We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Erez has fond memories of the house party he performed at last winter. There was nothing particularly special about the eventjust a bunch of artsy kids talking about their favorite tunes, indie rock blaring from tinny speakers, and plastic cups filled with brew from a keg.
That night, however, Erez and his cohorts in his band Juez decided to debut a new tune: “N. Yemenite,” which incorporates traditional Yemeni melodies into jazz compositions to create what Erez calls a “lush, beautiful sound.” When the group launched into the song, the members of the crowd bopped their heads in appreciation.
One particular guest, however, couldn’t control the urge to get up and dance: Erez’s 83-year-old grandmother. She had come out to listen to her grandson’s latest musical project at his insistence, and she jumped onto the dance floor when she heard the familiar-sounding music bounce off the walls of the crowded house. “She was here from Israel and came out to see us, and when she heard the Yemenite stuff, she just started dancing!” Erez says.
Erez has an uncanny ability to make people move. It’s his job, after all. In addition to playing drums in Juez, the 23-year-old owns and manages Modular Mood Records, which releases hiphop, rock, and jazz acts. He also works as a performance DJ, and he hosts a show on WMUC 88.1, the student-run FM station at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he’s earning a degree in communications.
Erez, who was born Erez Shudnow, works in so many different areas that he assumes multiple aliases to keep his different projects straight: The single-named Erez is the band member, recording mogul, and radio host; DJ Handler is his performance-DJ alter ego; Guy Emanuel creates photography and other visual art; and Cosbo is the spoken-word artist who occasionally pops up at coffeehouses.
Those incarnations help explain why “N. Yemenite” is just one of the breakbeat, klezmer, and jazz experiments that Erez is constantly refining in Juez. After you bend a genre or two, he suggests, there’s just no turning back: “I think once you get away from mainstream stuff and get into independent music, what you like broadens. You’re exposed to a lot more, so you appreciate different things.”
The walls of WMUC are plastered with countless stickers and posters tacked up by generations of DJs. Everyone from Wu-Tang Clan member Cappadonna to post-rockers the Sea and Cake is represented.
Aside from maybe John Travolta, any of the dozens of artists enshrined in this unofficial hall of fame are likely to show up in Erez’s weekly “Modular Moods” show. And just about all of them are in Erez’s private music collection, which is so vast that he no longer needs to rely on the station archives for material.
Of course, he isn’t shy about playing the artists who have signed with Modular Mood, either. “That’s definitely one of the nice things about having the show,” says Erez, dressed in a yarmulke and a Beastie Boys T-shirt.
Although he’s technically the station’s jazz and hiphop director, Erez stretches the boundary of the classification: psychedelic rockers the Flaming Lips, experimental-jazz pioneer John Zorn, and Icelandic glitch-poppers Múm all make their way into his show.
Such adventurousness hasn’t always been a fact of Erez’s life, however, as demonstrated by his first musical purchase: Mötley Crüe’s Girls Girls Girls. He became a fan of the Crüe while living in Italyhis father, a military rabbi, was stationed in Naples for two years during Erez’s childhood.
“I went to the Navy exchange in Italy, like, Maybe I’ll be cool if I buy this Bon Jovi tape and this Mötley Crüe tape,” he recalls. “I was in second or third grade and was just listening to whatever.”
Following his brief hair-metal phase, Erez moved to Chicago and, while attending a suburban Jewish private school, Hillel Torah, got into Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and began DJing at school parties. “Everyone was more chill and getting more into music at that time,” he says. “In public schools, people get into more independent music, but in those schools, it took a little longer.”
In 1995, when Erez moved to the Washington area and started high school, he began snapping up every record he could get his hands on. “I got into Tricky, DJ Shadow,” he says. “There’s a point where you hear all of these namesVelvet Underground, John Coltraneand you say, ‘I’ve heard of them, what’s the deal?’ I just started buying albumsIf I’ve heard their name, there’s got to be a reason why.”
After starting at the University of Maryland four years ago, Erez founded InSatiAble Jonze, a post-rock/jazz band. Around the same time, Erez says, he also began getting into the independent hiphop scene. The first sign of the fusion that now typifies his style was a collaboration between his own band and the D.C. hiphop group Anonymous Crew.
“The first time I saw them, I was just blown away,” he says of Anonymous. “They have amazing personality. So even though that was hiphop and we were doing experimental rock, I was just like, We gotta start doing shows with these guys. While I was playing guitar, they’d DJ, they’d freestyle over our stuffthat was the start of doing shows and getting to know the D.C. clubs and people.”
In December 2000, Erez assisted with one of the first hiphop showcases at 14th Street NW’s Metro Cafe, an event that turned him on to promoting other bands. Not long after, Modular Mood was bornat least in name. It wasn’t until last year that things really “started hard-core,” Erez says. “I was putting out EPs on CD-Rs before that, but it kinda dropped in January 2002.”
Acts signed to his label include the Sigur Rós-inspired bellflur, jazz/triphop artist mR. id, and hiphop groups the Educated Consumers, ResiNation, and Father Scott Unlimited. So far, only the hiphop acts have released albums through Modular Mood, but Erez says each release has sold about 1,000 copies. He cites a light touch as the key to getting his acts noticed by radio stations, magazines, and consumers alike.
“You have to be gentle when you contact people,” he says. “You want them to say, ‘This guy sounds coolI can vibe off of him. This is probably gonna be dope.’ As opposed to some of the e-mails I get: ‘This is the jive shit! It’s so hip, this is the freshest, hottest…!’ And I’m just like, Whoathis guy must be like 40 trying to push this hiphop band.”
Erez’s most ambitious fusion project to date, Juez, was started in January 2002, after InSatiAble Jonze took a hiatus. The band’s signature sound is klezmer, but it certainly doesn’t play standards. Indeed, Erez is especially proud of the fact that all of Juez’s music is original. “You can’t listen to it and go, ‘Oh, I’ve heard this Jewish song before,’” he says. “Because you haven’t.”
Erez says that the band didn’t set out to make klezmer music. The sound grew out of jam sessions with Juez trumpet player Matt Wetstein. “It was more of a natural thing,” Erez says. “The writing of the music began leaning towards that, so we began making music that was more towards those notes.”
“In the bands I’m in, and a lot of the bands I work with, you can’t pinpoint the genre by any stretch, but that’s what we’re trying to do,” he adds. “We’re not trying to take from this genre and that one. We’re writing music and it happens to be klezmer.”
Although Erez takes his music seriously, he’s not above poking fun at the mix of sounds. “We have one parody song where we ask the crowd to say, ‘Oy! Vey!’” Erez says of a new take on the classic “Hey! Ho!” call and response used in hiphop. “So that’s our one novelty Jewish song.”
The Orthodox Jewish community in which he was raised, Erez says, has embraced his work with Juez and another band, Kle’-da’as, a drum ‘n’ bass/klezmer group that he formed with Max B of Anonymous Crew. He even bills Kle’-da’as’ music as the only chance to “see your bubbi’s old B-boy moves,” hoping to take advantage of what he sees as its wide-ranging, cross-generational appeal.
His work with hiphop has been more likely to raise eyebrows, however. “I think that religious Jews can be thrown off’You do hiphop?’ But it’s only because they don’t listen to it,” he says. “If I were doing techno, they’d have the same reaction.”
After he graduates this May, Erez is taking his label to New York, where he says there is a “thriving avant-garde klezmer scene.” Although he claims that his various projects have been fairly well-received in D.C., Erez is happy to be leaving the hallowed halls of the University of Maryland itself: The school doesn’t exactly nourish unusual musical tastes.
Still, on April 28, Juez will perform at Spring Mix: Out of the Melting Pot and Into the Salad Bowl, an on-campus event to benefit the National Conference for Community and Justice. In keeping with Erez’s personal eclecticism, the band will play alongside an Italian opera singer, Indian dancers, and an African drum ensemble.
“Maryland is like a frat school,” Erez says, “So it’s nice when all of the artsy, indie kids can come out together.”
Erez has already rented an apartment in Brooklyn, which he’ll officially move into sometime in July. But he plans to come down to D.C. on weekends to finish up Juez’s debut LP, Shemspeed Alt-Schule, as well as to tend to his local acts.
In the meantime, he’s content to work on his many projects from College Park and, once a week, to play his records at WMUC, an insular place where people seem to have accepted his eclectic schtick. On a recent Tuesday night when he was in to do his show, Erez came across a promo package addressed to “Erez, Guy Emanuel, or DJ Handler,” in care of the radio station.
“That’s so funny,” he says. “They must not know that we’re all the same person. Well, I guess it’s not the same person, in a way.” CP
Juez performs at 7 p.m., Monday, April 28, in the Hoff Theater of the University of Maryland College Park’s Stamp Student Union. For more
information, call (301) 405-2787.