Socalled at McGill!

Socalled plays tracks from his sampler.

When I heard that the McGill Jewish Studies department had scheduled the Montréal rapper Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin) to come and give a lecture and performance, I had a vague idea of what to expect. After all, I am an avid fan of Socalled – I have his records, I watch his videos, and try to pay attention to what amounts to a career of unparalleled diversity and charming eccentricity. What I did not know, however, is that Socalled’s roots are extremely similar to my own. Like me, he studied Literature and Jewish studies at McGill. Like me, he did not come from a very religious background. His upbringing, to my surprise, was not as steeped in Yiddishkeit as I had initially believed.

Much of Socalled’s presentation last Tuesday revolved around his process of familiarizing himself with the tragically disregarded genre of Yiddish theatre and Jewish cantorial recordings. He played records for the audience that he had unearthed in Montreal second-hand stores, vinyl that had, during the buzz surrounding the then “advanced” compact disc, been thrown out and left for dead and worthless. Josh explained, however, that the impetus for salvaging these records was not to “rescue” them from destruction. Rather, after stumbling upon a few records and getting a sense of the music, he could not deny that there was a unique and pronounced funkiness to the music – a musical quality that Josh explained he found similar to elements of rap, disco, hip-hop, and funk.

Within this funkiness, the music also had a proclivity for “breaks” – quick showcases of specific rhythms, melodies, lyrics, or beats that could be isolated and turned into samples. To demonstrate the process of sampling “breaks,” Josh constructed the track “You are Never Alone” off of his 2006 album Ghettoblaster in front of the audience, which includes a “break” of a niggun that Josh isolated into a sample.

The event lasted over two hours but went by in what seemed like minutes. I attended expecting to see Socalled, an artist that I revered, playing songs with which I would be mostly familiar. But the event was so much more than that. It was an honest and warm exploration of personal background and artistic inspiration, and of the way in which music is universally expressive, regardless of the specific social circumstances out of which it arises.

Plus, I have now heard the phrase “Jewish Justin Bieber,” and I hope not for the last time.

– Ian Becker

For more info on Socalled, you can find his website here.

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