Sam Miller of Yidwise and Jewish Music Underground

In the Introduction of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, I talked about how Jewish punk fit into a larger context of overtly Jewish music in the 21st century. Over the last decade and a half, the way that people have viewed the context of Jewish music across genres has evolved.
SamMiller

Sam Miller

I was intrigued this past August when Sam Miller, a college student in LA, launched a blog called Yidwise. He wrote on the site, “Yidwise looks at ALL Jewish music—from the comfortably familiar to the boldly innovative—with a friendly but critical eye. Rock, hip-hop, klezmer, Hasidic, Israeli, a cappella—everything is fair game.” Yidwise already has 120 posts, including my guest post from last month about Orthodox Punk Rockers.

This month Miller launched another blog, Jewish Music Underground (JMU). The description was music to my ears: “If your Jewish music is challenging, dangerous, complex, abrasive, or just plain indescribable…if you or your band has ever been kicked out of a shul…if you’ve gotten emails assuring you of your place in Hell…if you have no dream of getting a record deal or getting on mainstream radio…welcome to the Jewish Music Underground.” This week I contributed guest posts about Moshiach Oi! and the Gangsta Rabbi.

Here’s my interview with Yidwise and JMU blogger Sam Miller.

What are you looking to accomplish with Yidwise?

When I started getting back into Jewish music, I noticed that a lot of the coverage was very one-sided—Orthodox sites would blindly praise Orthodox artists without giving them any real context, and non-Orthodox sites would scoff at all Orthodox artists while blindly praising their own artists of the week (who were often just as lame). It occurred to me that part of the problem was that neither these sites nor their audiences had ever really left their respective bubbles and heard other Jewish music, except maybe to mock it. So I guess my goal with Yidwise is two-fold: to expose people to music they might not have listened to otherwise and to cover it honestly and thoroughly—explain where the artist is coming from and why their music does or doesn’t work.

 

What’s the focus of JMU?

With Jewish Music Underground, I’m focusing on artists who, for one reason or another, choose not to promote themselves in the way Jewish artists typically do. I often wonder if some Jewish artists hold back on certain things because they want to play a shul or a JCC at some point, so it’s interesting to see artists who have completely abandoned those concerns and just want to make music any way they can. It’s not that there aren’t some solid artists in that more mainstream Jewish scene, but there’s also a lot of cool stuff that can happen when you separate yourself from that, and my hope is that JMU can shed light on some of them.

Jewish Music Underground
How do the artists you’ve covered on JMU fit with that approach?
They’re mostly artists whose music is not easily digestible for a mainstream listener, Jewish or secular. They don’t have to be shocking or avant-garde, just weird and offbeat in some way, something you really have to listen to to fully understand. They’re also generally not on major labels, not getting a ton of radio play, not selling out arenas, and not burning up the charts. They make money, sure, but they’re succeeding on their own unusual terms.
Does JMU lend itself to some genres in particular?
Generally stuff like hardcore and metal are obvious choices (especially since not many Jewish bands play them), but I’ve always thought genre or even volume is sort of a false positive as a marker for real “alternative” Jewish music. For example, Jewish rap music sounds radical and dangerous on paper, but many Jewish hip-hop artists are nice and radio-friendly and perform at Chabad events. (There’s nothing wrong with that, but you get my point.) To me, “underground music,” whatever genre it happens to be, can be loud and abrasive or quietly weird and off-kilter, so long as there’s something about it that throws you just a little bit off your balance.
Here’s my take:
  • In the early 2000s, there was the emergence of Heeb magazine, JDub Records, Matisyahu, and what’s been called “New Jews.” From then on there was an interest in Jewish music across genres, as part of a larger context of New Jews culture. But Heeb stopped publishing in print in 2010 (and hasn’t held as much sway at least since then), JDub Records shut down in 2011, Matisyahu shaved his beard in 2011 (which arguably symbolized less emphasis on overtly Jewish music, even though Matisyahu is still out there doing his thing), and Teruah (a fantastic blog that looked at Jewish music across genres, as part of what the blogger called the Silver Age of American Jewish Music) mostly stopped posting in 2012. 
  • Since 2010-2012, there’s still great Jewish music being made across genres; there are still Shemspeed and Tzadik releasing albums; there are still Jewish media outlets like the Forward, Tablet, and Jewcy covering it with individual stories; and there are still people who look at particular strains of Jewish music (eg, klezmer, Jewish punk, Jewish metal). 
  • But these days, it feels like the term “New Jews” has expired and there’s relatively little focus on Jewish music across genres. One phase ended, and the current phase has lots of great, new Jewish music—but hardly anyone is looking at it that way. Hardly anyone is grouping it all together as Jewish music across genres and showing the abundance of what’s coming out.

That’s my take. Do you see it differently?

I’d never really thought of it that way (much of that was off my radar at the time), but now that you mention it I can certainly see that. There is a certain stagnation that’s happened in the younger Jewish pop culture since then, like we’re still living off stuff from ten years ago. I think part of it is that youth culture in general is so fragmented and rapidly evolving now that the Jewish Powers That Be don’t know how to respond to it, so they just keep putting out the stuff people are already bored of. But you’re also right that there is still great Jewish music coming out; it’s just not being looked at as a scene unto itself the way that original era was.

 

Where do you hope to fit into that dynamic?

Back when I was into Christian music, something that struck me was that there’s no separation by denomination—it’s all just “Christian music” and it’s all covered on the same sites. That’s not a perfect analogue to Jewish music (there’s definitely a difference between, say, Hasidic and Sephardi music), but I do think that there are a lot of separations where there really don’t need to be. I hope that I help people get a better understanding of “the other side” and see that we can all embrace what makes us unique while still clinging to the heritage we all have in common.

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