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Hasid on the mic

The evolution of reggae star Matisyahu


It’d be easy to typecast Matisyahu. The best-selling reggae-rap sensation is known much more for his devout study of Judaism than for his rapid-fire, rabbi-influenced Rasta sound. This incongruent image—Matisyahu is often decked out in a black suit and hat, sporting a full-on traditional beard while peppering his live shows with extended beatboxing and jam-band-like improvisations—has turned him into a media darling, an MTV regular and mainstream music’s favorite anomaly. The pop-culture machine can’t get enough of the Hasid on the mic. One magazine implored readers to “check his circumcised rhymes,” another lumped him with Madonna’s Kabala fascination in an essay promoting the sudden now-ness of Judaism. For everything that makes Matisyahu different, he quickly got pegged as almost a caricature—some would even argue a carefully packaged gimmick—of what he’s supposed to represent.

There’s just one problem: While the celebrity news machine continues to perpetuate his fascinating rise, Matisyahu evolved beyond it. He’s still intensely religious, but no longer a strict follower of the Lubavitch movement. His music is still rooted in reggae, but he’s exploring new sounds, including an almost singer-songwriter acoustic approach and, in other turns, electronica. And when given the chance, Matisyahu is more than willing to discuss his new discoveries. 

“Two years ago I was pretty fresh to being religious and I had that feeling that I had found the path,” he says in a recent phone interview from just outside Santa Cruz, Calif. “It wasn’t that the journey was over, but that if I was going to develop any further it was going to be on that path, going that way. I think today, I don’t feel that way. I’m a lot more open to discovering, to being open to what’s out there, and actively searching still.”

That spiritual search, which includes weekly correspondence with a teacher he met at a Crown Heights yeshiva who now resides in Russia, extends to Matisyahu’s music. As he approaches the end of a nearly year-long tour with a stop Monday, Sept. 3, in Missoula, he’s preparing to enter the studio and record his first full-length album since 2006’s Grammy-nominated Youth.

“Right now I’m at a place of really trying to explore what it is I like. Reggae music has always been something that I like, and the next album will have that as a foundation, but it’s definitely going to be a lot different than anything I’ve done thus far,” he says. “One thing is, like Phish, the way their lighting was set up, they would look really minuscule on stage and the audience would look really big, so the focus would be on the experience that the audience was having rather than on the icon of the performer. That’s something I’m thinking a lot about, but with music—creating some form of music that will create an experience for people.”

It’s no accident that Matisyahu would reference Phish. His well-documented path to becoming a devout student of Judaism began as a Deadhead in White Plains, NY. Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller, initially rebelled against his upbringing, quit high school and became a devout follower of Phish. “I actually [paid my way through the tour] selling LSD and glass pipes,” he says.

It was later that he found religion while attending a wilderness camp in Oregon, and returned to New York to dedicate himself to both Orthodox Judaism and his music. For Matisyahu, using one to support the other remains a natural fit.

“My ideas, my thoughts and my feelings come out in my music, just like any musician—if they’re singing about chicks and partying and stuff like that, that’s probably what they’re thinking about…,” he says. “The content of my lyrics is what I’m thinking about. It’s who I am and the music is just the expression.”

But the old Matthew Miller is still apparent, especially in Matisyahu’s live shows. YouTube is full of examples of his engaging stage presence and seemingly impromptu covers.

“Just the other night I was with a friend in L.A. and we were hanging out and he put on this ‘Morning Dew’ track [by the Grateful Dead] from Ithaca in 1977, and that influenced me enough to want to do that as a cover last night,” he says. “It was pretty wild.”

Matisyahu’s varied past is a good indicator of how he and his music will continue to evolve. He doesn’t shy away from being labeled a novelty—“It can be both good and bad,” he says evenly—because he appears genuinely enthused about discussing his beliefs, especially as those beliefs change.

“The mission and purpose [of the last Lubavitch leader, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994] was the globalization of Judaism—retaining traditional Judaism in terms of the laws, but at the same time not excluding the rest of the world and really making it available to non-religious Jews and non-Jews,” Matisyahu says. “That’s something that really attracted me. I wanted to do music and I wanted to be out in the world, and at the same time I wanted to have this sort of Torah-focused lifestyle, so it felt like a good place for me to be. Today, I still have a lot of ties with that movement, although I don’t like defining myself as one thing and not something else.”

Avoiding typecasting is something a lot of artists strive for, but perhaps none as fundamentally as Matisyahu.

Matisyahu plays The Trail Festival Monday, Sept. 3, at Caras Park at 5 PM. $30.

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