What happens when you put four Israelis into a room with keyboards, computers, turntables, and a few dozen crates of rare vinyl? The question sounds like the precursor to a bizarrely tasteless joke, but the answer is far less cringe-inducing. You get Exotic On the Speaker, a DJs compositional buffet that ranges across the appetizing soundscapes of club bangers, dancehall vibes, and soulful hip hop. Add the tahini of a vast range of emcees from the United States and Middle East alike and you can turn that instrumental falafel into something much more packed with vibrant flavor.
Brought to you lovingly from Judaic specialty label JDub, the talented gentlemen of Soulico fulfill their claim of exoticism. The sounds of Middle Eastern elements permeate throughout the record, though they are never overbearing, overdone, or oppressive. In keeping with my food theme, the cultural heritage of Sabbo, Rob, Shimmy Sonic, and Widdo is the base ingredient used to create a bouillabaisse that eschews standard kick-kick-snare and overused high hat percussion, simple synthesizer basslines, and constant one-upmanship that pervade more traditional hip hop. That is an extremely good thing, a refreshing blend of instrumentation that epitomizes the word eclectic in a sometimes stale genre, and it’s obvious from the start.
Ghostface Killah gives his blessing on the string-driven opener “El Nur”, juxtaposing his brand of savvy New York flair against what sounds like impassioned Hebrew. You wouldn’t expect a hardened Wu Tang member to collaborate so perfectly with Balkan Beat Box, but they mesh here like a pair of gym shorts. The energetic pulse and bounce of the title track, accented by female emcee Rye Rye, continues to place the album somewhere between the always danceable speeds of frenetic and frantic. But what’s even more interesting is how Exotic On the Speaker seems to have the ability to influence the tone of its vocal guests, as evidenced by the rapid-fire rhymes of the normally relaxed Lyrics Born on “Put Em Up.” Something similar happens with fellow Californian Pigeon John on “SOS”, where he takes on what can only be described as a more ethnic cadence to fit the song’s slinky beat.
“Politrix”, which features yet another Bay Area indie rapper in Del tha Funkee Homosapien, combines the early funk sound of Wish My Brother George Was Here with the futuristic sounds of Deltron 3030 during the chorus, Soulico-style. Then the warmly drifting jazz of “We Keep On” slow the album down a notch, “Queen of Hearts” tinges it with the dub of Jamaica, and the urgent desert folk-hop of “1000 Nights” closes things out in superbly hypnotic fashion. That said, the unified adherence to the Middle Eastern metronome throughout the album tends to be a bit unwavering, making it seem less diverse than it actually is. And, perhaps in contradiction, at other times the album doesn’t seem to be as exotic as it could be, instead opting to intersperse that quality more subtly, presumably so that it can fit more snugly within the confines of hip hop’s structure.
Alas, let’s not make rugged mountains out of dusty molehills. By and large Exotic On the Speaker deftly incorporates a multitude of rhythmic structures and vocal styles that are distinctly Middle Eastern, hip hop, or, as the case may be, both. The four DJs work well together, undoubtedly drawing upon their own varying experiences and tastes to present the powerful debut of Soulico. These Tel Aviv titans are in the house and the soundsystem is booming, so where are you?