In a sun-lit conference room in Capitol Records in Hollywood, Israeli singer Liraz Russo, known by the stage name “Static” (a moniker he earned as a fiery teen), dances around to the Reggaeton-flavored beat of the hit song “Tudo Bom.” The bouncy track, recorded by Static and co-vocalist Ben El Tavor, a pop duo known as Static & Ben El, became a breakout hit when it was first released, in Hebrew, in June 2017. Soon after, it earned the distinction of the most-watched video in Israeli YouTube history, garnering some 300 million views, and amassing fans around the world.
Now, Static & Ben El (also comprising producer Yarden Peleg, aka Jordi) is poised for a splashy American takeover. The group, who were close friends before teaming up to make music — “we did Yom Kippur together,” says Ben El — released a string of hits in Israel such as “Barbie,” “Silsulim” and “Zahav.” In May 2017, they opened for Justin Bieber during his sold-out concert in Tel Aviv, were recently signed by Saban Entertainment — affectionately dubbing Haim Saban “the boss” and “a super cool guy” — and on Feb. 15, Static & Ben El saw the U.S. release of its re-recorded English-language version of “Tudo Bom” featuring J. Balvin distributed by Caroline Records.
This is the song, says Static, on which the duo is pinning its hopes for a successful American crossover. “The big thing was the language barrier,” says Static. “A song has a soul, so when you try to translate it you’re playing with fire. Because it has its vibe already and its soul — it’s a whole product. You want to really get [the meaning] across. So that was kind of challenging but I think we nailed it.”
They had some help from one of the top vocal producers working in pop, Emily Wright, whose credits include Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” She was flown to Israel and tasked with constructing an English version. It didn’t take long for her to realize that she was working with rock stars. “They can’t walk down the street without a car screeching to a halt and someone jumping out for an autograph,” she says. “I would take walks on the beach and inevitably ‘Tudo Bom’ would be playing on someone’s phone from their beach blanket. They were everywhere!”
There’s an unflappable confidence to Static. Wearing a bounty of flashy jewelry — the most conspicuous of which is a diamond-encrusted gold medallion bearing the likeness of Static’s face and the Hebrew phrase “love everyone as you would love yourself” encrusted upon the back — and with slicked-back, platinum blond hair, the singer exudes a sense of definitive purpose and keen industry insight.
“I think we kind of brought something that’s American to Israel,” he says. “We’re kind of a hybrid. With Ben El’s ethnic music and with my rap, which is obviously American, our starting point was already not Israeli, but American.”
With the exception of such local luminaries as Ofra Haza and David Broza, Israel has produced only a handful of recording stars that have seen success in the States. Though the tide does seem to be turning — Israeli multi-instrumentalist and singer Dennis Lloyd, who first signed with Warner Bros. Records Italy, just released a new song “Never Go Back” on Arista — Static believes he and Ben El can push it further.
“Most of the music today in Israel today goes toward the ‘Mizrachim,’ or ethnic — that’s the most popular music in Israel, the Middle East, all the other countries around, including Greece and Turkey,” he says. “I think that since they’re all doing that and we’ve brought [our music], that’s why we have the edge to translate it overseas. It’s not that it’s better music, we just have the right formula because it’s already way friendlier to people from abroad.”
It’s an interesting creative process, says Static, re-writing and re-recording a song that was a giant hit in your native language into English.
“It’s kind of like ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ like you have two sons,” he says. “I think I will always have a big place for ‘Tudo Bom’ even when the American version blows up because that song made history already and it was a big factor in our career. But I think now that we’re energized, it’s just a different angle this time. Artists are born from broken souls. Art comes to protect you—art is your form of defense. And each song has a soul, too. ‘Tudo Bom’ has a new soul now. It’s something completely different with a J. Balvin feature. And I think we’re excited for our new baby.”
As Wright explains: “English is such a crazy language. Singing pronunciation so often differs from how you would say a word in English on its own. It is easy to think a phrase is said one way, but then when you hear it sung back it is all wrong. Getting those flows down was a learning experience for all of us. Lyrically we spent a lot of time figuring out what was best for the song, be it a direct translation or a whole new concept.This becomes especially tricky when a song is already so popular in it’s original language. That is the challenge. There were many, many different versions of this chorus.”
Ben El offers his own take. “If you ask me I think my baby is the Hebrew one, it will be always,” he says. “The English version is exciting also, but Hebrew will be the best.”
But what ultimately makes the music of Static & Ben El stand out, proffers Static, is the fact that it has a global feel, that it’s “limitless.” That quality not only reflects the overall vibe of the duo itself, but the connection they long to establish with audiences around the globe. Fame in Israel is one thing — “It’s awesome and it’s a blessing,” says Static — but global recognition is on a whole other level.
“You should not ever look at fame in a negative way,” he adds. “I can tell you, for an artist you have to remember the days when you wished anyone would ask for your photo, an autograph or to say hello. Before you make it you’re grinding, you’re hustling and you’re not getting anything back from anyone. When you have the love and the wind in your sails, you have to appreciate it.”
At a time when musical artists such as Lorde cancel appearances due to mounting political pressure and deep-seated misconceptions about Israel, Static & Ben El also hope they can lure fans to visit the Middle East country, to learn from them, to discover how musical artistry can provide a bridge to a broader and deeper understanding of the importance of multiculturalism. And with the Eurovision Song Contest taking place this spring in Tel Aviv, the time seems ripe.
“It’s super important that artists play in Israel,” says Static. “And I think that when it comes to Israeli talent, even without Eurovision, we have great musicians. Artists that do not come to Israel are missing out on the best crowd in the world.”