Quarantine Purim is a pretty tough sell. A year into the pandemic, most of us have adjusted to isolation more than we’d ever imagined was possible, learning to find the joys in the slower rhythm. Baking hamantaschen can be a good solo way to feel festive. But even so, a holiday typically celebrated with costumes and partying is inherently about doing those things together — especially when many Jews count Purim 2020 as one of their last good memories of the before-times. I wasn’t sure how I’d channel the irreverent, playful spirit of the day.
Then I found Socalled.
I just discovered the Canadian-Jewish rapper-producer, whose real name is Josh Dolgin, last week through the Purim single he put out, but he’s been making funky Jewish music since the early aughts. His first major Jewish success came with the release of the So Called Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah in 2005, and he hasn’t stopped since. As is the case for many musicians, his active touring life came to an abrupt halt when venues for live music shut down. But he didn’t stop releasing tunes. He moved back in with his parents and started churning out songs in reaction to the world around him.
There’s something about “Purim Purim Purim” that feels very… Purim. Hearing it for the first time was like taking a hit of Purim vibes: It made me laugh, but it’s also a legitimate banger. And the title “Purim, Purim, Purim” hook has some of the delivery and catchiness of the famous “dreidel, dreidel, dreidel,” but cheekier, grown-up, and self-aware. Siri (or a Siri-like voice, anyway) does a feature on it. I won’t spoil it — just listen. It’s worth it.
This is only the latest of Socalled’s quarantine tracks, and the absurdity of this whole era suffuses them all. His ode to Bernie Sanders, “Bernie Sanders,” is also a gem.
That jam starts “I Bernie Sanders your shit / I handles my shit.” It only gets better from there: “Throw your mittens in the air if you know we got it going on!” And this: “Stayin’ warm and motionless, unkempt / Fuck your high fashion, let’s get socialist.” What more can you want? And he drew the cover art, too!
Even though these lo-fi impulsive songs aren’t Socalled’s usual bag, they really capture something of the pandemic mood — the things that brought us joy, the “fuck it” sense of humor we’ve found as society crumbled. I’m glad they exist.
Socalled talked to Alma via email about his musical roots and why Yiddish music is the shit.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me about your artist name. Why Socalled?
I was a rapper in high school and had a stupid rapper name: Heavy J. I wasn’t heavy. I started working with this kid from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and he started calling me “Socalled Heavy J”… the name stuck. We made a record together in 1996 called Platoon and we’re still in touch; he just got out of jail.
Has Judaism always had a central place in your music?
In a way… My rabbi lent me his accordion when I was 13. And those songs at festivals and at the synagogue and learning to sing a bar mitzvah portion runs pretty deep. But finding a voice within popular music that reflected my Jewish heritage came later, in my late teens and 20s, when I found Yiddish music, klezmer, Hassidic niggunim and Yiddish theatre music.
What is your musical background? When did you start making music?
Piano as a kid. Forced and bribed to take lessons by my mom. I had “talent” so she wouldn’t let me quit. I was a terrible reader, learned everything by ear. In high school, she finally let me start taking blues piano classes, where I could improvise. I started playing in weird different bands around town (Ottawa, Canada): salsa bands, gospel, latin music, rock, funk.
Then I started getting into hip hop in the early ‘90s. Eventually, a guy in the gospel band showed me his home studio: keyboards, sequencers, samplers, loops, drum machines. So I started making beats and rapping and got more into that when I moved to “the big city” of Montreal and started really collecting vinyl. Music was my escape and my fun, so I never wanted to study it in university. Now I wish I had studied composition and counterpoint and harmony and all that stuff. I try to learn it now on YouTube. I only took one class in the music department at university and got my lowest grade.
I grew up not so keen to go to synagogue and thinking the whole thing was pretty cheesy. But then I got into Jewish music through hip hop, by collecting records to sample. I started to find all this material I felt a cultural connection to. Even though I loved African American music (funk is my favorite), I felt weird being a white Jewish kid sampling Black music in Canada to make my hip hop. I wanted to reflect my own experience and my history and my culture. So I started digging for records and found all this material that isn’t very well known by the “Jewish mainstream.”
I want to hear more about that non-Jewish-mainstream music material.
Yiddish music is the shit. The old stuff, when it was a living, vibrant, insanely productive cultural force, before assimilation made it all disappear in the “new world” after the heart of the culture was destroyed by the Holocaust. It’s not corny. It’s not sentimental. It’s funky as hell. It’s sexy, it’s political. It’s sophisticated. The literature is super heavy and beautiful. Yiddish revival is super passionate right now, lots of very interesting voices coming out that paint a picture of modern Jewry that’s more nuanced than just being about the Old Testament, holiday foods, and a nation-state. Deep ideas, jokes, philosophies, rhymes, melodies to dig up and unearth and celebrate, and there’s so many more resources these days than 20 years ago: everything’s online, you can YouTube your face off. Instrumental music, vocal music… and this is just the Eastern European music tradition I’m talking about!!! There’s so many other Jewish musics to explore and dig into. I just glommed onto Yiddish music because it happened to be the music of my ancestors and it spoke to me and allowed me to find my own voice.
That sounds incredible, I am going to YouTube my face off ASAP. Where else do you draw inspiration? Do you have Jewish icons?
Jewish icons???? Lol. Hm. Jerry Lewis? The Beastie Boys?
Tell me about your Judaism. Where’s your family from and what are some of your traditions, especially if you have Purim ones?
My parents are both from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and their parents came from Romania, Czech Republic, Ukraine, and Belarus. My parents were of the generation that really assimilated: They didn’t speak Yiddish. They weren’t particularly “religious,” but we went to synagogue, had bar mitzvahs (I have two brothers), and celebrated all the holidays. Not a super kosher home, but a little. Was really all about the holidays, the foods, the music, the rituals. Passover is a big one. My brother and I wrote and illustrated our own haggadah that we still use now (it’s a little revised but not much).
Purim-wise, I guess I remember dressing up and going to temple (Reform), but mostly I remember the hamantaschen (in fact, I’m eating one right now: I’ve been living at my parents’ since March.)
I’m not “religious.” I’m not into the idea of religion and thinking that I have the answer that other people are missing out on, the answer to questions that cannot be answered… I prefer to celebrate the mystery and magic of it all, rather than say I figured it out and we should all follow a bunch of thousand-year old rules. That’s why it was so exciting to find a way into my own culture, to discover the 1000-year-old Yiddish system with its dances and modes and songs and poems and stories and theatre and aesthetics: I could finally have a past I was proud of and that inspired me.
Has the pandemic changed your musical process?
My whole life is out the window. I used to do 200 shows a year: theatre productions (I write musicals), touring with my band as Socalled. I had a project where I sing Yiddish songs with string quartets around the world (Di Frosh), I have a big funky klezmer band thing called Abraham Inc. with David Krakauer and Fred Wesley (the trombonist and arranger for James Brown and Parliament)… so all that was really fun, and that’s been not happening for a year.
So I went to stay with my parents and got a microphone and a little box that lets me plug into the computer, and I’ve been making weird funny demos of new songs in my childhood bedroom here. And practicing piano, and writing new arrangements for another album with strings one day. So the whole process has changed. I can’t go to studios any more, I can’t record with people that easily… I’ve been getting some tracks from collaborators but everyone is so discombobulated and trying to do their own thing. It’s a crazy time.
It’s actually been kind of a liberating new experience to just make whole songs myself, have an idea, finish it, bang it out, and make it available… it’s a bit more current and up to the minute. If it’s Purim, I can be like, “Hey, I should make a Purim song,” and I do and it’s out there. No more labels, no more release parties, just make songs and get feedback. It’s kind of cool.
How will you be celebrating Purim this year?
I haven’t even really checked out what’s happening this year, but the Jewish community online has been really raging virtually and I’m sure there will be lots of Purim partying on the web this week. Just give me a non-virtual (i.e. real) hamantaschen and I’m good.