Straight Outta Zion

The unique and little-known story of Israeli hip-hop.

Following its birth in the 1970s in New York, hip-hop’s popularity extended first across America, and then the rest of the world. In almost every case, a local hip-hop scene emerged from a country’s marginalized black community, which mainly lived in the inner cities. In Israel, however, the scene here wasn’t identified with a particular community. When hip-hop reached Israel in the mid-1980s, there was no substantial black population to speak of (the Operation Moses airlift from Ethiopia began in 1984; Operation Solomon in 1991), and the earliest Ethiopian olim mainly listened to Tigrinya music. In addition, Israel already had a musical style representing its marginalized communities, namely Mizrahi music. The pioneers of Israeli hip-hop were familiar with its origins in America and tried to translate this into an Israeli context. They did this out of love for the music, but also with a clear sense of humor. Because of this, Israeli hip-hop, despite a surprisingly storied history, has always occupied a rather unique place in the country’s popular culture, although today the music is loved and produced by people from across Israel’s ethnic spectrum. What follows is the story of Israeli hip-hop.

The First Wave: The Founders’ Generation

The first Israeli hip-hop song, which was released in 1986, was a parody—Ha’Ashem Tamid—by the singer, actor, and comic Yair Nitzani. As the manager of the Hed Artzi record store chain, Nitzani was conversant with musical styles from all over the world. A few years later, he worked with Yossi Fine and Nigel Ha’Addmore on the latter’s 1993 solo album, Hummus Metamtem (“Hummus Makes you Stupid”)—which was influenced more by Jamaican dancehall than American hip-hop. The album didn’t sell very much, but it did include a number of songs that are now thought of as the foundation stones of Israeli hip-hop, including the title track and Esek Shachor (“Black Business”). The latter lent its name to the pioneering rap radio show presented by Quami and Liron Teeni on the leading radio station Galgalatz. Teeni said: “Their [Nitzani and Addmore] goal was basically to create something funny. It’s quite symbolic that Israeli rap began with something that wasn’t exactly hip-hop.” Indeed, “Hummus Makes You Stupid” is an extremely “local” song that only makes sense in the Israeli context.

While Ha’Ashem and Nigel Ha’Addmore were the forerunners, for the general public Israeli hip- hop was born when Shabak Samech burst on the scene in the early 1990s. From the coastal town of Yavne, Shabak Samech were three soloists, Mookie D, Hemi, and Miro, combining rock and rap in a blend of the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. Nimi Nim replaced Miro and Hemi in 1997; following Be’atifa shel Mamtak (“In a Candy Wrapper”), released the same year, their sound began to resemble classical American hip-hop, albeit anchored by (the less common) live instrumentation. This “friendlier” album went platinum and was a huge commercial success, something the band was never able to repeat. According to Mako and Time Out journalist Matan Sharon (and my co-host on the “Yo! The Podcast” hip-hop podcast) “their significance lay in their youthful spirit, the chummy atmosphere they created, and their self-invented slang. In a separate interview, the rapper Lukach adds: “Shabak Samach took the dull and dormant rock scene and, together with Yossi Fine, gave it a slap in the face, [giving it] a crazy energy, rap lyrics, and simple ‘cool,’ more than anything they were cool, and it worked.” Importantly, they coined their own slang and – in the style of many American rappers – shouted out their hometown of Yavne in many of their songs, most notably on Straight Outta Yavne (a reference to NWA’s classic Straight Outta Compton).

Radio show Esek Shachor, launched at the end of the 1990s, was presented by Quami (Eyal Friedman) and Liron Teeni. Like the song by Nigel Ha’Addmore, the show’s title was a play on the notion of a black market: something underneath the radar – just like hip-hop – rather than an overt reference to the African-American origins of the genre (which was reflected in Friedman’s choice of the Ghanaian moniker Kwami). Thanks to the wild humor of its presenters, the program became a cult success, introducing the Israeli public to local rappers and popular artists from abroad. This, and the underground rappers featured on the show, paved the way for the hip-hop wave of the early 2000s.

The Second Wave: Reaching the Mainstream

In 2000, Jerusalem-based Hadag Nahash released their debut album, The Groove Machine. Combining funk and rap, the group confronted social issues like sexual harassment and police violence—and, later on, the Occupation—in their songs. Like Shabak Samech, local pride was also important, but this time it was imbued with left-wing positions hitherto unheard from Israeli rappers, for example on Share the City. The band’s political activism did not prevent commercial success, though, and they even won Galgalatz’s Band of the Year in 2004.

At the same time, a more American-influenced scene was emerging in Tel Aviv. At its center were artists like Subliminal (who founded his own label, T.A.C.T) and Chulu. The latter managed the clothes chain Mad Man, whose Tel Aviv Central Bus Station branch became an important meeting place for hip-hop artists at the time. The two joined forces for the Irritable Israelis 1:1 collection, which was principally sold in Mad Man stores. In contrast to Hadag Nagash, Subliminal was right-wing and Mizrachi, and his songs expressing messages of support for the government and the IDF made him an outlier of sorts, compared to his peers elsewhere in Israel and around the world. He even covered Israeli classics like Effi Netzer’s Prachim Bakane or Bat 60 (60 Years Old), which originally celebrated the birthday of a kibbutz. Some hip-hop fans disagreed with him politically, but for many his uncompromising right-wing opinions were part of his appeal. There is no doubting, however, his influence on Israeli hip-hop; according to Lukach, “Subliminal showed that it was possible to do rap in Hebrew. He opened the door that we all went through in one way or another: unapologetic Israeli rap.”

Subliminal was successful, and his second album, The Light and the Shadow (a collaboration with rapper The Shadow), was a breakout hit. This fed into a new wave of hip-hop artists flooding Israeli radio, and legendary parties at Tel Aviv clubs G-Spot and the Azimut. There were rawer rappers like Avi Messika, and groups like HaShevet whom incorporated Soul and R&B elements. But the most successful artists were those who tried to follow the template of combining rap and Mizrahi music, as exemplified by Subliminal’s collaboration with the Mizrahi singer Ron Shoval, Ani Yachol. Matan Sharon argues that “Subliminal created too many second-class versions of the one first-class version that there was.” The imitators were less talented, their records mostly shallow and banal.

By 2004, Israeli rap had almost completely disappeared once again from the radio waves and from the mainstream. Lukach explains this decline thus: “The first wave was an attempt to imitate rather than adapt to Israeli culture. It failed because most of the music was terrible but it got played on the radio anyway. It was a trauma for the media, and for many years they simply escaped from the genre.”

“The Middle Ages”: Rebuilding from the Underground

Jigga Juice Cypher 2013 (Sessions 1&2): Front Row – Z.K., Sagol 59, Ravid Plotnik (Nechi Nech), Soul-J, Tomer Gershenman) Back Row: Tedross, Tuna, Ortega, DJ Lil Or, Kashy

Even during the second wave, there were groups and collectives in Israel who were disgusted by mainstream rap, and consciously sought to create a different sound. The group Parvarim Refugeez, from the central Israeli town of Maccabim-Reut, combined punk with rap in a genre called Gangsta Punk, mostly rapping in English. “When there is a dominant figure like Subliminal it produces a response,” Matan Sharon says, “and the responses bring solutions to all of the problems that the leading figure brings. In this way, the underground wave succeeded in creating something rawer and grimier.”

Parvarim Refugeez cultivated and managed an affiliated group, PR Trooperz, helping to launch the careers of rappers like Lukach, Peled, and Ortega. The group’s debut album, Out of the Filth, played an important role in the development of an underground scene, introducing a “hardcore” sound more comparable to American hip-hop than to the commercial and lighthearted sound that dominated the Israeli airwaves at the time. Lukach explains: “We came to stick two fingers up and to make a joke out of everything, not to take ourselves seriously. We wanted to be truly cool, a coolness that hadn’t existed since Shabak Samech.”

Alongside PR Trooperz there were rappers like Quami and the group 51% (Taboo Plus, Avi Goltzman, and Avi Ashkenazi). Unlike much of the dominant music of the period, Quami’s rhymes were brimming with political content. While Subliminal continued to represent the right side of the political map, his songs gradually became less politically engaged. Even after they split up around 2006, members of PR Trooperz continued to be active on the hip-hop scene, alongside groups like Cohen@Mushon and Axum. This cohort inspired a new generation inspired by the boom-bap 1990s New York sound, including Produx, a Petah Tikva crew which consisted of Chicho, Aristo, Shekel, and Nechi Nech. In 2010, Produx released Resurrection of the Dead, an album inspired by East Coast rappers like the Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G, and Bootcamp Clique, as well as Israeli pioneers who came before them like Nimi Nim from Shabak Samech, Subliminal and Sagol 59 (who actually appears on the album). The album neither sought nor achieved mainstream commercial success, but it was hugely influential on what followed.

The Third Wave: Mainstream Establishment and the Coming of the New Generation

A turning point in the story of Israeli hip-hop occurred between 2013 and 2015. Artists like Raivd Plotnik (previously known as Nechi Nech) began performing in small clubs all over the country and mainstream radio took notice.

Jigga Juice Cypher 2018 (Session 2): Teddy Neguse, DJ Lil Or, Tomer Gershenman, Adi Ulmansky, Avraham Lagassa abd Hassi

Plotnik used Israeli samples while other artists like Cohen and Tuna succeeded in adding a local touch through slang grounded in the Israeli reality and Middle Eastern rhythms. Cohen also sampled legendary Israeli artists like Aris San, Arik Lavie, and Arik Einstein. According to Matan Sharon, the current generation is the “bread in the sandwich with the earlier waves in between, taking the best of both worlds, American and Israeli.” Cohen said: “I only write in Hebrew because in English it’s a bit like a condom – you put it in but you don’t feel it all.”

Recently, veteran artists like Lukach and Peled, as well as newcomers like Michael Swissa and Noroz, have adopted the sound of Trap, a hip-hop sub-genre that uses synthesized drums and is characterized by complex hi-hat patterns. Alongside them, figures like Pele Ozen preserves the spirit of 1980s and 1990s “classic” hip-hop, while Mevo HaDuda’Im draws from the British Drill style. Lukach says admiringly: “What came before doesn’t interest them. They’re young people, potheads, crazy talented, auto-didactic, and they don’t trust anyone. They do what seems cool to them with productions that don’t cost a lot of money, and they’re very good at what they do.”

There are also more female rappers on the scene. The first female rappers, like MC Shiri, Shortee, and Noa Faran, were always a miniscule minority among men, and their solo careers didn’t last long. But now Sima Noon, Jazz, Eden Derso, and Echo have become names in their own right, throwing out feminist messages that had been previously marginalized. “Rap culture, which is masculine to the point of misogynistic, makes it hard for women to find a place and feel comfortable,” Matan Sharon observes. “But the moment they see someone similar to them on stage they feel they have a place, so that when there were more prominent female rappers, more women felt they could be part of the scene.”

Protest rap, whilst always a minority pursuit at best, does have an important place in the pantheon of Israeli hip-hop. The Ethiopian protests of 2019 resonated to songs from rappers like Teddy Neguse (for example “Handcuffs on the Hands” and “The Right Questions”) and Bazzi B—and popular rappers from outside of the community, like Ravid Plotnik, Kwame, and Pele Ozen. Quami even directly mentioned Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman in his song “Tea.” Likewise, the issue of sexual harassment has also featured in recent years—even before #MeToo—principally but not solely among female rappers. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict sits at the fringes of the scene, though, with most rappers shying away from it (Hadag Nahash are a major exception). The conflict does feature heavily in the music of DAM, who are from Lod. While they are citizens of Israel, though, they identify solely as Palestinian rappers. Matan Sharon explains that, while American hip-hop had protest hardwired into it from the beginning, Israeli hip-hop developed from a source of youthful rebellion—but without the element of interethnic protest, not surprising given that most of the first wave of Israeli rappers were inspired by a love of the music and its culture but didn’t come from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves.

Ever since their arrival in Israel, by way of mass migration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there have always been rappers from Ethiopian backgrounds—albeit organized, at least initially, in a scene distinct from the Israeli hip-hop “mainstream.” The groups Café Shachor Hazak and KGC were active during the early 2000s, but it was in the 2010s that Ethiopian-Israeli rappers started to gain more prominence. Some brought narratives of discrimination and racism to their rhymes, telling the stories of figures like Yosef Salamesa and Avera Mengistu. Many believe the former died as a result of police violence; Mengistu has been held captive by Hamas in Gaza for more than seven years. While some Ethiopian rappers also deal with their ethnic identity and their relationship with Ethiopia itself, others don’t mention this at all.

Like the Ethiopian community, the many Arab rappers active in Israel’s hip-hop scene can’t be viewed as a monolith. According to Liron Teeni: “Most of them don’t have relationships with the Israeli scene, and appeal to Arabic-speaking audiences in Israel and abroad. There are also rappers who collaborate with Israeli-Jewish rappers and appeal to Israeli-Jewish audiences. However, most of them see themselves as international and focus their attention on the large Arabic-speaking market that exists outside of Israel. Similarly, most of them define themselves as Palestinian.” There are a few examples of close partnerships between Jewish and Arab rappers in Israel, like the Jaffa-based group System Ali, whose songs are in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, and English, or The group ZuLod, made up of ZuLod Adam, ZuLod Anan, Teddy Neguse and others, rap in Hebrew.. The rapper SAZ, who has worked with Jewish Israeli rappers and producers, sometimes raps in Hebrew. So too Tamer Nafar from DAM, but generally his work is in Arabic.

To summarize, there’s no doubt that Israeli hip-hop is influenced by American hip-hop. At the same time, the circumstances in which it was born and developed over the years gave it a clear Israeli tint, in both lyrics (from the subject matter to the references that appear in it) and beats (samples of Israeli music or from the country where the parents arrived from). American hip-hop will always remain in the background; but as the local scene continues to develop and broaden, its influence will inevitably wane. “After they completely squeezed the mainstream American sound, they began to search in other places and to understand that as long as they diversify the sources from which they draw, so their music will be more interesting,” Matan Sharon says. Lukach adds: “We used to be an imitation, today it’s only an inspiration and that’s not always, there is a very Israeli vibe, I believe that young rappers in Israel are more influenced by Swissa than by Lil Pump.” If in the past Israeli hip-hop absorbed the influence from the American source and the “general” Israeli culture, today one can find wider comparative sources—including Israeli hip-hop itself. The organic evolution of the local scene doesn’t totally filter out imitations modelled on key figures from the earlier, failed, waves. But it does provide a useful layer of defense for guaranteeing growth, prosperity and above all – local creation with authentic local variety.

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