by Bethlehem Shoals, Tabletmag.com
|Siah and Yeshua, 1997 (Photo Credit: Jonathan Adler)|
Nadav Samin was a nice Jewish boy in Brooklyn who made it big at a key moment in hip-hop history and then walked away to take up Middle East studies. Now it turns out he never really left rap behind.
Last month, Nadav Samin, a 34-year-old doctoral candidate in Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies program, wrote a smart takedown of Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and everything else the far right has to offer. It was a rap, with couplets like: “The Jews are good now, said Father Coughlin from his coffin/ so Party people, back up off ’em.” It was the first true verse—fully realized bars, start-to-finish—that Samin had written since 2001. For those who identify as 1990s rap snobs, that decade-long lapse is a minor tragedy.
Samin was once better known as Siah, a Brooklyn emcee who worked in a duo with another emcee who called himself Yeshua dapoED. Siah was a nice Jewish boy from Manhattan Beach; his Colombian partner Yeshua—whose real name is Ed Avellaneda—lived down the way in Brighton Beach. Along with producer Jon Adler, the two released the hip-hop album The Visualz on a boutique label run by underground impresario Bobbito García.
Like everybody else in New York, they rhymed about how great they were and how much other emcees sucked. Siah and Yeshua’s capacious, vaguely metaphysical lyrics, delivered over jazz samples cribbed in part from Samin’s father’s record collection, made them at once innovative, warm, and very “real”—the buzz-word on both sides of hip-hop’s indie-versus-major culture wars. A small masterpiece, the EP culminated in “A Day Like Any Other,” an 11-minute fantasy adventure that, over multiple beats and abrupt shifts in mood and tempos, sent Siah and Yeshua off on a mysterious quest to save hip-hop from the clutches of fake rappers. It sounds hokey or contrived, but “A Day Like Any Other” won you over with its exuberance and sense of wonderment.
Their timing couldn’t have been better: Mainstream hip-hop was beginning its long, self-destructive infatuation with ditzy pop hooks and luxury goods, and the Internet was allowing New York acts to gain national visibility. What had been a local scene oriented mainly around open mic nights and García’s weekly radio show with DJ Stretch Armstrong was now reaching a network of true believers who got their fix via streaming audio, mail-order websites, and trades of third- and fourth-generation dubs. Yet The Visualz marked the high point of Siah and Yeshua’s careers, as well as of Samin’s engagement with hip-hop.
Today, Samin is an academic doing field work in the Middle East who quite credibly composes music for small ensembles and solo piano, for example, the recent “Wedding Song For Rolla and Charles.” Sometimes, he will rap along with Big Daddy Kane or A Tribe Called Quest in the car, much to his wife’s amusement.
Samin was born in 1976 to a Yemenite Jewish father and an Ashkenazi mother. He remembers getting props as an adult from Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze, an early beat-boxer—“white boy got skills!”—and yet he never thought of himself as facing the same obstacles, or providing the same sort of example, as older Jewish rappers like 3rd Bass or the Beastie Boys. In an interview last month, he brought up Passing, the work by the Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen, while turning her language on its head: “I have Yemenite looks, Yemenite features—I have always passed as a New York City non-Jewish, non-Caucasian, or at least can when I want to,” he said. “I like to say I could pass from Ecuador to Bangladesh, along that latitude line. It perhaps made it easier for me. I didn’t have to overcompensate.”
Yet Samin had a strong Jewish foundation at home, attending Jewish schools and learning Hebrew at a young age. You can hear some of this in “Good Feelings,” a 1999 tune that was later featured on the JDub Records compilation Rooftop Roots. (JDub handles marketing and publicity for Tablet Magazine and its parent, Nextbook Inc.) With its Hebrew chorus and allusions to foreskins and shrouds, it’s a rapper’s assertion of self with unmistakable Jewish overtones.
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