For me, hip hop is my secular music. After I’ve been working a shift at the Hillel for like 10 hours surrounded by Hillel-y Jews, I want to put on some grimy stretch and bobbito freestyles or some dirty south trap music. So I wasn’t sure how I felt about Shemspeed artist Y-Love, a Chassidic convert from Baltimore, especially since I heard he mostly rapped about religious life–in Aramaic.
The first/title track I heard off his 2008 LP “This Is Babylon” had me interested though. The production is classic low-budget hip hop—a kick kick snap drum pattern and droning, oppressive synths. The synths don’t let up for the whole song, their minor chords and too-bright timbres sounding like the droning of flies. “Babylon, land of the law that crime pays,” Y-Love chants for a few bars, as close to a hook as he gets. His rapid-fire, offbeat flow and commanding voice fits the budget production. This is street preaching music that makes you want Moshiach. A chunky bass noise rises up in the middle of the song, something like the sound in Wu-Tang’s classic “Can It Be All So Simple.” But the sound is dominated by those looming synths and Y-Love’s voice.
“Bring It On Down” combines an old school breakbeat and wailing synths for as close as dude gets to a party track. “Remind me what the angels said, I forgot/All my peoples stay rabbinical, we up in the spot/Thunder and lightning, smoke and the flames, all the people gon’ drop at the sound of his name,” he raps, his voice swelling with emotion. It’s a song equally informed by old school party joints and apocalyptic fervor, turning “Bring It On Down” into a call to tear down the roof and the golden calf.
“6000” (the title is a reference to the year some Jewish traditions predict the world will end; we are in 5772 now) mixes pro-Black messages with Jewish nationalism. In 2011, it reminds one how nightmarish Bush seemed at the time—Y-Love talks about how elections aren’t enough to remove Bush from office. I thought that at the time too.
If there’s a problem with this album, it’s a problem almost all political hip hop has. It’s hard to listen to this album all at once. Every track is filled with anger, righteous though it may be, and the prophetic tone is overwhelming at times. But the individual tracks are so high energy, and Y-Love is such a strong MC, that by themselves they’re great listens. And the rapping in Aramaic is surprisingly dope—even if you don’t understand the language (I don’t), dude knows how to manipulate sounds and his flow is always on point. When he’s switching between English and other languages nearly every line, like on “Mehadrin Rhyming,” there’s a glossolalia-like effect. He sounds like a man speaking prophecy. The experimental, UK-jungle-like production doesn’t hurt.
“This is Babylon” is technically incredibly adept and the production is frightening; song-by-song, it’s great. It could be more cohesive as an album, not to mention more melodic, but Y-Love’s later work hints in that direction. And I have to give props for making such a weird LP—the beats are too hardcore for Chasids, the lyrics too esoteric for the hip-hop market and the party tracks too apocalyptic for parties. It’s out there for anything, let alone Jewish music.This is going to stay on iPod status.
Max Elstein Keisler is a third-year journalism major at Harvard Extension School. He’s involved in the local music scene in Boston and the coverage of Jewish music worldwide. His writing can be found at maxelsteinkeisler.com. His column, The Product, usually appears here on alternating Thursdays.