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Oct. 7, 2011

Socalled will play at the Rio


Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe the music of Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin), and his most recent release, Sleepover (Dare to Care Records, 2011), is no exception. It features more than 30 guest artists and is described on his website as “Mixing, rocking, jamming, sharing, learning, partying, whatever, it’s all here, another album of hits, collaborations, poetry and grooves. Folktronica, electro-funk, Canadiana, neo-soul, rap, dancehall, it’s all mushed up and squeezed out as something new, a Socalled sound for the 21st century.”

Vancouverites will be able to sample this sound when the Montreal-based Socalled and his band – whose Katie Moore will open the show – play at Rio Theatre on Oct. 19.

“This is a time of just incredible access to style and the history of music,” Socalled told the Independent in a phone interview. “We can have ... on your iPad or proverbial iWhatever, you can have 20,000 songs probably, and it’s probably [music] from every different style, from every different era, from anywhere in the world and it’s all there, you have it all and we can love it all. I mean, I love funk and I love classical music and jazz, hip hop and rock and ... disco. I’m not stuck in a genre, I’m not stuck in a place where there’s only one type of music that is my folk music. We just have this crazy, broad access to so much stuff.

“So, I say, why choose, why pretend that I’m part of one style ... it’s just impossible, there are too many things that I like and I meet too many amazing musicians from different styles that I want to work with, and I don’t want them to compromise. If they already are part of a style, then why not get that mixed up into a modern, crazy, delicious soup for today?”

Among its many contributors, Sleepover features Roxanne Shanté, DJ Assault, Derrick Carter, Boban Markovitch, Enrico Macias, Mikey Dangerous, Mocky and Sans Pression. Socalled sees this variety as an opportunity to expose listeners to all types of music. He said, “I thought, OK, cool, if you like funk, then you’ll check it out because there’s a song with Fred Wesley, the god of funk. OK, cool, if you like calypso, well, then you’ll check it out because you’re a fan of the Mighty Sparrow and you want to hear what he’s been doing – and he’s 80 years old, you know, and, wow, that’s cool, hear[ing] him mixed up with some new stuff. If you like rap, there’s some stuff for you there. If you like folk music, if you like indie rock, if you like any of these things, you’ll check it out and, because it’s mixed with other stuff, it’ll open you up to other [styles].”

He noted that, more and more, there are musical fusions and experiments taking place, “and different genres exploding, even in huge pop music, you hear it more and more actually.”

Socalled is from Chelsea, Que., just north of Ottawa. He was the only Jewish kid in the town, he said, “so, in terms of the Jewish thing, I would go into town to go to synagogue. I did the bar mitzvah and stuff, celebrated the holidays. It was very secular, very Reform Jewish, but [I] was practising.... No Yiddish, no Jewish music to speak of. I took piano lessons as a kid; I got into playing all sorts of different styles of piano and, eventually, my mother let me stop studying classical so I could learn a bit about jazz and improvisation.

“I started playing in a gospel band, a salsa band; in Ottawa, I started playing with world music bands....  When I was about 14, my rabbi [Rabbi Donald Tam] lent me his accordion because he knew I played piano and he had an accordion and, for some reason, he said, ‘Hey, do you want to borrow this accordion?’ So, I started playing the accordion. I started busking.

“Then I started getting into, well, basically through a love of funk ... I then started to figure out about rap, which I had sort of missed the boat on a little bit, like, the ’80s kind of rap thing, but, in the ’90s, I started getting into rap,” he explained.

That was when he began learning about sampling and sequencing. He found a mentor of sorts in the Victory Lights Gospel Band – the guitarist showed Socalled his studio, where the rapper began learning about using machines to make music. “So, I got myself a little four-track recorder and a drum machine and I started making beats,” he said.

Before heading to McGill University in Montreal, where he obtained a bachelor of arts in literature, Socalled said, “I was making beats for this rapper and I was called Heavy J in high school – OK, it was like my stupid rapper name – and, eventually, this kid started to call me Socalled Heavy J and, eventually, he just started to call me Socalled, so that’s how I got the name.”

It was in Montreal that Socalled started “collecting records in earnest, looking for samples, looking for stuff I could put into my machine and loop, and I started to find all sorts of records – it was at a time when people were really throwing out their record collections because CDs had come to save the day.

“I was finding record collections in the garbage, finding blues records and jazz records and Broadway soundtracks and classical and world music. I happened upon, one day, this record of a guy named Mickey Katz, who, now I know, is this clarinetist from Cleveland who – he was actually in the Spike Jones Band ... anyway, in the ’50s, he made all these records that were sort of klezmerified versions of popular American songs, ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window,’ stuff like that, with an amazing klezmer breakdown, and I had never really heard anything like it before, and particularly the real klezmer moments of it. So, I took that home and started working, sampling that.”

Socalled found other Jewish-related material, such as music from the Yiddish theatre and cantorial music from the 1930s and ’40s that he also had never heard before.

“It’s not part of popular consciousness, any of this stuff,” he said, adding, “... the more I looked into it ... the more I felt, OK, this is cool, I can have something unique to offer to this hip-hop culture that I’m a part of.... So, I didn’t start out with ... a political ideology that I wanted [to put forward]. It wasn’t about identity politics, it was just about looking for cool, original sounds to play with, and that’s when I stumbled upon my own culture.”

Socalled began studying it seriously, attending various music camps, including KlezKanada. He said, “I started really getting into that and wanting to perform the actual songs, playing them on the accordion, singing them, playing the piano and that took me, basically, all over the world and helped me work with a bunch of amazing people.”

One trip led to Socalled becoming the subject of the documentary The Socalled Movie. At McGill, he took a class on the history of documentary film, the teacher of which was Garry Beitel. The two stayed in contact after Socalled graduated and they talked about maybe doing something together.

“Then, one day, I told him about this idea I had ... partnering with my parents to organize a Yiddish culture cruise on a boat in the Ukraine,” said Socalled. He explained that they would hire musicians, a Jewish history professor, a dance instructor, “and we were going to get on this boat with people who wanted to come back to where they were from and check out their Ukrainian roots, including me and visiting where my grandfather was from.... I had already had this idea, this fantasy of having a Yiddish culture festival back in the Old Country, eastern Europe somewhere, to bring back some of this culture that was lost and having it happen there and sharing it with the local people.”

He asked Beitel to join the cruise and make a movie about it. The filmmaker agreed and raised the money to do so, partnering with the National Film Board, who suggested that the focus of the documentary be Socalled, with the boat cruise being only a part of the musician’s story. The film – “a kaleidoscopic portrait, offering 18 entertaining short films about Socalled’s creative process,” according to the NFB blog – was produced by the NFB and reFrame Films. It was released in 2010.

This year’s Sleepover is Socalled’s fourth studio recording. It follows Ghettoblaster (Label Blue, JDub Records, 2007), which, Socalled said, “was on the way to where Sleepover is, which is to say, I was using some of these references and I was using traditional melodies and traditional sounds, but then trying to make them contemporary, and just trying to make it catchy music that’s good for people today.”

Socalled and Moore will be at the Rio Theatre, 1660 East Broadway, on Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 8 p.m. For tickets ($25 plus fees), go to, call 604-602-9798 or visit the Vancouver Folk Music Festival office at 415 Dunsmuir St., Highlife Records or Zulu Records.