The Jewschool Interview (July 2005)
The Jewschool Interview
Matisyahu: Rudeboy Rebbe
By Dan 'Mobius' SieradskiJuly 29, 2005
Hasidic Judaism erupted in the ghettoes of medieval Europe as a backlash against the rigidity of Jewish belief and practice of the day. It was pure counterculture. In a radical shift from tradition, Hasidism focused on ecstatic song and dance, as opposed to intellectual studies, as a means to connect with God and holiness. And while it has, within the last century, become as rigid as that which it once reacted against, there is a growing Hasidic movement working towards a renaissance of Hasidism's revolutionary romance. It should therefore be no surprise to find a man such as Matisyahu, a Hasidic MC and beatboxer, who is dazzling Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike with his unique fusion of hip-hop, reggae and jamband music. A khozer b'teshuva (or "born again Jew" as some deride it), Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller, is taking his mission of redemption to the masses. And while he may not be winning—or even necessarily seeking—converts to "the faith", he is winning converts first skeptical of the appeal of a Hasidic reggae singer.
The first time I saw Matisyahu perform was in June of 2003, at a benefit to send Jewish kids from NYC off to Utah for a Rainbow Gathering. The room at Opaline (an East Village nightspot known for its queer Friday night dance parties) was half-full with scraggly hippies and Orthodox Jews that night, and I suspect none of us knew what was in store. Soon after Matisyahu took the stage I became entangled in a fierce struggle to pry my jaw up from the floor. He had me at "Hashem."
Whether blending 18th century Hasidic melodies (known as niggunim) with Uptown beatbox technique, or singing ancient Hebrew psalms in a Caribbean lilt over dancehall "riddims", Matisyahu manages to take the cultural outgrowth of three disparate ghettoes—Poland, The Bronx, and Trenchtown—and merge them into one musical form, while retaining the distinct ambience and energy of each. What's more, his towering presence and traditional Hasidic garb (black suit, white shirt, black hat and long beard) present a striking image. He is both archetypal and irrespective of stereotypes. The draw is undeniable, even if as a mere cultural curiosity. And that's just the peshat (surface level), before you get to his lyrics, which give voice to Kabbalistic and Hasidic concepts without being either trite or contrived—a general shortcoming of most Jewish hip-hop. In his song "Refuge", he bellows "May the King answer you on the day that you call / Stand tall, battle y'all, the clouds crawl low, all stalled / heavens lay draped over New York like a prayer shawl."
As a native New Yorker, one generation removed from my own Hasidic heritage, and as a fan of reggae music since my early teens, Matisyahu then spoke and speaks now to me and countless others in a way that no musician before him (particularly no Jewish musician) could. Our parents' generation had Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a folk singer who embodied the best (and some would allege also the worst) of the 1960s "free love" ethic, which Carlebach incorporated into his own brand of traditional Jewish music. Matisyahu is our generation's Reb Shlomo—the embodiment of our musical voice—but this time around, the flightiness of "free love" has been substituted with the more tangible "purity of motive."
Matisyahu's come a long way since that Opaline gig, and while he has yet to make an indelible mark upon the Jewish world as Shlomo Carlebach has, he is already bigger than Reb Shlomo ever was, reaching far beyond the provinces of the "Jewish music" scene. He recently completed a sold out 51-city tour and had audiences across North America writhing ecstatically to his Yiddish-laden dancehall.
The latest performance of his I caught was to a private audience of record executives at the Mercury Lounge, who swayed blindly as he sang sweet critiques of their "plastic" lifestyles. The same week, his second album, Live At Stubb's (Or Music), took the third spot atop the Billboard reggae charts. The week following, he was off to Tennessee to perform at Bonnaroo with the likes of Dave Matthews, The Allman Brothers, Modest Mouse, De La Soul and former members of the Grateful Dead. Soon after, he headlined Carifest, New York City's biggest Carribean Island music festival, where he joined a pantheon of dancehall dons, including Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Luciano, and Capleton. Matisyahu is also currently working on his next studio album with renowned producer Bill Laswell, who is responsible for releasing some of the finest dub heard in decades past. He is also set to tour with Phish's Trey Anastasio this August.
Carifest's organizer Junior Burton seems enthusiastic. "His music is real. It's great. It's true reggae music. There's nothing fake about what he's doing. It doesn't make no difference what his nationality is."
It seems that Matisyahu is only on the up and up, but he won't take much credit for that. Despite the obvious bombast and bravado necessary to any MC that he exudes on stage, Matisyahu remains incredibly humble and grounded. This is because he attributes his success solely to God.
"No doubt the Hasidic thing has helped, in two senses," offers Matisyahu. "In one sense it's the gimmick thing—it helps with publicity. But the truth behind the Hasidic thing, I believe, is that I gave myself to God. I told God, if you want, I won't do music. I'll do whatever you want me to do. And then the music thing happened. I don't think I'd be successful without God."
Your average American youth bred on hippies and hip-hop, Miller struggled with his Jewish heritage throughout high school and college before finding the niche he was looking for in the world of Lubavitch Hasidism. After being turned away from a Reconstructionist synagogue during the High Holidays one year, Miller was welcomed into the nearby Lubavitch synagogue without hesitation.
"My whole life, I had seen falseness in Judaism," he says, almost apologetically. "Getting shut out of shul on Rosh Hashana was a perfect example of what turned me off to Judaism. What happened in that Chabad shul was the opposite. It was like truth."
The moment defined his impressions of so-called progressive and inclusive Jewish denominations (such as Reform and Reconstructionist), and pushed him towards the controversial, ultra-Orthodox sect. From there he began learning with different Lubavitch rabbis, before taking on the yoke of Orthodoxy himself.
The Lubavitch are well-known for their outreach programs, having "Chabad" centers everywhere from Nashville to Goa, where people can attend free classes, Shabbat & holiday services, and meals. (Reb Shlomo began his career doing outreach for Lubavitch, as well.) But they are also known in the Jewish world for their messianic beliefs—particularly one held by many of their adherents, that their late leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was himself the Messiah—a baggage Matisyahu dances around cautiously. "He was definitely one of the candidates, if there are any candidates. I believe and I see how it could be."
But the "final redemption", Matisyahu believes, is incumbent on more than the arrival of any one person. "Moshiach will be both a person and a consciousness. It's not just that a person's going to come and ‘it's gonna happen'. It's gonna happen when people already start changing their reality. It's going to happen as a result of the people."
Matisyahu is working to bring that message to the people. Whether they're heeding the call or not, the people are still "feelin'" him.
Visit his website at HasidicReggae.com. For Jewschool's exclusive download of the Matisyahu vs. Rolling Stones mashup-remix of "Chop 'Em Down," click here.
This article appeared in an abridged format in the July 2005 edition of Paper magazine. Photos courtesy of JDub Records.
(taken from JewSchool)