NEW YORK – Vanilla Ice made his name playing up being a white rapper. Then came the Asian rapper, Jin. Now music fans can enter a new realm of hip-hop -- that of the Jewish rapper.
Aviad Cohen, a.k.a. 50 Shekel (search), who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., is not the first Jewish rapper -- the likes of the Beastie Boys and the short-lived 2 Live Jews (search) came before him. But Shekel is aiming to make his Jewish heritage an integral part of his image, as is obvious by his name, a tribute to the wildly popular rapper 50 Cent.
50 Shekel's music career was inspired by 50 Cent (search) and his hit “In Da Club,” which flooded the airwaves this year. And in another take-off, Shekel calls his clique the Jew Unit, like 50 Cent’s G Unit. While he could easily be perceived as making a joke with his name, Shekel says his platform isn't a mockery of hip-hop or religion. By releasing peaceful music that reflects pride in his religion, Shekel wants to create a new cultural presence in the rap industry.
His single "In Da Shul" (shul is a house of worship) contains lyrics like, You can find me in da shul, praying after school, honey I got the chewitz if you're jumping in my pool, I'm just into making peace, I ain't into causing trub, so come give me a hug, if you're into getting love.
50 Shekel, who has made a name for himself in New York playing events and clubs, is currently working on his debut album, Enter the Spiel, due out in January of 2004. His Web site contains streaming video of his past performances, audio tracks, pictures and the Official 50 Shekel Jewish Lingo.
Foxnews.com had a chance to talk to the rapper, who is confident and ready to make a difference in the music world.
Are you a fan of 50 Cent? I'm assuming he had some influence in the name 50 Shekel.
I do appreciate 50 Cent’s music. Even though he and I come from different worlds, there are definitely many themes in his music and lyrics that I can relate to and connect with. Truthfully, if it weren’t for 50 Cent and his “In Da Club” song that inspired me to write and record my kosher “In Da Shul” version, 50 Shekel would not exist. Straight up props to 50 and his producers for making a great track that brings smiles to people and inspires fun.
That’s what I’m about as well, having fun. I’m also about inspiring my yiddas (translation: My fellow Jews) to be proud of their heritage and celebrate the Jew life, instead of hiding from their identity. I’m doing my best to spark a resurgence of Jewish heritage in entertainment. Someone needs to represent and I didn’t see anyone really "Jewing" it the way I could relate to so I decided to do it since it was more important to me than anything else I had done before in my lifetime.
When 50 Cent's name is no longer a commodity, how do you plan on continuing your career?
I think 50 Cent is an artist, not so much a commodity. Some might look at him as a commodity, but I look at people as people. I think my career will last as long as I want it to last and it has nothing to do with where 50 Cent’s career goes. Like 50, I too have a story to tell through my rhymes, and people are listening. But you should know that this is more than a career to me. I’m doing this to represent my culture.
What is your background? Nationality? Where did you grow up?
I am Israeli/Persian and also of Eastern European decent from Poland. I was born in Israel and my family left when I was two years old to pursue a future in the United States. I was raised in Brooklyn, New York, as well as in Teaneck, New Jersey. Some of my most memorable experiences have come straight out of Brooklyn. BK Rocks!
Have you always been a fan of rap? If so, who have been your favorites?
I have been a fan of rap since I was a kid being brought up on it in Brooklyn. I was the kid who rapped a Doug E. Fresh track at a Hanukkah party and who also laid out the flat cardboard refrigerator box on the street to break dance with friends. Run DMC are also an early childhood inspiration. Rap music has taken so many different turns in the past two decades. I wish more people would put out positive tracks like Run DMC, LL Cool J, Doug E. Fresh and Jurassic 5. When Eminem put out "Lose Yourself," I was like, “I wish this guy would do more tracks like this. It uplifts people and that’s what we really need.” I know that there are artists who are making a difference through their rap music and I chose this medium since it is a great way to tell a story and get a message out in a fun way.
Do you use profanity in any of your rhymes? Are your rhymes religious?
My rhymes are 100 percent profanity-free and I think that is how it’s always going to be. I’m not one for abusing our freedom of speech and so I don’t degrade women, races, sexual preferences, religions, and have no interest in promoting drug use in my rhymes or videos. I’m not so much religious but more spiritual. I’m rediscovering what it means to be Jewish by pursuing my Shekel spiel and writing my lyrics, which are geared toward my Jewish culture but are universal and can be felt by everyone who chooses to listen to them and find something to relate to in my spiel. I’m not asking to be accepted by the rap industry. I’m just doing this because I want to shed light on our beautiful Jewish culture and make a difference in this world one rhyme at a time. I chose the medium of hip-hop music to tell my story.
How do your family and friends react to your pursuit of rap?
They straight up love it and know that I am having a great time "Jewing" it. I have very supportive people around me who respect who I am, what I am doing and what I stand for.
What is your end goal? Is this just for kicks or do you want to be one of the top rap contenders one day?
I want to make a difference. I’m not doing this to be famous. According to many people, I’m already famous and it just means to me that I have more of a responsibility to do something right, because after all, people are watching and listening. I plan on releasing my album in January. I’m currently working on my tracks in the studio. Soon after that, I hope to be touring nationally and internationally since there has been such a surprising demand for me to perform even before my album is complete. My plan is to simultaneously build up my Jewish entertainment company, Bagel Boy Records, and to eventually sign on other Jewish artists who I feel are making a difference and fit into the overall Bagel Boy plan. We are also going to be eventually putting out movies with Jewish themes. I already have an action comedy in development. I will be starring in it and you will just have to wait and see, but it will be worth the wait for sure and I guarantee that there will be many funny surprises in it to bring joy to people.
Have you been met with more support or resentment from Jews since you've started your rap career?
More support than resentment for sure. They know my angle and know that I’m keeping it kosher and respect me for what I’m doing.... This is the best gift that I have ever given to people and, God willing, I will be able to continue and flourish on my chosen path.
Tell us about “Enter the Spiel.” What can we expect to hear on this album? What issues do you rap about?
My album will have a fun hip-hop flair to it like I have never seen any Jew do before for our culture. I’ve got tracks like, “B.Y.O.C. Party” (Bring Your Own Chewitz Party) which has a Beastie Boys feel to it. ...Other tracks that the album will contain are “Bar Mitzvah Boy” ... and a romantic hip-hop and R&B song entitled, “My Sweet Jewish Wonder,” among other hot tracks. We’ll also have bonus audio clips that peeps can use as a voicemail for their cell phones where they can add their names over a message that I have created for them, titled “Leave a Message for This Hebrew Homie” and “Leave a Message for This Hebrew Hottie.”
There will also be a music video and a "Behind the Spiel" video clip with interview footage and clips of me recording in the studio. I’m working non-stop, round the clock with my team to get this album completed in a timely manner and with the highest production quality. It should be ready for peeps to purchase in January online at my official website: www.50shekel.com and soon after it will be in major music stores as well.
Where do you perform? How often do you perform?
I rock Jewish events, clubs, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, colleges, corporate events and charity benefits. We are also in negotiations with a production company that wants me to perform my new song “Bar Mitzvah Boy” in their movie. I will be performing on Wednesday, Dec. 10 at a fundraiser in New York City that will raise money to help Israeli soldiers on the front. The event is being put together by Alisha Adi, Inc. and Jwoo and will be held at Oz in New York City. People can inquire about booking me and my Jew-Unit to perform at their events by contacting us at email@example.com
Would you like to collaborate with any other rappers that are out right now?
Honesty, I don’t know how other rappers feel about me at this time, but I’m open to the possibilities. Nas, The Beastie Boys, the remaining members of Run DMC, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J, P. Diddy, Busta Rhymes, Nelly, Ludacris, Pharrel, Sisqo & Justin Timberlake – who I think is surprising everyone with his talent as a solo artist. My label is conducting a talent search for a Jewish female who loves to rap, sing and dance. She has to know her Gucci from her gefilte fish in order to "Jew" this Bagel Boy style. Her rapper name will be Lil’ Spenda and she will be a great role model for Jewish teenage girls and beyond.
How do you deal with social ignorance, like people who think Jews or whites shouldn't rap?
Years ago, some people didn’t think African-Americans should ride in the front of the bus. Rosa Parks changed that by standing up for herself and her peeps. So I’m standing up for my yiddas. I see hip-hop as a powerful genre of music that can positively and productively move mountains and make this world a better place to live in, if utilized correctly. It’s a great method of storytelling. It’s not reserved for one race and neither is the front seat of a bus.
In fact, I’ve seen more African-Americans who feel that what I’m doing is fun and unique. They approve. When I met an African-American teenage girl who heard my song, she kept on singing the chorus to “In Da Shul” all day. She wanted to know what the words meant, so I explained it to her and she totally got it. Who would ever imagine that an African-American girl from Harlem would get a chance to learn some Yiddish and sing a fun Jewish song with 50 Shekel? I feel that what I’m doing is bridging the gaps between Jews and non-Jews and uniting races. I don’t see obstacles; I only see possibilities for expansion and growth. That is Shekel style for sure.