[1 August 2007]
Pop culture often conditions us in subliminal ways that we fail to recognize until confronted with evidence of this conditioning. Music may be the area where we are most conditioned, expecting certain accoutrements to bedeck specific genres.
That’s where SoCalled (AKA - Josh Dolgin) comes in and blows even the most conditioned and jaded music listener’s preconceived notions to smithereens. Having dabbled in newspaper journalism and as a cartoonist, magician, and musician with an involvement in a wide range of genres including hip-hop, salsa, grock, and gospel, Josh Dolgin is a renaissance man in the truest sense of the word. Armed with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a deep appreciation for his Jewish heritage, Dolgin reinvents the stagnant genre expectations of hip-hop and the traditional style of Klezmer by splicing the two together on Ghettoblaster, making use of his varied experience in a multitude of musical fields.
While SoCalled’s album’s title conjures an image many of us would be predisposed to associating with the most hardcore residents of Brooklyn or Compton, the title instead references the Jewish ghettos of Europe and America in the early part of the 20th century. He acknowledges what hip-hop is really about: representing yourself in an honest light, staying true to yourself and speaking about what you know. In doing so, he brings a little piece of his own reality and cultural pride to the world in an entertaining and head-bobbing blend of Borscht Belt beats.
SoCalled all but screams that he’s bringin’ Klezmer back and plays a Yente-like matchmaker, hooking it up with modern hip-hop, and bringing in a variety of guest artists ranging from the 92-year-old lounge crooner and pianist Irving Fields (a revolutionary fusion artist himself, blending traditional Jewish and Latin American music) to Canadian alt-country singer Katie Moore.
The key component to Ghettoblaster is SoCalled’s infusion of Klezmer into each and every track on the album and linking it with a much more modern counterpart. A Jewish traditional form of music that became formalized in the 15th century, Klezmer is akin to hip-hop with its East Coast vs. West Coast styles. A mixture of multi-cultural and geographical flavors, combining music of the Hasidic and Ashkenzi Jews of both Western and Eastern Europe with cantorial chants, Klezmer found its way into the era of Vaudeville and the works of many prominent Jewish composers.
SoCalled takes this genre of music and gives it a fresh update while still being mindful of its roots. The result can only be vaguely boiled down to Ghettoblaster standing as the Yo! MTV Raps version of Fiddler on the Roof.
The entire album bounces, notably “(These Are The) Good Old Days” which combines horns, accordion, and beats concocted by both organic hand-claps and synthetic drum-machines. The track kicks off with SoCalled playfully booming forth, “My God’s gonna kick your God’s ass / You’re too dumb and I’m the head of the class” following a James Brown style, one-two count off intro. The piece combines elements of Godfather of Soul horns (thanks to a cameo by James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley) as Klezmer violins chug out a string-laden beat with short strokes alongside some sparse bursts of handclapping. Dolgin’s lyrics cast an alternately joyful and cynical view of society as it exists today, touching upon technology and human vs. machine interaction.
Meanwhile, “Let’s Get Wet” is fusion in the purest sense of the word. Horns blare out a melody that weaves a sensual pastiche of traditional Judaic Klezmer and spicy American jazz through primal drum and tabla beats. SoCalled shares vocal duties with some well-chosen samples, occasionally running his voice rather gently through a series of processors for a subtle, light-electronica effect. All of the elements blend seamlessly together and pull off a grind-worthy ambience for the track, later remixed in a more overtly electronica style later on Ghettoblaster with “Let’s Get Wet (Louder Remix)”.
Every piece on Ghettoblaster offers something new. “Heart Attack Feeling” delivers a cabaret feel that starts with a mournful tone and then becomes a rapping tongue-in-cheek eulogy for SoCalled’s sex life. Unmistakably Jewish and oozing with Borscht Belt humor, the track also plays host to a beautiful blending of sweet female soprano that borders on orgasmic warbling over piano and Klezmer bounce.
Easily the standout track on the album (and so addictive that had me hitting the repeat button several times, “You Are Never Alone” begins with Cantor music bump-a-bumping out a beat behind another genius sample of SoCalled’s quirky, Yiddish-flavored wit: “Frankly, there’s nothing so unusual about being a Jewish cowboy”. You can almost see Mel Brooks scripting Blazing Saddles and hear the mellow strains of Frank Gallop’s “Ballad of Irving” echoing across the prairie. More layers are added to the piece with Katie Moore lending a feminine touch of country on the verse as gospel singer Doris Glaspie belts out the song’s soulful chorus.
While traditional Cantor music is an important player on Ghettoblaster, several more modern elements of Jewish music history serve up many memorable moments on the disc. The pensive piano piece, “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” written by Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame) in 1922 gets the guest artist treatment by Irving Fields who drops a few f-bombs in casual conversation following the song. Not only a glimpse into the numerous contributions to music by many Jewish Americans, the tape continuing to roll offers a snapshot of music history as the 92 year-old Fields collaborates with the 29 year-old Dolgin, two guys sharing a love for music and respectful of the other’s talents.
In a similar vein, Broadway and film veteran Theodore Bikel works in tandem with a French rapper on “(Rock the) Belz”, an update of the traditional song about childhood remembrances of life in the Jewish ghetto. The odd combination becomes beautiful, with Bikel’s warm, rich vocals emoting over beats and a melodic cacophony of layered samples, bringing together the best of Yiddish music with hip-hop.
Although a guest artist on the album, Bikel offers a monologue intro to “(Rock the) Belz” that could very well stand as the mission statement of SoCalled and Ghettoblaster: “I sing Jewish songs … because they are mine. And unless I sing them, that part of the culture will vanish… That wonderful meadow… with a profusion of flowers will have the Jewish flower missing. That’s why I sing Jewish songs.”
The words could very well have belonged to SoCalled himself, making traditional music palatable and something to be proud of to an entire audience of young hip-hop heads like himself. Regardless of ethnic heritage, Ghettoblaster offers an eclectic and catchy blend of music for anyone with a true passion for all styles, particularly multi-layered fusion.
To assume that “traditional” means “stagnant” is similar to pigeon-holing entire genres. SoCalled shrugs off these suppositions and in turn, creates something that spans across several styles of music, incorporating humor and history along the way.