SOCALLED with the GHOST IS DANCING at Adrift Indoor Skatepark (299 Augusta), Saturday (May 7), $10. www.overthetopfest.com. Rating: NNNNN
It's the last day of passover, and somewhere in a phone booth in Manhattan, Josh Dolgin is decompressing.
He's just come off an intense rehearsal session jamming with internationally renowned clarinet whiz David Krakauer and his Klezmer Madness crew. Still reeling from the craziness of an Irving Plaza gig where he opened for his pal Hasidic reggae threat Matisyahu, Dolgin's gearing up to get klezmatic with Krakauer and co. at hipster hot spot Joe's Pub - and these are just his side gigs.
The Montreal-based impresario - who writes about hiphop for alt-weekly The Hour when he's not doing magic tricks, making stop-motion movies or conducting synagogue choirs - is on a mad tour to promote his latest release under the moniker Socalled, delivering a delirious blend of beats, breaks, rhymes and live klezmer he's dubbed The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah (JDub).
But despite awesome guest appearances by everyone from Krakauer and Matisyahu to Killah Priest and Bless, Dolgin's still feeling, well, a little neurotic.
"I hope hiphop people will like it," he says. "I think some of the rapping isn't amazing. In many ways, hiphop is one of the most conservative genres - everything has to sound a certain way, have the same structure, be based on the same samples. And I think people are getting bored with that."
Although he's steeped in traditional forms, Socalled's shit is anything but conservative. Based on the structure of a classic seder (the ceremonial meal families eat to celebrate Passover), Dolgin's Hip Hop Haggadah samples esoteric Jewish kids' albums, classic Passover ditties, quirky instructional clips and scratchy hooks, which he mixes with rhymes, full-on children's choirs and Yiddish folk songs to tell the triumphant tale of how his peeps overcame oppression.
Dolgin's whimsical cut-and-paste, layered production is reminiscent of old-school pioneers like Daisy Age-era De La and Digable Planets and recent Ninja Tune outfits like the Herbaliser, Kid Koala and Bullfrog. It's pretty rad. And where traditional seders have a serious religious bent, Socalled Seder is a fairly secular affair, although Dolgin sees links between his own work and rappers like Kanye West who thank the big JC when they win major awards.
"Did you know part of Jesus Walks was written by a Jew?" he asks. "Yeah, this woman Denari, who's an Israeli fiddler, was part of the team, so she snagged a Grammy along with Timbaland and whoever else produced it. I'm a totally secular guy, but so much of my stuff is rooted in Yiddish and these old religious songs, the melodies and the words."
Bridging traditional and contemporary forms is part of Dolgin's MO. For his next disc, along with hipster heavy hitters like Def Jux star C-Rayz Walz, Derrick Carter and Feist collaborator Chilly Gonzales, the Socalled savant is calling on older luminaries like Irving Fields, a 90-year-old pianist who made a record called Bagels And Bongos back in the day, and Theodore Bikel, another nonagenarian famous for his work in both film and folk music.
Dolgin's generation-spanning philosophy is about more than the special guests who appear on his records. A former band geek, he actually discovered klezmer by way of hiphop, the result of stumbling on arcane Yiddish folk albums on his crate-digging travels.
His interest piqued, Dolgin immersed himself in tradition, learning Yiddish so he could understand the lyrics and attending klezmer workshops and camps to get the songs down pat. Make no mistake - this isn't the novelty Yid-hop of seasonal joke tracks like Hanukkah Hey Ya and the faux Fiddy parody Seda' Club.
"It's about doing your homework," Dolgin insists. "People who make ironic T-shirts that say, 'My schmalz is showing' or whatever, it's great that they're trying to connect with their culture in a hipster way, but they're not educating themselves.
"I'm studying this stuff, learning modes, learning the traditional melodies, learning the language and the music, finding samples . This is a form that's been around for 1,000 years, and we have to go back and learn about it. There was a blip of klezmer revivalism in the 70s, but it was corny and didn't take the form anywhere. Now it's up to us to actually do something new with it."