You may not know what he looks like or what his name is, but if you’ve listened to hip-hop over the past 20 years, you know exactly what he sounds like. From his work with Eminem, Jay-Z and Mobb Deep, his signature sample-based sound is one of the most memorable in the genre. With the release of “Hall & Nash 2” on December 29th, alongside Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine, he capped off another prolific year of producing for some of the biggest artists in hip-hop. Who am I writing about? Alan Maman, aka The Alchemist, of course.
This hip-hop mastermind is an Israeli Jew from Beverly Hills whose signature style includes glasses and a beanie. Born in 1977 , he went to high school with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Monica Lewinsky. As a kid, his mother forced him to take piano lessons, but like most rebellious teens, he quickly abandoned them to play sports and chase girls. While his love for music wouldn’t fully take form for a little while longer, when he heard “Jam on It” by Newcleus, his life changed. “That whole shit was mind-blowing,” he said in an interview with Rock The Bells. “Like, what is this? Some aliens singing? I remember hearing that as a kid and being blown away.”
From that moment on, he knew that he wanted to help create those same feelings for others. He picked up producing when he was only 14, and after experimenting, Maman began to appreciate the rebellious lyrics and gritty sounds of hip-hop. He formed a hip-hop duo with his childhood friend, Scott Caan (yes, yes, the guy from the “Hawaii Five-Oh” reboot), and they began writing their own lyrics for fun. They called themselves “The Whooliganz” and found an audience amongst other suburban teens who rebelled against their surroundings, which they perceived as uptight and constrictive.
At a party in L.A., they attracted the attention of B-Real from the popular rap group Cypress Hill. This got them some attention from music executives, so in 1993, the teens released their first single, “Put Your Handz Up.” The song was a commercial failure, and the label subsequently decided to shelve their debut album. Scott and Al both dealt with this rejection differently. Scott turned his sights towards Hollywood, while Al focused his time mastering the art of hip-hop beats under the tutelage of producing legend DJ Muggs.
“I would go to Muggs’ crib after school,” he said in the same interview with Rock The Bells. “We would just make beats. He would have crazy records for me to go through, he always had weed, he would give me $1,000 cash in little envelopes — money from the label — once a week, and we would eat at Benihana every day. I was living the best life ever.” By thoroughly analyzing the ways Muggs could make beats that touch the soul, not unlike a scientist, he learned to apply these same techniques to his music, albeit with his own flair.
It was this dedication to his craft and appreciation for hip-hop that led to him being Eminem’s touring DJ of choice and the go-to producer for many of the greatest MCs to grace the mic.
His approach to “sampling” (repurposing old records) is one of a kind, completely recontextualizing the original songs to fit his aesthetic of blunted beats and grimy motifs that hearken back to the golden days of the genre. He gained an appreciation for international sounds from his parents, who expose him from a young age to the songs they grew up on in Israel. The Alchemist fuses together sounds of different genres and generations seamlessly, like a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein, except with far livelier results.
It’s in his beat laboratory that The Alchemist’s Jewish heritage becomes an unexpected but integral ingredient to his work. Listen to many of his songs, and you’ll hear the faint sounds of Hebrew lyrics and Israeli instrumentation. In his 2015 release titled “Israeli Salad,” you can hear his fondness for Israeli music on full display as he combines chopped-up old Israeli songs with dusty hip-hop drum breaks. One of the highlights of the album, the cleverly named “Bone Thugs ‘N Haifa,” samples a popular Tzvika Pik song he grew up listening to. This project was inspired by a trip to a record store in Israel when he came to visit family and expanded into a full project, he shared in an interview with Billboard back in 2012.
By drawing inspiration from his cultural roots, The Alchemist infuses his beats with a melodic richness that pays homage to the deep musical traditions of Jewish culture. Ranging from influences like Klezmer and Mizrahit to Israeli folk music, Al has found a way to reinvent these genres for the 21st century. Performing in Tel Aviv just last year, you could hear the Jewish pride in the crowd for how The Alchemist has brought the sounds of Israel to the ears of millions.
Now, 30 years into his career, he’s gone on to pioneer a new hip-hop renaissance, bringing the sounds he grew up on to a new generation. He’s still been working as prolifically as ever, releasing five to six albums a year, and he’s seen mainstream success making songs with Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar and Drake. He even returned to rapping himself on a few songs last year. As his friend and rapper Evidence has said “That’s very hard for somebody to do in the third, fourth, or fifth stage of their career. That’s not normal.”
The Alchemist just keeps proving people wrong, as evidenced in a recent tweet, “I’m over 20 years in and arguably having one of my best years yet. Keep going, trust me!”