The Torah Portion in a Hip-Hop Universe: Noah

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This past Shabbat’s portion from the Torah consists of much information for the avid reader. This is the chapter where we are introduced to the one, the only, Noah! Thanks to the gladiator himself Russell Crowe, and the disturbed vision of Darren Aronofsky (the director of such greats as The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, and Pie) we have the visual for the story through his film, Noah!

So now Russell can literally ride around the world on his ship and fight! (That’s a South Park reference where Russell rides on his trusty boat Tugga and fights around the world). However, the film tries to capture the drama while Aronofsky takes many liberties in filling in the Biblical blanks. Noah, after generations of decline and immorality, was a righteous man in his generation. The great rabbinic scholars have constantly emphasized that every single word in the Torah is written for a reason. Noah was a heavy hitter, but he wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the next great heavy hitter, Abraham. One of his faults is his initial reaction to G-d’s announcement that the world will be destroyed amidst a great flood. Instead of warning the people, he goes right for the goffer wood and begins the work on the ark. Interestingly enough this point is solidified further where sages point out that G-d held off the flood for seven days in the merit of Methuselah who had just passed. The great Jewish scholar and commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Or Rashi as he’s most famously known as, bolstering his street cred as well) wrote that the passage reading “For in Seven More Days,” meant that out of respect for Methuselah that the seven days of mourning would go on unimpeded. The flood was not held at bay because of Noah, but rather in the merit of Methuselah. So, why was Noah such a heavy hitter? Easy. It was the will of G-d, thanks to Eek A Mouse who describes this to us in his song aptly titled, “Noah’s Ark.”

The song, beautifully done for the vaunted Greensleeves Most Wanted Album, describes Noah as smart. The wisdom is imparted by knowing where to build, and in this case he built the ark.

Eek A Mouse described the contents of the ark, and arguably this is one of the strongest images everyone can envision with the story. Noah miraculously stuffed with ark with his wife, three sons, his three son’s wives, and a slew of animals of all kinds. Not only was this facet a miracle, but the animals all came of their own volition, and they all miraculously fit on the super ark. Anytime I equate animals with Hip-Hop my mind, body, and soul zap back to the late 1990’s indie Hip-Hop albums scene. The scene I’m specifically thinking of is the far out in space, frenetic, and loopy beats associated with groups like The Freestyle Fellowship, and the such. One of the best compilation albums to come out of this ear is west coast producer OD’s (Omid Walizadeh) Beneath the Surface.    

This album, amongst a tiny population of progressive Hip-Hop artists, pushed the envelope into the sphere of the avant-garde. This is Hip-Hop’s future. The album consisted of many great songs, but the one that helps us bring out the animals is a track titled “Farmers Market of the Beast.”

Taking a page out of George Orwell’s dystopian book Animal Farm, each rapper takes on the persona of a specific animal, down to the sounds uttered by these animals. Rappers Xololanxinxo, Jizzm, Radioactive, Awol One & Circus take on the animal with full attributes in all. Unlike Animal Farm this could be another venue where we can hear the dialogue between beasts and burdens we’ll never fully understand. This bizarre exchange could only be brought out by the great mind and abstract beats of producer OD. Music critic Jon Caramanica wrote it best when he said that, “For a twist, peep “Farmers Market of the Beast,” an aural bacchanal that takes a page from Orwell’s Animal Farm and explores the thoughts behind a panoply of clucks, oinks, and nyaaas. After all the conversation comes the party in an animal farm way, so let’s boogie with the Kinks and their song, “Animal Farm,”

Beautifully British in all its glory.

The great menace in the entire chapter is water. The waters of the earth and the heavens came down, so think of being caught in a deluge where the rain is hitting you from every angle. Water is described in many ways in Judaism such as the idea of the living waters of Mayim Chayim. Water is both the savior and downfall of many great sages including one of the biggest wigs of them all, Moses. Noah’s waters are seen a bit differently because they were unleashed in order to clear the earth, clean shop, and purge the world of evil. Rap music covers an array of subjects and when it comes to water I harken back to the same era as Beneath the Surface. However, this time I will point to the great compilation by the dynamic duo of Dan the Automator and Prince Paul. Their first collaboration, under the tutelage of their Handsome Boy Modeling School, contains a song by the MC Encore, and is titled “Waterworld.”

Like the menacing waters throwing the ark to and fro, the song begins with a hard hit on the organ. Each hit gives that menacing feel being bit on your head a la Schoolly D’s “P.S.K.” The song continues with its menacing flow while the strips of water trickle at a fast rate. Completely by chance, after looking over the lyrics to the song I realized that Encore even dropped a line about Noah spitting that, ” You doubt me like the foes of Noah, embarkin in this ark, the soul controller.” Precision and divine intervention are a good combination.

After the travels of Noah he finally finds dry land, disembarked, and G-d promises that he will never do it again. Noah, being human, was deeply impacted by the death and destruction. So, he did what most of us do to cope with reality, he planted a vineyard of grapes, and proceeded to get wasted. His son Cham found him, and this is where it begins to unravel like a story in the tabloids. Cham uncovered his father, who was naked, and showed the world including his two brothers. Some commentaries say that he raped his father, or that he castrated him. Hence Noah cursed Cham, and certain pseudo-scholars used the words of the curse to concoct this insane theory that the Bible is racist!!! Oy vey for the lost souls. We then veer to the tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel is interesting because to the modern reader it seems that G-d pulled a fast one on the inhabitants. Instead of building a structure and unifying a people the Divine Force decided to disperse the people to the four corners of the world. One thing to keep in mind is the idea that the builders didn’t care about fellow builders, but only cared fully about the building. It can remind us that at times we care more about the structure, or about certain groups of people in lieu of the individuals themselves. The track by Copywrite featuring Cage and Mr. Eon is interesting due to the word play. They call out all the rappers and MC’s who babble, focusing on the center which is located at the Tower of Babel.

Patti Smith’s epic song cycle “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)” encapsulates her struggles and comforts within the framework of religion. Patti Smith was raised as a strict Jehovah’s Witness, but she was interested in the depth of other religious thought, and in this case one of them was Judaism. This recent connection was argued by the insightful writer, and family royalty of musical Jews, Seth Rogovoy in the Jewish Daily Forward:http://forward.com/culture/music/322628/patti-smith-and-her-religious-influence/

With regards to this specific song he writes that,”On the song “ La Mer (de) ,” part of her opus “Land” on “Horses,” Smith sang, “At the Tower of Babel, they knew what they were after.” In hindsight, Smith was singing about herself. She once described her work as “three chords merged with the power of the word.” That is as pithy a description of the biblical prophets as any.”

I’ll leave it at that, until next time and next Torah portion.

Peace

 

The Torah Portion in a Hip-Hop Universe: The Genesis

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This past Shabbat we rewound the clocks back to the year zero, and like the title of a great blaxploitation flick, Started it all over again. This past Shabbat’s Torah portion takes it right back to the source, the creation of the world. Now we should take this into context with the Jewish Holy Day of Simchat Torah (The Happiness of Torah!!!), which was celebrated before this past Shabbat. One of the traditions of this Holy Day is to read the last portion from the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy in Greek and Devramin in Hebrew. The portion tells us of the death of one of the greatest prophets, and Jewish heavy hitters, Moses or Moshe our rabbi. It is no coincidence that he dies, and then we go right back to the start of the first book. We are dealing with life in concentric circles, and in a way Moshe’s death needed to happen so that we can restart the universe, or even existence as we know it. In Kabbalah there is the idea that the visible attributes of Hashem (the name, or a name for G-d), equal the to the number 7. The same goes for the idea of the cycle of planting in the land of Israel, which also goes in 7 year intervals. These intervals continue in a 7 year cycle in intervals of 7. This ends with 49, and in a grand way the 50th year is the Jubilee. With the attributes of Hashem, us humans can reach the highest reaches of spirituality, but we must rid our mortal coils in order to reach the 50th degree. Moshe achieved this, and in my theory, it had to happen in order to unwrap reality and re-wrap it for a new beginning.

The Torah portion of Genesis has a lot of information as well as stories, which only last a few sentences. Each story is introduced and then reaches its climax in a matter of words. However, this is all a new and fresh start. To connect it with rap music, the first person that came to my mind was Busta Rhymes. Busta was part of the group Leaders of the New School, and has a very unique and brash way of getting his rhymes across. During the 1990’s he made many guest appearances, and frequently out shined the rest of his cohort, just listen to “Flavor in Your Ear (Remix)” or the soundtrack anthems from Rumble in the Jungle and Space Jam. However, by the year 2000 with the release of his fourth album Anarchy it seemed like he was replaying the same old formula. Then, without warning came one of his finest works, his fifth album titled Genesis. This was the album that brought him back to form in the true sense of the word. Sporting a treasure trove of coveted producers giving him the finest sounds, he crushed all the freshmen with his fifth day out. It had some great tracks, but the one that concerns the topic is the title track, “Genesis.” Ironically as we talk about new beginnings it dawns on us that not everyone can experience rebirth like the producer of the track, J Dilla who passed away a decade ago.

The beat has an ominous sound as the vocals of the chorus is swirling in a bath of ocean water. J Dilla provides us with a beautiful layout of music over the sample from the track “Cosmic Mind Affair” by Acqua Fragile. He lifts the entire hook from the track and you hear the voice in each chorus majestically saying, “As we welcome you all to the future, Oh! We come to give you that, Operating like we be official, Yeah! We come to multiply.” He spits hard about his trials and tribulations while he hits us on the head with what’s sacred for ya’ll. Busta also keeps us in full gear that all things must move ahead in order for our starts to be meaningful.

The story of Adam and Eve is pivotal to the narrative, and we have many renditions by many musicians about their story. The rendition by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which can be found on the compilation album Trenchtown Rock: The Anthology 1969-78, is a raw cut sounding like a wannabe Rasta Doo-Wop rendition.

Bob Marley and the Wailers give us the bare bones of the story, yet they ask why did they sin? While they also abide by the fact that we all live in sin, and the fact that “Anywhere you go, woman is the root of all evil.” He is commenting on the sexist side of the story that for some reason still looms large over women like the sword of Damocles. After Adam and Eve tasted of the forbidden fruit they became aware, but another important note is that sin was made aware, and death came into existence. One great song that rings this alarm bell is an older track by Kendrick Lamar titled “I Hate You,” where he pens a letter to Death. In the third verse he switches characters and raps in the guise of death.

In the third verse death spits that, ” I was born to be a killjoy, I’m an old brat, Conceived by Adam and Eve, so who you mad at?” Kendrick evokes the idea that death is like us, yet it was a bastard creation coming from our faults instead of beauty.

The narrative continues after the fall of man and woman with the birth of the first siblings. We are all very aware of the term “sibling rivalry,” because it’s origin stems from this event. G-d favored the work and labor of Abel’s hands, while Cain’s offerings were putrid and rather lacking. Because of this favoritism Cain rose up and smote his brother Abel dead. He then uttered those famous words, also uttered by the character Nino Brown in the film masterpiece New Jack City, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Let’s listen to Louis Armstrong for the moral of this story,

The masterstroke is the moral where he sings that, “You can’t run from the shadow of retribution, If you’re bad then you gotta pay for your wrongs, Let yourself take a lesson from Cain and Abel: Don’t lament, be content, Don’t resent what the Lord has sent, And you’ll find that you’re bound to get along.”

The rest of the portion lists the many descendants of Cain, and lists the genealogy of Mankind by tracing the line straight from Adam to Noah, next week’s star. This is further solidified at the end when it gives the reader and/or worshipper a prelude to the flood. So before we get ahead of ourselves let’s note the fact that these are lists of names. Names, names, and more names are common in parts of the Torah. This is done so that we can reference back to our past. It also has deeper value as each name is full of spiritual meaning. In rap music the song “Where Are They Now” by the great Queensbridge MC Nas gives us the list of names of past greats and rap legends of yester-minute.

Naturally the track’s beat is an ode in itself using a James Brown sample, which was widely used in the 1980’s. Nas in his naturally smooth delivery drops all these of past masters who had a hit, but faded into obscurity only to be remembered by the older guard, myself included. He is bemoaning how the younger generation doesn’t acknowledge these people because respect for the past gives you a stronger sense of the present. This might be why the Torah lists these names? Maybe the names were greats who should be remembered, but were far more salient in the past than the present, or future.

Enjoy the rest of the good week and Shavua Tov, and keep it live until next time.

Peace

 

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