Beat the Rap

by Allegra Panetto
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On a sunlit street in a small desert town outside of Be’er Sheva, a child stops to listen to the coins rattling in his father’s pocket. The father, noticing his son’s amusement, taps the coins together. A rhythm develops. Spellbound, the child’s fingers dance along.

For Gal “James” Sivan, this was his earliest encounter with drumming. “I loved listening to that,” he recalls. On the ground, his foot bounces, in tempo, against his Columbia Business School backpack.

In many ways, Sivan ’10BUS is your typical MBA student. He keeps eye contact, sits up straight, and speaks directly. But how many of his classmates in Corporate Finance or Marketing Strategy could say they once performed in front of 50,000 people, or opened for Run-D.M.C.? Flash to 1994. Sivan, then 19, was finishing his mandatory service in the Israeli army. “I was in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, but for just one night each,” says Sivan, who was the drummer in the army’s jazz band. “We would show up, perform, and then leave,” he explains, likening the visits to Marilyn Monroe singing for American GIs in Korea (all members of the army’s jazz band were exempt from combat).

In the U.S., Rolling Stone had just run a cover of rap artists Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The Beastie Boys were headlining the Lollapalooza festival, and Notorious B.I.G. was in Manhattan’s D&D Studios, recording his seminal album, Ready to Die. Hip-hop had arrived. But Israel, like the rest of the world, had yet to catch up.

A couple of rap-loving high-school friends in the town of Yavne decided to change that. Their group, called Shabak Samech, was looking for a new drummer. Sivan auditioned and made an impression. “Because of my jazz training, I could learn a song after hearing it once,” says Sivan, smiling. “They weren’t used to that.” Four days later, with Sivan on drums, the group performed at the farewell concert for a popular Tel Aviv rock club. The show was broadcast on the army’s radio station Galgalatz, one of the most popular stations in Israel. It was Shabak’s big break. “For the first time in my life, people were telling me I was amazing,” says Sivan. “I was never the same.” Yossi Fine, a bassist who has worked with David Bowie and Lou Reed, and who was Shabak’s fi rst producer,recalls Sivan’s transformation: “He used to stop the show, come up to the mic and say, ‘I’m the best drummer around’ — and then he really became it.”

Six months later, the group released the single “Shabak Samech Imperia” from their self-titled album, and Israeli music was forever changed. “Shabak was the first group to combine hip-hop and rock in Israel — to popularize it,” says Loolwa Khazzoom ’91BC, who chronicled the rise of Israeli hip-hop for Rolling Stone.

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