Blending funk and hip-hop, salsa and gospel, klezmer, lounge, and classical, Socalled doesn't so much have a signature sound as a signature approach.
"Magically, somehow, you find things that go together," says Josh Dolgin. "And that's the miracle of this type of music making." He says it as if "this type of music making" is ordinary, as if finding things that "go together" in the way he does is common. But Josh Dolgin's art is uncommon, his ability to make connections remarkable. And because of that -- in this world where divisions and borders and imagined as well as literal blocks of real estate keep people apart -- Dolgin's art does seem a little magical.
That art, which he makes under the name of Socalled, is profiled in The Socalled Movie, now available as the last entry in SnagFilms' terrific SummerFest 2010. Socalled's music doesn’t fall easily into categories, but borrows freely and brilliantly from a range of music and artists. Blending funk and hip-hop, salsa and gospel, klezmer, lounge, and classical, Socalled doesn't so much have a signature sound as a signature approach. This might best be described as eclectic, or copious, or exuberant.
The first sound listeners tend to notice is the klezmer, as it is so typically associated with particular communities and histories. Leaning over his keyboard -- and he appears frequently in Garry Beitel's documentary in process, thinking, composing, recording, playing -- Dolgin explains, "I didn’t get into it because I wanted people to listen to old klezmer music. I snuck into it and thought everyone should hear this beautiful melody. So it's not political, it's not religious. It's just music." He pauses, thinks again, and then says what you might anticipate, that it's not quite as simple as that. "Maybe you'll see people coming together and putting aside differences and bringing out differences and celebrating differences and commonalities between all people," he says, as he begins to smile. "I'm like the fucking... I'm like the Mahatma Gandhi of hip-hop. I guess. You could say. Except I'm not as skinny." He bites his lip: "Now ask me a serious question."
This multi-layered self-assessment is at once performative, genuine, and skeptical, indicating how Dolgin, who wears a Mickey Mouse watch, understands pop and celebrity, how he gets consumer culture. And he's found his own ways to exploit, deconstruct, and refine all of it. Take his name, a riff on the sometimes hip-hop practice of renaming and claiming identity. An early collaborator (in high school in Chelsea, Quebec) modified his original and not-so-serious name, "Heavy J," with "Socalled." Eventually, Dolgin says, only the Socalled stuck, and it's an apt a name as could be, underlining both the arbitrariness of names and its own distinctiveness.
It's the sort of paradox that Dolgin embraces and exacerbates in his performances -- on stage, in short films (several included in The Socalled Movie), in music videos -- as means to examine cultural relations. Socalled's most famous video (thus far), "You Are Never Alone," considers the constructedness of identity, how time and place are subjective notions as well as ongoing concerns. "There's a surrealist thing going on," notes the artist Ben Stieger-Levine, shown working with Dolgin here. In the head that includes a drawer, he sees "some kind of metaphor" alluding to "the art inside all of us, maybe just Josh."
Dolgin's own articulation of the process is focused less on his internal workings (the art inside) and more on how he pulls together seemingly disparate forms and resources. In his experience and performance, "you are never alone," only finding how you connect. While he jokes (partly), "I have to look for samples that are not well known so I don’t get sued," he also brings to light (partly) some obscure musics. He points out "the record that started it all," by the Romanian singer Aaron Lebedoff (sometimes called "the Maurice Chevalier of the Yiddish stage"), as he describes how he culls through old records, finding sounds and ideas to combine. "At first it was cool, full of interesting sounds," he says of his mixing and matching of samples. "And then I figured out, 'Oh wow, I should represent myself.'"
On stage, Dolgin finds ways to represent himself and also combine his favorite inspirations, including clarinetist David Krakauer and jazz and funk trombonist Fred Wesley. (Wesley describes his initial encounter with this young man who "certainly had a knowledge of my music": "When I first saw him, I thought he was a kid who came in the studio to clean up.") The film includes a performance by this trio at the Apollo, a sinuous and mesmerizing show that leaves the crowd looking a little entranced. Krakauer tries to translate the experience into words: "The three of us are coming from this place that we're not about cutting and pasting. I think we're really trying to find a way in."
Dolgin finds ways in everywhere, and in unexpected places. He conjures up a miscellany of venues for performance, from the usual sites (like the Apollo) to a ship on the Ukraine's Dneiper River (the first klezmer cruise) and Montreal's Cinema l'Amour (where he's especially thrilled to be, he says, because it's "one of the first theaters for Yiddish plays and films"). Here he and the band perform, for one night only, "Socalled's Porn Pop." This comprises live accompaniment -- including narration -- to the circa '70s porn films of Toby Ross, the subject of a documentary Dolgin is working on ("This is pretty meta,"" he observes to Beitel, "You're a filmmaker filming me making a film about a filmmaker"). In part, Dolgin is reflecting on his own adolescence, when was figuring out his own (gay) sexuality with the help of "basically three magazines," two shoplifted and one Playboy he stole from an uncle, "because it had guys in it." And in part, he's using Ross' images and his own memories to examine the rhythms and nuances of sex as commodity and ideal, a means to identity, and of course, a perpetual performance.
Dolgin's own perpetual performance is intelligent and charismatic. When he visits his childhood home, his parents don't so much fill in background as confirm what he's still doing. "We used to call him the cheerer upper," his mom says. "He was always wanting to, I guess, entertain, but to make people happy." For Dolgin, then and now, this is a matter of finding those "magical" connections. Reading from a 1986 diary entry, he looks pleased and bemused by his observations on his suburban life: "Does anything new happen? No, absosmurfly nothing." And so he's found his own ways to make what seems old new again.