Ascend Into Zion: The Dr. Israel Interview

by Clubplanet
05.29.2001

On the fringes of the Northside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, brooking, a once gritty Polish and Puerto Rican enclave now rapidly succumbing to gentrification, a small sign rests on the door of a converted warehouse on Wythe Avenue, proclaiming “New York Kickboxing Studio.” The building houses a recording studio (built from scratch) as well as a martial arts training ground, both of them combining the twin loves of Douglas Bennet, better known as Dr. Israel. When not busy keeping fit with the help of a world kickboxing champion from the Ivory Coast, the Doctor finds time to make some of the most compelling and adventurous music in the city today. After generating significant buzz with his first two underground releases, 7 Tales of Israel and Next Step, Doctor Israel truly came into his own with Inna City Pressure, released in late 1998. An album of spiritual journeying presented with a musical backdrop of reggae, drum’n’bass, metal and hardcore styles, Pressure sounded like nothing else released that year. Despite the record label on which it appeared folding shortly after the release, the album succeeded in breaking Dr. Israel’s music to a wider audience, gaining write-ups in both Rolling Stone and Vibe. Building on that reputation with tours of North America and Europe, Dr. Israel is set to make further waves this year with a new album, Black Rose Liberation, due out on June 26th.

At a recent show at New York’s legendary Knitting Factory, Dr. Israel and his band 7 put on a potent display of their musical chops, opening up with a new track, “Elevation,” before giving way to a rousing take on the old reggae anthem “Armagideon Time” (co-authored by the iconic reggae producer, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd). A song about “living life in the city,” “Friction” began with guitarist Kirk Douglas playing bubbling, near-psychedelic lines and then erupted into grinding, jump-up hard rock, with which the Doctor’s delivery combined to evoke Fugazi playing a Pocojump revival in Kingston circa 1981. Just when the song seemed ready to explode with punk fury, the tempo shifted again to allow the singer to display some impressive double-time dancehall chatting. It was a trend continued with his toasting on “Pressure,” and complemented by Douglas’ Eddie Hazel-like solos and Amy LaCour’s buttery back-up vocals on the following “Jacob’s Ladder.” A few songs later, righteous fury returned with “Revolution,” before leading to a rousing, dreadlocks-flying close with a take on Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard.”

With the new album pending, an excellent remix of Sepultura’s “Tribe to a Nation” appearing on their new release, Nation and a slot opening for Buju Banton set for this summer, ClubPlanet thought it would be a good time to sit down with the Doctor and get his first-hand take on arriving at this career crossroads.

One of the most striking things about your music is the very wide range on influences on display. What kind of music did you listen to growing up that resulted in that?

A big influence was Bad Brains. I grew up in Philly…(and) I got into the hardcore scene at a really young age. At the time, I was into it because it was this weird, cool place to go and I didn’t really fit in anywhere. I got to see bands like Iron Cross and Government Issue. I didn’t even understand that this was hardcore or punk rock at the time. At the same time, my cousin was a DJ, and he used to play a lot of Funkadelic stuff, a lot of Bob Marley stuff, a lot of reggae... He liked Hendrix and Black Sabbath a lot, too, so he would be playing these huge funk parties in West Philly, and he would work in a Black Sabbath tune or a Hendrix tune. It seemed like the low end was doing really similar stuff, the bottom of Black Sabbath was similar to the bottom of Black Uhuru, those deep down grooves. A lot of the literacy in London, with that cross-culture, punk and metal a little bit but mostly punk and reggae, really influenced a lot of stuff in Philly. Schooly D was also a big influence, I used to ride that train to high school when Chris Schwartz from Ruff House was going to college. I’ve just always been a big fan of heavy sounds.

So did you begin your performing career as a reggae performer, a hardcore act, or a DJ?

When I started out, I was playing guitar in a punk-hardcore band, but we would also do reggae stuff. I got into doing hip-hop and that got me into sampling. But there was no place for me to have a cultural identity in hip-hop. I love it, and it’s actually coming back in my music, but at the time it just wasn’t me. I got into reggae, trying to fuse reggae and hip-hop. Then I discovered drum ‘n’ bass in New York around early 1993-94...Now all the music is somehow becoming a very comfortable combination of everything that I’ve experienced in the course of my life.

On Next Step, a lot of the music has a world view that’s reminiscent of some of the more interesting stuff that happens in Brooklyn rap music, like Jeru the Demaja, for instance, which is this portrayal of urban landscapes in general and Brooklyn in particular as this kind of wasteland between Heaven and Hell. Do you have any thoughts on the mythologizing of this locale in particular?

Brooklyn carries mythological weight throughout the world. You just say “Brooklyn” or express “Brooklyn” and it’s got a certain weight to it. I think in particular the Brooklyn environment is very much like that, and Williamsburg itself. At the time I was here initially, we had this weird amalgamation, and the Northside was a very strange neighborhood at the time. The whole Word Sound thing was about building mythology. A lot of music, soundscapes, portray that. Dr. Israel is a mythological creature that has been constructed by Brooklyn. My real name’s Douglas Bennett, I have my Douglas Bennett personality. I spent some time in Jamaica, I lived in Philly for a long time and I’ve traveled all over the world. I think if I was living in Jamaica, for instance, I’d be making totally different music.

There’s a whole mythology in a lot of old conscious reggae about the concrete jungle and Babylon, and it a lot of what is going on in Brooklyn just appears to a logical, twenty-first century extension of that.

Definitely. I had an experience in a Niyabinghi compound in Jamaica where I had spent some time with the elders. This was kind of the whole culmination of this spiritual pilgrimage that I had done, extrapolating certain parts of the Old Testament, like the prophecies of Jeremiah. What they felt it was for me to do spiritually was to play the role of someone like Jeremiah, to be in this concrete situation and send a message from within it rather than to be outside in Paradise. I’m pushing instead of pulling.

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