language Head Start program. After school my parent’s Persian-Jewish friend would babysit me until my parent’s got off work, it must have been there that I learned those curse words; words she uttered under her breath while trying to deal with an annoying child.
For kindergarten we moved from L.A. to Long Beach, and I went to a regular shmegular public elementary school, going to religious services only on high holy days, the two most important Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My parents didn’t speak Hebrew, and their friends who spoke Hebrew were in L.A., so my knowledge of the language quickly died. When I was getting close to Bar Mitzvah age I got enrolled in Hebrew and Judaica classes over the weekend, which I cruised through with enough knowledge to read my Torah portion in Hebrew, but not enought to understand the words I was saying. Right before my Bar Mitzvah I remember seeing Matisyahu’s “King Without a Crown” video on MTV 2 (Damn I’m old.) I think it was a live video, which features Matisyahu in a tight closeup, the camera tracking him stalking the stage, and occasionally stage diving into an adoring crowd.
In the video Matisyahu looks like a very young and devout Hasidic Jew who took a break from religious school to sing a song about his intense devotion to his faith, but in essence the song feels like an emo love song, while the music flirts with reggae and Phish style jam inflections. Matisyahu, with his long black overcoat worn by devout Hasidic Jews, his yarmulke, his tzitzit, and of course, his beard, was undeniably Jewish. There have been lots of Jews in music and entertainment and in all other aspects of public life in this country for centuries, but they’ve all been assimilated Jews. These Jews have done their best to meld into the American culture fabric and into whiteness, either maintaining secularism or keeping their cultural identity mostly private.
Let me just say, as a young American Jew, assimilation and embracing and engaging with diversity and cosmopolitanism is my jam, and the only way forward into a more progressive world, but there is something to be said about seeing a singer be unapologetically Jewish for a couple of minutes on MTV 2 at two in the morning in between Interpol and Outkast videos while you’re trying to connect with your Jewish identity, whatever that thing to say might be.
I used to have an ongoing playlist of Jewish musicians that I updated for years. There were tracks from The Ramones, Beck (once you’re born Jewish you kind of always have to bang Jew gang, even if you convert to Scientology), Beastie Boys, and even Shyne, but I had to figure out these artists were Jewish from reading interviews with them, or reading their Wikipedia page. With Matisyahu you always knew.
Ultimately I find more meaning in my Jewish identity through cosmopolitan secular Jews like Studs Terkel, Richard Feynman, or Leonard and Phil Chess. I find open expressions universalist expressions of the faith to be more appealing, rather than it’s hardcore religious aspects. In some ways, Matisyahu has also walked away from the more hardcore religious aspects of the faith, shaving his beard and leaving the Hasidic tradition. He’s now become much more private about the dimensions of his faith. Listening to Matisyahu’s most recent record, Undercurrent, though, you can hear his continuing interest in faith, albeit much more universalist, mystic, and spiritual in flavor. With his personal expansion in his expression of faith, Matisyahu has embraced more pop songs in his recent work, rather than the jam band reggae of his earlier stuff.
On Undercurrent, Matisyahu spreads a little further, exploring modern sounding hip hop structure via his jam band roots. Tracks run as long as 10 to 15 minutes, but the jams rarely lose interest, especially if you need to run to your handy copy of the Torah to check lyrical references. I talked to Matisyahu over the phone from his home in upstate New York about his new album, yearning, and the future of the Crown Heights Jewish reggae jam band rap scene. —Sam Ribakoff
You’re a super busy dude. You said earlier over some emails that you were filming a movie?
Matisyahu:Yeah, we’re making a feature length film to go along with the new album. The initial idea basically, well, first of all, my last album was Akeda, and I went off and did a lot of touring behind that. With the amount of touring I was doing I thought that the music really needed to evolve and really move into the improvisational zone. I just realized, with so much touring, that if I was going to continue making music, then the music has to just be new every moment, every time I play it. I had a pretty good vision of what the sound I wanted was. I put together a band that could jam on reggae and hip hop tracks, got them into the studio, and then I just started editing those jams down into songs in about two weeks.
The new record is really a transition from Matisyahu, to Matisyahu and the band. It’s really a group effort. In terms of the movie, I said to myself, “We could make another movie,” but I’m not really sure which song is the single, and the whole thing is so cinematic, so I called up an old friend of mine, Ephraim Rosenstein, who’s been a mentor, teacher, and co-writer with me, sort of an idea guy for me, he lives in Jerusalem, and we developed the story line for the movie based on the lyrics to the record.
Some of the movie we’re in Brooklyn in colonial outfits under an underpass with rifles running through the streets, other scenes are just the band warming up backstage. The album itself is artistic, it’s not so narrative, it’s poetic, but the movie has it’s own narrative that corresponds with the lyrics of the record. It’s about a doctor and his four patients who decide to leave their psychiatric home and chase this fantasy of theirs. The doctor’s fantasy is he’s a musician.
Interesting. You mentioned that you wanted a more jam band sound for the album, but I was listening to the first single “Step Out Into the Light,” and that’s got a kind of To Pimp a Butterfly vibe.
Matisyahu:Yeah, the record has all these different elements, but hip hop is at the core of who I am and what I do. Unlike a lot of hip hop today, all of the album was done with a live band, but it’s unquestionably hip hop. Then the chorus hits, and that’s like nothing in hip hop. Then the outro is this whole build that you’d never hear in a hip hop song. It doesn’t have that modern shine to it, it feels old, but it’s completely fresh.
Do you listen to a lot of contemporary hip hop?
Matisyahu:I do yeah. I’m constantly being turned on to new music and finding out what I connect with and don’t.
Interesting, because a lot of your earlier stuff seems so far removed from contemporary music.
Matisyahu:There’s a reason for that. Coming out of Yeshiva, and that period of my life, I was not listening to current music. The music that I was making when I came out was influenced by stuff I was listening to in probably the late ’90s and early 2000s. As I started making music I got introduced to key artists and key bands that I had missed. You can see subtly how that’s influenced every couple records.
Before I ask, are you tired of talking about your upbringing and your faith?
Matisyahu:No, I don’t mind talking about it at all. Honestly, a lot of times it’s more the specifics of the question.
In Yeshiva, were you listening to reggae and hip hop, or was music not allowed?
Matisyahu:When I was in Yeshiva, when I made the decision to become religious and move to Crown Heights, I literally took all of my records and put them in a bag and never listened to them again. When I was there I listened to the music being sang around me by the Hasidim at parties or prayers. There were a few key Jewish artists that inspired me, one being Shlomo Carlebach, he was kind of known as this hippie rabbi. Outside of that, there was a couple of CDs that I had that were all religious, and all melodies, no words. And then, there was this certain sound that I kept hearing that blended a couple of different things, and I said to myself, “No one is making this, no one is going to make it, and I’m fucking excited that I get to be the one that does it.”
And that was stuff I was listening to when I was younger, and that was mostly reggae, and then using the content and canon of the philosophical Hasidic and Kabbalistic stuff. I knew someone in Philly that had a studio, and I got off from Yeshiva one day and went down and recorded my first version of “King Without a Crown,” my first song. When I wanted to listen to music, I would go on the roof the Yeshiva for 20 minutes and I would listen to the music that I just had made.
How did you get into dancehall and reggae?
Matisyahu:My mom has three sisters, and one of them moved to Barbados, met a man down there, and made a family. Their kid, who was around my age, would come up with them every summer and bring his tapes and they were all early dancehall stuff like Supercat, Tony Rebel, and I loved it. When I was maybe 14, I got into Bob Marley too.
What about hip hop?
Matisyahu:Growing up outside New York City in the ’90s, all of my friends listened to hip hop. I was the kid that was anti-hip hop, in sandals in February, with dreadlocks, trying to get them to listen to Allman Brothers and Phish. As my friends started freestyling though, I found out I could beatbox, and fuck with melody and sound and space, it was like being a producer. I bought this PA system with some effects and I had a drum set, so I would just sit in my parent’s attic and make beats and sing over them. I got really good at it.
But anyway, the first hip hop show I can remember going to was The Roots backing Common and there was this moment when The Roots brought out this beatboxer Kenny Muhammad, and that just blew my mind seeing beatboxing with instruments. The other big hip hop moment for me was listening to Nas’ It Was Written.
But before that you were into The Allman Brothers and Phish?
Matisyahu:Yeah man, my parents were old hippies. I grew up listening to The Grateful Dead. I was conceived basically at a Grateful Dead show. But I was a kid when Breakin’, the first break dancing movie came out, so hip hop at that point became something that was everywhere.
I remember when “King Without a Crown” came out, I was a kid, and everyone called you a “Hasidic rapper.” Did you see yourself as a rapper?
Matisyahu:It’s funny. Identity is interesting and it certainly plays a big part in my life and career. There’s always been these phases in my life where I’ve been stripping my identity to a certain extent where it’s like, you get built up as a certain thing, your friends see you as a certain way, you get used to yourself as a certain way, and you have certain ideas of who you are. I find myself going through these patterns where I’ll shave off my identity in certain ways, and figure out from scratch, after that identity has been stripped off, who am I really now, and let that identity fully emerge. That’s been happening with me on a personal level with me and my music.
Can you talk about dropping the Hasidic part of ‘Hasidic rapper?’
Matisyahu:This constant theme of yearning or looking for something has been the driving force of a lot of my creativity and the reason for me adopting the Jewish faith, and eventually Jewish law in such an intense and consuming way. And that was a phased that I moved through, but it was, and is, a fundamental cornerstone of my life. It was a place that I moved through in a sense.
At a certain point when I was feeling held down by it, I was able to let go and move through it. As an artist, when you move through it, the Hasidic aspect to it was what made me, me, to a lot of people. At the end of the day the Hasidic part isn’t what makes me, that’s a part of something very deep and very powerful, and still very present in my life.
What does your faith, Judaism, mean to you?
Matisyahu:Judaism is a lot of things. It’s more than a religion and a set of rules and beliefs, or a people, or a culture. It can mean a lot of things…it’s hard for me to pin it down…it’s sort of just who I am, and I’m a lot of different things, but at a certain core of my being, it’s like the root that I stem out of. There’s a core of me that feels very Jewish.
Do you think that yearning and looking for something you were talking about earlier ever ends, or is it a lifelong search?
Matisyahu:It’s different for different people, and certainly people become comfortable, people can be satisfied and content, some people are from day one, and some people are not and are always looking. I’ve had times in my life where I’ve been pretty content. That first song celebrates that yearning, that drive, that desire. Desire is a very powerful thing. It’s probably the impetus for a majority of the work a person does in their life.
In some ways you want to have that desire, unless you’re ready to retire. The second song called “Back to the Old” is sort of like, “What comes after that?” The search and the longing was great, but take a look at the things that were right in front of you. This Hasidic idea of running and returning is a constant thing in a person’s life.
Do you feel content about where you are right now in life?
Matisyahu:With some things, but no. In a sense I’m sitting back, and the music reflects that, but on the other hand, there’s this real sense of reaching for a new level. I’ll be 40 soon, I’m 37 now, I’ve been doing this for 15 years. There’s always been a constant yearning to grow, to evolve, to make it better, like more and more dynamic. Just keep expanding. There’s a certain expansiveness in my being that doesn’t mean that I can’t be happy or content, but by nature I have to keep moving.
Do you think you’ll do music for the rest of your life?
Matisyahu:I’ll be involved with music for the rest of my life, whether that’s as a singer, or a dancer. Will I be jumping into crowds from the stage or whatever? Obviously not, but music moves me, music is the main source of inspiration in my life. I think I’ll always be ready to cultivate, or create, whether it’s working with other artists or with myself.
Do you think you’ll find the end to longing in music?
Matisyahu:It’s the medium for me. Nothing touches me in the way that music does. Music is as powerful, or even more powerful, than any drug, or anything else. I did say, at one point in my religiosity I felt that maybe [music] wasn’t the right thing for me, but at this point, I can’t see life without music.
Why in your religiosity did you think that music wasn’t your right path?
Matisyahu:Well, in Judaism there was never, at least in my world, that Yeshiva world, there was never anyone that had made popular mainstream music and had been successful in the eyes of the religion. The closest thing would probably be Shlomo Carlebach, he influenced me, and he brought a lot of people to Judaism, and brought a lot of understanding and love out there, but at the same time he was known as kind of a womanizer. People would bring him up to me as kind of like, “This is what will happen.” And he wasn’t even playing in popular music venues with non Jews, like he was very Jewish. People in general were like, you can’t do this, these two things don’t really mix, they don’t make sense, forget about all the rules you’re breaking in the religion to be involved with something like that.
In my mind it made sense because I came from a place of inclusion and expansion, not really a place of a lot of rules, although this was at a time in my life where I thought I needed a lot of rules and discipline in my life, but that’s not the basis of who I am. But I thought I was going to make music for everybody. I thought I could make music to inspire people and make them feel good about their lives, and you know, that’s a very religious thing, that’s a G-dly thing.
I had this religious teacher who did everything in his power to try and convince me that G-d felt that this was the wrong path for me. He would call me up to the Torah to read a part about idolatry that a group of people did by making sounds. That kind of stuff. People would try and get in my head about it. I had a moment where I said, “This is my dream, this is what I want, and if G-d doesn’t want it for me I’m going to let it go.” I remember the street, I remember the day, when I just dropped it, and eventually I ended up doing it, thank G-d, but there was a moment in time where I was ready to let it go. I feel like that’s almost a divinely inspired situation.
Were you trying to bring people to Judaism in the early part of your career with your music?
Matisyahu:Absolutely. When I first started out I was heavily brainwashed. No question about it. The group, and the mentality that I approached, Lubovitch, was very, very, similar to a cult. There was a certain line that I crossed over where it turned into something that was my decision, or my personal expression in a way, to having to submit to the ideology of Chabad. At a certain point I listened back to an audio recording of one of my shows and I heard a part where I was just talking to the crowd, and I was so disgusted, like almost like cringing, and I made a decision to not speak during my shows anymore, and that if I was going to lead people into a religious or spiritual dimension with the music, that I needed to get away from all of the dogma.
This was years and years before I ever shaved my beard, but this is all a part of that process. At this point in my career I’m very clear about what it is that I do and what it is that I’m aiming for, and that has absolutely nothing to do with concepts or ideas, it’s about creating an atmosphere for people to experience themselves, and experience community. I think that’s much deeper than trying to get people to connect to an idea.
Who are the top five Jewish rappers?
Matisyahu:I won’t tell you who my top five Jewish rappers are, but I’ll tell you a story. When I was first starting out, I would have to stop at a rabbi’s house every tour stop because I couldn’t eat a lot of foods. It was almost like a safety blanket for coming out of Yashiva. One of those rabbis was in Berkeley, a really smart guy, a really funny guy, I actually really liked him. He’s got this one kid that’s off the wall and he asks me, “What should I do?” and I tell him, “Get him a drum set!”
Next year I come back and I hear drums coming out of the garage, next year he’s got guitars and stuff. That kid is now living in my attic, producing music, and this shabbos he’s got friends from Crown Heights who are not exactly religious, but they come from a super religious background, but they’re also super talented. They grew up religious so they can’t do math and they’re English isn’t great, but they’re smart kids and super super talented. We’ve got all this gear setup and they’re going to play music. What I’ve noticed is there’s this new wave of kids, especially from Crown Heights, that I’m seeing who are super talented, and I have no idea where it came from, and I’ve had my eyes open.
You influenced them.
Matisyahu:Growing up my music was the only music they were allowed to listen to. I made a record that came with a DVD called Live at Stubb’s Two, and they grew up on that DVD, so they know all the songs, and all the gear. They know the vibe too, but they’ve got their own thing going on. They’re kids too, so they know what’s cool. I’m basically trying to setup a situation where I could help, trying to bring the right people together to help them develop and help them focus. This is sort of the brainchild right now. Hopefully we can grow it out to encompass all areas of art, that’s my angle.