Socalled ‘Ghettoblaster’ Gives a Shout-Out at Full Volume

Take one guy rapping to a hip-hop beat, one gospel belter testifying over a sprightly klezmer melody, and one country sweetheart trilling on top of an old Jewish cowboy lament. Mix carefully.

Sounds weird, right? In fact, it's the recipe for "You Are Never Alone," the loveliest track on Socalled's fantastic and fascinating new album, "Ghettoblaster."

Socalled (born Josh Dolgin) has mad love for hip-hop, so he understands that the genre's sacred because it isn't pure; those who dismiss sampling as stealing just have no imagination.

It's all about context. Borrowing a beat or a hook can give a new line added resonance by drawing on our common musical heritage. After all, any sap can sing "I love you," but as every budding D.J. knows, you'll get more mileage if you build a track around Lyn Collins' sassy delivery of the line, "It takes two to make a thing go right."

The Montreal-based Dolgin, who previously helmed the Pesach-themed disc "The Socalled Seder" and collaborated on a wedding album called "Hiphopkhasene" with violinist Sophie Solomon, has said that he really discovered the music of his people through hip-hop. So while he knows his funk, he samples Jewish records — from comedy bits to cantorial tunes — rather than classic R&B songs. Then the live musicians come in, and things get crazy.

"Ghettoblaster" has a few dozen guests, including mother-daughter klezmer team Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts; rapper/pianist/electroclash pioneer Gonzalez; gospel singer Doris Glaspie; country gal Katie Moore; and Quebeçois rap group Sans Pression. Dolgin himself plays all kinds of keys, from accordion to synthesizer.

"Baleboste" uses a snippet of a Borscht Belt routine before the raucous klezmer kicks in. "Ghettoblaster Intro" layers a "yaba baba bumbum bumbum bumbum" chant over joyous steel drums, and caps things off with a vocal sample from a lecture delivered at Brigham Young University in 1955. (Wait, where did that come from?)

Coming Together
That's 91-year-old lounge pianist Irving Fields playing "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," and you know he's actually in the room because Dolgin leaves in the part where Fields banters with the control room about how the recording took him by surprise, much like a certain RCA Victor session. A few tracks later, rapper C-Rayz Walz improvs over Fields' instrumental. (Another interlude reveals Fields' testier side.)

"(Rock the) Belz" unites the shtetl, the ghetto and suburbia. It hinges on the resonant voice of Theodore Bikel, who explains why he sings Jewish songs before launching into the old Yiddish standard "Meyn Shtetele Belz." But it also incorporates English and French rhymes from Socalled and other rappers about the places they think of as home.

Another standout is "(These Are the) Good Old Days," in which Dolgin boasts "My God's gonna kick your God's ass" and rants against consumerism in a wry Canadian singsong. Add a deeply funky klezmer jam, a vulnerable soprano and an adorable children's choir singing the hook in voices trembling with nostalgia, and you've got several awesome songs compressed into one five-minute supersession.

And from that kid-tested bit of melancholy, we slide straight into Socalled's stab at seduction with the electronica/Bollywood/klezmer hybrid "Let's Get Wet."

It's a risky transition, but Dolgin and his crew pull it off. Remember, mixing chocolate and peanut butter was a radical idea not so long ago. Someone thought to put them together, and we're all the richer for it.

If the fusion of sweet and nutty is good enough for our tastebuds, it's good enough for our ears.

"Ghettoblaster" is part homage, part collage and all guts. And somehow, it all works in concert; with so many collaborators, Socalled gets to put on a different show every time. (Too bad he skipped Philly this time, but YouTube lets you live vicariously as he rocks a street fair in Montreal or convenes with klezmer musicians on a cruise down Ukraine's Dnieper River.)

Whether Dolgin's giving Eastern Europeans a rare taste of hip-hop — leading a rapper through a Richard Rodgers composition or exposing young hipsters to gypsy tunes — he's also giving people a chance to groove to something they might have dismissed as too old or too new, too clichéd or too foreign.

Everything's sacred, and nothing's pure. And that's the best way to keep things fresh in this fantastic and fascinating world. 



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