An Interview with Sammy K
This author recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Samuel Kalnitz (aka Sammy K) and his manager Dennis Gindi. Here is the inside scoop on this rising star.
Benjamin Koslowe: Let’s get right into it. Who are you, where are you from, and what’s your background?
Samuel Kalnitz: I go by Sammy K. I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been rapping for almost nine years at this point. I’ve been recorded for about two or three years. I put out a couple of mixtapes in the past, and now I’m trying to get my name out there, just trying to do some real music. There’s a lack of realness to hip hop nowadays, so what I’m trying to do is try to help the cause and get that realness back to hip hop. That’s what I’m about.
BK: How did you get started?
SK: I started out just writing covers, literally just writing rhymes and poetry, around sixth grade. It evolved into real songs. I started out listening to rap and realized that this is something I want to do. I started out then and kept pursuing it.
The first thing I ever released was in my freshman year of high school. It was a three-track EP, obviously not my greatest work. The next official release came about two and a half years ago with a couple of tracks. That’s really when I started my actual career as Sammy K. It’s been progressing ever since.
BK: What do you rap about?
SK: A lot of different stuff. Hip hop is definitely a reflection of who you are and what your background is. I don’t make “Jewish music,” per se, but my mainstream music that I make definitely has inspiration from aspects of Judaism. I’ll do a rap about Israel or a rap about the Holocaust as a reflection of who I am. There are other aspects as well, such as word plays and puns, past experiences, struggles I’ve had, or other things that pertain to me. Whatever’s going on in my life or whatever I’m thinking about, that’s what my song will be about. Whatever emotions I feel from the instrumental is how it will translate into the song.
BK: You have a big following now, correct?
SK: Yeah, thank God. It’s doubled in three days since the “Jewish Guy Rapping in NYC” video. My fan base has literally doubled since then.
Dennis Gindi: It’s pretty cool how it all started. I work with Sammy K, going back with him to when we started working together on an NCSY program. Funny enough, when we were both on the program, we both liked rapping. Even though I’m not pursuing rapping at all, I really enjoy the whole art of it, being part of the experience. Sam and I used to bond over “freestyle rapping,” which is just saying things off your mind and trying to rhyme them. Back then we were pretty immature (I’m still immature and Sam has evolved). When he came back to YU I got involved with him. We’re thinking of ways to get his name out there.
We like having lunch meetings in the YU Caf. At one meeting, we came up with the idea of something unique that hasn’t been done before. There are all these YouTube videos of “nerd raps in the hood” or “this guy with this specialty raps here,” a lot of things like that. We tried to figure out what could be our niche that would promote Sammy in the right way. We were mulling through a few ideas and we finally got to one that would include Sammy wearing a black hat. Cool enough, he actually wears a black hat on Shabbat. He had the black hat and had the idea to include it in a video. After a few days of shooting – we had a tight schedule because the videographer had only one or two days – we got the video done with good team collaboration. As of this point, we’re right over a million views on Facebook and 18,000 views on YouTube.
SK: On Facebook we used “clickbait.” Basically, users scroll through tons of posts and it’s hard to catch their eye without having something that’s loud and in your face. So we made the cover with big letters across the top saying, “Jewish Rapper,” and the bottom says, “Shocks NYC.”
DG: Not only would users see “Jewish Rapper,” but they’d also see a freeze-frame of a guy wearing a black hat and a suit on.
SK: Yeah, so we went with that for our post. And we put the video on YouTube too so that people could share the video or watch it again easily.
Funny enough, I had the idea a while ago. We were all sitting around the meeting thinking about how to go viral, and I just threw this old idea out there. We were like, yo, that’s actually a good idea. Let’s actually do that and put it to fruition. Crazy how it worked out.
BK: How does your business work? How do you manage your income, your expenses, and so on?
DG: The business as it stands now is a four-person group. There’s Sammy K who’s the talent, and then there are two managers – we both work on different aspects of the music group. I work more with PR, communications, and logistics, and the other manager works more on technical stuff, video editing, things of that nature. And then we also have a social media campaign manager who manages social media.
SK: Mark and Dennis are our managers. I always explain to people that Dennis is the optimist and Mark is the realist. Dennis is gonna be the one who goes out to everyone and is like, look, this is the product you want, you gotta get this stuff. And then Mark will come to me and be like, is this really what you want, do you actually mean this, is this really what you want to portray? It’s a great balance.
DG: Then we have another Jewish rapper (he goes by Ursa) who goes to Binghamton who’s very passionate about this field as well. He knows Sammy as well and we’re all acquainted and friendly. He’s visited a few times. We have good open communication for collaborative team effort.
As far as your question about revenue, at this point we’ve actually all invested a bit. Here and there we all put in a couple of bucks for things like mic rental, website domain, social media related promotions, stuff like that. As I like to say, we are in our “pre-revenue” stage, but we’re hoping to exit that soon.
On one level, we’re all friends. We all talk about funny things that happened in our day and things like that. But the conversation can easily switch to business and we’re all very passionate about getting this moving.
There’s a rap group that was very popular starting around 2008 called Travis Porter. Somebody got a hold of our video and showed it to Travis Porter. They responded to this person, “that’s tight,” a colloquial term saying that they liked it.
Separately, in another arena, we’ve been working with a fraternity at the University of Indiana to have us open for Travis Porter, which we did this past week (Thursday, April 20). Little did they know that this is the guy they saw on the video.
BK: When do you expect to exit the “pre-revenue” stage?
SK: We’re definitely on the verge. We can’t predict it for sure, since you never know what label will reach out, and whether or not they’re willing to work with our circumstances.
DG: I would say that at the early stages we’d put all of the revenue back into growing Sam’s following and covering the costs we’ve had. We’re lucky enough to be working with people who are extending their resources to help Sam. These include video editors, producers, and things like that. We’re definitely looking into merchandising as an option. There’s not too much we can give away as far as the actual numbers, but we’re looking forward to starting those kinds of projects.
BK: Do you view what you’re doing as a long-term career?
SK: That’s definitely the goal. I’m not trying to rap to make money – I’m trying to make money to rap. I want to be able to make this my career. I want to do what I love, get paid for it, and be able to do it again. Instead of having some other job and rapping in my off time, I want to have this as my main gig. Shows, radio station interviews, all those sorts of things play into it. Do what you love, love what you do. That’s what I stand by.
DG: A lot of times people hear of the phrase “Jewish Rapper” and they immediately think of Matisyahu or a handful of other Jewish rappers. But I genuinely think that there aren’t many talented and devoted Jewish rappers that are religious and devoted to the Torah, Mitzvot, and learning in their everyday lives. For Sam and the rest of us, we view this as getting a voice out there from the Jewish community as an influencer through hip hop, a channel that Orthodox influencers don’t generally take. To be able to have that voice is very important for Sam, and it’s a very humbling experience to have people listen and react positively to the message that Sam, and we as a group, is trying to portray. So far, thank God, it’s working out.
We want to stay away from the stigma of “just a Jewish rapper” or “just rapping about Israel.” So we try to stay away from politics, race issues, and stuff like that. We try to show that Sam is a Jewish white male who can actually get his voice heard and have a nice message to share with the world.
BK: How would you categorize your fan base?
SK: I’ve definitely gotten feedback from people all across the spectrum. My little brother who’s twelve years old loves my stuff. Whenever I write songs, I keep in mind that I want him to love it. At the same time, my grandmother is one of my biggest fans. She religiously listens to my music. And I also get broader feedback from people her age, people my brother’s age, and all across the board. I feel like I can reach literally the entire world, because of this huge diversity of ages that all listen. There are different aspects that they like. Some like the beat, some the words, some the flow, some the lyrics, some the message, and these factors as well vary for different age groups. Obviously older fans appreciate the lyrics a lot more, but the younger crowd definitely likes how it sounds a lot more. When the music is aesthetically pleasing in all of those regards, that’s how you reach the whole spectrum.
BK: What are you guys studying in YU?
DG: Currently I am in the JSS program. I’m a junior studying Accounting. I went to Israel for one year and now am finishing my fourth semester on campus. It’s been a great experience so far. I really enjoy the school aspect of it. I was here for three semesters before Sam came along, and it was pretty good, and now it’s just that much better.
SK: This is actually my first semester on campus. I was in Israel for a year and a half. I’m in Rav Belizon’s shiur in BMP. I’m majoring in Management right now, but I plan on switching over to Marketing. But so far so good. I’ll be here as long as it takes to either get signed or graduate first.
BK: Would you in theory drop the degree for a promising enough career?
SK: For sure, if it’s a high-paying job. If someone’s in medical school and, before they graduate, some hospital comes to them and offers them an opportunity to start making millions of dollars a year, they’d probably take it. I’d say that example more or less carries over for me. Obviously I’d like to have a degree in my back pocket, but if next month someone wants to sign a million dollar deal, it would be hard to turn down.
And I really do like YU. I love my shiur. YU is a good community to be a part of. There are lots of students with similar mindsets, which is nice. It’s a very nice community.
DG: YU is different from most other schools. At any school you can have a close network of friends, and even maybe a Chabad or Hillel to reach out to, but in YU there’s such a massive community. You can strike up a conversation with so many people who are similar to you. Everyone at YU who has heard about Sammy has been really supportive. People feel connected. It’s different from just any rapper at any college campus. Sammy is a specifically Jewish rapper who relates to the students here in a specific way.
SK: I’ll have people in classes that I’m in who I’ve never spoken to, but then they recognize me in class and will tell me that they loved the video, or something like that. People recognize who I am and it’s all love, it’s all great. I haven’t gotten a single negative word from anybody here about the music.