First Matisyahu fused Orthodox Judaism and black music with his kosher version or roots reggae; now an observant hip hop artist is causing a stir on the rap scene. At first glance, Eprhyme - aka Eden Pearlstein - seems an unlikely hip hopper. He comes not from the 'hood but from a middle-class home in Washington state. But he started to listen to hip hop as a child and by the age of 14 (he is now 30) he was rhyming and freestyling. The religion part came later, he says, speaking ahead of his concert at Sandys Row Synagogue in London next week.
He certainly does not see himself as a haimishe novelty act. Since moving to New York a year ago, he has become a regular at the city's premier hip hop club, SOB's. He sees his role less as bringing hip hop to the Jews and more bringing Judaism to the hip hop scene. "Most of my career has not been in the Jewish world, mainly because up in Olympia, Washington, there are not a lot of Jews. I have been touring and releasing albums for six or seven years and mainly on the West Coast underground circuit. So I took a different trajectory."
His music has gone down well with both crowds, and he has been accepted as an authentic rapper, despite the kippah and tzitzit. As he says, being a Jewish rapper in New York City is not such a big deal. "There have always been Jews in hip hop. There are a lot of African Americans in New York but also a lot of Jews. It's only natural that Jews should be a subculture in this movement."
Besides, he believes that bringing in Jewish influences is in tune with what hip hop is all about. And there is much more than just Judaism in his records - he has also spent a lot of time listening to punk, jazz, klezmer, reggae and Middle Eastern music. "The hip hop sensibility is sample based. We mash up cultures and put them together - it's really exciting to take something from somewhere, juxtapose it with something else which would seem totally unrelated and find that it really fits."
Eprhyme had what he describes as "a standard non-Orthodox West Coast Jewish upbringing - Hebrew school, barmitzvah and summer camp. It was not very intriguing to me and I just walked away from it after my barmitzvah.
"But I've always been a creative and spiritual person. I studied comparative religion and psychology and eventually through a long and winding path I got tripped back on to Judaism almost accidentally."
Although he does rap about "obscure kabbalistic concepts", his goal is to make his lyrics universally accessible by giving them what he calls "multi-levels of meaning".
Obscure references or not, what is important is that he is good at what he does. "You really have to be able to rap. I happen to be a Jewish rapper but if you are not good, it doesn't matter what your niche market is."