Matisyahu's 2010 album, Live at Stubb's Vol. II, opens with five minutes of spacey, ethereal noise beneath samples of a child reciting prayers in Hebrew. Later in the disc, he sings of "the glory of Hashem" (a Hebrew colloquialism for God), the "line of King David," and evokes no shortage of Old Testament metaphors.
But his music isn't religious. At least not according to him.
"Christianity is a religion," Matisyahu said during a phone interview. "Judaism isn't just a religion; it's a lifestyle."
He compared that position to an interview he heard with Bob Marley in which Marley said that Rastafari isn't a religion but a way of life.
Rather than the dreads and bright colors associated with reggae devotees, Matisyahu (born Matthew Paul Miller) wears the tallit and payot (Jewish prayer shawl and side curls) of Hasidic orthodoxy both on stage and off. He is a longtime resident of the orthodox Jewish district of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, and his move away from the Chabad sect of ultra-orthodox Judaism was reported by Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper. His lyrics and videos have been endlessly deconstructed in the intellectual sprawl of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and like Walter Sobchak of Big Lebowski fame, he doesn't "roll on Shabbos."
It's even Matisyahu's branding point as an artist: Hasidic Jewish reggae. As a marketing gimmick, Matisyahu's Hasidic Rasta shtick sticks out in the best possible way, making him instantly recognizable. And as a gimmick, it open doors that no other religious artist would be able to touch. Matisyahu has performed on Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel, had slots at Bonnaroo and recorded not one, but two live albums at Stubb's Bar-B-Q in Austin, Texas. And that's just a small taste. But clad in his yarmulke and black coat, he can also perform at places like The Jewlicious Festival, The Festival of Light (his annual eight-night concert run that coincides with Chanukah) and even spit bets just spitting distance from Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, thereby tapping into a large subculture of young Jewish people hungry for something contemporary.
But that's part of what makes Matisyahu so compelling and polarizing as a performer. It's hard to tell if it's genuine or if it's just branding.
To see him live--which you can do at Knitting Factory on Monday, July 25, or at an in-store appearance at The Record Exchange immediately before the show--it's hard to view the man as anything other than deeply spiritual. Eyes closed, he cocks his head back and sings skyward in a deep trance as layers upon layers of echoes and delay wash over the audience and staccato dub rhythms get people stepping.
"The way I approach live music, whatever I'm doing, I just try to get lost in it," Matisyahu said. "I try to get lost in it live."
And he does. His live performances are a deep gaze into the psychedelic abyss that is as much Dark Side of the Moon as it is No Woman No Cry--associations that are barely hinted at on his studio cuts. In an age defined by the 140-character length of a tweet, Matisyahu often stretches pop songs to 10 minutes with waves of noise and long rhythm jams featuring back-and-forths between his band, The Dub Trio, and his improvised beatbox and dancehall vocals.
The complexity and voracity of Matisyahu's beatboxing easily stands out.
"Most of my friends growing up were into rap and freestyling," he said. "I just picked it up. Someone needed to do the beat. And though I wasn't into that music so much, it became my gateway."
The music that interested Matisyahu came from jam bands like The Grateful Dead and Phish. But more than just their music, Matisyahu was a fan of the drugs those cultures lauded.
Matisyahu told Zing Mit Jewish Entertainment he spent much of the time from ages 16 to 22 high and even did a two-year stint in a Bend, Ore., outdoor school rehab program. He said he saw it as a transcendent state but one he eventually realized he wanted to reach without the crutch of drugs.
That realization lead Matisyahu to Israel and the full-body worship of orthodox Judaism, a move that would, in large part, come to define his adult life and all the gold albums and Grammy nominations that came with it.
"My life is not separate from my music like a day job that I leave and go home," he told Zing Mit.
But examining his music, it's hard to find it to be anything other than overtly religious. Especially when he talks about spending a week writing lyrics at the grave of Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. They focus on the Old Testament story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the originators of the Hasidic movement.
As for what compelled him to start putting that to a dub beat, Matisyahu said, "It's just an intuitive thing. There isn't a logical explanation."
But that still leaves the Holly Golightly authenticity question: Is Matisyahu religious or isn't he?
"It's the wrong way to look at it," he said. "This is my life."