NEW YORK – In a small Brooklyn club, an eclectic crowd of girls in overalls, musicians, actors and young Hasidic Jews have gathered, drinks in tow, in anticipation of a performance by U.S. rapper Kosha Dillz. Fresh from hosting a Passover seder at the Coachella festival in California, he mingles and dances with the crowd and hugs his friends. On stage, he performs his hits, cracks some jokes and, to close the show, invites a bunch of local MCs to share the stage for a freestyle session.
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Merchandise on sale includes “Oy Vey!” T-shirts (the name of his current tour), “Team Kosha” hoodies, and stickers with cartoon pickles (referring to both the Jewish delicacy and his stage name).
“I feel I wanted the most amazing rap name of all time, and then I decided to have it,” Dillz, who was born Rami Matan Even-Esh, tells Haaretz. “Originally, it was Kosher Dill, and then I quickly changed it to KD Flow. I was ashamed of [Kosher Dill] and the heritage behind it, and then reclaimed it years later as Kosha Dillz. It is multiple meanings at different times.”
Born and raised in New Jersey to Israeli parents, Dillz, 35, is not afraid to flaunt his Jewish identity. In “Super Jew Anthem,” he refers to himself as “super Jew in the house” and sings in praise of “Jewish girls that go for big noses” and “a little bit of JDate love on a first date.” The video for his English-Spanish-Hebrew song “Span-Hebrish” features a cheeky Hasidic Jew with a big shtreimel hat trying to seduce some “Mexi-kosher” girls with his dance moves.
Dillz cites a wide range of musical inspirations, including the Wu-Tang Clan, Israeli-Yemenite sisters A-WA, Israeli rapper Adi Ulmansky and Matisyahu’s new album, and also U.S. rapper Homeboy Sandman and Turquoise Jeep. “You probably wouldn’t be able to get all those people into the same room together, yet I love all kinds of tunes,” he says.
Although there is a history of Jewish performers in rap – from the Beastie Boys to Drake – prominent white artists, let alone Jewish guys, are still rare in the industry. Yet Dillz refuses to acknowledge his singular position. “I never think of it,” he says. “I started out in a world of real hip-hop, similar to ‘8 Mile’ [rap] battles. And once the internet came about [where he released songs], the need for ‘Jewish’ attachment came with it.
“People were intrigued I was rapping about some ‘Jewish topics.’ I thought I was just being myself and being an original artist.”
While he spoke about his admiration for the socialist Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential election, Dillz skews to the right when it comes to Israeli politics, with songs like “Ariel Sharon” and “Zionist Yoga.” He hints it might all be a provocation, but at the same time suggests his pro-Israel stance speaks to his background on a more honest level.
“I felt like naming a song ‘Ariel Sharon’ in 2008, and it was so powerful – nothing in the song was even about him. We still talk about this 10 years later. I made a song called ‘Zionist Yoga,’ because the words make people feel some way that they aren’t educated about. Kanye West also made a song called ‘Black Skinhead.’
“I believe this made people mad because they are usually used in opposite [ways]. ‘Yoga?’ ‘Zionist Yoga?’ How dare he say something! The fact that I am dual citizen of Israel and the U.S.A. (New Jersey represent) – you’ll hear lots of my tunes rep those places, just as Wu-Tang reps Staten Island.”
To date, his most overt political song is 2016’s “Dodging Bullets,” a collaboration with Jewish reggae star Matisyahu, which the artists called an attack on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. In it, Dillz raps: “Defend my land from every coward / I’m always representing / No need to dodge the question,” while Matisyahu’s lyrics reinforce the patriotic sentiment: “I’m dodging bullets left and right / Shake that spell turn wrong from right now / I take my time and I take what’s mine / King for the people and I stand upright / Intact with the night want peace / Until it’s time to fight for my right to reap self for all that strife / Rise for compassion and I dodge the knife.” The video shows both artists in the desert, dodging CGI bullets and surrounded by female dancers.
“To spill the beans, I am not really so political,” claims Dillz. “I just do what I actually feel to push boundaries and ruffle feathers. ‘Dodging Bullets’ was a response to the haters that me and Matisyahu were getting, including his massive festival in Spain that booted him off,” referring to the Rototom Sunsplash that initially removed Matisyahu from its 2015 lineup. “It has been the biggest song yet for me.”
But Judaism is only one of the recurring themes in Dillz’s raps. He has also been vocal about his drug use and jail time, even speaking about the healing powers of hip-hop last August in a TED talk called “Freestyle Rap Saved My Life.”
“Most of my music comes from the place of personal pain and a quest for success,” he explains. “I come from jails and addiction and rehab and depression, and a big quest to regain my integrity was to get clean and represent for what I always thought should be done.”
Dillz has performed and collaborated with a host of MCs, including Snoop Dogg, U.S. rock band Cage the Elephant, C-Rayz Walz, Yak Ballz and Aesop Rock, and both Ghostface Killah and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan.
“I used to show up everywhere RZA was for years. I knew he was an influence of mine and I elected to go on tour with him and invited myself,” Dillz says, recalling how his collaboration with RZA came about.
Israeli audiences can see Dillz in action when he performs two concerts here – at the Menashe Forest Festival on May 20 and the Hahalutz Club in Be’er Sheva the following day (the latter with Ulmansky).
“I feel there is a beautiful thing in the way of performing the same music for all different kinds of people. It is nice to perform in a place where they get you,” says Dillz. “Mind you, in America or Europe, there are lots of people that don’t ‘get it.’
“My life in song is a mix of entertainment, pain and struggle, depression and excitement, party, self-pride and perseverance. Israeli people seem to get that more than other places. It makes me smile,” he concludes.