Mon, Nov 12, 2012
By Daniel Arkin
“Music is spiritual. The music business is not.” —Van Morrison
Ten years ago, JDub Records was a collegiate pipe dream. By 2006, it was the single coolest thing in Jewish popular culture. Five years later, JDub Records ceased to exist.
Even if you’ve never heard of JDub Records, you may have heard of the Hasidic reggae-rapper Matisyahu, their flagship artist. But the story is bigger than him.
It’s the story of a scrappy start-up that broke all the rules, revolutionizing Jewish music over eight years and thirty-six albums. It’s the story of the savvy innovators and radical artists who shook up Jewish popular culture at the dawn of a new millennium.
And who better to tell that story than the people who were there: the founders, the staff, and the artists. Nearly 20 JDub principals spoke to The Brooklyn Ink’s Daniel Arkin about their decade at the forefront of alternative music.
Aaron Bisman (Co-Founder; President and CEO): I studied music business at NYU.
Ben Hesse (Co-Founder): Aaron and I were at NYU together in the late 1990s, early 2000s.
Hesse: Aaron was a DJ and doing a lot of beat-making. I’d write songs to Aaron’s beats. We spent a lot of time in our apartment on the Lower East Side sampling and writing and recording music.
Bisman: We both schlepped our turntables around and we would DJ parties.
Hesse: We were into the downtown, Lower East Side experimental music scene. We were into the stuff John Zorn and Tzadik Records label were pushing out of Tonic. It was secular, abstract. At the same time, I was hanging out with a lot of Hasidim and Lubavitchers in Brooklyn, listening to a lot of old Eastern European Jewish music.
Bisman: Ben holed himself up at home and taught himself to use ProTools, which back then was very expensive. He came out of it with a really interesting project. It was some songs, some soundscapes, some in Hebrew, some with Hasidic melodies.
Hesse: Aaron and I saw there was a void between those two worlds: secular, esoteric sort of music and religious sort of music. There was really nothing in between.
Bisman: We saw no one else doing anything like it, professionally or artistically. We got really excited about it. We asked ourselves, ‘What should we do with this music?’
Hesse: Aaron was very much interested in running a label. We started applying for grants.
Bisman: I knew about Joshua Venture, which gives you 60,000 dollars over two years, plus training. I applied. We spent about six months during our senior year at NYU hashing out ideas for the grant application.
Hesse: Aaron and I started kicking around the idea of JDub. It was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Jewish music wasn’t just Hava Nagila and Fiddler on the Roof kitsch?’
Bisman: The American Jewish world had done a really crappy job of creating meaningful culture for young people beyond Jewish summer camps and a few other things.
Hesse: Jewish music was just cornball.
Bisman: The idea was, I want to make music that some high school kid in the Midwest can play in his car and bump and really feel: ‘It’s cool, it’s mine, it’s Jewish, and I’m totally proud of that.’ I remember being sixteen, working at Camp Ramah in California. One day I went to a Phish show at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Fifty-thousand people there. Trey [Anatasio], who’s not Jewish, broke into ‘Avinu Malkeinu,’ singing in Hebrew, and doing a damn good job. I looked around and saw recognition on other people’s faces. It was a powerful, transformative moment. We wanted to create those moments for other people.
Dan Greenman (JDub Label Manager and Administration Director): If you asked a room full of Jewish-American teenagers to describe Jewish music, they’d say Hebrew prayers, summer camp songs, Adam Sandler. Cheesy stuff that no twenty-year-old is gonna relate to. JDub changed that.
In March 2003, Bisman began the two-year Joshua Venture Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. He conceived of a nonprofit record label dedicated to discovering and promoting “innovative” Jewish music. JDub was born.
Deb Leipzig (VP, Strategic Planning and Development): Aaron made JDub his life.
Bisman: We built this model, which was basically, ‘What are all the services artists creating innovative Jewish music would need to be successful? Record company, management, booking, marketing—really, everything.’ We saw the possibility of latent demand.
Deb Leipzig (VP, Strategic Planning and Development): JDub was largely funded with foundation money. It was supported by twelve or fifteen foundations.
Hesse: I was interested in the creative, musical side of the equation.
Bisman: I was more interested in all the other pieces: the marketing, distributing the content, promotion, developing the label.
Hesse: We tried really hard not to be the Jewish equivalent of Christian rock. We didn’t want some pedantic pontification of a belief system. We just wanted to be authentic.
Bisman and Hesse found authenticity — or something like it — in young Matthew Miller, a Deadhead from suburban White Plains, N.Y. who had reinvented himself as Matisyahu, black-bearded Hasidic reggae-rapper.
Bisman: Ben met Matt during our senior year.
Hesse: We were both studying with Rabbi [Eliyahu] Cohen, the Chabad rabbi at NYU. Matt was attending The New School, which is right around the block from NYU.
Bisman: The rabbi was like, ‘You’re both musicians. You should meet.’ Matt came to our apartment, we jammed, recorded some stuff. We’re like, ‘Oh, here’s another kid doing the kind of stuff we want to do.’
Hesse: We hit it off.
Matisyahu was an American original: Crown Heights yeshiva student by day, Lower East Side MC by night. His lyrics remixed Hasidic chants with Rastafarian rhymes, fusing Yiddish slang with hip-hop patter. Matisyahu — ‘Matis’ for short — was a rare and unmistakable talent.
Ben Sisario (New York Times music journalist): I think the story of Matisyahu is essentially a basic American one. He’s a young guy creating his identity by exploring Old World roots and contemporary music. … Almost a hundred years ago a version of this played out in The Jazz Singer.
Hesse: We knew we could reach a really large audience with his music, beyond that really niche downtown New York scene.
Bisman: Matis started working on what became his first record [Shake Off the Dust... Arise], which took forever. It took about a year and a half. There was another person involved, Daniel Saliger, who at the time worked for Rawkus Records, basically the most important hip-hop label in New York in the 1990s. Mos Def and Talib Kweli came out of that camp.
Hesse: Aaron was managing him. I was basically checked out at that point.
Hesse soon left New York City and detached from the JDub business. Jacob Harris, an artist management consultant, became the second official JDub staffer in December 2003.
Adam Teeter (Events Director): Jacob was the first A&R [artists and repertoire] director and COO.
Jacob Harris: I was doing pretty well within the music industry, but I wanted to be in New York, personally and professionally. We figured out how to pay me a whopping salary of 15,000 bucks. [Laughs].
Bisman: [Jacob and I] started getting Matis to do live shows. Matis was originally a terrible live performer. He’d be in the middle of a rocking, crazy show, and then he’d tell a crowd of two hundred people to sit on the floor for eleven minutes. He’d let his drummer take a seven-minute solo. We were like, ‘This makes no sense.’
Hesse: Matthew Miller is a real character. [Laughs].
Bisman: We taught him how to talk to fans, how to talk to the media. We taught him top to bottom.
Harris: We were really great at marketing, at fan management, at building community.
Bisman: We always worried, ‘What if the Crown Heights Beit Din tells Matis he can’t do this or that as an artist?’ But he always wanted to be a rock star.
In July 2004, Bisman and Harris put on The Unity Sessions, a concert that celebrated cooperation between Israeli, Palestinian and Arab hip-hop and rap acts. At the time, Matisyahu was not a megawatt star. But that would soon change.
Bisman: At that point, Matisyahu was our boy, so clearly we put him in the Unity Sessions. 4,000 people came out. A really diverse crowd: women in hijab, Hasidic kids from Crown Heights.
Harris: We had a call with the police department in Brooklyn because they were so worried about the Arabs and Israelis and whether they needed riot cops.
Khen Rotem (Sagol 59, ‘Godfather of Israeli Hip-Hop’): Aaron invited me, as well as a Palestinian rap group, to perform at the Unity Sessions. I remember Matisyahu needed a pep talk to go up on stage. But once he was on stage, he thrilled everybody. He was really, really special.
Sisario: I put together a story based around the Unity Sessions. As I saw it at the time … Matisyahu was an impressive performer and an earnest young guy, but I thought wide success for him was a long shot. I was definitely wrong about that.
Bisman: We got a ton of press during the Unity Sessions. We got two minutes for Matis on one of CNN’s entertainment shows. Jimmy Kimmel’s people called us.
Harris: I remember getting the call while I was surrounded by riot cops.
Bisman: Kimmel’s people wanted Matisyahu for their equivalent of Stupid Human Tricks: basically, people they think are kooky. We said, ‘He won’t come on unless you treat him like a real musical act: he performs, he sits on the couch.’ They said, ‘Okay.’ We ended up going on the show in August 2004. The record wasn’t even ready. We were still manufacturing it. I mocked up a record cover at a Kinko’s down the block from Kimmel’s studio in Hollywood.
Harris: It looked like a real CD.
Bisman: Jimmy Kimmel holds up our fake record cover on the show. Matis was on the couch with Kevin Nealon and Scott Baio. It was amazing.
The Kimmel clip went viral. Matisyahu became a cultural buzzword.
Harris: This was pre-YouTube. Somebody gave us access to a video tracking account. We figured out that the Kimmel video clip had been viewed close to 100,000 times.
Greenman: At that point, everyone knew Matisyahu. He was huge.
Bisman: We had expected to sell 3,000 records in a year. We sold 4,000 records in a month.
Elliot Fox (Senior Director of Marketing): We were stuffing CDs into envelopes ourselves, fulfilling orders through PayPal, sharing two cubicles between four people. It was really tight quarters — a ten by ten space.
Bisman: We had no distribution. We were all doing this directly ourselves. We went on to sell 50,000 copies directly. He had this insanely quick, meteoric rise.
Harris: He ended up doing Kimmel three times. It was all based on how good Matisyahu was, how good we were doing managing him.
Fox: He was on MTV. He was selling out huge stores. Tours were happening. It grew so fast.
Harris: We were getting contacted by people like Madonna’s manager, asking Matisyahu to come to her Seder.
Fox: Matisyahu gave the label major credibility in the mainstream.
Leipzig: He helped build the brand. He was a key piece of the puzzle.
But Bisman and Harris knew JDub couldn’t advance Matisyahu’s career without large-scale infrastructure. They let other labels produce Matisyahu’s music, but they stayed on as managers, promoters, and close advisors.
Rotem: Aaron and Jacob would not hold people with handcuffs. It wasn’t that kind of label. It’s not a label that’s out for millions. It was a nonprofit. They would not sabotage a career or hold an artist in chains.
Bisman: We hooked up with a guy named Michael Caplan, who was at Sony for 25 years. He and his business partner Larry Miller had an indie imprint called Or Music.
Harris: We were tiny compared to Or Music and Sony. They had reach. We didn’t have any of that. But we had the ability to capture people’s attention.
Matisyahu’s second release, Live at Stubb’s (a co-production between JDub and Or) was a smash, selling over 500,000 copies.
Bisman: We went from 2,000 records a week to 20,000 records a week, which is crazy. So, now we have a Gold record. It’s a crazy time. We were the managers, the record company, we got him a booking agent. But there are a lot of functions we couldn’t do. We were gonna hit a ceiling. The ceiling was coming.
JDub partnered with EPIC, one of Sony’s labels, for Matisyahu’s third album.
Harris: At that point, Or [Music] had gone out of business.
Bisman: We were at Sony multiple times a week, trying to be really clear that Matis wasn’t some novelty, some kitschy rapping Rabbi, but that he was an amazing musician who had a unique voice. …. When we were at Sony one day, someone said, ‘This is like once every fifteen years, what you have: the phenomenal rise of someone like Matisyahu.’
Bisman and Harris worked around-the-clock to support their signature star. But they weren’t the only people in the music business with an eye on Matisyahu.
Bisman: Youth [Matisyahu’s third album] came out in early March 2006. Youth sold 119,000 copies in its first week. At the same time, we booked his first six-figure gig. It was his biggest week ever. And then we had this nasty Hollywood breakup.
It was a plot twist straight out of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose. Matisyahu was scooped up by Gary Gersh, the former Capitol Records president and Geffen Records executive who signed Nirvana and Sonic Youth. David, meet Goliath.
“Hasidic Reggae Singer Surprises His Managers,” New York Times, 3/14/2006 (Ben Sisario): “Mr. Bisman and his partner, Jacob Harris, received an unexpected phone call from their prize talent, telling them their management services were no longer required. ‘He was in Kansas,’ Mr. Bisman said. ‘He said, ‘I don’t know if you guys are old enough or have enough experience.’”
Fox: Gersh promised him, ‘You’re gonna be a star, you’re gonna be the next Bob Marley, you’re not gonna have to work, you’re gonna make a ton of money.’
Bisman: I think people promised him an easier way to make money.
Fox: Aaron and Matis were friends. They were actually tight. They were building Matisyahu’s career together. There was a feeling of hurt and betrayal, like, ‘We just put our whole lives into this.’
Harris: It was a shock to us, especially because we had managed him well. We had some a fantastic job with an artist who could have easily been pigeonholed.
Bisman: He was twenty-five, twenty-six. We turned this kid into a millionaire.
Matisyahu could not be reached for comment.
Rotem: The story of Matisyahu is a story that occurs throughout the history of rock-and- roll. A big company comes to an artist and says, ‘Who are these people that manage you? You’re such a big artist!’ The small label says, ‘Look, we found him. We started him.’ But artists move on.
Fox: There were eight, nine months of legal proceedings. Both sides had huge corporate lawyers battling back and forth.
Bisman: It took us seven months to announce that we had “parted amicably” — that’s in quotations. We had two of New York’s biggest law firms helping us to part amicably.
Fox: It was naïve to think it wouldn’t happen. That’s just the way it goes.
The years following Matisyahu’s departure were actually some of the company’s most productive. In 2006, JDub launched the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, a program that funds Jewish innovators, in partnership with Avoda Arts and the Foundation for Jewish Culture.
All the while, JDub continued to broaden its roster of über-eclectic artists. JDub achieved modest financial success with a cadre of deeply unorthodox performers: Golem (Gypsy-klezmer punk), DeLeon (Sephardic funk), The Sway Machinery (Cantorial neo-folk), Balkan Beat Box (transnational electronica), Socalled (Yiddish vaudeville hip-hop), Girls in Trouble (Biblical ballads) — the list goes on.
Greenman: Before Matisyahu came and after Matisyahu left, JDub still had such a diverse catalog. JDub worked with, like, 20 different artists and there’s 20 different sensibilities: Middle Eastern hip-hop, rock with lyrics based on Scripture, Sephardic melodies sung in Ladino [Judeo-Spanish], indie folk about the Old Testament. They challenge the notion that JDub existed around Matis, that it was just downhill after he left. I don’t think that’s true.
Fox: We were constantly scouring to find new music.
Annette Ezekiel Kogan (Golem): Aaron and Jacob had their own goals, but they listened to what the artists wanted and they really cared about the music.
Alicia Jo Rabins (Girls in Trouble): I remember meeting with Aaron at a cafe in Brooklyn and giving him a CD of my JTS thesis songs about women in Torah — which later became Girls in Trouble — and saying, ‘What do you think I should do with these?’ And he was like, ‘Well, write a whole album, and we’ll put it out!’ I’ll always be grateful.
Harris: It was always about more than one artist.
Teeter: A lot of the artists on the label had huge followings.
Harris: We were still putting on sold out shows all over New York, all over the U.S., dipping into Eastern Europe, dipping into Western Europe. We didn’t have the presence that we had when he had a superstar, but we were smart about diversifying the label. Our roster grew.
Greenman: We would sign a relatively unknown band or artist, help them get established, help them with early marketing, help them book concerts, give them some cash for touring, put out the record, get them some exposure. Hopefully by their second or third record they’ve got a reputation for themselves.
JDub’s artists were critically acclaimed and publicly admired among Jews and non-Jews alike.
Saks: A lot of people related to the grooves of the music, if not the historical and religious context. I’d say the vast majority of the people we played for during those years were non-Jews and had no idea what the word Sephardic means. But it didn’t stop them from dancing. [Laughs].
Teeter: There wasn’t an exact moment where someone came up to me and goes, ‘Hi, I’m Joe Smith, I’m a non-Jew.’ But you could definitely tell the crowd was never entirely Jewish. You rarely saw a lot of yamalkes in the [audience]. It was a really diverse crowd.
Saks: We played in Omaha, Des Moines, and Tulsa. Those are pretty Jew-less cities. [Laughs].
At alternative venues like The Knitting Factory (Houston St./ Williamsburg), Southpaw (Park Slope), and S.O.B.’s (SoHo), Bisman and his crew staged periodic happenings that were big and brash — and sometimes surprisingly poignant.
Fox: A big part of what made us successful and what made us thrive were the events we put on. A lot of them were based around a Jewish holiday. Jewltide, the annual Hanukkah party, was almost always at Southpaw. That was so much fun.
Saks: The joke is Jews go to see a movie and eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve. But Jewltide was a better alternative: drink a beer and dance to some funky Jewish music.
Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman: I once played their punk rock Purim festival. It was called Hamanbashen, named after the villain in the Book of Esther, and it was at the CSV Cultural Center on Suffolk Street. It was, like, the greatest show. There were three hundred people crowded into this packed social hall. The audience knew the words to my songs! They were probably a lot of outcasts. You know, punk and Judaism are both outcast movements. The meaning of the word Hebrew is really ‘someone from the other side of the tracks’—an outcast. Abraham was totally an outcast in his day.
Jeremiah Lockwood (The Sway Machinery): Their events were very party oriented. They weren’t like going to a synagogue. They weren’t terribly intellectual. It was more of a visceral bar or club experience. But people loved what they did.
Saks: A lot of young Jews are more secular … but like getting down to The Sway Machinery’s funky horn section. It’s a nice way to connect with Judaism. [Laughs].
Teeter: We never programmed on a Friday night. We never programmed on Saturday during the day. If we ever had food or drink at an event, it was never not Kosher.
Fox: A lot of the events were at clubs, music venues that usually put on hip-hop and punk rock and indie rock shows. It helped legitimize us. The energy was always electric.
Bisman: Jeremiah Lockwood developed some Rosh Hashanah events through a Six Points Fellowship [he received] and named the events after [his album] Hidden Melodies Revealed. It was a Rosh Hashanah experience: we called it part ritual, part rock concert.
Teeter: That was one of the coolest events we ever did. The band had people who toured with Arcade Fire, people from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It was incredible.
Bisman: Jeremiah Lockwood interpreted traditional liturgy in a very weird, different way. It was a huge artistic risk for us. But it was a huge success—six hundred, eight hundred people. We held the events in historic synagogues in New York, in San Francisco and L.A. Supposedly Adam Levine of Maroon 5 came to one.
Lockwood: In San Francisco we were really able to harness people’s interest in creating a Jewish culture that was more youth-oriented and hip, so to speak.
Bisman: That was us housing the avant-garde inside the walls of the institution. Normally we’d run from the institutions. But the whole idea was to place it in a traditional space and do something artistically quite out there.
In October 2009, JDub acquired Jewcy.com, a digital hub for edgy, eyebrow-raising Jewish content. In December of that year, the label entered into a strategic partnership with Nextbook, Inc., the group behind the Tablet, the Jewish culture and politics magazine. The little record label that could was now a multi-platform media company.
Greenman: JDub was an interesting nonprofit in that the mission was not solely about music, or records, or concerts. It was about Jewish culture in a lot of different forms.
Bisman: We always saw our goals and vision as much larger than music.
By the start of the new decade, JDub appeared to be thriving.
Harris: We hired more people. Internally we grew, our revenue grew, our reach grew.
But cracks and fissures were forming underneath the surface. Over the next year, JDub would be irrevocably hit by two concurrent crises: the inevitable decline of the traditional music industry and the deflation of the Jewish philanthropic world.
When it came to the decline of CD sales, virtually everyone at JDub had seen the writing on the walls for years.
Bisman: Throughout our nine year history, you saw the rise of iTunes and file-sharing. You have more music than ever before commercially available and everyone’s fighting for fewer dollars spent, not to mention less shelf space and less marketing.
Teeter: People say all record labels these days are nonprofit. [Laughs]. No one makes money in records anymore. They just try to break even.
But the contractions in Jewish philanthropy were harder to see coming. After all, hadn’t JDub been funded by Jewish charity? It stands to reason that Jewish investors, like most people, were battered by the global recession of 2008/2009. But the story is more complicated. JDub’s leaders were about to discover the basic limitations of the world from which they pulled nearly half their money.
Teeter: There’s a very small pot of money in the Jewish world. And everyone wants a piece of that pot.
Bisman: We pulled from a very specific world of Jewish philanthropic funds available to start-ups and small organizations. All the sudden, there was just nothing left.
Greenman: The avenues were Jewish funding were limited. The foundation world was drying up.
To many on JDub’s staff, the cold shoulder from the Jewish philanthropic community was evidence of its preference for institutional Judaism — synagogues, schools — and its prejudice against JDub’s basic mission: culture. Specifically, culture for young people.
Isaac Bernstein (Intern): JDub’s demise was an indicator that the Jewish philanthropic world wasn’t interested in sustaining the movement of new Jewish culture. Culture is less of a priority in the funding community than sending kids to Israel.
Jacob Berkman (Jewish philanthropy reporter) To say that the American-Jewish philanthropic world is worried more about giving money to Israel than they are about trying to engage young people is wrong. The philanthropic world wants to engage young Jews. That’s what they’re worried about. It’s just very difficult to compete in the cultural space. It’s hard to compete with the New York Philharmonic, with the Jewish dollars that go to more mainstream ventures.
Teeter: If you are a foundation and someone brings you DeLeon, Sway Machinery, [or] Balkan Beat Box and you don’t know anything about that kind of music — it’ll just be over those people’s heads. There was a time when we were able to bring funders to an event. They may not have gotten what was happening on stage, they didn’t really get what the 20-somethings in the audience were there for, but they got that, like, ‘Holy crap, you’ve got 500 people in a music venue on a Tuesday night to see Jewish music.’ But in the end, there just wasn’t any of that.
Bisman: Culture is definitely not a priority for the philanthropic world.
Harris: When it comes to understanding the impact of culture, they just don’t understand.
Teeter: When it was made clear that we were going under, no one tried to save us. I mean, come on. Seriously, Jews? It makes no sense.
Leipzig: If you look at our numbers, they were really better than any other Jewish organization doing this kind of work. But funders wanted bigger numbers. I think they discounted how important it is to use cultural experiences to engage this young generation of Jews.
Bernstein: JDub was the closest thing the Jewish philanthropic community had to The Sex Pistols. It mattered.
Lieberman: JDub gave all Jews a common thing: music.
In July 2011, Bisman and Harris announced that JDub was closing “due to financial considerations only.”
Lieberman: It was heartbreaking.
“Music Dies for JDub Records,” Jewish Daily Forward, 7/29/2011 (Jacob Berkman): “The sun set over Manhattan on July 17 as the Sephardic swing band DeLeon played a soulful cover of the Bob Dylan ballad ‘I Shall Be Released.’ Dylan wrote about the release of his soul from his body, but that Sunday night on the rooftop of the 14th Street Y, the band sounded like it was singing about the end of its record label, JDub.”
Harris: I think — I hope — that for a group of people in high school, in college, and maybe ten years post-college, we offered an alternative idea of how you could connect to your Judaism. I think people will remember the artists and the events. But I know people [for whom] JDub was their only Jewish engagement.
Bisman: Jacob and I talked a lot about that one negative experience Jewish kids have. That could be Hebrew school, that could be a Bar Mitzvah. That one negative experience can so deeply sour someone on Jewish life. We really believed — and still believe —that one powerful moment can change that and have a lasting effect.
Saks: JDub produced Jewish music that you could hear on college radio next to whatever indie rock bands are popular that week and not be caught off guard. It allowed Jewish culture to exist outside the walls of the synagogue and the JCC. It let it exist at parties, at clubs.
Bernstein: For the foreseeable future, whenever somebody needs cool Jewish music, they will go to JDub’s catalog. They’ll find indie music with tangible roots in Scripture that’s not Debbie Friedman. I think JDub’s music will continue to be the soundtrack of young organized Jewish life for some time to come.
Matthew Miller/Matisyahu (from a recent interview): I got swept away by a big fancy manager who told me everything I wanted to hear. That I was going to be the next Bob Marley. I was going to be a superstar. … If I could go back, I definitely wouldn’t have done what I did.
Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman: I’ll never not be able to put on my tombstone that I was with JDub Records. That doesn’t go away. I was there. I was like Paul McCartney. I will always be a Beatle. I will die as a member of JDub Records.
© Daniel Arkin, The Brooklyn Ink 2012 | Photos Courtesy of Aaron Bisman