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