PART TWO OF ISRAELI HIP HOP:
Although Subliminal may qualify himself as a thug, there aren’t a lot of thugs that would allow their grandmother to answer the door for them. I walk into Kobi Shimoni’s, or Subliminal’s, house in a quant Tel Aviv neighborhood and I see nothing indicative of a rap impresario’s lifestyle. If this were an episode of MTV’s Cribs, it would be a very short segment—there is only so much one can say about the only ostentatious item in the room: a massive fish tank.
Subliminal’s grandmother calls him down as if we were children and I had been waiting for our play date. I make conversation with the elderly woman but my Hebrew is not that great and she doesn’t seem entirely interested. Hatzel then slumps down the stairs, introduces himself, and tells me that Subliminal is in his studio waiting for me. As I follow Hatzel, I recall all the mudslinging thrown at Subliminal regarding his wealthy family and their comfortable way of life but on an American scale, I can’t help but consider his environment middle-class. The décor is unintentionally retro with an 80’s aesthetic, with a pastel palette and an unrestrained use of mirrors.
I am introduced to Subliminal and I immediately understand why he is the envy of many and the inspiration for more. Kobi is tall but not intimidating. He smiles like a trust-worthy car salesman (if there were ever such a thing), heartily and warmly. His perfectly trimmed goatee is precise in its angles and design. Like Hatzel, Subliminal wears baggy street-wear boasting a brand name (at the time, they are sponsored by Reebok on the condition they wear Reebok clothing) but unlike his sidekick’s propensity for black, Subliminal chooses lighter colors like whites and powder blues—his image is the good cop to Hatzel’s bad cop. Moreover, his English is impeccable with virtually no accent.
Subliminal excuses his small, cramped studio (which was once a bedroom). He says he is in the process of building a professional one in the center of town. As I peruse his CD collection, noticing mostly commercial rap and some metal-rap hybrids like Biohazard and Body Count, Subliminal tells me how he met the Shadow. They reminisce like an aging married couple on their 40th anniversary.
"I was the freak in my side of town and Yoav was the freak in his side of town," Subliminal says. "We would go to the same clubs and just started hanging out."
"Yeah, but I’m from the bad side," interjects Hatzel. "I’m from the hood."
Haztel tells me that he grew up in South Tel Aviv, a very hard neighborhood—his father was ruthlessly shot dead right before his two younger siblings’ eyes. Furthermore, he had been kicked out of more schools "than [he] could remember" for being a juvenile delinquent and causing "a s*** load of trouble." Hatzel jokes that he was a very confused child, at one point sporting long green hair, a fashion faux-pas that he acknowledges in retrospect.
They continue regaling me with tales of "back in the day" when they were innovators and rebels creating their own sense of self and style. Initially, the pair even needed to make their own clothes because baggy clothing was not yet available in Israel. Subliminal insists that he thought he had invented "baggies" and only discovered otherwise when he visited England as a teen. Slowly but surely, as others replicated their image, it became easier to identify their fellow outcasts. At the age of 15, Subliminal gathered these self-proclaimed pariahs and organized a crew named T.A.C.T. (Tel Aviv City Team) and with their assistance, opened their own club called The Joint. At the time, no one knew Subliminal’s age, not even his 27-year-old girlfriend. Eventually, the Joint was burnt down. "We always had the hottest party in town," jokes Subliminal.
"The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire…" chants Shadow.
Eventually, the T.A.C.T. crew decided to emulate their American heroes and record music. They constructed a make-shift studio in the back of a clothing store and wrote their first song, Yisroelim Atzbanim ("Mad Israelis").
"This was the corner stone of Israeli rap," Subliminal contests. "We started the game. We were living in a ‘gangsta’ paradise movie. We had our own club. We got into fights every day. We were hardcore."
It’s hard for me to imagine Subliminal as hardcore when, moments ago, his grandmother answered his door. The Shadow, on the other hand, emits an aggressive odor, perhaps a scent that only a dog could pick up. "I used to be a Base Commander in the army. I served for five years as the youngest base commander in Israel," says Hatztel with great pride. "And I loved the army. I had a rough childhood and they fixed me up. The army taught me discipline, they teach me about responsibility.
"I wanted to perform while I was in the army but I couldn’t do both. I wore a mask and no one knew who I was. That’s how I became the Shadow."
Where did you serve, I inquire.
"I can’t say," Shadow responds.
Would you have to kill me, I ask jokingly.
"Maybe," he says with a serious face. I drop the subject.
"Hip hop is the greatest weapon you can have to tell our message," Subliminal says. His flowing conviction and passion in being "street" contradicts his contenders who insist that Subliminal is the greatest marketing act in Israeli salesmen (of which there’s been many) history. "We consider ourselves the mirror of what’s going on in Israel. You can read the newspaper but you won’t read about what’s happening on the streets.
I love my religion and my tradition. I love Hanukah and lighting the candles. This is my tradition and this who I am."
"He’s a little bit religious. While I am not at all," admits Hatzel. "This is why he is the light and I am the shadow. But we do have on thing in common; we believe that this is the one place on Earth for the Jews. And when I put down the gun, I picked up the mic to say that."
"And we’re so tired of the Left media calling us ‘fascists,’" says Kobi. "People confuse our message and say, ‘death to the Arabs.’ One kid at a show was chanting out, ‘death to the Arabs.’ And I said to him…I stopped the show…and I said, ‘no, f*** you. Not ‘death to the Arabs’ but ‘life to the Jews.’"