do what I like."
How does it feel to present something so different from the music style that brought you to the forefront of the local hip-hop scene?
"It's very scary. The decision to start the album with a Middle Eastern dancehall song was a tough one."
Shekel says that opening an album that way is "a declaration that what you are about to hear is not what you were expecting," and he adds that it's fun to hear his neighbor's brother getting excited by a Nechi Nech song that he happened to hear on the "fringe program that is soon to disappear." Shekel recognizes what an important outlet it gave to artists like him, the musician operating on the margins because of an elitist isolationism which leaves hip-hop and reggae barely represented in the mainstream media.
The song, "Boom Shaka-lak" features one of the album's notable segments about famous rappers being dissed and going mainstream. The song can perhaps explain why it takes a long time for a musician like Nechi Nech to go mainstream. In the meantime, YouTube is the place to watch new clips from "Tzadik Ehad B'Sdom."
The most famous clip from the album is "Godzilla," which seems to have done a lot with the modest sum allocated for its production. The song has a segment from "Blind Date" by Nigel Haadmor, a Jewish Jamaican rapper and a teacher of the Jewish martial art known as Abir; he is the man for whose song the legendary radio program, Esek Shahor, is named (taken from the 1993 album "Humus Metamtem ).
Plotnik has a tattoo on his arm of a quote from a Brooklyn reggae singer's song. "Even fewer people know him than know me," the artist said in an interview he gave ahead of the concert launching his premiere album." Plotnik adds, "It was important to me to tell him that someone from Israel likes him."
To a large extent that is how Nechi Nech sees himself as an artist. He may really want to be famous and successful, but that is not what will guide him stylistically or emotionally. Nechi Nechi is uninterested in being a niche singer, and certainly uninterested in being an underground rapper. But given the tired reality of local hip-hop and reggae, what you get from Nechi Nech is the real thing.
If the album were released as an LP, then the first side would have been the party one and the second side the more serious and personal one. Songs near the end, such as the despairing "Belev Hamilhama," where Nechi Nech really sings, or "Sof Davar" further raise expectations for Nechi Nechi and for the second album which is already in the works.
Even though it was released in the summer, Plotnik and Davidi are working only now on a festive concert to kick off "Tzadik Ehad B'Sdom". The concert is scheduled for December 16 at the Sublime Club in Tel Aviv. The best local artists will be there, including the Axum duo,Peled, Lukach, Nimrod Reshef and others. Also gracing the event with their presence, and hosting it, are the people who have been behind Plotnik all along: Quami de la Fox and Liron Teeni.