AN INTERVIEW WITH SHEMSPEED’S
EREZ “DIWON” SAFAR
Erez Safar is an American-Israeli DJ who records his own hip-hop music under the name “Diwon.” He’s the founder and director of Shemspeed, an independent recording label that promotes Jewish cross-over artists including Y-Love, Ephryme, and Electro Morocco. Shemspeed’s mission is to “produce music and programming that reflects our mission as Jews, being a light unto the nations.”
Togther with Daniel “Mobius” Sieradski, he’s created the Hip Hop Sulha, a concert series that brings leading Jewish and Muslim hip-hop musicians together to celebrate peace and tolerance. A busy guy, Safar also is the founder and director of the Sephardic Music Festival, which plays in New York City and Los Angeles.
ZEEK: Have you always wanted to be a musician?
DIWON: Once I hit high school I decided I wanted to get a guitar and drums and start making music. I mostly played by ear. I had no patience for lessons. Since I went to a non-Jewish high school, I would get back home four hours before my Jewish friends and would have time to kill before getting together with them. So, I bought a 4-track and would mic up my guitar and drums and started to make tracks. I would first lay down drums and then guitar and then I would either rap or sing.
I hope none of those tapes find their way onto the internet, but those were the times where I realized that this is what I wanted to do. I just wanted to continuously create. I loved to see people’s reactions. The best thing about running a record label is that after I make the music, I can make the artwork that represents the song or album and then put it all into words and market it. I remember Saul Williams saying ‘words created worlds’. That is how I look at the entire process. Each song is a world and to let the world into it the packaging is also important.
ZEEK: What music did you grow up listening to?
DIWON: I listened to a lot of Michael Jackson and a lot of Yemenite music, such as Ofra Chaza, Chaim Moshe, Zion Golan. When I got to buy my own music I got really into NWA and Dr Dre and the grunge scene.
ZEEK: What was your Jewish com-munity when you were growing up?
DIWON: I always joke that I was a month shy of being Japanese. My dad was a chaplain in the Navy and so we moved around a lot. I was born in San Diego and then a month later we moved to Japan, to South Carolina three years after that, and then Naples, Italy, and Skokie, IL. In Skokie I went to Jewish day school and I think that was when I really felt like a part of the Jewish community. After Skokie, we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. I then went to Israel and then finally settled in New York.
ZEEK: What is your Jewish commu- nity now?
DIWON: I never really felt like a part of any one group. I never felt like I was Orthodox or Conservative or Chassidic. I think the term ‘shomer mitzvot’ aways stuck with me. In Israel is seems more like there are the people who are religious, the people who are traditional and then the secular. I always related more to that than to all these different labels. My wife is Chabad so I now live in Crown Heights, the center of the movement. I love Chassidut and I love the energy that Chabad brings to the practice and philosophy, but I guess I will never feel like I am any one thing.
ZEEK: Your music also is a mix that isn’t easy to name. Is there anything that you deliberately avoid or leave out?
DIWON: I think we spend most of our time in music that is universal and has positive Jewish messages. It is this music that reaches the farthest and has the strongest impact. There are already Jewish labels for the niche, for music that feels very Jewish or for the insider. We are passionate about mak- ing music that the world could relate to, rather than relying on “insider” idioms and references.
The majority of music on Shemspeed is about universal themes from a particular vantage point. This is a crucial difference – a major con- trast with the way Jewish culture is generally approached through exist- ing record labels and artistic projects – and I think it is what sets Shemspeed apart as a distinct and cutting-edge company. We speak the language of contemporary American Jews, most of whom lack the framework to relate to particularist Jewish art.
ZEEK: Are you explicitly trying to have an impact on Jewish life with the label?
DIWON: The focus with most of the artists on Shemspeed seems to be diversity and unity. I think we are breaking stereotypes and opening up people’s minds both in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. Our artists come from the perspective that we have more similarities than differences, so let’s focus on the similarities and collaborate on those, celebrate those, create more of those.
That’s why you will see DeScribe, a Chassidic kid from Crown Heights who spend a lot of his day praying and learning Chabad Chassidut collaborating on tracks and videos with tons of different artists from Jamaica and Trinidad, including Bob Marley’s family. I think this wakes up all communities to our shared mission of perfecting the world and realizing that each of us is a piece of G-d.
ZEEK: It sounds like you believe that music can change people’s lives.
DIWON: Music is the most powerful thing in the world. It can be used to get people excited and happy or make them feel sad and alone. Art has the magic of being able to change people’s feelings in an instant. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, said music is the pen of the soul, and that music that comes from the soul enters the soul. I was in Sydney having dinner with Erran Baron Cohen and his brother-in-law came to the table and handed me a CD that he had made. I didn’t get to listen to it till about 6 months later, but when I finally did, I was very moved. It was a collection of niggunim done in almost a Tom Waits- meets-Quentin Tarrantino sort of way, but they were Chabad niggunim and each one was powerful than the next. It’s our latest Shemspeed release, “Dark’cho.” It made me want to learn more and do more mitzvot.
It also reminded me of the power of music. I see the effect music has on people when I tour with Y-Love after our shows, especially when we do guest sets at high schools. The teachers will often come up to us and say that we did more inspiring and teaching with that one set than they could do in a year of teaching. There is just something about music with a message that gets people in a way that the message without the music never seems to.
Music is used in prayer to reach higher states of consciousness and a deeper connection to Hashem. I remember going to a Yemenite synagogue as a kid, listening to their hypnotic prayers which sounded more like meditative mantras. The meter mesmerized me – I got lost in it. The way that pop and hip hop music are made now is through looping parts of a measure which creates the ‘beat’, the recognizable part of the composition. The second that beat drops in a club or in a person’s car, the power of music is obvious.
ZEEK: How has music changed your life?
DIWON: Music keeps me excited about life. Whenever life seems stale or repetitive, I will hear music or make music that will reenergize me and get me excited about being a part of it all. The first memory I have of music being a part of my life was when my family was stationed in Naples, Italy, and I was on the bus on the way to military school. The bus driver would have all these 8th graders play whatever they thought was cool at the time. I got my parents to take me to the Commissary, I was 9 at the time, and I told them I wanted the Motley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” tape. I was really into the tape, probably because it had reminded me of Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” cassette. I took it and told the driver to pop it in his tape deck. From that second on, every kid on my bus looked at me in a different light. That was the first time I saw music change how people viewed others.
In college I started to get into the klezmer-fusion music that was being made in New York at the Knitting Factory and Tonic, through CDs that were being sent to the college station where I was music director and a DJ. I started to really dig it, especially Masada, which was John Zorn’s book of original Jewish compositions. Until I heard Masada, the only jazz that had been able to mess me up that bad (in a good way) was Ornette, Coltrane, and Davis.
I found three other people in college and eventually convinced a fourth that we should start a group. It was called Juez, and we mixed break beat, punk, jazz and klezmer music and start playing house parties. People would dance as if they were at a Ska show. Back in 2004 or so we started playing with Matisyahu, and when I moved to New York I would DJ, play drums in that band, and put my other musician and artist friends on the bill. When I saw how people felt like they were a part of something fresh and were excited about Jewish expression, I myself started to get more and more into it.
I met an aspiring rapper back in 2001 while studying outside the old city of Jerusalem. His name was Yitz Jordan and at about that time I wanted to put together Jewish hip hop like no one had ever heard. I remember telling Yitz, who started going by Y-Love, that if he was ready to start really working on rap and recording, we could make the most amazing music the Jewish world has ever heard. We put together a mixtape called ‘dj handler presents Y-Love’ back when I went by dj handler and not Diwon. The mixtape blended old school hip hop, Brazilian funk, soul, electronic tracks and indie rock with Y-Love rapping about everything from the national Jewish population survey to his talmudic studies in Aramaic. I still look back at that mixtape and feel that it captured a time in Jewish history.
Since then I think that my work with Shemspeed, Y-Love, and Matisyahu’s music has all become even stronger, but not by becoming more niche or more overt in the messages of the music – quite the opposite. I think it is stronger because the music has become more universal, it is music for the world, while still being naturally infused with positive messages and Jewish thoughts. I still love to release music that is niche, such as cinematic instrumental music and niggunim records and the Sephardic Music Festival CD, but I like to balance that with music that is pop and for the radio. There is something strong about a track that’s sort of ‘radio music’ pop that also has a Jewish message. I see my mission with Shemspeed as producing music and programming that reflects our mission as Jews, being a light unto the nations.
ZEEK: Thank you.