When I first saw Matisyahu I was reminded of Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise” video – big black hat, big black beard and a long flowing coat. However, the uniquely ridiculous sight of an Orthodox Jew ascending to the top of reggae is perhaps equally outrageous. Matisyahu is the Yiddish rendition of the secular birth name of Matthew Paul Miller. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, he grew up in White Plains, New York as a Reconstructionalist Jew. During high school his hippie persona came out in full force and he eventually dropped out in order to smoke pot and attend Phish concerts nationwide fulltime. Now he tours nationwide, except he calls the shots, even refusing to do concerts on Friday nights due to Shabbat restrictions. His band runs on Matisyahu on vocals/beatbox, a guitarist, a bass guitar, drums and an occasional saxophone.
Matisyahu says that his greatest inspiration comes from the likes of Bob Marley, Phish, the Allman Brothers, Sizla, Nas, OutKast, Common and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Over time, his brand of “Hasidic reggae” has taken flight and the concoction that brews from the amalgamation of Sublime and Marley and a pinch of Hava Nagila has been flowing sweetly. Matisyahu points out, “In Hasidism, it says ‘music is the pen of the soul.'” The soul in his music is evident in spiritual references which form the body of Matisyahu’s humbling stage presence.Matisyahu realizes the harmony and power of music and sometimes collaborates with Muslim beatboxer, Kenny Muhammad, and is featured in two tracks from P.O.D.’s (a predominantly Christian rock band) new album Testify. Matisyahu’s first album Shake off the Dust…Arise set the precedent for rapid-fire Hasidic reggae rap. However, the categorization for his style is far from traditional. The reggae throwdowns with the intensity of rap is faster paced than the traditional Wailers-type and the lyrical accompaniment to the ‘riddims’ is more generally known as dancehall and is popularized by the likes of Sean Paul and Beenie Man. Matisyahu is probably somewhere in between the dancehall and the traditional though, taking fruits from both trees and sweetening it further with his Yiddish heritage. However, the messages that lay within are anything but sugar-coated. In the track “Unique Is My Dove” he raps about the value of fidelity and throughout the album he makes references to the purpose of this life. The studio version of the track “King Without a Crown” has been released in Youth after the well received hit debuted in Live at Stubb’s.
Although his new album, Youth, is his first major-label album release, he is still regarded as America’s most popular reggae singer. Whether or not he is the best, however, is another issue. Originality in image is definitely his strong suite; after all, how many guys do you find roaming ‘the scene’ in Hasidic garb and beatboxing it up. However, Youth seems more like a Yankovic mockery at points – seriously, who is Matisyahu kidding with the fake Jamaican accent and the slamdowns in full Hasidic garb, yarmulke and all. To the Rastafarians of yesteryear Matisyahu will probably be overlooked as more of a novelty artist than anything else. However, the roots are apparent and the second studio release shows definite promise for the makings of a lasting mark and a reggae revival.