By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matisyahu’s major label debut, “Youth,” went far beyond all prior expectations of a Hasidic Jewish reggae emcee from West Chester, Pa.
It charted at No. 4 in 2006 on the strength of a title track that became a surprise hit single. Fans hungry for more have had a long wait for new music, as Matisyahu’s follow-up, “Light,” isn’t due until early next year. In the meantime, the four-song “Shattered EP” previews his retooled sound, starting with digitized vocals and more complex beats on the first track “Smash Lies.”
“It’s a lot more experimental,” he says of “Light.” ” ‘Youth,’ I made it with a band, so it was basically pretty much played live with overdubs and it was pretty straightforward. With this record, I felt like I have so many influences and I wanted to explore all those different elements. With time, I think I’ve become just as influenced by hip-hop music and rock music as I have reggae music. So I think you’ll find there’s definitely a certain reggae aspect to the record but I didn’t feel like I had to follow all the rules, per se, of reggae.”
Look no further than “Two Child One Drop,” a sweeping track that blends a Sly and Robbie groove with shifting hip-hop and Middle Eastern tempos.
“That song is a real mixture that shows how the album was created. I started that song with Aaron [Dugan],” he says. “We would do these sessions at my loft where I would beatbox, and he would play guitar, and we would go back to see what emerged from it. That started with a bass line that he was playing on his guitar. It had an edge to it that I really liked. Then I had this kid, Ooah from the Glitch Mob, an electro hip-hop group, add a beat to it with all these kind of Glitch sounds and then from there I put vocals on it and took it to the overall producer of the record, Dave Kahne, and we took it to Jamaica and had Sly and Robbie play on it, so it was like live drum and bass. Then I had this oud player from Israel play on it and another friend from Israel who sang this Sephardic, Middle Eastern chanting stuff. So it started really simple and brought together all these places.”
In other words, no one will accuse Matisyahu of being a reggae purist, which is all right with him, because he isn’t appealing to any one crowd.
“My crowd is very eclectic. It’s a really strange mix of people: religious right-wing Christians, Jewish teenagers, reggae guys — I don’t know what you call them — some jam-band kids, some spiritually minded people, some party people. It’s really hard to pin down exactly who my audience is. I always like to think people respond to the inner-ness of the music, rather than just the style.”
Matisyahu (born Matthew Miller) came to music through bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish and Bob Marley and the Wailers around the same time he was undergoing a transformation from his upbringing as a Reconstructionist Jew to a Hasidic (Matisyahu is his Hebrew name).
If he had grown up in the Hasidic community, it’s likely that this pursuit of pop stardom would not have been, well, kosher.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It depends on the Hasidic community. There’s a really wide gamut. A lot of people in Lubavitch are very accepting because their basis comes from the Lubavitch rabbi who revolutionized Hasidism in the sense that he was believing in Orthodox Jews going out into areas that weren’t religious in order to inspire Jews towards returning to religious Judaism, basically. People who see it that way would feel like it probably would be OK and important. There’s others who would say you can’t play this style of music or go into those kind of places …”
In terms of his lyrical approach, the 29-year-old emcee says he’s always been drawn to positive, uplifting music — despite knowing and liking the guys in Metallica — and tends to shy away from the political soapbox.
“One thing I’ve come to since I’ve started is a realization that it’s not about trying to tell people how to think. Even people who go out there with their political ideas and agendas and tell people who to vote for and what to do, music isn’t about that for me. It’s not about indoctrination or telling people what to feel or think, it’s about trying to get to a certain space with people and it’s more of a spiritual place where people can come to their own conclusions about their lives.”
Matisyahu tours with his wife and two small children and strictly observes Orthodox Jewish law, which includes never performing on Shabbos or touching any woman other than his wife or mother. While on tour he typically joins the local Hasidim in prayer.
“I usually join in a community if there is a community,” he says. “Sometimes there isn’t, if we’ve been in like Alaska or Fargo. I have a friend who is a rabbi who is well-connected to different communities and he sets it up for me. Sometimes it’s very quiet and I just show up. Sometimes they’re making more of an event out of it, like inviting kids and making a whole to-do about it. Even if I don’t tell people, sometimes the information gets out and by the time shabbos arrives, there’s a huge group out there waiting for me to sign stuff.”