I first met Matisyahu as just plain old, Matthew Miller in the autumn of 1998. He was fooling around with acting and rapping. Being a talented beat boxer he learned how to fit in on the tougher streets of New York City. The transformation of Matisyahu is relatable to his nice mix of both matured and youthful fans.
What if you met Jerry Garcia before he was the front man for the Grateful Dead? What if you met Hunter S. Thompson in kindergarten? It was in 1998 when I was introduced to Matthew Paul Miller. That is not a household name, but Matisyahu should be on the Mount Rushmore of famous modern Jews according to the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch. He is instrumental to the way we think of what it means to be Jewish in America.
He modestly said “Call me Matthew,” when I interviewed him hours before Friday Shabbat, while he was looking for a Minyan (ten Jewish adults) in Salina, Kansas. This acoustic event in Skokie, Illinois was his third trip to the Chicago area in last six months. Skokie, Illinois a suburb of Chicago has a Chabad Lubavitch temple. The same sect of Judaism that Matisyahu has practiced over the years. Matisyahu is not a renunciate. “I don’t even know the meaning,” Matisyahu said when I spoke to him over the phone. He never gave up his Hasidic beliefs. Matisyahu said, “Now I feel even closer to my Chasidic faith.”
Levi Robin, an up and coming singer from Huntington Beach California opened the night with six songs. Levi said, “I was just playing in my room, until Matisyahu asked me to open for him on his acoustic tour.”
Matisyahu covered Tracy Chapman’s, “Fast Car,” Wednesday night. Before he started singing the crowd broke into laughter, but he brushed it off. “Why does everyone laugh when I play this song, I love this song,” Matisyahu declared.
Matisyahu is quite possible the greatest beat boxer of all time. He worked with Shyne on his latest album. Shyne a Belizean rapper, spent ten years in prison in New York, convicted of attempted murder. Matisyahu relayed a story about Shyne coming into the studio to record Buffalo Soldier on Spark Seeker. Shyne came into the studio limping. Matisyahu asked Shyne, “How did you injure it?” Shyne replied, “Running.” Matisyahu asked on Shabbat (day of rest)? Shyne replied, “I was running in place.” Matisyahu went on to say he is a truest form of rap, “Shyne never writes anything down.”
We talked about his two movies, “A Buddy Story” and “The Possession.” He had a longer role in The Possession alongside actress Kyra Sedgwick. So start the six degrees of Kevin Bacon now, since Sedgwick is married to Bacon. Matisyahu is shown jamming out to his own song on headphones in “The Possession.” Matisyahu is eventually the hero who removes the evil spirit from a possessed young girl.
There is less crowd surfing at an acoustic event, Matisyahu is also famous for his dives from podiums, stages and speakers. Matisyahu now lives in Los Angeles, but eventually hopes to live someday in Israel. It was Bob Marley’s birthday on Wednesday, Matisyahu made mention of it ending the evening with, “No Woman No Cry.”
During high school, Matt made a sojourn to Israel; in this trip a deeper more profound search was stirring. He removed himself from high school and wandered with dreams and broken wings. The future is seldom promising for any high school dropout, but a decision to attend Northstar Center in Bend, Oregon to complete his schooling proved to be wise medicine.
I asked Matthew, “Are you comfortable talking about Northstar?” “I worked out my personal issues in a nurturing environment through therapy.” At an early age he faced issues of coping mechanisms changing into addictions. He developed an understanding of the effects of chemicals in any spiritual journey and avoided these rituals to further circumvent his religious development. His shows at local Bend hangout Café Paradiso consisted of spontaneous freestyles that often incorporated the listeners into his impromptu work. He would drape himself in the Israeli flag on stage and hammer out rap of Olympic voracity facing an undersized audience. While maturing personally and musically, after graduating Northstar he made the decision to attend The New School in Manhattan and met his wife Tahlia. His focus turned from adolescent growth in music to adult responsibility inside a family belief system.
His star has risen almost as quickly as he can rap words. Only nominated once for a Grammy in 2006. His graceful prosaic elegies are silhouetted from Miller’s ear for talent including Bob Marley, Phish, and the Grateful Dead. His origin of ideals connected lyrics focused on the return to Zion in reggae to images conjured in Judaism and his enlightened beliefs. Matisyahu tours religiously and religion comes first while not performing on Sabbath. Matisyahu states that a personal musical career highlight, “I got to sing with Trey Anastasio of Phish.”
Matisyahu does take requests, as the crowd yelled out play, “King without a Crown and Jerusalem.” Matis replied in a hush sarcastic tone, “Every concert.” Personally my favorite song is “So Hi So Lo,” On the “Light,” album from 2009. Matis explained the deeper meaning of every one of his lyrics according to the Torah, which many of fans might be oblivious too.
I interviewed Matisyahu’s guitar player Aaron Dugan who has been with the group the longest. Dugan said, “Our chemistry was developed in 1999 when I was studying jazz at The New School in Manhattan.” “My girlfriend introduced us through her theatre class.” The name of Aaron’s band back before Matisyahu was called 717. Aaron is originally from Philadelphia.
The US part of the acoustic tour ends February 24th in West Palm Beach, Florida.