UNCOVERING MATISYAHUBy BGetz
Initially, it's easy to dismiss Matisyahu as a novelty, or worse, a gimmick or contrived marketing effort. Many have jumped to such conclusions. However, the Brooklyn Hasidic reggae singer is indeed a profoundly engaging artist whose chosen path makes perfect sense after one scratches the surface. The initial shock value of the religious young man jumping and kicking and chanting with a distinctly Yiddish accent coupled with a Jamaican patois diminishes to reveal an honest, complicated, endearing artist. Matisyahu is no fake, and in his world it all makes sense.
After seeing the man in concert three times, and later speaking with him, it's clear he embodies a humble, everyman quality. As he traced the origins of his musical and personal evolution, the similarities became clear - in essence and in life - between Matisyahu and many others who grew up Jewish in upper-middle class, suburban areas with the world at our fingertips and a bong in our hand.
Before he was a member of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community in Crown Heights, Matthew Miller [Matisyahu's real name] was an average kinda guy. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, he moved to White Plains, New York, and was raised in typical American suburbia fashion. His parents were mildly practicing Reconstructionist Jews, and Miller went through adolescence deeply affected by music, where a spiritual bond developed early on when he bought a drum and began to rhyme to friends. Living so close to New York City - the epicenter of hip-hop - the seeds of his style were sewn in his teens. Miller joined the black choir at school, deeply feeling the spirituality in the songs despite the different religious roots.
As a teenager living in a reform Jewish home in White Plains, Miller was like most Americanized teenage boys - nearly completely secularized and immersed in the culture of New York. As a pre-teen during summer breaks he attended a Festival for Performing Arts where his primitive attraction to beats, rhythms, and melody was born in the fertile breeding ground of summer camp.
Dressed in his finest hippie-gear and listening extensively to Bob Marley and The Grateful Dead, he stuck out like a sore thumb in his hometown. The young "Head" was nearly thrown out of Hebrew School, but ironically, had his Bar Mitzvah reception at a fancy Italian restaurant. He wrote rhymes, played drums, and later picked up the guitar and began to learn the basic reggae riddim strokes. Several times during our conversation he reflected on the impact of the Bob Marley nyabingi drum anthem "Rastaman Chant," explaining how the meditative trance-like effect coupled with the vibrant, sweet singing would take him to the outer realms of consciousness.
The similarities between Matisyahu and many of his followers are now clear. It's easy to imagine ourselves in his shoes, at this fundamental time in all of our lives - the adolescent entrance into adulthood with the changes we undergo but do not necessarily understand at the time. Summer camp, nights in the city, trips to shows, copious amounts of herb, these were the rites of passage for a '90s teenage suburbanite.
Most of us who journeyed to Israel during our formative years can speak to the profound effect of traveling to such a Biblically historical place. I myself was a Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem - a magnanimous endeavor that remains a lifetime highlight and out of body experience. Although he was in touch with his spirituality, it was not until a trip to Israel that a 16-year old Miller first felt connected to a Higher Power.
"I wasn't really into being Jewish as a kid," he says. "I understood the fact that I was Jewish, and that we were a people with an important history. But, I was more immersed in music, my life, my rebellion, and what was going on with my parents, my teachers, authority figures. I took a trip to Israel, and I was overwhelmed. The life, the culture, the history, it belonged to me! I was just distraught by the life I lived back home when I saw this sheer beauty - a Promised Land, the primitive beauty of Kibbutz, the Holy City of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv. I felt alive, and more so then I ever had been. Of course, just as I was feeling these incredible things it was time to return home, go back to high school, and just sort of end this vacation from reality."
He pauses, as if to reconnect with the time period he is revisiting, and then reenters the tale: "The constant refrain of 'Babylon must come down come down' rang through my brain, and soon I began to search for the spirit, the holiness, that Bob [Marley] sang so joyfully about. After I returned from Israel, I fell back into my former ways, but I was even more detached."
Most people familiar with Matisyahu know where the story goes from here. He dropped out of high school and did a few runs on Phish tour. Today, the situation is different. Touring with Trey Anastasio means opening for him on stage, not negotiating Shakedown amidst a flurry of veggie burrito merchants, drug slingers and mini-boutiques of art, glass and clothing.
He experimented with psychedelics, and became rather thin, natty dreads and all. He speaks fondly of this era in his life, praising the community and devotion of Phish fans and the band's dedication to their throngs of followers. From show to show, Miller philosophized and searched for truth. He says, "The questions became deeper, and their answers were still far from reach." Still, Matis looks at this time - though far from the intense spirituality he currently embraces - as a formative era in the man he has become.
Miller haunted the dark, dank streets of Burlington, Vermont, squatting with a crew of African drummers living communally in a large Victorian house on Isham Street in the burgeoning college town. He played his drum, learned chants, walked around Lake Champlain, smoking herb and meditating headie thoughts. Music and spirituality filled his mind like reggae's bouncing beats. Weathered from hard living, music became a vehicle to greater things for him where he developed an emcee rhyme style and cadence to compliment his unique rhythms.
Miller was at a crossroads. Done with Phish and in failing health, he returned to White Plains, where he promptly chopped off his dreads. His parents sent him to an Outward Bound-style "Wilderness" program in Bend, Oregon. Upon completion of what Miller calls this "rehab situation," he rekindled his musical ambitions, filled with the experiences and emotions of the last half-decade.
"There was a coffee shop in town where I met a guy with dreadlocks who played guitar, and every Thursday we played there," he recalls. "Young kids started bringing turntables. I would wear an Israeli flag like a turban and we'd do crazy hip-hop chanting. And then boom, people started coming in for that. We ended up putting a band together. Back then I referred to myself as MC Truth, but my rhymes were far from spiritual content, more like a 'Learn Yourself' type of approach. Definitely crucial times for me."
Matisyahu returned to New York two years later to attend college at the New School. He began frequenting the Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side, during this time forging a close bond with Dov Yona Korn, a Lubavitch rabbi he met in Washington Square Park.
Matisyahu bought a PA system and started collecting instrumental reggae tapes. I tell him sometimes his singing reminds me of one of my favorite artist, Sizzla, a pioneer of conscious dancehall deejay styles. Startled, he responds, "You can really hear that? I totally studied Luciano's flow and melody, and Sizzla's flow, energy, high notes, and stuff."
"Lots of the reggae artists are called conscious and the words are about their Lord," continues Miller. "I respectfully will not speak His name, but they're talking about G-d. So many roots lyrics were taken or adapted from Old Testament scripture. I was able to find my culture AND my own true identity in Judaism inside these inspirational songs. I hold onto the truths," he laments, somewhat subconsciously defending the accusations of his affinity for reggae music being insincere.
However, he does mix in contemporary emceeing and especially beatboxing, which has taken a prominent role in his live show. It's a talent he likes to incorporate, albeit sometimes a bit inappropriately, much to the chagrin of reggae purists. In addition to the boom-bap of his hip-hop roots, he's woven the traditional Hazzan-style of Jewish Cantors and Hasidic Rabbis into his act.
Matisyahu's music is a bewildering synthesis of Bob Marley and Shlomo Carlebach merged into a flawless flow of Torah-inspired rhymes. It's the cultural fusion Matisyahu is encouraging - a new musical medium fusing the historically insular Orthodox Jewish community with the world of nightclubs, secular fans, and marketing ploys - that really sets him apart. It also makes him a larger-than-life persona that's willing the Americanized Jewish youth back towards The Word and principles dictated to the Children of Israel from their monotheistic G-d through the teachings of Moses, Kings Solomon and David, and later reinterpreted by Rabbis like Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and Carlebach.
Initially, Matisyahu found a perfect partner in JDub Records, a young nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote Jewish voices in popular culture. Among JDub's other artists are the Yiddish-rapping hip-hop producer So Called, the Jewish indie-folk band Black Ox Orkestar, and punk klezmer group Golem. Executive Director Aaron Bisman met Matisyahu four years ago as Bisman was finishing up in the music business program at NYU and DJing with an electro-acoustic Jewish soul band. JDub was in its embryonic stage - as were Matisyahu's skills on the mic - and the two made a commitment to work together as they grew.
Unfortunately, as Matisyahu gained international prominence and became a star, his interests and the direction of his career changed. Bonnaroo with Trey Anastasio, Live at Stubbs' monster single/MTV video "King Without a Crown," and a cultural phenomenon sweeping the Jewish youth across the globe can do that to an artist.
The breakdown of his relationship with JDub was tumultuous, although Matisyahu did not speak on the subject during our brief conversation. The Internet message boards on JDub's site and other Jewish youth online communities have been bubbling with friction over how to perceive this abrupt change in representation, foundation, as well as possibly philosophy. It's as if Matisyahu was careful to steer the dialogue away from this clearly uncomfortable situation.
However, Matis did drop a few red herrings that said a lot while saying just a little. When we talked about his sharp turn toward orthodoxy, he at first was gleeful about recounting the beginnings of his mammoth spiritual quest. He told me about one night where instead of sitting on his NYC rooftop and blazing a spliff, as was his custom, he instead spoke to the Lord for the first time as an adult. The conversation was awe-inspiring, tremendous. "The power of this closeness to Him, was...," he says, his charged voice trailing off to a mumble.
Maybe most interesting was his description of his transition into the Crown Heights Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community. On the heels of the separation from his label/manager/agent, he chose his words carefully. "That process - the commitment and devotion one must undergo, study and live - is a dangerous thing. I am lucky, and happy, to have come out the other side in this place. But the more I study, I read, I listen, I learn." Again the enigma's voice tails away in a whisper.
Is he for real, though?
The fans and charts, outside of Jewish cultural circles, seem to think that indeed he is. Both of his records - Live at Stubbs, and his studio debut Youth - have gotten heavy airplay on college radio and placed on the Billboard charts. His music has been received seriously, and often warmly, in the mainstream pages of Rolling Stone, Riddim, Vibe, though he's been slammed by noted critics like Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times.
Recently Matisyahu stopped by Club Midway to rock with Big Apple drummer sensation the Adam Deitch Project, which apparently unveiled some sinister flows and vicious freestyling, chatting, and beat-boxing. The singer also has a few dates lined up around the holidays. We can only wait and see what the messenger brings forth with future offerings.