Monday, February 9, 2009


It was only November when Barack Obama was ensconced in the bliss of not yet being President. Pre-bailout, pre-botched inauguration oath, pre-the already fulminating cries of "same old, same old," there was only victory.

There was late November, when the world rejoiced in Grant Park, the site of the music festival Lollapalooza, in a fashion heretofore reserved for rock stars and the Berlin Wall's deconstruction.

Seeing the masses whooping and hollering immediately after Obama had been declared the next President, it was difficult not to marvel at what this person meant to his fans. Election victories are usually celebrated with saccharine parties in stuffy hotel ballrooms, but this was something else. A massive block party, outdoors, in the cold of a Chicago November. This was the electorate getting its funky on to celebrate an electoral outcome. This was passion meets politic. Parlor meets party.

It was the full extent of that moment, and to be self-evidently metaphysical, that was all we had.

Obama's celebrity had been burgeoning for months, like steam billowing from a gurgling volcano. During the long campaign, remarks like, "If Obama walked into a club, he'd blow the roof off," were commonplace. Street cred was bestowed upon a candidate for the first time since Kennedy, and it quickly replaced race as the cultural superdelegate. Cachet defeated color.

How Obama fares in the crippled economy will help dictate his legacy as President. His reputation as a candidate, however, was cemented in that frigid blowout in Grant Park.

The Executive cool, rebirthed.

Stay Smitten, America
DJ Delegate

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Room With a Viewz

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in late September on Nextbook.]

“Michael Jackson takes himself so seriously,” said Jonathan Dagan, leafing through a salad in a Mexican restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Over dinner, the Haifa-born producer and frontman for J.Viewz, an electronica and trip-hop project from Tel Aviv, was explaining the inspiration behind his cover of “Smooth Criminal,” a down-tempo lounge treatment of the Jackson classic.

“Our version is a parody of that seriousness. It’s honest,” said Dagan, energetic and talkative in a sweatshirt and jeans. “It shines a new light on Michael Jackson.” Although it may sound paradoxical, Dagan’s description is right on: the song is an honest parody. In replacing Jackson’s frenetic elements with a slower tempo and sweet, loping vocals, the song is both irreverent and straightforward, a minimalist send-up with an aesthetic that characterizes most of the J.Viewz catalogue: smart, edgy, and altogether engaging.

J.Viewz, founded by Dagan in 2002 while he was in the band Violet Vision, functions mainly as Dagan’s one-man studio creation. He recruits a full band—guitars, vocals, trumpets, an MC, and even a laptop—for live performances, which include Dagan’s own work on the turntables, guitar, and computer.

Dagan lifts a heavy studio load in between tours. The Besides EP, J.Viewz’s most recent release, proved a stripped-down follow-up to its 2005 debut, Muse Breaks. Besides (so named because it consists entirely of b-sides and other one-offs) leads in with “Smooth Criminal” and includes other remixes, live tracks, and singles.

J. Viewz’s sound is an Israeli-flavored blend of beat-heavy rhythms, multifarious instrumentation, and computer-generated timbres. Haunting effects and subtle textural changes evince the influence of groups like Massive Attack and Sphongle.

The music suits its creator. Dagan is like a human remix, an amalgam of styles and source materials wrought into a clever, easygoing whole. He is humbly cosmopolitan, as eager to admit what he doesn’t know as he is to offer information. His J.Viewz material is similarly balanced, with a mood that remains simultaneously relaxed, danceable, and uplifting.

The variety of cultures and genres reflected in the music is a testament to what Dagan described as his lifelong struggle with Israel’s artistic shortcomings; he had to work to cultivate his tastes.

“I think that Israel has a lot to do with how my music sounds today, even if it’s the lack of cultural profundity I found in my hometown which had me searching for interesting music underground,” said Dagan. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have found [the same inspiration] if I’d lived in a place that satisfied my artistic needs.”

Having found more fertile musical ground in the States, Dagan—who said he developed his unhesitating English by watching TV as a kid—is thinking of permanently relocating to New York. Despite having produced ’s number-one Israeli radio hit “Adam Tsover Zichronot” this year and despite J.Viewz’s burgeoning success at home, Dagan took a rental in Manhattan this month and is exploring the Big Apple’s musical prospects.

“Something in New York City just feels right,” said Dagan, who will soon celebrate his twenty-seventh birthday. “Today we had rehearsal in Brooklyn, and we saw break dancers in the subway station, people just doing their art. I love that here…I have a hunch I’ll stay.” Still, there are things he’ll miss about his home country.

“I’ve been going in the streets and whispering to myself, ‘ch ch ch,’” said Dagan, mimicking the guttural friction the letters “ch” produce in Hebrew. “I haven’t used it for a while.”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Happily Ever After?

Speculation abounds regarding whether the media’s influence is positive or negative for our collective psychology—the day has long passed since anyone of repute has argued that television, cinema, radio, advertising, et al. are epistemologically impotent. Indeed, the New Millennium meteoric mass packs a convoluted, dense punch, and unpacking the hazy penumbrae around the impact zone would take a very long time.

This much, however, is sure: we recognize patterns in popular culture and begin to anticipate what will happen next. We extrapolate from movie to movie, from song to song, and Western media being as homogeneous and formulaic as it is, we develop expectations. We know Jason Bourne isn’t going to die. We know the lost dog will find its way home.

We parse out heroes and villains, comedies and tragedies, and figure the good guys from the bad guys.

Most of all, we’ve come to expect the happy ending. And therein lies the problem.

We’re so bombarded with positive outcomes — inconceivable, unrealistic, and insultingly fabricated conclusions — that we’ve come to accept them as not just realistic, but as a given. Think about the Jason Bourne example: so many thousands of movies have reinforced our confidence in the hero’s right to a happy ending that we know what the end holds for Matt Damon. And we assume, extrapolators that we are, that we in the real world have the same right, are virtually assured a sublime epilogue.

We all expect a glorious resolution to our personal conflicts, believing each moment to be the penultimate frame in an inevitably feel-good reel. We believe in change being just around the corner. We believe in big breaks. We believe in magic. We believe in miracles. We believe in the majestic climax that awaits each of us. We have a brand of one-way consciousness that deludes us into categorical hopefulness.

Just one manifestation of our misguidedness is the way we characterize drug rehabilitation. Many call rehab a gateway to a better, warmhearted future. Others, including many who have gone through it, label rehab a stultifying entrée into bleak, temperate incompleteness. Likewise, we tie our relationships and jobs to the happy ending paradigm. We orient our expectations towards a consumer relationship with swooning songstresses, script-trapped actors, and cloistered authors fathoming redemption from the misanthropic generators of literary minds.

Are we delusional? Have we all lost our minds, intent on piquant delusions and reverie? Our echolalia is frightening: the Tourettic insistence on mimicking the media can only portend disaster. Whether we curate a calamity or merely end up severely upset is a matter of degrees, or perhaps courage. How willing are we to turn off the television of our lives, to set down the remote and go outside?

Stay Safe, Bourne
DJ Damon

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lost Tribe Finds Itself

[Editor's Note: This article originally appears in the 09/04 issue of The Forward.]

In the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, far in the northeast near the Burmese border, some 7,000 people observe the Jewish Sabbath, kosher dietary laws and rules of family purity. Already, 1,400 of these people, known as Bnei Menashe, have immigrated to Israel. The remaining 7,000 wish to join their brethren as soon as possible in relocating to the Holy Land, the act known in Hebrew as aliyah.

Their ambitions are proving more complicated than they thought, however, and so they have released a CD of their music. Titled “Aliya, Aliya…” it is intended to help make the case for their quest and, not incidentally, to help fund the move.

The Bnei Menashe claim descent from the ancient Israelite tribe of Menashe (Manasseh), one of the storied 10 Lost Tribes exiled from the land of Israel by Assyrian conquerors 27 centuries ago. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate affirmed in 2005 that these people are, indeed, of Jewish ancestry, but required that they undergo formal conversion before they can be deemed Jewish under rabbinic law — and thus qualify for immigration rights, in such areas as subsidies and citizenship, under Israel’s Law of Return. In the meantime, they must manage their resettlement on their own.

“Aliya, Aliya” features a collection of 15 songs, performed in Hebrew and in the Bnei Menashe’s local dialect, Thadou-Kuki, and is mostly devoted to Zionist and religious themes. The CD was produced and published by Shavei Israel, an organization that helps descendants of Jews from all over the world to reconnect with their Jewish roots.

According to Shavei Israel founder and chairman, Michael Freund, the Bnei Menashe are “a lost tribe of Israel. They live and practice Judaism, they keep Shabbat, they keep kosher, they keep the laws of family purity, they wear yarmulkes and tzitzit. They have built over 50 synagogues across Mizoram and Manipur.”

“Aliya, Aliya” combines Israeli and Indian styles, and, as its name implies, is a spirited plea for emigration. Some songs, like “Shokhen Ad,” are from the traditional Jewish prayer service, while others, such as the title track, echo the group’s attachment to Israel.

Although the disc showcases some exotic instrumentation, most of the songs are accessible and Western in musical style, with strong hints of modern Israeli music. In fact, though the expectation for a geographically far-flung disc may be a similarly unfamiliar style, the truth is just the opposite: The Bnei Menashe have produced a work that not only pines for the Holy Land, but also emulates Her sounds.

The result is pleasingly familiar, a percussion-heavy interpretation of Western fare. Not nearly as experimental as George Harrison’s famed Indian-style compositions, nor as traditional as the country’s classical raga style, “Aliya, Aliya” is surprisingly mainstream. With much of its material borrowed from Scripture and prayer, the album hits surprisingly close to home.

Shavei Israel is selling the CD through its Web site,, and has been instrumental in assisting the Bnei Menashe. In addition to facilitating the aliyah of the 1,400 who have already moved to Israel, the organization has assisted with the building of synagogues and mikvehs in India. Shavei also operates two educational centers, one in Mizoram and one in Manipur, that instruct the Bnei Menashe in Hebrew and Jewish culture.

“I first learned of the Bnei Menashe over a decade ago,” said Freund, who served from 1996 to 1999 on the staff of Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “I made contact with members of the community who’d managed to make it to Israel. I was very taken by them on a human level, with their sincerity and commitment to living as Jews.”

In 2004, at Freund’s urging, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate sent a delegation to India to try and determine if, indeed, the Bnei Menashe hail from a lost tribe.

“The rabbis spent time interviewing members of the community and meeting with some of the locals, learning more about their history and traditions and customs,” Freund said. The delegation submitted reports to Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who in 2005, Freund said, “formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as being descendants of Jews — ‘zera yisrael’ [the seed of Israel] — and [said he] would do what he can to facilitate bringing them to Israel.”

Since the Jewishness of Bnei Menashe is not recognized by Israeli government officialdom, Shavei Yisrael has often had to navigate through layers of bureaucracy to get them to Israel. A typical strategy has involved obtaining permission from Israel’s Interior Ministry to bring groups of Bnei Menashe to Israel for the purpose of conversion and resettlement.

“I think the Bnei Menashe are a blessing for the State of Israel and the people of Israel,” said Freund, who made aliyah himself from New York 13 years ago. “They are honest, decent, hardworking people; they serve in the army; volunteer for combat units, and raise beautiful Jewish children. As much as we try to strengthen them, ultimately they strengthen us.”

Stay Sonorous, Bnei Menashe
MC Manipur

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Age Rage

Aging is a process, and aged is a state, but real “age,” at least as it’s depicted on a driver’s license, is a vast artifice. You see, chronological age is only as relevant as its implications: having a physical body that has withstood thirteen corporeal years is one thing, but the assumptions, generalities, and social constructs that go along with that amount of time are what are truly meant by, “Oh, he’s just thirteen.”

So calling one of those Harvard-bound preteens a “twelve-year-old” is just as misleading as calling him dumb, or unmotivated. Sure, it’s accurate so far as the calendar is concerned, but attaching all the trappings and beliefs normally assigned to people of that birth year is preposterous.

So twenty could be thirty, thirty could be eighty, and ninety could be fifteen. Each moment of the present is a shared commodity anyhow, a common “now” of which we all equally own a part. Our interconnectivity makes our ages something of a wash, or at least interchangeable. If one can share a moment with someone else—or, really, share every moment with someone else—then surely the amount of days one has been here is inherently less valent than one's humanness, and one's ability to transcend age and into something more captivating—perhaps one's science, or credulity.

We are transported on jagged floes of time, afloat on embalmed menaces irreversibly destined for later destinations. Thusly oriented, we presume these swaths our rightful carriers, and align our self-concepts by the blurry way-stations of days past. We pivot our stories on crowded platforms pockmarked by strewn birthdays and heeded demarcations. There are none more tortured than us, time travelers resigned to ride, freezing away our virility on age's piked glaciers.

But is chronology not simply a candle, a votive resonance with a wick, a body, and—most vitally—an extinguishable quality? Like an hourglass than can turned on its side and halted, age is a conflagration that can be smothered, muted, and mutated into inertness. Whereas some might believe the floes too mighty, these sheets can be stopped and stowed, made stationary against the rhetorical cross-examination of “But I don't feel very old.”

Belief is time’s lone arbiter—perceptions of youth and elderliness the vales in which age resides. It is from these hamlets that classifications arise, glutinous and damning like the summer haze. Twenty, thirty, and all the rest are viscous crags, plucking victims from time’s beneficent streets.

Stay Specious, Age
DJ Derider

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Java Jeremiad

Coffee shops have long represented a certain culture, a Bohemian, B-Type liberalism associated, more or less, with screenplays that never get finished and scrawled notes that never get formalized. The bean brewery is home to the diurnal diuretic and estival beret—shelter to a fueled, fledgling artisanship.

Starbucks is not the traditional coffee shop. Starbucks sells John Mellencamp records. Starbucks sells first-person narratives driven by canine protagonists. Starbucks attracts more corporate shills than it does dowdy writers. Starbucks charges Benjamins and does not give free refills.

Like a dance club, Starbucks charges for a tony aesthetic. The acerbic, inky coffee is a high-priced hand stamp, a token of inclusion in an odd, pretentious party. The in-speak and latte lingo are the native patois, the jargon of dispossessed coffee drinkers with more insecurities than taste receptors. It is with an ingratiating smile that the counter clerk takes your order, and it is with a dismissive wave that your drink is served. Tired minions huff through Starbucks every day, wanting to tread in the shallow fraternity of Mint Mocha Chips and Caffé Americanos.

The question, “Would you like a little foam on your macchiato?” is supposed to be pathetic. It’s supposed to be asked of a faux installation artist by a faux barista, both—male or female—with unclipped body hair and idealism that slightly exceeds their respective intellects. It is a question that should, by café noir standards, evoke a round of mordant anti-Frenchism. It should not be asked in a central business district and should not be posed against an exclusively licensed John Coltrane recording. Thanks to Starbucks, macchiato foam flipped from freak to chic, its hilarity dissipated like so much steamed milk…err, soy milk.

What does Starbucks want? Not your money—they got that long ago. Not your loyalty—they snared that, too. What they’re really after is approval, a collective affirmation of the way the chain has hijacked coffee culture. Starbucks abruptly maimed the organic coffee shop experience, a fact that has become a mammoth elephant in the room. Instead of resolving the elephant, Starbucks has marketed it past innocuousness and into fashion, and desperately needs its customer base to help prolong the fiction.

Instead of addressing high prices and low roast, Starbucks is prospering by having us all participate in a farce. The knock-off paintings on its walls reek of wannabe, but we ignore that. The music it plays is teenybopper swill, but we listen anyway. Its heinous lighting and assembly line embrace violate everything quirky and sacred about coffee houses, but we forgive. We relent, yield, and sip.

Stay Scandalizing, Starbucks
DJ De Leche

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Phelps Phenomenon

If you Google Michael Phelps—at least as of 1:20am EST on Tuesday, August 19th—you’ll turn up 9,080,000 results. Just two days after the flagellar phenom took home his record 8th Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing, Phelps has a bigger online presence than Stonehenge (8,630,000), the Queen of England (7,790,000), and LeBron James (7,150,000). He carries about eight times more virtual weight than Mark Spitz (1,190,000), the swimmer whose gold medal mark Phelps bested. Granted, Phelps is no Kobayashi (11,500,000), but is in a different stratosphere than Joey Chestnut (636,000), the vacuum who out-ate the Japanese hotdogger.

Sportswriters the world over are hailing Phelps as the greatest athlete of all time. In a feature called “Phelps’ eight gold medals makes us rethink greatness,”’s Jemele Hill says, “Forget your previous notions. Forget other things you've seen from the other world's best athletes. What Phelps has done is as remarkably different as God giving us the sun one day and the seas the next…Phelps has changed the way we think about sport. Phelps has redefined athletics, and athleticism.”

Want to claim home-country bias? Understandable. But then there’s the Canberra Times, an Australian newspaper that published a piece by columnist Daniel MacDonald entitled, “Forget Tiger, Jordan, Federer…Phelps is now the greatest ever.” When the lauding comes from a rival country—as MacDonald notes, “It was hard not to be disappointed with some of Australia's narrow misses. World record-holders Leisel Jones, Libby Trickett, Eamon Sullivan and Grant Hackett all failed to shine in their pet events”—and a country that won less gold collectively than Phelps did personally, it is time to stop and smell the chlorine: Michael Phelps is the bomb diggity.

The Olympics are one of our last romantic bastions. Modern facts like Wi-Fi and space travel are immaterial, and, more to the point, each event has a definable result. Someone wins, someone finishes second, and then another third. Swimming is especially platonic, since it is so simple—like wrestling, it involves no high-tech equipment, and like running, it is a race in the truest sense. Just a bunch of dudes/dudettes swimming through a bunch of water, each hoping for a glory that rests in hundredths of seconds. What makes Michael Phelps so accessible, so easily celebrated, is that one can sum up his achievement in a single sentence.

He swam faster than everybody else.

Michael Jordan had teammates; Phelps swam alone. Tiger Woods uses a club to hit a ball into a hole; Phelps used only his body. Lance Armstrong had teammates and rode the best bicycle money could buy; Phelps did not benefit from superior engineering, as he shared a pool with his competition. Muhammad Ali competed once every few months; Phelps swam every day, sometimes twice a day. And obliterated world-class competition each time.

It is very tempting to label Phelps the best ever, especially in the immediate afterglow of his achievements. It is even more tempting since Spitz, whose mark of 7 gold medals stood since 1972, already called Phelps “the best Olympian of all time.” But is Phelps better than Ruth, Thorpe, Federer, Woods, Ali, Gretzky, and Rice?

It’s nearly impossible to say. But one thing is clear: Phelps has to swim a lot faster to catch Justin Timberlake (39,000,000).

Stay Searchable, Michael
MC Medal