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Growing up in suburban White Plains, New York, during the early '90s, Matisyahu (born Matthew Paul Miller) was a pretty average teenage kid. He watched a lot of MTV. He listened to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. And he smoked weed.
The son of liberal, social worker Jewish parents (read: hippies), he wasn't raised to be especially religious. He belonged to a shul. He went to public school. He was taught by mom and dad to love the Grateful Dead.
"I grew up knowing that I was Jewish, but not that it had that much of a meaning to me," he says. "And then, when I was 16, I went to Israel and I rediscovered Judaism for myself. And that's sort of what started my path."
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In the 11 years since his conversion to the ways of the Hasidim, Matisyahu's life has changed in massive ways. Sure, he still chills to Tribe and the Dead. But he's ditched the weed and other intoxicants. ("I try to be as clean and sober as possible," he says.) Not to mention, he's become planet Earth's favorite Jewish MC.
Last week, New Times spoke with Matisyahu about Jimmy Kimmel Live!, jam bands, beat-boxing, cantorial songcraft, and his new record.
New Times: The first time a lot of people heard the name Matisyahu was when you made an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! late-night show. And the idea of a Hasidic Jewish rapper was so odd that it seemed as though it could be a gimmick. When you were getting started, were there a lot of people who questioned your authenticity?
Matisyahu: Well, I believe there were. But we tried to use that to my advantage. Basically, the fact was that in my life I brought together these two seemingly very different things — reggae music and religion, specifically Hasidic Judaism. But those two things happened very organically for me. I right away saw the sort of bridge between these two things that had happened in my life. And I never thought to question myself on it.
For example, that TV show, when we went to them to tell them what I do, they said, "OK, we want to have him on. We want to talk to him." And right away, my management said, "We're going to do this. But you have to let him perform, because if you just talk to him, they're going to try and take him apart. You know, make fun of him." So the fact that I could play my music was able to give it a whole different spin, because music is for real.
It was cool. They let us play the music, then do the interview, and it changed everything.
As a teen, you were a jam band freak and a hip-hop head. Were you digging it all simultaneously?
I grew up with the hip-hop stuff. But when I got into high school at 14, I started becoming a bit of a hippie. And that's why I really wasn't listening to too much hip-hop. I think, when I was 16, I started to rap because a bunch of my friends rapped. They all freestyled and I discovered I could beat-box. So that was my gateway drug back into hip-hop music. I started beat-boxing all the time and performing on the streets.
How about Hasidic music? Has it affected the way you write songs?
To some degree it affects me, but it's mostly people singing. There's not much harmony. It's usually one melody and double voices. And then there's the technical, traditional style of singing in cantorial music. I've definitely developed an appreciation for those two things. I heard a lot of it, living in a Jewish community. So it's affected certain ways in which I'll sing or improvise during songs.
You just released a new album, Live at Stubbs II. Why did you record a sequel to your live debut? Have you reached the end of a certain era in your career?
I always thought that throughout my career I would put out several live albums, because I think my music will continue to evolve and change and grow. So, I basically wanted to record another one and it made sense to do it at Stubb's again, just to show the connection. It's returning to a specific place. But it's being in a different place at the same time.
It's been five years between Stubb's I and II. How have you evolved during that half-decade?
I think I've become a lot more dynamic as a performer. When I was starting out, around the time that I made that record [Live at Stubb's I], there was a feeling we had to keep this sort of high energy happening, constantly. And now I think we really allow the music to peak and build, and then drop off and change. So there's a lot more happening musically.
And in terms of using my voice as an instrument, I studied voice over the last five years. I think I've been able to come to a place where I can use my voice a lot more proficiently.