Soulico, Arabic Flow, and a Bit of Torah

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The key to hip-hop music–the music part, that is–is restraint. A sparseness of beats, the use of musical samples when they’re needed and a careful placing of the bombast. The first time I heard N.W.A., the original gangsta rap group, I couldn’t believe that this was the music that adults were warning us about. Yes, there were a bunch of curses and adult themes. But it was so not loud. It was smooth, danceable, catchy. It was almost…chilled out.

soulico exotic on the speakerBut that’s the key to getting crazy, isn’t it? Knowing when to get wild and when to hold back. Rebbe Nachman speaks about how a lion only hunts a few hours a day; the rest of the time, it relaxes in the shade. And the feeling you get when Dr. Dre easily, almost drearily, croons the words, “If your @$$ get smoked, it’s my bullet you caught,” is that he’s a yawning lion.

The Tel Aviv hip-hop crew Soulico, the newest assignees to JDub Records, knows this feeling. Their debut full-length, Exotic on the Speaker, features a rotating microphone stand, with different hip-hop M.C.s filling in the vocal duties on each track. It might seem like a strange gambit for an instrumental band, but it’s a less edgy, more accessible way to appeal to listeners…and, although the album is certainly busy with voices, it is undoubtedly the music which is foremost in the speakers.

Clever tricks, otherworldly keyboard noises, and fresh-sounding beats with crisp world-drum sounds and thumping tablas all mix with an eager ferocity…but, wisely, are never given to excess. And maybe it’s an identity crisis, but the rotating-door policy of singers makes sense when you listen, lending the music its signature flow, its recurring hooks, and the constant what-was-that? feeling of a mixtape–or the veneer of famousness that opens Saturday Night Live every week.

The album’s first vocalist is a curious choice for a Tel Aviv-based Israeli collective — it opens with Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah shouting “Salaam aleikum” at the audience. From there, the song descends into a rapid Arabic/English exchange between Ghostface and an M.C. named Saz. Tomer Yosef–the Tel Aviv-based MC whose solo album Laughing Underground JDub released last year — also contributes a verse, in English.

In fact, it isn’t until the third track, the song “Pitom Banu,” that one of Soulico’s guest M.C.s, the Netanya-based Axum, contributes a verse in Hebrew. You might suggest that it’s JDub and the artists trying to accentuate their “world-music” label. But it’s probably more likely that it’s a more-or-less accurate reflection of Tel Aviv’s party culture, and of its urban culture, as diverse, multilingual, multiracial and multi-rhythm-ed as any city in the world.

soulicoThroughout Exotic, there’s a mix of languages, ethnicities, and allegiances, both national and political, but all feature the same party-down lyrics that you’d expect. While the restraint in beatmaking isn’t something you’d expect from Israeli party DJs — this is the country where ’70s disco never died, remember — it pays off well. “S.O.S.” features little more than Arabic drums and a flamenco guitar, but slight embellishments and a great stop-and-go rhythm turn the piece into a full-bodied song.

Perhaps not strangely, there’s a noticeable reluctance for Soulico to overtly identify themselves in songs as Israeli. A handful of Hebrew-language M.C.s make appearances here — Sagol 59 and Axum both make notable appearances — but Tomer Yosef’s verses are all in English (unlike his Hebrew-language solo material), and the album’s considerable guest appearances, from hip-hop heavyweights like Ghostface, Pigeon John, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Rye Rye — who takes vocal duties on the title track — aren’t Jewish, aren’t Israeli, and probably have very little to do with either of the above.

“Basically, politics boils down to this: it’s like, get in where you fit in,” Del says in the spoken intro to “Politix” — before explicating his statement in detail in the main verse. “Politics are inevitable/wherever you go, you can’t go far/without someone you know knowing/someone who owns a gas station and someone else who owns a car.”

In this way, this album is political as anything — by throwing every part of Israel, every part of the planet, and every genre of music up against the wall, watching the colors run into each other, and seeing what you end up with, it’s almost as though Soulico has created a color scheme for a new flag of the world.

Posted on November 16, 2009

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