No kitsch for hip hop maven

Like balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream, Jewish folk music and hip-hop seem an unlikely mix for a serious music act.

Like balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream, Jewish folk music and hip-hop seem an unlikely mix for a serious music act.

Quirky novelty definitely seemed to be the agenda when Socalled (Josh Dolgin) mounted the Dawson City mainstage holding an accordion and wearing an Elvis-style white jumpsuit.

But from the first downbeat, the Socalled band belted out something different.

Strange, sure, but far from novelty—Socalled’s sound was new, innovative and genuinely good.

Hundreds of squinting spectators soon agreed, erupting into cheers and dancing.

The Socalled band has the quirky diversity of a Wes Anderson film, and the multiculturalism of a United Colors of Benetton ad.

Amid a lineup at the Dawson City Music Festival populated largely by acoustic folk singers and Montreal indie bands, Socalled stood out.

“I really love being the most fucked-up band on the bill,” said Dolgin.

“The music couldn’t come out unless we were a bunch of freaks,” he said.

Dolgin, with a Krusty the Clown-style mop of black curls, usually takes the stage in a low-profile brown cardigan.

Guitarist Alan Watsky first met Dolgin at a Jewish music camp, where Watsky was playing klezmer fiddle.

Behind the fiddle, Watsky has a 40-year background in funk guitar.

“He’s this real-deal old guitar guy,” said Dolgin.

“He’s got an ear for Jewish stuff—that’s what he’s passionate about—but he’s rooted in funk, which is what I love,” he said.

An observer of the Jewish Sabbath—which starts Friday at sunset—the late sunsets of Dawson threw off Watsky’s typical Sabbath scheduling.

Clarinetist Michael Winograd, clad in black clothes, black sunglasses and a scarf, stands near motionless—until called upon to punch out a finger-blurring clarinet riff.

Katie Moore is the band’s country singer.

“I really like the mix of phat beats and a beautiful, pure, simple, noble voice,” said Dolgin.

In the back, bassist Patrice Agbokou can usually be seen with a smile on his face, bemusedly watching the madness unfold in front of him.

“Is he the only black guy in any band at the Dawson music fest?” said Dolgin.

A semi-fluent Yiddish speaker and a virtuoso in both hip-hop and Klezmer, Dolgin’s embrace of Jewish culture wouldn’t come until later in life.

Dolgin was raised secularly in Chelsea, Quebec—a small village northeast of Ottawa.

“I wish I’d grown up on my grandfather’s knee hearing Yiddish violin, but I didn’t,” said Dolgin.

The Dolgin stereo seemed to play anything but: “Michael Jackson, Bach, Van Halen, James Brown, Snoop Dogg, Arcade Fire,” he said.

A young Dolgin was entranced by funk, which led to an interest in hip-hop.

“I was this little white kid really into African-American culture for some reason,” said Dolgin.

When he moved to Montreal, Dolgin got in with Platoon, a local rap crew.

In the clubs at night, Dolgin’s days were spent at yard sales and in the record bins of local thrift stores, searching for sample-worthy LPs.

The key for any sampler is breaks: touchstones in a song where a particular segment can be isolated—and then looped into a beat.

“Breaks are the heart of hip-hop,” said Dolgin.

Dolgin started stumbling onto Yiddish theatre records—and found that he had struck sampling gold.

Funky orchestral breaks were sandwiched between each verse.

Unwittingly, long-dead Yiddish artists like Aaron Lebedeff and Mickey Katz had perfectly primed their work for a hip-hop renaissance.

In a roundabout way, Dolgin had come upon the relics of his own ‘lost’ culture—a music lost not only to his own family (his grandmother rarely spoke Yiddish), but to centuries of European Jewry.

“All the Jews assimilated when they came to America and they stopped playing that funky music that they’d spent a 1,000 years playing in eastern Europe,” said Dolgin.

In the hip-hop scene, referencing his “own” culture gave Dolgin a renewed voice in the hip-hop scene.

Playing hip-hop, Dolgin sometimes felt like a cultural trespasser.

“It felt strange to be referencing this other culture that I wasn’t a part of, even though I loved it so much,” said Dolgin.

Against fiddle and accordion riffs, Dolgin now had a base on which to write rhymes more fitting to his background.

“I couldn’t talk about shooting people with guns, because that’s not what I’m doing too often,” said Dolgin.

“So I talk about unrequited love or what I had for breakfast or something,” he said.

For hip-hop, cultural adaptation is the way of the genre.

“Hip-hop has become this global genre that people are using to modernize their own folk traditions,” said Dolgin.

Initially a means to a hip-hop end, Dolgin soon found his interest solidly piqued by the Jewish folk stylings of the old country.

At a Saturday morning Eastern European folk music workshop in Dawson City, an accordion-wielding Dolgin held his own against members of Eastern European folkies Gadji-Gadjo and renowned Canadian violin soloist Jasper Wood.

When he’s not Socalled, Dolgin sings gypsy folk with Beyond the Pale and plays traditional klezmer with Streiml. A contributor to Jewish folk festival he is also a choir director for the Addath Israel Choir for High Holidays.

So called performances are delivered with ample doses of showmanship.

Klezmerized hip-hop funk is new territory for most audiences—and the personality of the Socalled band helps draw them in.

Saturday night on the Dawson mainstage, Dolgin ripped up a copy of the Klondike Sun, only to magically produce a “restored” copy.

Friday night, he performed a slate of rope tricks.

Dolgin’s music videos are special-effects masterpieces.

(These are) The Good Old Days (119,741 views on YouTube) features a six-armed Dolgin rapping to a looped fiddle riff in the study of a suburban house.

You Are Never Alone (2,051,339 views on YouTube) features Dolgin meticulously pulling off parts of his face to reveal gears and machinery. By mid-video, the deconstructed head had transformed into a movie projector.

“It took three months to make an exact replica of my head,” said Dolgin.

The risk with the Socalled approach, of course, is that it might all come out as a “shitty pastiche.”

“A lot of those mash-uppy weird cultural mix-up things are so obvious; they’re not good klezmer, they’re not good funk, they’re not good anything, they’re just this stupid thing mushed together,” said Dolgin.

But Socalled pulls it off, not only with audiences, but among music legends.

Dolgin is currently embroiled in a collaboration with trombonist Fred Wesley, a veteran of the James Brown band and the funk project of George Clinton.

“Funk got me into hip-hop, then hip-hop got me into klezmer, and then klezmer got me into this new hybrid techno folk music, and then that brought me back to funk,” said Dolgin.

“A cycle has happened,” he said.

Socalled songs are not statements of cultural identity or attempts to push klezmer back into the mainstream—although it might be a welcome byproduct.

Klezmer, hip-hop, funk and jazz are all just tools to make good sounds.

Radio-ready “catchy pop, stupid fun tunes” are the Socalled priority.

“Life is short, so we’ve got to stir it up and be crazy and make fucked-up shit,” said Dolgin.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP are making an appeal for information in the case of Mary Ann Ollie, who was murdered in Ross River last year and whose case remains unsolved. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read