It’s been a few weeks since I caught Israeli-Canadian rapper Shi 360 performing for an intimate crowd at SXSW, and I keep returning to my conflicted feelings about that experience. Shi is a talented MC with an intuitive grasp on how rhymes flow in a variety of languages, but even though Shi could spit with style I was disappointed at how often he didn’t seem to have anything substantial to say; the dude dropped a lot of cliches about peace and love, which is all well and good, but I could have used something with a little more depth.
Shi’s set was a marked contrast from the kind of Israeli rap I first experienced during a brief stint living in that country shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. That’s when I enrolled in a study abroad program called the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, which is situated in a suburb north of Tel Aviv, and I decided to seek out some local hip-hop. I still recall walking into the town’s music store, asking the ponytailed man behind the counter for an Israeli rap CD, and walking away with The Light and the Shadow, the breakout 2002 hit album from Subliminal*. I quickly became addicted, picking up a new Israeli hip-hop album almost weekly, snapping up flashy rap magazines and convincing anyone who could translate Hebrew to read them to me, and memorizing chunks of songs I was drawn to but didn’t entirely understand.