Seeing the light
Matisyahu blends evolving spiritual life with his reggae and rap music
It’s been almost three years since Matisyahu has released a proper record, but definitely not for lack of anything to write about.
Over the past few years, the hip-hop and reggae troubadour (born Matthew Miller) has appeared in Rolling Stone and The New York Times, performed with his idols Phish and has yucked it up with Letterman, Leno and O’Brien on more than one occasion. You’ve probably seen him—he’s the guy with the long, shaggy beard, round, wire-framed glasses and yarmulke who beatboxes and drops rhymes about Crown Heights and Hashem.
It was 2005’s Live at Stubb’s, recorded at the famous and very pork-friendly Austin, Texas, venue, that made Matisyahu (Matthew in Yiddish) a hit for blending reggae and hip-hop with Orthodox Jewish themes.
But Matisyahu’s journey has been anything but smooth. In 2006 he caused a stir for severing ties with Jewish music label JDub. The next year he was taken to task after he broke from Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the largest Hasidic movements in Orthodox Judaism. The latter was a choice the 29-year-old said he had to make in order to grow as a person. He felt trapped by the religion’s strict tenets.
“[In religion] true reality is God. Things become cloudy—what is real, what is not real. In that process I kind of lost touch with myself.”
Matisyahu has written the material for his next full-length, Light (due in early 2009), his first album of new material since his acclaimed 2006 Epic debut, Youth. He just released the teaser EP Shattered in October.
While Youth was mostly written on the road, Matisyahu took his time on this one.
“I spent about three years focusing on themes and what I wanted to say with this record,” said the genial, well-spoken Matisyahu, explaining that the songs will reflect on his exploration and relationship with Judaism.
Music was the center of Matisyahu’s world long before religion. He grew up in a less-traditional Jewish household in White Plains, N.Y., and dropped out of high school and was dropping LSD on the road with Phish by the time he was 16. When he came home, he found it difficult to relate with other students at his high school.
“I was eating acid daily and going to these concerts and traveling and living off $3 a day,” he explained. “I was trying to reintegrate into normal society and it wasn’t working.”
His parents sent him to a six-week wilderness camp in Bend, Ore., to clean up his act and finish school. A huge Bob Marley fan, Matisyahu gravitated to music and took on the moniker MC Truth, beatboxing and performing at coffee houses. When he returned to New York in 2001 he went head-on into music and Orthodox Judaism after meeting a local rabbi.
Matisyahu released his independent debut, Shake Off the Dust … Arise, in 2004 and later that year he met a therapist who opened the young artist’s eyes to less traditional approaches to Judaism.
The first two records reflect Matisyahu’s strong Hasidic beliefs at the time; it wasn’t until a year after Young was released that he began pulling away from the religion’s stricter tenets. He believes that any negative response to his religious choices is based on fear.
Matisyahu now lives in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is based, with his wife and two sons, although he prays in the Borough Park neighborhood. The singer says he still sees therapy as a valid part of his spiritual growth.
The new record will be a giant step for Matisyahu who, despite his more universal view of Judaism, still adheres to some of the religion’s stricter tenets, like not performing during Shabbat, or shaking hands with female fans.
Light will no doubt reflect Matisyahu’s life over the past three years. He spent the better part of a year just writing lyrics, and there is a certain verve in his voice that seems to reflect where he is now and where he’s headed.
“I feel like I really own this one.”