It is not often that an artist comes around who revitalizes a genre and in the process, creates a fresh new sound. Matisyahu accomplishes this feat with his adept balance of Jewish spiritualism, Rastafarian melody and East Coast rapping. Laying down his vocals over creative and slick instrumentals and jams from Aaron Dugan (guitar), Josh Werner (base), and Jonah David (drums), Matisyahu impresses with his energy and ability to alternate between the soulful stylings of traditional Jewish cantors (leaders of songful prayer in Synagogues) and a fiery Rasta sound mixed with Reggae dub. In addition, he manages to avoid sounding too much like a preacher while still imparting a message of faith and spirituality, which transcends the boundaries of religion. The melding of these very different genres has allowed Matisyahu to create a sound all his own. After releasing only two albums, Shake off the Dust … Arise and Live at Stubb's, he has risen to superstar status — he is, after all, the one, and basically only, Hasidic Jewish reggae-rapper.
Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller June 30, 1979 in Westchester, Pa. Following a move to Berkeley, Calif., shortly after his birth, the family moved to White Plains, N.Y., where they settled down. By the age of 14, he had adopted a hippie lifestyle, playing bongos and learning to beatbox in the back of his classes. Miller's life changed drastically when he took a trip to Colorado. In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Miller realized there was a spiritual void in his life. Shortly afterwards, he traveled to Israel where he discovered a connection with his religion. However, he returned home and regained a feeling of emptiness. Dropping out of high school, Miller began to follow Phish as they toured across the country. Returning home after several months, his parents decided to send him away to a wilderness school in Bend, Ore., to get his life straightened out. The school encouraged creativity and artistic expression, of which Miller took advantage. He studied rap and reggae, and attended weekly open-mic nights where he would practice his new style of rapping, beatboxing and reggae singing. Two years later, Miller moved to New York City where he was turned on to the mystical power that song holds for Hasidic Jews. It was at this time that he changed his name from Matthew to its Hebrew form Matisyahu and perfected the meshing of Judaism and reggae that would soon catapult him to stardom.
The fact is that reggae and Hasidic Jewish cultures have much more in common than one might think. They appear to be two wildly different cultures — after all, Hasidic Jews are extremely conservative in both dress and manner — and when was the last time you saw a conservative Rasta? Matisyahu wears a black fedora, dark suit and a white shirt whose tail sticks out revealing the fringes of his prayer shawl. He also maintains a full beard and wears a head covering while on stage. Despite these apparent discrepancies, Hasidism and reggae share many of the same roots. Reggae followers claim to be Israelites, reggae music often references the Old Testament as inspiration for lyrics and both are spiritual subcultures that share many myths and tales. Matisyahu takes these similarities and modifies them from the typical style of reggae artists singing about Hebrew subjects to a Hebrew artist performing reggae music.
Matisyahu credits Capelton, Sizzla and especially Bob Marley for much of his musical influence. "I would meditate on the concepts that Bob Marley would sing about," he says. "He was a person who was going against the stream. I would listen to his lyrics and relate them to my own life, my own searching." Lucky for us, Matisyahu's own search has generated a wealth of subject matter that he uses to create uniquely interesting songs that flow easily and blend together to create a steady groove. When he flows in "King Without a Crown," "Strip away the layers and reveal your soul / Got to give yourself up and then you become whole / You're a slave to yourself and you don't even know / You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow / If you're trying to stay high then you're bound to stay low / You want God but you can't deflate your ego," his passion and religious fervor are so evident one can't help but be moved. In addition to his tight rhyming style, he displays considerable beatboxing skills, which he learned as a high school student but perfected after his move to Crown Heights in Brooklyn. The musician also sprinkles his concerts with especially spiritual traditional Jewish psalms. Like he says in "Close My Eyes," "Introspect connect the sects and let this music make you fly." With Matisyahu this is especially true — a Matisyahu concert has a little something for everyone. He has played such notable festivals as Bonnaroo and the Reggae Carifest, one of the largest of its kind. On Nov. 16, Matisyahu will be playing here in Madison at the Barrymore. Thanks to his unique and creative style, this is definitely a concert worth checking out.