Hip Hop Hoodios: Latin-Jewish Hip-Hoppers Josh Norek and Abraham Velez of Hip Hop Hoodios talk to host Michel Martin about their latest CD, Carne Masada: Quite Possibly the Very Best of Hip Hop Hoodios. The two discuss the way they mix Jewish and Latin sounds with cultural commentary and a healthy dose of humor.
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Hip Hop Hoodios: Latin-Jewish Hip-Hoppers

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Hip Hop Hoodios: Latin-Jewish Hip-Hoppers

Hip Hop Hoodios: Latin-Jewish Hip-Hoppers

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They are very likely the bestselling Latino-Jewish urban musical collective of all time. So what that they're probably the only Latino-Jewish urban collective? Since 2001, the Hip Hop Hoodios have been pleasing and intriguing audiences with their unique blend of hip-hop, klezmer, Latin and whatever other sounds excite them. Here's a little sample of their song "Times Square (1989)."

(Soundbite of song "Times Square (1989)")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Rapping) I got four brothers by the name of Cesario. We come down from the Albany barrio, fake IDs for 15 bucks, take two Tsingtaos and a Peking duck. It's one for the money and two for the kicks. They be burning our record like with Dixie Chicks. You can do the smurf in Bensonhurst, you can get downtown to the sound of the brown.

Break that mailbox, heavy-metal boom box. Hot dogs and...

MARTIN: Joining me now are the two creators of the group. They've just released their new CD, "Carne Masada: Quite Possibly the Very Best of Hip Hop Hoodios." In Los Angeles is Josh Norek, and in our New York bureau, Abraham Velez. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr.�JOSH NOREK (Musician): Hello. Thank you.

Mr.�ABRAHAM VELEZ (Musician): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: How did you two get together?

Mr.�NOREK: Wow, Abraham and I knew each other in the music industry, actually. Both of us worked in the Latin music industry, I as a publicist at the time and he as a writer. And he was interviewing one of my clients, and at the time, I'd always had this idea bouncing in my head for a group called Hip Hop Hoodios. Since it's a play on words, we spell it like H-O-O-D from the hood, but normally the word is spelled J-U-D-I-O. It's Spanish for the word Jewish.

And again, this was sort of a pipe dream in my head until I met Abe, who with his Puerto Rican-Jewish ancestry, it just struck me as a perfect concept to bounce off him.

MARTIN: So Josh, you had this idea kicking around. So Abe, were you worried when you first put it together that this would be a novelty act like, you know, Two Live Jews - oh, look, how cute. How funny is that? Was that a fear, that you wouldn't be taken seriously as real musicians?

Mr.�VELEZ: Interesting. You know, that's an interesting way to think about it. Actually, if anything, I think it was partly what drew me in, the absurdity of it, and, of course, I mean, there was something just natural that I was interested in actualizing in terms of my family background. And I think that the way we started, it really was just sort of a soda-pop-fueled slumber party goof-off. And so in that regard, it really - it was low stakes. You know, and so it was okay that it felt like a little bit of a novelty because that's what it was to us at the very beginning, and lo and behold, it grew into something else.

MARTIN: Josh, is that how you saw it? It was kind of a goof?

Mr.�NOREK: I don't want to call it a goof. You know, I think that from the start, though, we are very deliberate about getting away from that. You know, unfortunately Jewish hip-hop has been marred exactly by what you said, about, you know, Two Live Jews and schlock-rock. And it's like why does Jewish hip-hop always have to be nebbishy and, like, sheepish. And for us...

MARTIN: But Beastie Boys and 3rd Base have - Beastie Boys and 3rd Base have Jewish MCs.

Mr.�NOREK: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So it's not like that there aren't credible Jewish hip-hop artists.

Mr.�NOREK: Oh, no, of course. But in terms of - for me, I'd say an act that really inspired me in my youth was a band called Blood of Abraham, and these were openly Jewish MCs who were produced by Eazy-E of NWA and marketed mostly to an African-American audience.

Certainly, I was a huge Beastie Boy and 3rd Base fan. But I always felt like they kind of kept their identity in the closet, whereas you know, Blood of Abraham, these guys were up front, and I also saw that they were successful in crossing over to a mostly non-religious, not necessarily Jewish audience. And I think that when Abe and I started Hip Hop Hoodios, I realized we had that potential as well, to, you know, be openly Jewish but connect with audiences whether they're Latino, Jewish, not Jewish.

We have fans in France, and when we go there, they just speak French. And I don't know why they enjoy us, but I think that our music thankfully transcends that musical ghetto, so to speak.

MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, about "Ocho Kandelikas." Would it be fair to call it a Hanukkah song?

Mr.�NOREK: Sure. It's a reworking of a song that's in Ladino, and that's a language that was spoken by the Jews of Spain. It's a song I remember hearing my father sing as a child, and I always thought it would be fun to do a more punk-rock, hip-hoppy version of it.

MARTIN: Well, then, here it is: "Ocho Kandelikas."

(Soundbite of song, "Ocho Kandelikas")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Rapping) Uno, do, tres, quatro... (Rapping in foreign language)

MARTIN: See, you're schooling me here. I just thought it was a punk Hanukkah song. I didn't realize there was an even deeper heritage to that.

Mr. VELEZ: It's a little further into what I sometimes call a punk-hop groove.

(Soundbite of song, "Ocho Kandelikas")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Rapping in foreign language)

MARTIN: So I assume that you are not the only two members of the Latino-Jewish community. Is there a center of gravity to the community that you draw upon for inspiration? And are they fans, or are they just appalled by what you're doing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VELEZ: What, appalled? Why do you say appalled? Well, they're a few different segments to this community, as with so many other communities. For example, at shows that we've played in New York, there's an older generation Sephardic community, and I think that they were sort of intrigued. Some somehow heard about the song that you just played, "Ocho Kandelikas," and may have, at times, been a little horrified by some of the other things that we did in our set, you know. And then we have sometimes a younger set of people who are like me: part of the family is Jewish, part of the family is non-Jewish Latino, and they've heard of us. And I think for them, there's a certain coming-out feeling about it. You know, that oh, okay, they're representing. And so there's some of that segment to the community.

Mr. NOREK: Yeah. And I would say, like, from our website, periodically we get an email that'll say, like, dear Hip Hop Hoodios, I live in La Cruces, New Mexico. I am like 1/20th Jewish. I've traced my ancestry to Sephardic Jews from Spain who came to the New World in like 1500. And there are a group of people known as crypto-Jews or Marranos who live in New Mexico, who are descendant of people escaping the Inquisition. And yeah, they reach out to us. And they'll just be like, I really dig what you're doing. Thanks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What kinds of crowds come to your shows, and does it vary depending on what part of the country you're in? Josh?

Mr. NOREK: Oh, yeah. It absolutely varies. You know, when we've done shows on the West Coast in L.A., I think out here, because Latin alternative music is pretty popular, we're perceived as just a straight-up Latin alternative act that happens to also be Jewish and we've done shows that have been probably more than half Chicano. And when we're playing in New York, definitely probably draws more of a Jewish hipster Upper Westside crowd. Right, Abe? Wouldn't you say it's...

Mr. VELEZ: I would say so. Yeah.

Mr. NOREK: Yeah. It's different every place you go.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Hip Hop Hoodios. Their latest CD is "Carne Masada." A number of your songs do intentionally blend the cultures in a very interesting way. And I just wondered, how does that work? Or can you even say?

Mr. VELEZ: Well, if I can say, it's something that I'm fond of calling post-ethnic pyrotechnics. And it's just a willful, over-the-top way of maybe even overstating the mash-up of cultures that we observe, that we have in our own lives, that we see all around us. I mean, one of my personal favorites or sort of well, favorite, non-favorites is when I'm asked about my family background and I tell a person and they say, wow, that's quite a mix.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VELEZ: And I just think, isn't that a comment - that's more for, you know, an interesting dog that you've met, you know, oh, thats quite a mix - you know? I never really know where to put that comment.

MARTIN: Welcome to America, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Like your president, right?

Mr. VELEZ: That's right.

MARTIN: So, okay well let's play something. Let's play - speaking of the mix, "Asi Loncheamos! (Two Matzoh Balls)."

(Soundbite of song, "Asi Loncheamos! (Two Matzoh Balls)")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Rapping) Two matzoh ball soup... Two matzoh balls...

MARTIN: I have to say, I am excited to have a rap song about matzoh balls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NOREK: Well, you know, it's a fictional drive thru where you can get your mofongo and your matzo ball soup.

Mr. VELEZ: And then the title would roughly translate to "that's how we do lunch."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yes. Exactly.

(Soundbite of song, "Asi Loncheamos! (Two Matzoh Balls)")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Rapping) (Foreign language spoken) show us where to dine, manna from heaven and Jibaro wine. Enchiladas con (foreign language spoken) is what I'll order. Me and Moses, we're going south of the border. Let's go back to that place called home where the Mariachi sing (foreign language spoken) shalom. Put down that sickle. Get up with a pickle. (Foreign language spoken) are the best, they only cost a nickel.

Two matzoh ball soup...

MARTIN: That's right. That's how we do lunch. That's right. I think that might have to be like our anthem here on this program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And you also have some fun contributors on this CD. A lot of - you've got Oso Motley. You got Will Dog from Oso Motley. You've got Kemo the Blaxican and...

Mr. NOREK: Yes.

MARTIN: ...the Klezmatics. You've got all these contributors in this one piece. And the piece is "Viva la Guantanamera" and, of course, we're going to play it.

Mr. VELEZ: Yes.

Mr. NOREK: I was reading the L.A. Jewish Journal one day, and I seldom pick up that paper, so it was unusual that this article caught my attention. It was Will Dog of Oso Motley, like, reconnects with his Jewish roots. And I'm a huge Oso Motley fan for over 10 years. I'd never actually met Will Dog, and he says, oh, I've been listening to a lot of Hip Hop Hoodios.

And a week later, I'm at a concert in L.A., and who's standing next me in the audience but Will Dog. So I introduced myself, and he flipped out. He's like, I have to produce you guys. And so when I told Abe this, we started thinking a little bit, well, you know, what are we going to do with him? Like, we need to come up with a new song. And I'll let Abe tell a little bit about this, but we had had this idea after doing a show with Frank London of the Klezmatics, sort of a song concept, reworking "Guantanamera" to be...

Mr. VELEZ: That's...

Mr. NOREK: ...you know, about Guantanamo Bay prison.

Mr. VELEZ: That's - yeah. He said what if you put some really lovely nasty beat? Maybe even a reggaeton behind "Guantanamera," the traditional song, "Guantanamera," and do something about the prison situation there. And so off we went, and we turned it into probably our most topical and directly stance-filled song about habeas corpus...


Mr. VELEZ: ...about Camp Delta and Camp X-Ray and Guantanamo Bay.

MARTIN: All right. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Viva la Guantanamera")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Rapping) What are the fruits of orange jumpsuits, and if old habeas corpus gets the boot. It's the same as Oso Motley asking who's to blame, 'cause the Camina (foreign language spoken) sure ain't paved with shame.

(Singing) Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera. Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera.

(Rapping) Come on, Mr. President, is this really us? Home of the brave in the land of the unjust...

MARTIN: It's not the only song that has, I think, what folks would consider some political content. And that would be also "Que Pasa in Israel," where you relate the experiences of Mexicans crossing the U.S. border to Palestinians getting into Israel. What response do you get when you take these songs out on the road?

Mr. VELEZ: I think, overall, people do seem to respond positively to our sort of fun, funny absurdist take on real issues, and I think that they appreciate that. We try to accompany taking a stance on something with the pressure valve that is laughter.

(Soundbite of song, "Viva la Guantanamera")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Singing) Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera.

Mr. NOREK: But we do like to fly that flag and see how people react. A few years ago, we were invited to play the Salute to Israel parade in Manhattan, and we had some mixed feelings. I mean, I think we would consider ourselves Israel supporters, but we certainly - it's not unconditional. And we had asked the parade folks if we could have a big banner on the side of our float that said Latino Jewish peacemongers. And certainly, you know, each block was different. Some folks would be waving and frantic and so excited. Then other blocks, you would be met with kind of more stares.

MARTIN: Stares aren't so bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VELEZ: Stares...

MARTIN: You know what I mean?

Mr. VELEZ: ...stares we can do. Yes, stares...

MARTIN: Stares you can live with, right?

Mr. VELEZ:Yes, stares you can...

MARTIN: There you go.

Mr. VELEZ: ...laugh and enjoy afterward. And yeah, stares are good.

MARTIN: I got to ask you about one song. And this is probably a good place to let some listeners know they might be offended by the next few minutes of the conversation. I'm not going to say the title, because I don't feel comfortable - I personally don't feel comfortable saying the title.

Mr. VELEZ: Uh-huh.

MARTIN: African-American hip hop artists have been called out for the use of the N, and you have a song that is probably the Jewish equivalent of the N word.

Mr. NOREK: The K word.

MARTIN: The K word. The K word.

Mr. NOREK: Sure. Uh-huh.

Mr. VELEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: It's the "K Word on the Mic," but that's not how it is on the album. And I just, I wanted to ask, what's that about? I mean, I think, I'm told that there was actually one time you were asked not to play that song. And so could you talk to me about that?

Mr. NOREK: I mean, for sure, we are at least amateur or aspiring students of history. And I've always had a fascination with the origin of words. And so, am I allowed to say the word? I don't know if I - the K word?

MARTIN: Yeah, sure. I mean, I just personally feel, as an African-American, I...

Mr. NOREK: Sure.

MARTIN: ...don't feel it's my place, if you don't mind my saying so.

Mr. NOREK: So knowing the origin of the word itself, of the word kike, it comes from a Yiddish word kikel, which meant circle. And the word really never had any derogatory meaning until immigrant Jews would start getting off the boat at Ellis Island in Manhattan. A lot of them were either illiterate or didn't speak English, and when they were supposed to put their name on the section where you're supposed to sign it, they would just sometimes draw a circle in the section where their name was supposed to go.

And over time it became, took on more of a derogatory tone. It got shortened from the word kikel, which meant circle, to kike. And it was just more of, you know, derogatory word towards Jewish immigrants. But I felt knowing the origin of the word and that it just meant circle, it took a lot of the sting out of it. And so our song "Kike on the Mic," is an attempt to reclaim the word itself and to remove the sting from it and be very much in your face. It's a loud, powerful song.

(Soundbite of song, "Kike on the Mic")

Hip Hop Hoodios: (Rapping) I'm on the mic. I'm a crazy kike. I'm a Yid, gonna blow my lid. My set is fresh, like a pound of flesh. My nose is large, and you know I'm in charge. I'm on the mic. I'm a crazy kike. I'm a Yid, gonna blow my lid. My set is fresh like a pound of flesh. My nose is large, and you know I'm in charge.

Mr. NOREK: That's actually...

MARTIN: It's like - sort of like the N word, the origin of the N word could be the Latin or the Spanish, negro, for black. It doesn't - I don't -okay.

Mr. NOREK: And that doesn't keep the sting out of it. Well, you know, and, you know, and I...

MARTIN: Let me just say if you were to use that word with me, I would not be friends with you.

Mr. NOREK: Of course, and...

MARTIN: We would not be happy with each other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NOREK: And point very well taken, Michel. And I'm glad you asked about this. I, you know, I think that there's this, you know, phrase that you'll sometimes hear, taking a word back, you know, recreating the meaning of a word. And I feel it should be self-evident in the performance of the song that we're doing something that's about empowerment and about dignity. And anyone who comes to a show and sees us do the song would know that we're not doing an act of self-hatred.

And I remember - you know, we've been asked about this many times, and I remember responding to a fan over email, and we talked about this, that, come out and see us at the show. See us do the song, and then tell us afterwards if you think that it's a self-hating act that we've done or if there's actually something empowering about it.

But by the same token, you know, some words may be beyond redemption, I think, Michel. And when you speak of the N word, that - I don't know. I wonder about that a lot, and that may be a word that's just beyond redemption. You know, maybe this taking back of words cannot be applied to any given word.

MARTIN: Well, gentlemen, I appreciate your time. What song shall we go out on?

Mr. NOREK: Did we do "Havana Nagila"?

MARTIN: I don't think we did "Havana Nagila."

Mr. VELEZ: Oh, I think we should do "Havana Nagila."

MARTIN: I think that's a good one. All right. Abraham Velez and Josh Norek are the Hip Hop Hoodios. Their latest CD is "Carne Masada: Quite Possibly the Very Best of Hip Hop Hoodios." Josh is at NPR West in Culver City, California; Abe joined us from our New York bureau. Gentleman, thank you both so much.

Mr. NOREK: Michel, thank you so much.

Mr. VELEZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: And you can learn more about the Hip Hop Hoodios and groove to the full version of their song "Guantanamera." Just log onto our website, npr.org and click on Tell Me More.

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