Matisyahu – Reggae’s Hasidic Hip-Hop Rocker
Interview, Show Review, and Photos by Jan Salzman
Dec. 7, 2009 – Los Angeles, CA – Matisyahu is an American reggae, rock, hip-hop performer and an Ashkenazi Jew. His name is the Hebrew and Yiddish pronunciation of the Biblical name, Matthew. Matisyahu means Gift of God. Born Matthew Paul Miller, June 30, 1979, in West Chester, PA, his family finally settled in White Plains, NY, where he grew up in a multi-cultural blend of humanity.
Known for combining Jewish themes with reggae, rock, and hip-hop sounds, he is most recognizable for being a Hasidic Jew.
Soon after adopting Hasidism, he studied Torah at Hadar Hatora, where he wrote and recorded his first album. He counts Bob Marley, Phish, God Street Wine, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach among his musical inspirations. He gives credit to Rabbi Simon Jacobson’s book, Toward a Meaningful Life, for inspiring the lyrics to the title track of his Grammy-nominated album, Youth.
Matisyahu is a dynamic performer, sometimes wearing the traditional long overcoat and fedora, sometimes more casual, wearing his yarmulke and tzitzis (the tassels that hang below his jacket.) He rose to prominence during Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival in 2005, when Trey Anastasio of the band Phish invited him to do a guest spot during their set. The rest is history.
I caught up with Matisyahu by phone during his current tour of the US. He is a most intriguing individual and a great talent. Here is our conversation.
Jan: Greetings Matis
Matis: Hey Jan, we know each other, right?
Jan: Well, I do know a good friend of yours, Joseph Israel, and I was at your performance at the Long Beach Ragga Muffins Festival a couple of years ago.
Matis: Oh, cool.
Jan: To begin, is there anything that you’d like to talk about…that’s on your mind?
Matis: Oh no, I mean…sure. You hit me with a question…
Jan: Okay…how did you first become involved in music?
Matis: As a musician, you don’t become involved in music when you start performing. You become involved in music when you start listening. I have always been loving music and listening to music since I was a little kid.
Jan: What was it like growing up in White Plains, NY, and how did you become introduced to reggae music?
Matis: White Plains is a pretty straightforward sort of integrated, suburban community outside of New York City. It was multicultural and there were lots of types of music around me. Reggae music…I started getting into it by listening to Bob Marley.
Jan: What age were you then?
Matis: That would’ve been about age fourteen.
Jan: What music artists influence you the most and who do you like to listen to?
Matis: Right now, I would say my biggest influence is group called M.G.M.T.
Jan: Who is the person you were most excited to meet since becoming successful?
Matis: That would be Jay-Z.
Jan: Cool…how was it working with Stephen McGregor on “Smash Lies” (from Matis’ newly released EP Shattered).
Matis: It was amazing. He is a really talented and special individual. Very unique.
Jan: Did you collaborate with him on that song?
Matis: Yeah, we went to Jamaica and rented a studio, me, him and David Kahne, the producer of the record, and we created that track. We also created another track called “Motivate.”
Jan: It must have been a thrill working with Sly and Robbie, too. Can you tell me what that was like?
Matis: Yeah, it was cool. We went into the studio in Kingston, I guess the studio where they do all their stuff…(myself) being someone that’s been making reggae music, and is heavily influenced by and a lover of reggae music, it was cool just to be down there in the scene and see where it comes from.
Jan: What’s the release date for your new album Light?
Matis: It’s looking like the last week in February right now.
Jan: Great! I’m looking forward to it. What is the perfect environment for you to write your songs?
Matis: I guess I liked the process I worked on this last record. It was pretty good. (Matis takes a quick break to talk to his children while they are eating and clear a dog from the room.) Basically the way it was made was… I have different friends of mine that I appreciate musically, and I had a space in Brooklyn that was a place that I could play music loud and look out the window and sort of meditate a little and get into a vibe. I really like the energy of New York when I’m creating music. That’s sort of where my music started from. Sometimes I found myself trying to get away to more peaceful places, but it doesn’t really work as well for me as being in Brooklyn or in New York. Some how the energy of New York I find very conducive to creativity.
Jan: What would surprise our readers to find out about you?
Matis: Hmmmm…I don’t know. Have any ideas?
Jan: I don’t know…you seem like a pretty normal guy to me.
Matis: Yeah (laughs.)
Jan: What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
Matis: Well, I guess musically speaking, it’s sort of a double-edged sword. My being religious has helped me and hurt me in a certain sense. Initially, it was sort of the shock factor, which drew a lot of attention to me. A lot of people that haven’t really given the music a chance, or haven’t been to a show, or really listened to the music, will be quick to judge it as being something that’s not for real. So, that’s been an obstacle that I’m still working to try and overcome.
Jan: If you weren’t a entertainer, what might you be doing?
Matis: Wilderness expeditions.
Jan: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Matis: I like to hang out with my kids, I like to go to Israel…I spend time in Jerusalem…in my practice, you know, praying and learning Torah, meditating, taking walks, I like to be mellow basically. I love being outdoors, I love being outside.
Jan: What is your idea of a perfect day?
Matis: You never know what a perfect day will be, you know? Sometimes a perfect day happens when you’re amidst complete chaos. Sometimes the most oppressive days are days that you felt were going to be perfect days. So, I guess a perfect day for me is just coming from some kind of centered place where I’m able to tap into something. And, that can happen in any situation really. It’s hard to tell when and where it will happen.
Jan: What makes you happy or laugh?
Matis: My kids (he chuckles.)
Jan: What are their ages?
Matis: Three and two.
Jan: Oh, what great ages! Do you have any pet peeves?
Matis: My pet peeve is chaos (we laugh). I’m a pretty organized person, and I guess not sleeping enough is a pet peeve of mine, as well.
Jan: Do you have any particular message for your fans?
Matis: No, not really. I don’t really have any motto…what’s that called when companies have those statements? You know what I mean? What’s that called again…?
Jan: Yeah, like an agenda.
Matis: Yeah, that’s my message. Drop your agenda!
Jan: (laughing) Drop your agenda…great! What can we expect from you in the near future?
Matis: Well, I’m out on tour right now. So, we’re playing a bunch of shows in the States. We will be putting the record out in February and touring again. So, I guess you can expect everything. Expect new music, expect shows, we’re going to be traveling all over the world in the next couple of years, coming to see fans everywhere. Check out the website www.matisyahuworld.com, it’s brand new…we have all kinds of video footage. Every night we put up new footage…audio, video, photos of the show from the night before. So, there’s a lot of material up there.
Jan: I’ve been to the website and it’s fantastic. I look forward to seeing you at the Club Nokia in Los Angeles. Thanks Matis. [See show review below]
Matisyahu: Rockin’ the Youth at Club Nokia
Review and Photos by Jan Salzman
Nov. 18, 2008 – The beautiful Club Nokia is located in downtown Los Angeles. I entered through the VIP entrance and was escorted up an elevator to a lavish lounge. I could watch the artist’s performance on the closed-circuit monitor. When I found my way to the main floor’s photo pit, people were packed the front of the stage. The Jewish community definitely came out in force to support the Hasidic rocker. There were lots of yarmulkes and ladies’ with scarves on their heads. It was a very culturally mixed crowd with a large age variation, as well; youngsters and grandparents were there together. I came in during a set by the Flobots, just in time to snap a few shots. This group has made their own category of rap music, which is being played on alternative and hip-hop radio.
After the set change, a very enthusiastic, massive audience exploded with cheers as a chanting Matisyahu took the stage. He dressed casually in a jacket, tzitzis (the tassels that hang below his jacket), sweater, shirt, and yarmulke. His peyos (the curls in front of his ears) were flying as he spun and danced. His music, not exactly straight-up reggae, is an eclectic mix of reggae, rock, hip-hop, and jam band. He would pace and spin in circles, belting out his lyrics, sometimes chilling out on a speaker or equipment case while his band went into very Grateful Dead-sounding extended jams.
His performance was very trance-like. He would rock back and forth, sometimes just standing with his eyes turned upward , seemingly toward God. Performing most of the songs from his highly acclaimed, Grammy-nominated CD, Youth, the crowd was thrilled with every song. I was happy when he played my favorite songs from the CD, including “Jerusalem” and “Indestructible.” The fans went wild when he began “Jerusalem,” as Matis held out the microphone for the audience to fill in the words as he sang. He also did an amazing Beat Box interlude lasting at least ten minutes. After a very long set, Matisyahu was brought back on stage with the crowd’s deafening chant of “more, more.” He did a four-song encore to their delight.
Kudos to Matisyahu’s fantastic band, featuring Aaron Dugan on guitar, Jason Fraticelli on bass, Rob Marscher on keyboards, Skoota Warner on drums, and Daniel Sadownick on percussion. I want to give a ‘big up’ to Brian Shimkovitz, from Matisyahu’s organization, for taking care of my needs with expertise. ‘Nuff respect.