Socalled: A rapper sings Yiddish folk songs

“I’m the Mahatma Gandhi of hip hop because I’m really skinny,” said Socalled in The ‘Socalled’ Movie, a film about about his art. The 41-year-old artist, whose real name is Joshua Dolgin, is known for his absurd humor.

Dolgin was born into a Jewish family in Ottawa, but he developed his passion for traditional Yiddish songs rather accidentally. Searching for good samples for his hip-hop tracks in the mid-90s, he went through the old records in his parents’ collection, at flea markets and in second-hand stores. He then discovered an album by Yiddish singer Aaron Lebedeff, whose flamboyant appearance fascinated him.

“It was a music full of funkiness, riffs and very sample-able material that cried out for a reboot, so I really started looking for it and using it in my productions.” Over years his interest in the genre developed into an exceptional collection and expertise.

Through a klezmer workshop, clarinet player David Krakauer (The Klezmatics, among others) asked Socalled to compose beats for him. That led Socalled to work with numerous bands and artists playing klezmer, Yiddish and world music.

His album HiphopKhasene was awarded the German record critics prize (Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik).

Now, accompanied by the quartet Kaiser from Hamburg, Socalled is releasing Di Frosh, his first album of traditional Yiddish songs as a singer.

Rapper Socalled mit dem Kaiser Quartett (Peter Hönnemann)

Socalled (left) and the Kaiser Quartett

More than a Yiddish revival?

Dolgin and his alter ego Socalled make up the spearhead of a Yiddish revival that started in the 1990s. Today, that revival is already an established fact, believes Socalled. “It’s the Yiddish era again.” Exaggerated optimism or fact?

Simon Neuberg, professor for Yiddish language, language history and literature at the Trier University, says that it’s almost impossible to provide exact figures for the number of people speaking Yiddish outside of Orthodox Jewish families, because those who speak the language are spread out all over the world, making up a small minority, and they’re always multilingual. There are however, he adds, more young secular Yiddish speakers today than 30 years ago. “Interest in the language is growing, as multilingualism is strongly valued today, while it used to be perceived as harmful not so long ago.”

If this really is a new era of international secular Yiddish culture, then Socalled is both its chronicler and an innovator.

In his apartment located in a Jewish orthodox neighborhood in Montreal, his over 5,000 records are stacked amidst self-made dolls, countless books, sketches and images. This is clearly the house of a collector.

A woolly dog called Poopsie dashes between the piles. The Shitsu means the world to Socalled and his pet is free to play a mini-piano and sing along with him.

Asked about his relation with his Orthodox Jewish neighbors, Socalled says: “They are there but not there, they ‘keep to themselves.’ That being said, I have constant interactions with the community and they’re very curious about me and I’m curious about them. They don’t know what to make of me: when fat Jewish beats are banging out of my window, groups of young Hassidim in the alleyway peek in my window and don’t know what they’re seeing. I like confusing them.”

Socalled in Germany

Socalled has worked with many international stars, including funk legend Fred Wesley (who played trumpet for James Brown among others), pianist Chilly Gonzales, US composer Irving Fields, trumpeter Boban Markovic and Hamburg rapper Samy Deluxe.

Socalled provided the beats and samples on Deluxe’s track “Mimimi” from the top 5 album Berühmte letzte Worte (Famous last words). “It was a natural, easy, very fun collaboration. He’s a great musician and poet and he’s open, and he’s old-school, so he likes the way I make music and the sound I get.”

CD Cover Di Frosh“ Socalled dem Kaiser Quartett

The album cover of Socalled’s new album “Di Frosh”

Hamburg has become a second home for Socalled. He celebrated the premiere of his anarchist musical The Season in the German city’s renowned Kampnagel Theater.

His new album is released by Hamburg label Membran.

It’s also here that he met the Kaiser Quartett, which has already worked with Boy, Gregory Porter, Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzales.

“Things just started to heat up in Germany. Meeting and working with the Kaiser Quartett through Chilly Gonzales sort of gave me a musical crew to really get down with based in Germany. And then the festivals of the Yiddish Revival kept me coming back and performing, the Yiddish Summer Weimar, the International Klezmer Festival Fürth, the Jewish Museum Berlin…”

Driven by passion

Socalled has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Olympia in Paris and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He gives workshops and master classes all over the world. He writes musicals, plays for the theater, cook books and he just shot a gay arthouse porn film called The Housesitter in his parents’ house.  

Where does he find the energy for so many different projects? For Socalled the answer is clear: “I’m not forcing myself to work: I’m inspired. (…) I also have a lot of interests, very different contrasting interests, so things never get boring. When I’m sick of one element of creation — practicing piano, writing lyrics, making puppets, drawing cartoons, editing or taking photos, transcribing songs etc… — I can get re-energized by jumping onto another project. Doesn’t mean I’m just flitting around from job to job, I’m just getting fueled my my passions, each passion feeding the next.”

“Socalled Sings Di Frosh And Other Yiddish Songs With The Kaiser Quartett” is released on September 21.