Walking away from Manhattan, just past the Brooklyn Bridge and authentic pizzerias, you will find a scene of reggae, beat-boxing, hip-hop and urban funk Orthodox Jews. Probably not something your Bubbe would approve of, the revolutionary music movement brings Judaism a new meaning.
Shemspeed is a recording label located in Brooklyn, New York that signs independent artists with Jewish flare. Erez “Diwon” Safar is the mastermind and CEO behind the music.
“The focus with most of the artists on Shemspeed seem to be diversity and unity,” Diwon said. “I think we are breaking stereotypes and opening up peoples mind both in the Jewish and non-Jewish world.”
Voices that have been signed in the past include Kosha Dillz, Smadar Levi, Dov and Yuri Lane. The artists specialize in hip-hop, soul, Middle Eastern, rap, reggae and/or techno. They can be seen at large scale events like the Sephardic Music Festival or at smaller dance club venues in the streets of New York.
“The voice has to be undeniable and urgent. We are looking for the Coltranes of urban music,” Diwon said.
Funk and soul genius DeScribe wasn’t originally a favorite of the primarily Jewish label.
After first being shrugged away by Shemspeed, DeScribe created a new track that left an opening to include Y-Love, one of the few religious hip-hoppers in the New York area. Following DeScribe’s success, he was picked up by the record label.
“Shemspeed is all about signing and working with groups with positive and unifying messages, but with music that is appealing to a wide range. I guess you could call it cross over music,” Diwon said. “We don’t usually sign groups that would only appeal to the Jewish community. There are hard core religious labels that are generally homes to those groups.”
Meeting with the special needs kids changed DeScribe's life and opened his eyes.
In March, DeScribe recorded “Pure Soul” with Matisyahu. He was first approached about making the music video when the CEO of Friendship Circle for MetroWest New Jersey, a Jewish nonprofit organization that helps families with children who have special needs, asked DeScribe to create the organization’s theme song for the year.
Hesitant at first, DeScribe took on the challenge to find a way to make a video about kids with special needs and to put a positive spin on it. After meeting with the kids at a camp, DeScribe explained how it changed his life and opened his eyes.
His song’s angle: To show how genuine kids are.
DeScribe said he wants his listeners, Jews and non-Jews alike, to think and remember that we live in a world where everything is meant for a reason. The music should open the eyes and ears of the listener, and make them perform random acts of kindness.
Regardless of what you believe in, there are different ways of going about kindness, he said. The spiritual meaning behind helping others isn’t enough. Thoughts should evolve into actions.
Peace Through Culture
Eden Pearlstein, aka Eprhyme, made his journey from Olympia, Washington to New York City after a decade of making underground hip-hop music on his own.
At his start, he was part of a group called the Saints of Everyday Failures, a crew of musicians from diverse cultural backgrounds who made conscious underground hip-hop.
“Over the years, I had gotten more interested in my Jewish heritage and in Judaism as a spiritual wisdom tradition,” Eprhyme said. “As time went on, more and more Jewish stories, symbols and teachings were finding their way into my music.”
In 2004, when popular rappers like Matisyahu, Y-Love and DJ Handler, aka Diwon, would bring to life the Jewish music scene, Eprhyme followed Shemspeed’s every move. Two years later, he would go solo to work on his new album called “Waywordwonderwill.”
“I really wanted to make an album that was an extended meditation of contemporary Jewish American identity and experience, particularly from the perspective of a disaffiliated super assimilated west coast Jew.”
Infused with Klezmer beats, Ephryme said that he hopes to spread “peace through culture” in his music by getting people past their fears, baggage and small mindedness.
“My message is primarily about peace and communication and understanding. I have always been very active in interfaith dialogues and bridge building, and I use my music as a way to get those kinds of messages out there,” Eprhyme said.
Haters Will Hate
Some detractors say the influence of rap and hip-hop intermingling with Jewish beliefs and values waters down Judaism. Whereas some musicians focus on the songs lyrics, other musicians draw more attention to the catchy rhythm and beat-boxing sound that can distracts people from understanding the song’s message. And when incorporating rap and hip-hop – music that is typically viewed as not serious, crude and violent – along with trying to get across a deep message, it’s no wonder that these musicians are questioned about how serious they take their music.
Some detractors say the influence of rap and hip-hop intermingling with Jewish beliefs and values waters down Judaism.
“I think keeping genres [hip-hop, rap] in a box, and trying to only allow the group of people who created it, to perform it is a thing of the past,” Diwon said. “I also think that saying only Blacks have a right to perform hip-hop or jazz is a racist way to look at the world and doesn't allow for the natural progression of culture and artistic exchange.”
Matisyahu’s “King Without a Crown” clearly blends his beliefs into the song without hesitation.
“What's this feeling? My love will rip a hole through the ceiling
I give myself to you from the essence of my being
An' I sing to my God, these songs of love an' healing
I want Mashiach now, so it's time we start revealing”
Eprhyme, whose music includes a lot of non-Jewish underground rappers but has a heavy Jewish influence, said that he is not afraid to thinking outside of the box and likes to expand a certain genre than what is expected of it.
When asked the question about the purpose of mixing Jewish messages and hip-hop, Diwon said it comes from a place of love for both.
“Haters will hate, but we aren't making music for them," Diwon said. "We are making music for the positive folks who love life and are seeking meaning and want to enjoy positive music.”