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Socalled: Montreal’s queer, klezmer, hip-hop sensation

Artist performs at Guelph's Hillside Inside Festival alongside Owen Pallett, Ani DiFranco and others

ECLECTIC! Among Socalled's influences? Wu Tang Clan, Blondie, Tom of Findland and Bach. Credit: Pierre Terrasson photo, myspace.com/socalled

It’s difficult to describe the strange cultural fusion of Montreal musical phenomenon Socalled. Born Josh Dolgin, Socalled mixes hip hop, klezmer, drum and bass and various styles of folk music into an utterly unique mashup that’s both controlled and entirely zany.

Socalled, long a fixture of Montreal’s alt music and media scene, says he was inspired by klezmer music from the first moment he heard it. “Of course, what initially turned me on about traditional Yiddish music were all the hot, sweaty, half-naked dudes with clarinets, accordions and fiddles, playing their wild, orgiastic melodies deep into the night. No, seriously, I liked klezmer from the ’30s and ’40s at first because it was a form of music from my own culture that I’d never heard, that was simply funky as hell.”

With its wildly, defiantly unique sound, klezmer music itself seems downright queer. Does Socalled see any connection between his queerdom and his celebrated take on the musical genre? “It’s interesting that the modern-day revival of klezmer has actually been such a queer-positive space. Many of the leading figures of the movement are gay. Maybe it appeals to more alternative-minded people. Maybe because it’s such an underground music in general, part of such a maligned, forgotten counterculture, that it now embraces and fosters difference.”

Socalled’s unique works have led to some intriguing collaborations. He has performed with clarinettist David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness! as well as Chilly Gonzales, trombonist Fred Wesley and Sophie Solomon. He is profiled in an upcoming NFB documentary, The Socalled Movie, in which filmmaker Gary Beitel follows Socalled through his first Klezmer Cruise, where participants witnessed the artist perform on a boat trip down the Dnieper River in Ukraine.

Socalled’s music has also led to some vibrant music videos, especially for his song “You Are Never Alone,” directed by Grammy-nominated filmmaker Ben Steiger Levine. “Josh Dolgin is really a very inspired songwriter and artist,” says Levine. “He was great to work with on that video.”

Not surprisingly, Socalled’s own influences are diverse and eclectic. When asked what some of his main influences are, one gets an unusual laundry list: “Wu Tang Clan, Derrick Carter, Dr Dre, Sergio Mendes, Kurt Weill, Aaron Lebedeff, Tom of Finland, Blondie, George Clinton, Fela Kuti, Bach.”

Socalled explains that while concocting a song, he usually begins with a simple rhythm. “I start with my sampler, making beats, chopping up sounds to create a base for a new song. Then I look for melodies, either traditional or I compose stuff or work with writers and collaborators, then I start bringing in musicians who either come up with their own parts or I write bits for them to play.”

Indeed, as unique as Socalled’s style and energy are, he confirms that a great part of the pleasure in creating music comes in working with other creative types. “For me the fun is getting crazy talents to mix it up with each other, from very different backgrounds. I record in studios around the world — the last record I made was recorded in 15 studios — then I bring all the bits together in a studio in Ottawa. I just released a new project called Abraham Inc with klezmer giant David Krakauer and funk godfather Fred Wesley, and I’m finishing up my next record, which has guest appearances from the king of Calypso, the Mighty Sparrow, Chicago house legend Derrick Carter, Roxanne Shante, Enrico Macias and many others.”

Socalled.
socalledmusic.com.

Socalled, aka Josh Dolgin, will perform Sat, Feb 6 at the 3rd annual Hillside Inside Festival at the Sleeman Centre in downtown Guelph. See hillsidefestival.ca for more info. Other performers include Owen Pallett, Hawksley Workman and Ani DiFranco.