Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jewish performer, became the most popular reggae artist in the United States as of 2006. The combination of performer and genre seemed unusual, and some observers classed Matisyahu as a novelty act. Matisyahu was completely serious about his music and faith, however, and his life and career had brought him to his unique status through a set of unusual circumstances. "As a Jew, as a hip-hopper, as a reggae lover, and as a brilliant, natural performer," noted London Evening Standard writer Chris Elwell-Sutton, "Matisyahu has proved himself to be the real thing."
Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller on June 30, 1979, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to Jewish parents who were members of the liberal Reconstructionist movement. The family moved to Berkeley, California, and later settled in White Plains, New York. He disliked the Jewish religious instruction he received as a child, but took to music that had a spiritual dimension. The reggae orientation of his music had its roots in his early teens: he grew dreadlocks (which he accidentally set on fire with a Bunsen burner) and listened to music by reggae superstar Bob Marley, paying attention to the Old Testament imagery in Marley's songs of the Rastafarian religion. When he was 16, Matisyahu traveled to Israel while on summer vacation from school.
His sense of Jewish religious identity awakened during that trip, but he passed through several more spiritual stages before becoming involved with Orthodox Judaism. One of them, seemingly secular in nature, was a stretch following the jam band Phish around the country, dropping out of high school in order to do so. "I went to a Phish concert with a friend and we ate LSD and that experience, I would say, was pretty freaking spiritual," Matisyahu recalled to Dorian Lynskey of the London Guardian. "Although looking back on it, the answer wasn't there, it was a big part of it. It's about taking the chance. I gave up my family. I gave up my friends. I gave up on school. I went out with no money. It was walking on the edge. That's a Jewish idea. You could even say that was a very Jewish experience."
Matisyahu's parents, hoping to get him to finish high school, enrolled him in a school in Bend, Oregon. Matisyahu spent much of his time in local coffee houses, honing his reggae and hip-hop rhymes. Back in New York City, he attended classes at the New School and began attending a synagogue called the Carlebach Shul, run by a rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, who had created a body of simple, direct Jewish worship music that was influenced by American folk music. The final step in Matisyahu's evolution toward Hasidic Judaism came when he met a rabbi from the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch sect, Dov Yonah Korn, in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. Soon after that, he adopted the name Matisyahu (a Hebrew form of Matthew) and moved to the heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. He saw the Lubavitcher lifestyle as a way out of what he felt was the materialism and self-centeredness of secular American culture. He married Tahlia (Tali), a film student at New York University who was less religious than he; they had a son named Laivy (spelled that way to discourage the "Levi" pronunciation associated with the jeans brand).
As he studied the Torah at the Hadar Hatorah yeshiva in Crown Heights, Matisyahu also continued his musical education. He acquired instrumental reggae recordings at New York street markets and bought a PA system, using it just in his own home at first. "I would turn it up loud on the speakers and write lyrics and rap," he was quoted as saying in the Bergen County (New Jersey) Record. "I didn't think I was practicing anything. There were no shows or audiences. It was how I expressed myself…. I was able to find my culture and identity in Judaism and hold onto the truth in this music."
Two classmates, Ben Hesse and Aaron Bisman, were among the first to realize the commercial potential of Matisyahu's music, using one of his demo tapes to launch a label called Jdub that was devoted to contemporary Jewish music. Matisyahu was the label's hottest property in its early days, but he had a falling-out with its founders and moved to the major Sony label for his Youth album in 2006. Matisyahu told Norman Lebrecht of the London Evening Standard that Ben and Aaron "sent my song out to get a grant when I went to yeshiva. Next I knew they were booking concerts and saying they managed me."
Whoever was responsible for nurturing Matisyahu's career, his marketing was masterfully done. A buzz surrounding the Hasidic reggae-rap performer began to build with the release of his debut Shake Off the Dust … Arise album on JDub in 2004, and it intensified as he began touring. He appeared on the Last Call with Carson Daly television program late that year. Matisyahu's career as a Hasidic artist necessitated certain compromises. He did not perform on Friday nights (part of the Jewish sabbath), and when he jumped off the stage into the crowd he aimed for a preselected group of male audience members, as the tenets of his faith prohibit him from touching women other than his wife. But he related easily to his mostly youthful fans, telling Lynskey that "I'm a pretty regular person."
The release of Matisyahu's Live at Stubb's album in 2005 benefited his career. For most artists, following up a debut album with a live release would have been an unusual move, but Live at Stubb's showed Matisyahu's rapport with his growing audiences. "We get a real mixture of people at our shows," he told Stephen Dalton of the London Times. "Jewish kids, reggae people, hip-hop kids. When we play in Arizona and L.A. we get a lot of Mexican and Spanish kids, because the music is a real strong mixture." Indeed, far from being a novelty, Matisyahu seemed to tap into two major trends in contemporary American music: a fondness for eclectic style mixtures and a renewed emphasis on spirituality. Even Matisyahu's full Hasidic garb worked in his favor, as unusual headwear was part of the image for many hip-hop and reggae performers.
The growing commercial momentum of Matisyahu's career hit a peak after the release of his sophomore studio album, Youth, in 2006. Produced by veteran R&B studio wizard Bill Lasswell, the album featured a hit remake of "King Without a Crown," one of the most successful tracks from Shake Off the Dust … Arise. Matisyahu addressed Middle Eastern conflicts in "Jerusalem," opposing further Israeli land concessions to the Palestinian Authority, but he also rejected aspects of Zionist ideology. He has performed with Islamic rapper and beatboxer (mouth percussionist) Kenny "The Human Orchestra" Muhammad.
For the Record …
Born Matthew Miller on June 30, 1979, in West Chester, Pennsylvania; married; wife's name, Tahlia; children: a son, Laivy. Education: Attended New School, New York City; studied at Hadar Hatorah yeshiva, Brooklyn, NY.
Began composing songs and raps after acquring instrumental reggae tracks in New York City parks; two college acquaintances used demo tape to form JDub label; released Shake Off the Dust … Arise on JDub, 2004; released Live at Stubb's, 2005; signed to Sony label; released Youth, performed at Bonnaroo Music Festival, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—Sony BMG, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Website—Matisyahu Official Website: http://www.matismusic.com.
Youth made Matisyahu into a full-fledged star. With Sony's marketing muscle behind him, Matisyahu's album bowed at number four on the Billboard 200 weekly sales compilation. In the summer of 2006 he played for an audience of 80,000 people at the giant Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, as well as at other large venues. Matisyahu faced challenges in reconciling his religious life with the conditions of working in the predominantly secular and often hedonistic music industry. But as the first Orthodox Jew to score a major hit album in the United States, he also had unique opportunities.
Shake Off the Dust … Arise, JDub, 2004.
Live at Stubb's, JDub, 2005.
Youth, Sony, 2006.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 26, 2006, p. 31.
Evening Standard (London, England), May 3, 2006, p. 39; May 23, 2006, p. 19.
Guardian, May 11, 2006, p. 24.
Houston Chronicle, February 26, 2005, p. 1.
Mother Jones, December 2005, p. 72.
Observer (London, England), May 21, 2006, p. 57.
People, April 10, 2006, p. 39.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), December 24, 2004, p. G18.
Times (London, England), April 14, 2006, p. 13.
"Matisyahu," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 3, 2006).