Land of No Hop

When three years ago the famous rapper Nas (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) called his provocative album "Hip Hop is Dead," sparking debates and long-winded discussions in the hip-hop community, he did not of course mean that the genre was "dead" commercially. Nas wanted to convey he that was fed up because hip-hop, without a doubt the most successful and profitable musical style of the past decade and a half, had lost its ideological compass, the fervor and sense of mission that had characterized it since its historic inception, somewhere back in the 1970s.

And if in the United States, the genre's birthplace, the "intellectual" MCs are mourning the approaching death of the style as it celebrates its 30th birthday, what is happening here, in the Holy Land?

Well, to use something of a long-winded simile (don't worry, it's quite a common device in hip-hop), it appears that hip-hop in Israel is like a new immigrant who has managed to infiltrate into the country, but without a proper visa, without an "absorption basket" that affords him a safety net and without relatives who will help him acclimatize.

Here, the genre - which first saw the light of day, grew up and developed in the land where the possibilities are unlimited - is in a state of problematic breech birth, with its bottom already peeping out but its head still stuck deep in the dark of the womb. And the reasons for hip-hop's absorption difficulties in Israel are many and varied.

This young country, which since the day it was founded has been fighting for its very existence, has an urgent and constant need for unity in the ideological ranks and the creation of an all-embracing consensus in thinking, which will help "us" fight the enemies "out there" effectively. And in Israel, the arts, including popular music, are also recruited to represent Israeli society's ethos while giving unreserved support to the state institutions and shelving away criticism, doubts and questions in the locked emergency storerooms at the edge of consciousness.

In this way, certainly, the American hip-hop fan who has grown up on the sparks in the politics of Public Enemy, Ice Cube's anti-establishment barbs or the subversion of ensembles like Dead Prez, Lynch Mob or Brand Nubian, would wonder at the fact that in Israel there are rappers whose songs are paid for by government institutions, and who sing in official campaign against drugs and in favor of road safety.

It appears that Israel is one of the only countries in the world where rappers are spokesmen for the government, the state and the army, which of course paves a more convenient way to being heard on the radio, certainly in a country where the radio station with the most listeners is owned by the government and belongs to the army.

Presumably those same wealthy people who own regional radio stations and television channels aren't really losing sleep over a lack of political hip-hop on the airwaves or via satellite.

As on the television screen, in popular music including hip-hop the marginal groups in Israel are notable for their absence: When was the last time an Arab-Israeli ensemble was played on the radio? When did an angry Ethiopian rapper or an ultra-Orthodox hip-hop band appear on the screen? When was the last time a female - yes a female - Israeli rapper spat fire at the microphone and defended her gender?

Yes, there are a lot of all of these in Israel, but the distance from the centers of influence and funding does not afford them adequate exposure except in brief flashes as a gimmick on some unimportant talk show or as the topic of a documentary-anthropological film few people, if any, will get to see.

The concealment of the social and political aspect in the underground of Israeli hip-hop keeps many and important voices out of the public discourse, leaving the territory to the other half of the hip-hop equation: party songs, good times and escapism. And not that this is bad, but it is certainly less fascinating, varied or challenging.

Every fan of hip-hop knows that part of the mystique of the hip-hop and rap scene derives from the rapper's ability to create for himself what some of the researchers of the genre call an "as-if personality," a kind of alter ego, a mythical character whose adventures he delineates in his songs. Some of the lure inherent in the experience of hip-hop consumption is in the attempt to decipher and draw the thin and fuzzy line between imagination and reality, between the performer's real life and the exaggeration and fantasy. Has Jay-Z really sold tremendous quantities of drugs? Is Too $hort really a wealthy street pimp who spends the greater part of the day getting free sexual services? Has 50 Cent really shot so many people? Did the late Notorious B.I.G. - "fat, black and ugly as always," by his own definition - really smoke, deal and screw all that much?

The scientific answers here aren't really important, but rap fans' efforts to get to the facts through the screen of bytes and words created with so much virtuosity endow rappers with that aura necessary for the development of a successful career and an intriguing and attractive stage persona. To this is added the fact that in Israel the prevailing ethos is that of "the personal rock artist who writes about his life with absolute sincerity" that is - the constant expectation that the artist will always write with his heart's blood, describing in his lyrics his genuine personal experiences in a way that is absolutely congruent with his real life, which prevents the creation of a real pop industry in Israel and wipes out any possibility of creating larger-than-life hip-hop characters.

We like our artists to be modest, simple, sincere, unpretentious, a bit unimaginative, a bit gray. In short: exactly the opposite of the flamboyant, boastful American rappers with deceptive biographies. In Israel it is impossible truly to create, and certainly to maintain, the pose of an American rapper for the simple reason that made-up names, myths and legends are foreign to Israeli culture.

Here everyone knows everyone else. We meet at the supermarket with a bag of dairy products, on the promenade with a child in the stroller or in a tent behind the scenes at some festival in the south with a dripping plastic cup in one hand and an egg-and-tuna sandwich in the other.

The inability to depict yourself as a legendary figure, possibly imaginary but always intriguing, also damages the ability to create fascinating and sustainable Israeli hip-hop myths.

There are also purely stylistic musical reasons for hip-hop's acclimatization difficulties in Israel. It makes no difference how much hype there is in forums or on Facebook for hip-hop events - the simple and decisive fact is that black music in all its variety has never really been absorbed in Israel. Most Israelis have difficulty understanding and adopting the stylistic markers of black popular music and especially hip-hop. It makes no difference how often your aunts and uncles dance to the beat of some James Brown hit at a wedding, or how many times we hear Aretha Franklin's "It's raining men" or "Think" on the Galgalatz radio station, the fact is that the local audience is not familiar with the enormous catalogs of Brown, Franklin, Stevie Wonder, the O'Jays, Marvin Gaye or Isaac Hayes.

The Israeli audience, in any case, has always favored minor melodiousness, perhaps under the influence of Russian music and the pensive folk songs that helped establish what is known as "songs of the good-old Land of Israel" from the pre-state period, through the army entertainment troupes of the 60s to their heirs, the contemporary rockers.

It cannot be helped: The average Israeli listener will always prefer a British New Wave ballad or a melancholy guitar solo by Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and the like. Play him a track of hip-hop, even the most classic of them, and most probably you will encounter the usual response of "but where's the tune?" Or, in a worse case: "There are too many words here!"

At the textual level, too, Israeli hip-hop suffers from a worrying meagerness. Afro-American rappers benefit from a long verbal tradition of sharp witticisms, exchanges of verbal blows, the invention of unique types of slang and battles of sophisticated or humorous verbal improvisations. Local rappers have to try to invent new slang out of nearly nothing and forms of expression that hadn't existed previously, and they can't be found in biblical texts, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's renewed Hebrew or even Dahn Ben Amotz's "modern" sabra language.

In any case, "Motherfucker" from Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg is always going to flow into the ear better than a sharp benzona (what Shakespeare would have called "whoreson") from their Israeli equivalents.

Add to all this a monolithic, corrupt and slow-moving music industry, which operates in total contradiction to the essential immediacy of issuing rap songs and albums, the attitude toward rap as a passing gimmick, the fact that the tastemakers in the Israeli mass media do not yet appreciate rap and hip-hop with all the elements that accompany them as an "art form" - and you get a style that is teetering on a tightrope between reserved recognition and total scorn.

Even the Internet explosion, the home studio revolution, file-sharing, social networks and the ease of getting musical materials out into the world have in fact caught Israeli rap in an unripe phase. It is a style that, despite quite a number of promising and interesting works and steady growth in the number of those engaging in it, has not yet found its determined, clear and just voice on its way to integrating into the Israeli cultural fabric. The obvious question then is not, to paraphrase Nas, whether Israeli rap is dead. The real question is: Has Israeli rap been born yet? Only time (and good songs and successful albums) will tell.

Sagol 59 (Khen Rotem) is a rapper, musician and music critic.