Matisyahu: Very old school

As the world's most successful Hasidic hip hop-reggae star, Matisyahu is poised to bring the Torah to iTunes. Ahead of his tour dates with Madonna, he tells Barry Nicholson why he'll forego bling for his beliefs

Wednesday 01 April 2009 21:32

As the world's only known platinum-selling Hasidic Jewish dancehall-reggae sensation, metaphysical MC and human beatbox, Matthew "Matisyahu' Miller cuts a distinctly awkward figure amongst the gallery of image-obsessed, MTV-endorsed, chart phenomena he's recently found himself rubbing shoulders and sharing airspace with. Standing at an imposing six-feet plus and sporting the traditional shaven head, unruly beard and long, flowing sideburns, or payoth, of the Ultra-Orthodox Eastern European branch of Judaism known as Hasidism, the 26 year-old Brooklynite is perhaps 2006's oddest - and most strikingly original - crossover artist. His music - a heady broth of hip-hop beats and vibrant, accessible reggae-pop - is infused with unabashed lyrical celebrations of his faith and the Jewish condition ("3,000 years with no place to be/And they want me to give up my milk and honey/Don't you see, it's not about the land or the sea/Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty" he sings on "Jerusalem"), and has been variously dismissed as a novelty curio by some, and hailed as the advent of a truly original voice by others. The man himself remains ambivalent about suggestions that his success lies in the fact that no one's ever seen an Orthodox Jew beatboxing before, stating simply that, "This is me. If anyone thinks I'm a novelty, they should come to a show, close their eyes, listen, and decide on their own whether or not it moves them."

Whatever your take on his music though, there's little doubt that he's as compelling a figure as popular music has seen for some time. He's a fierce believer in the holiness of touch, and as such, has ceased stage-diving at his gigs, forbidding himself from making physical contact with any woman that isn't his wife, daughter, mother or grandmother, while his strict observance of the Sabbath means he will not perform on Friday nights. Yet it's not Matisyahu's religious beliefs and his strict adherence to them in the largely morality-free world of celebrity that mark him out as such a wonderful pop anomaly. Rather, it is his uncompromising, uplifting music and the force with which it has landed on the popular consciousness.

His latest studio album, Youth, last month entered the US Billboard Hot 200 at number four, whilst simultaneously topping both the iTunes and Digital Albums charts in its first week of release. Meanwhile, the record that initially generated the underground buzz around him, 2005's Live At Stubbs, has now sold well over half-a-million copies in the US alone, spurred on by the heavily-rotated radio hit of "King Without A Crown". He counts fellow Jewish New York MCs Mike D and Ad-Rock of The Beastie Boys as his friends, and last week told superstar Kabbalah-convert Madonna that he'd have to take a rain check on making her Passover Seder (though he's reportedly made time to provide tour support on her upcoming global jaunt).

An impressive portfolio of factoids and statistics, certainly, but it's all a far cry from his formative years spent as a Phish-loving pseudo-hippy in the late 1990s, when pitchers of magic mushroom tea and copious amounts of marijuana were the order of the day. Although he was born into a Jewish family and attended a strict Hebrew school from an early age, Miller nonetheless developed a taste for rebellion. ("Matisyahu" is an adopted name he was given at the school, referring to Mattathias, a Jewish high priest depicted in the Books of the Maccabees - the original Hebrew name his parents gave him was forgotten.) He dropped out of high school and was sent by his parents to a drug-treatment centre in the wilderness of Bent, Oregon where he was sent on "Vision quests" in the surrounding woods. Here, he honed his rapping and beatboxing skills by performing as MC Truth at open-mic nights in local coffee-houses, playing Rick James and reggae cover covers to limited acclaim. His own style was developing slowly, but something was still missing.

"We were playing in college bars in Eugene, Oregon," he recalled in a 2005 interview with a Jewish website. "I remember playing music and looking around. No one was really listening to what we were saying. One guy was talking to his girl, these other guys were getting drunk over there, and I'm jumping around on the stage like some kind of clown. It was hard to imagine that what I was doing had any meaning."

That meaning came with the rediscovery of his faith after relocating to his native New York in 2000. After enrolling at The New School college in Greenwich Village, a chance encounter with a Rabbi led him to an Upper West Side synagogue, the Carle Bach Shul, where the previously reckless and anti-authoritarian Miller learned to embrace the strict ethos of the Lubavitch Hasidic lifestyle, which in turn impacted upon his music.

"Before I was religious," he says, "to me music was soul. I always had headphones everywhere I went, and I looked at the world through the lens of whatever CD I was listening to. In Judaism, there's another type of food for the soul, another type of spiritual sustenance that comes through the mitzvahs and Torah learning. In Judaism, praying and learning what you love to learn changes the lens that you have, without using something external."

The result was his 2004 debut album Shake Off The Dust... Arise!, a promising if unspectacular record that failed to chart, although it did help establish a small cult following. It was last year's Live At Stubbs that really brought him to mainstream attention, though. Recorded in an Austin, Texas BBQ shack, it perfectly documented his renowned live show and became an unexpected chart hit. However, if he still sounds like a passing musical oddity, listen to Youth and stand corrected.

His second album proper, it perfectly marries pop sensibilities - from the title track's infectious, sloganeering chorus, to "King Without A Crown"'s frantic, exciting melodies - with the religious depth that's inherent in all the best reggae music. The sparse, plaintive "What I'm Fighting For" even manages to evoke the spirit of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song", with Miller pleading "Sons and daughters of Abraham, lay down to a higher command/Don't be tricked by the acts of man" over a lone acoustic guitar. If that's a little too ecclesiastic for your tastes, there's always "Dispatch The Troops", his moralistic re-imagining of Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone", relating the tale of a precocious "Princess of Zion" who runs away to the Metropolis, only to find it ain't all that. If the rock'n'roll bluster we're usually so accustomed to when it comes to Next Big Things is conspicuously absent, it's on purpose - and it makes for a strikingly refreshing album, unlikely reggae-rap hybrid or not.

"Part of the reason for the success," Miller himself muses, "Is just the music itself. It's good music! But the Hasidic thing definitely adds something and makes it even better. What I did notice a lot more was a feeling of respect I got from people. I think it's because they see that you're doing your thing. Hasidic reggae - I never planned it this way, but it works really well."

Of course, religion and popular music have always made for strange bedfellows. One need only recall Bob Dylan's ill-advised late 1970s evangelical Christian phase, culminating in the turgid Saved album and the subsequent alienation of much of his fan base. Yet Matisyahu's trick is to be able to convey his unwavering devotion to Hasidic life in easily-digestible three-minute pop nuggets without ever getting the fire and brimstone out. Indeed, as Miller himself notes, his gigs are populated by "Everyone from right-wing Christians to Rastas, frat boys to hippies and little kids to 80-year-old Jewish women."

Still, singing lines such as "To Zion we roll and we are not alone" and making reference to the Holocaust - "Burned in the oven in this century/The gas tried to choke, but it couldn't choke me" - places Matisyahu squarely in the Jewish tradition. But there's nothing exclusive about his music, in the same way that not everyone who owns a copy of Bob Marley's Uprising accepts Haile Selassie as Jah incarnate. The least-likely pop star of the year he may be, but Matisyahu's sold-out show at London's Scala last November suggests that mainstream acceptance can't be too far away now. Just don't expect to see him flaunting his success anytime soon.

"There's no law against making money," he insists, "So long as you spend your money in a way that you're helping out people and making a good life for yourself and your family. But you're not gonna see me driving a Ferrari."

'Youth' is released on 8 May on Sony BMG

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