An article in the June 11 Style section about a musical group, the Hip Hop Hoodios, mistakenly identified the song "Ocho Kandelikas" as a traditional Sephardic tune. The song was written by musician and composer Flory Jagoda. (Published 06/16/05).
The Hip Hop Hoodios are rolling up Fifth Avenue, representing la raza at the Salute to Israel parade, blasting the bass, bouncing around their float and confusing everyone in their path. A dozen or so preschoolers on the float toss foam footballs into the crowd while Abe Velez grinds on guitar and Alanna "Alannanagila" Perez writhes around the tight space, shaking her tail feather. On the mike is Josh Norek, the "psycho-Semitic manic Hispanic," 5 feet 8 of bombast and braggadocio.
"We're the Hip Hop Hoodios! We're a Latino-Jewish rap collective!" Norek yells as they roll past a man holding a sign that read, "Expel the Nazi Arabs Not the Jews."
"This goes out to all those Hoodia Honeys! No Nose Jobs!"
See for me the bigger the nose the better
They say the whiter the brighter
Oh yeah? Well, that's tough
Sometimes I think that I'm not Yid enough
At the sound of Norek's rap, boys in yarmulkes prick up their ears, waving the Israeli flag in solidarity and dancing with curly-haired girls. A grandmotherly sort makes a great show of plugging her ears. Velez grins and gives her the thumbs-up.
They are so loving this, the plugged ears, the shaking heinies, the little kids bouncing on the sidewalk. And so they break into their biggest hit, "Ocho Kandelikas" ("Eight Candles"), before moving on to a rousing "Havana Nagila." Today they're emphasizing the Jewish part of their equation (which means they're passing on the more offensive songs in their repertoire).
The Hoodios -- the name is a play on "judio," the Spanish word for Jew -- are a little bit klezmer, a little bit cumbia, and a lot hip-hop, rapping in Spanish, English, Hebrew and Ladino, gleefully mixing genres and tumbling over easy ethnic categorizations. Headed by Norek and Velez, two music industry executives, the bicoastal Hoodios started out a few years ago as a gimmick. But they found that they could mine humor to make a political point, and that was kind of cool. So was the making music part.
Then people started paying attention, and that was really cool: Their first music video, "Ocho Kandelikas," a riff on a traditional Sephardic song, gets regular rotation on MTV Espanol, especially around Hanukah. (It's also featured in VH1's "100 Worst Moments in Hiphop," thanks to Hoodia Honey Perez's infamous bagel bra.) Volkswagen featured their latest single, "Gorrito Cosmico" ("Cosmic Hat," a loony ode to a flying yarmulke), in one of its commercials. Still, their second album, "Agua Pa' la Gente" ("Water for the People") has sold only 200 copies, according to Soundscan, even with guest appearances from members of Santana and the Klezmatics.
For the Hoodios, being Latino is a fluid thing. This is both convenient -- Norek has some vague family ties in Colombia -- and literal -- Velez is of Eastern European and Puerto Rican descent. The Jewish thing is fluid, too. A third member, Federico Fong, is a dreadlocked Chinese-Panamanian-Jamaican-white Arkansan who identifies as Mexican. His Jewish connection? His sister worked in a deli on Second Avenue.
"This has made me more of what I am, more of the Jewish culture," says Perez, who says her mother is an American Jew and her father a Mexican. "I wasn't before I got into this band. Now all of a sudden, I'm Jewish."
"And I'm the other way," says Velez, who first learned Spanish when he was 18, about the same time he started exploring his Latino roots.
They call themselves "Spanish-rapping Jewz." Their logo is the Star of David superimposed over the red, white and blue of the Puerto Rican flag. Indeed, tolerance and Jewish pride, along with the requisite hip-hop bragging about bedroom exploits, are persistent themes. Their song "1492" dissects the expulsion of Jews from Spain, while "Agua Pa' la Gente" is a diatribe against the privatization of water in Latin America. Like African American rappers, they embrace ethnic slurs with gusto. It's the best way to erase the sting.
They're "anti-passing" and have little patience for musicians who play down their Jewishness. They dismiss the Beastie Boys as "closet Jews," and instead see themselves along the lines of the Blood of Abraham, an Afrocentric Jewish group mentored by NWA's Eazy E in the early '90s. Their goal, they say, is to go beyond the punch line.
"With Jewish rap, there is a lot of kitsch, a lot of novelty," Norek says. "Two live Jews, 50 shekels. They take regular rap songs and 'In Da Club' becomes 'In Da Shul.' It's so lame. It's mad-libs. Take black references, replace with Jewish references, hahaha that's Jewish hip-hop."
"They are tacking into an area where Jews are often, if at all present, often misrepresented," says Ilan Stavans, a Mexican Jew and editor of the four-volume Encyclopedia Latina. "They are not doing it in any sanitary way. The songs are racy. . . . Were they coming from someone not Jewish, they would be considered very offensive."
Norek came up with the name "Hip Hop Hoodios" while a student at Cornell University, musing what might happen if the Beastie Boys joined forces with Cypress Hill. In 1999, while working as a music publicist for Latin rock groups, he met Velez, then a music journalist. Together they figured they could find out what would happen if they melded a Latin sensibility to Jewish rap.
"A lot of my best lyrics were written when I was bored to tears in night law school class," says Norek, who now runs a publicity firm specializing in alternative Latin acts. "Criminal procedure on one side of my notebook and '[epithet] on the mike' on the other side."
Sept. 11, 2001, gave them a sense of urgency, that they shouldn't wait to pursue that which they most wanted to pursue, and they began recording that fall. Their first CD was a bargain-basement special, recorded in snatches, an EP release with four songs. They took a year to record their second CD, criss-crossing the country on the red eye, Norek to New York and Velez to Los Angeles.
"There's some kind of artist lurking in half the pencil pushers in Manhattan," says Happy Sanchez, a musician with Los Moscosos who produced both albums. "But they don't go for it."
It's a Saturday night in early June at the Makor, on the West Side. Neal Ochoa, the percussionist, wanders around with his toddler daughter glued to his hip, his hair a dandelion spray of coily curls. Perez sits in a corner, applying eyeliner, while Norek sets up a table filled with "Hoodia Honey" T-shirts. Velez tunes his guitar, dark glasses obscuring his eyes.
Slowly, the audience starts to fill in, young men in their twenties sporting yarmulkes, kinky-curly-haired Latinas sporting skintight jeans. At 10:30, the group takes to the stage, bouncing around in a tightly choreographed set. The music is hot and funky. Sweat is in the air.
"Wave your nose in the air!" Norek shouts, jumping up and down, up and down. "Wave it like you just don't care!"