A shout-out to the exciting new breed of Jewish pop

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The way I see it, currently there are three types of Jewish bands out there in the big, murky world of popular music. One is the admired and/or musically talented band that happens to  have one or more Jewish members (such as Vampire Weekend and Yo La Tengo). Another type is a bit raw musically, but incorporates Jewish culture, Israeli riffs or even liturgy into its lyrics (best left unnamed). The third kind magically encompasses both.

That elusive third type of band can be difficult to track down. Because, let’s face it,  just singing in Hebrew doesn’t automatically make your music compelling. But I know of two standout record labels, JDub Records and Shemspeed, that are solely devoted to that third category of Jewish band, the kind that celebrates its Jewish identity but also, you know, makes good music.

“The dual challenge artists making Jewish music today face is that they need to make music that stands out on its own, and then they need to bring in the Jewish piece in a way that hasn’t been done before — or at least in the recent past,” JDub president and CEO Aaron Bisman recently told me.

Jewish music has gone through seismic shifts throughout the last century, with pockets of klezmer, Jewish-Latin blends and some awfully cheesy folk records in the 1970s.

The bands promoted on JDub and Shemspeed are reinventing Jewish musical identity yet again. Generally speaking, the acts on JDub lean toward indie rock, while Shemspeed tends to feature hip-hop and reggae. Both showcase artists that incorporate Judaism into their music in distinctive ways, be it songs about forgotten women of the Bible, or tracks blending Hebraic chanting with hip-hop.

Both labels put out a slew of albums and new music this spring. In the past few months, JDub released a new Girls in Trouble LP — that I am certifiably obsessed with — and a record by DeLeon, a Sephardic rock band. Shemspeed released a terrific new Y-Love EP last month and recently signed Brody, an Israeli soul and R&B singer.

All these new records signal positive growth, a shift toward quality Jewish music and a “mainstreamization” of these types of bands — and traditional media seemed to finally pick up on the acts this time around.

Bisman told me he has seen this change firsthand.

“I think more artists are comfortable exploring Jewish ideas and concepts than they may have been in the past,” he said. “World music is taken much more seriously throughout the music industry, so singing in a foreign language is less foreign than it once was.”

I also spoke with Erez Safar, CEO of Shemspeed; he echoed this sentiment.

“[Shemspeed] was more niche in the beginning and over time has a become a little more mainstream, more crossover and universal — but still with a very strong positive Jewish message.”

Safar started his first label in 2001, Modular Music, which morphed into the promotions company and label Shemspeed in 2007. I discovered Shemspeed when I first came to j. in 2008. I was hesitant initially about “Jewish” music, or what I perceived it to be. I had come from the secular music writing world and was quick to judge a book by its (Jewish) cover. But then I slowly realized how good these acts could be when, after I was inundated with articles, press releases and CDs, I started actually listening. Rapper Y-Love was one of the catalysts for my shift.

Y-Love was the first artist signed to Modular/Shemspeed. The label’s first output was an urban Jewish mixtape. It blended club music with indie rock and Brazilian funk, all with Torah-inspired lyrics.

Safar relayed a story about a recent conversation he’d had that summed up Shemspeed for me.

“Someone told me that the way people describe what [Shemspeed] does is that ‘we make Jews look cool,’ ” he said. “I have always liked Jewish music, but felt like all the elements related to the records out there were lacking. I wanted to … make Jewish music competitive in the music industry.”

And that’s kind of the rub, isn’t it? Something can seem so foreign, but then you take a second listen, and it’s hard not to see it as divine progress.

Emily Savage
can be reached at [email protected]