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Sunday, January 22, 2006

StarPolish interview with Matisyahu

StarPolish Interview: Matisyahu
Tina Whelski — Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Hasidic reggae/hip hop artist Matisyahu raises his voice with tuneful Torah-inspired verses and a groove he describes as a cross between Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach. Bearded and attired in traditional Orthodox Jewish dress, with black fedora, tzitziot, and dark jacket, he carries the universal message that you can be strong in who you are and still unite with other people.

Audiences are obviously catching Matisyahu’s vibe as his recent 45-date, sold out tour indicates. I got hooked too after his South by Southwest performance last month in Austin, Texas at Buffalo Billiards. As drummer Jonah David, bassist Josh Werner and guitar player Aaron Dugin warmed up the packed room with contagious dancehall/hip-hop rhythms, the anxious crowd responded chanting in unison, “Matis! Yahu!” until the performer emerged on stage with inner-fire blazing and rousing vocals rhyming.

“Unification doesn’t mean giving up yourself,” Matisyahu told MTV News at the event. “It means finding out who you are and being alright with that and then being able to connect to others. So that’s universal. That’s not just for Jews or religious people, you know?”

The performer’s new record deal with Or Music promises to take that philosophy to the next level. Or signed the performer to a multi-record deal and entered a strategic marketing and distribution relationship with non-profit record and event company JDub, who released Matisyahu’s debut album, Shake Off The Dust. Under the union Matisyahu: Live at Stubbs was recorded in Austin, Texas in February and was released this month.

STARPOLISH: What led to your OR Music deal?

MATISYAHU: I started out with JDub and they are basically friends of mine that I knew from college before I became religious. They were kind of like pulling me out of Yeshiva trying to convince me to do this concert or that concert and when I started with them, one of the first concerts was almost sold out. It wasn’t billed as a Matisyahu show. It was something else, but all of a sudden they started filling a hole that was there in New York, which was for a young Jewish audience. So the first thing I did there were tons of people there. Then the next thing I did there were tons of people there. Then they wanted me to record a record, so someone came into the picture and we did it. They’ve sort of been like friends who were helping me do this and at the same time I think I was helping them build their company…We knew at some point that for things to get to the next level, there had to be something with a bigger company…So OR came along and they just seemed like the right people. One morning we did this concert at this high school on the upper West Side and Jacob [Harris], my manager from JDub, comes over to me and said these record company guys are here. After the show they came up to me and were so into it. They were so enthusiastic and they dropped everything they were doing. That day I was on Carson Daly, so they came there and they were right away ready to sign me.

STARPOLISH: I know that there’s been this tremendous buzz about your beat boxing performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live?

MATISYAHU: The Jimmy Kimmel one got leaked out to peoples’ computers and it just started spreading, like everyone was getting it. I’ve talked to hundreds of people who found out about me through that. Real underground grassroots.

STARPOLISH: What you’re doing is obviously different. How do people respond?

MATISYAHU: …Once people actually come and see the music, they get over the whole stereotype thing, which I don’t blame them, and people are usually really positive. The same goes for any musicians. Last night we opened for Jimmy Cliff. About half way through our set I look up on the balcony and Jimmy Cliff’s whole band from Jamaica were up there screaming and going crazy.

STARPOLISH: You came to your faith out of calling rather than upbringing. What events led you there?

Photo by: Tina Whelski

MATISYAHU: Basically there was a seed that was planted in me when I went to Israel when I was 16. Around that time I was really searching and just discovering myself and spirituality. ..When I went to Israel I saw Hasidism and I just connected to Judaism as more of an idea…There was something mystical about the Torah and something spiritual about the Hebrew language. So, I was in college, in my early twenties, and I was kind of stuck in my life. My whole life up until then I had really believed in God. I believed I had this connection to God and God was sort of with me through this journey that I had gone on…At this particular point in my life, instead of taking a hike and meditating out in the woods or zoning out and listening to Bob Marley, I just decided to pick up a prayer book and started reading the prayers…I would go up to the roof of my school building after school in college in the Village [NYC] and wrap my grandfather’s tallit around myself and pray even though I didn’t really understand the words. But I felt like, “Look there’s a God,” and I thought God was listening to me and there’s something about the Hebrew, there’s something about being Jewish and that just kind of opened the doors and then I just went running with it.

STARPOLISH: You followed Phish on tour and were a huge Bob Marley fan so obviously you already had musical stirrings. How did you bring your faith and music together?

MATISYAHU: Basically I always loved music. I always felt like music was my way of expression and connection. It was always very much a part of me. I followed Phish and I used to sing, played the drums and beat box and all that kind of stuff. Then I became religious and I put it all on the back burner basically. My whole life up until this point I had sort of been a floater and never put my foot down or really worked at something. So when I was at Yeshiva becoming religious I really didn’t do music at all. It wasn’t until after this whole thing started that I actually started getting back into music. Basically what happened is my music just became a little more refined. Because of the Hasidic influence in Crown Heights a lot of the Hasidic songs and melodies somehow worked into my music.

STARPOLISH: Was reggae always your first music love?

MATISYAHU: Yeah. That’s what turned me on you know? I was into hip hop and was turned on to psychedelic rock and that stuff too, but I always felt a really strong connection to reggae. When I was in college, in my early twenties, that music was such a strong influence. Everywhere I went I had headphones on. I was listening to sort of like the conscious dance hall stuff and I had a PA system in my apartment. I used to buy these instrumental hip hop and reggae tapes and turn them all the way up on these JBL speakers. That’s kind of how my style developed. It was never a conscious decision that I’m going to try to do this style. It was just that’s what was my love.

STARPOLISH: Do people close to you understand your need to put your message to music and are you getting any resistance?

MATISYAHU: When I started out there were a lot of Lubavitchers that were like, “Who is this kid?” “What is he doing?” At this point, we just got back from two months on tour and I spent a lot of time with rabbis all over and everyone that I know is so positive about it and really supportive. It’s really cool.

STARPOLISH: You open each show with “Sea To Sea” for a reason?

MATISYAHU: Sea To Sea” is how we open up the show basically every time. I don’t usually listen to music that much now, but my agent gave me a bunch of these reggae CDs and I decided to check them out and one of them is a Vibrations CD and I was hearing how they come out on stage and the first thing they say is, “Greetings in the name of his Imperial Majesty.” They basically shout out their king who they’re out there representing and that’s basically what I’m doing when we start the show. I say “God open up my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”

Photo by: Tina Whelski

STARPOLISH: Can you pick another song and tell us what you’re singing about?

MATISYAHU: “King Without A Crown”…basically the idea being that at the end of the day, a person knows that they have faults, no matter what a person pretends or acts like. When they get down to their core, they realize they’re just human and therefore, they’re shaky. It’s like your whole ideology, your philosophy, could be wrong. Who knows what’s what? You’re just kind of thrown into the mix and you have to figure it out. You try to be a good person and you try to do what’s right, but sometimes you make moves and you don’t know…At the end of the day you have to do the best job that you can do but you’re living your life according to these laws that are set out that we believe to be the will of God basically and this Torah that has been around for thousands of years. It’s like an anchor. It’s like strapping yourself onto a rock and I was realizing that gives you so much confidence…I think I’m connected to this ancient thing, which is above even nature, above even reality and no one can knock me off of that. That’s kind of the idea when I say, “A king without a crown/You keep falling down.”

taken from : StarPolish


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