Interview – Matisyahu

August 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Excerpts published in: Music Australia Guide #68, August 2009 / The Vine, August 17, 2009

Matisyahu is something of an anomaly in the reggae game. Having converted to Hasidic Judaism in his late teens, the Brooklyn-based rapper has gone onto redefine both reggae and hip-hop’s cultural and spiritual parameters. But the 30-year-old’s rise hasn’t been without its share of hurdles. Aside from having to reconcile his adopted beliefs with his parents (both secular Jews), his music and way of life have raised the ire of some of the more conservative elements of the Hasidic community.

Having released debut Shake Off the Dust…Arise in 2004 and his hugely successful follow-up Youth in 2006, new album Light sees Matisyahu widen his palette. Recorded in Brooklyn, Manhattan, LA and Kingston, Jamaica, the record visits styles as disparate as electronic dancehall, abrasive rock, straight-up rap and paired back acoustica.

I spoke to Matisyahu about his new album, spirituality and connections between Rastafarianism and Hasidic Judaism.

Hey Matisyahu, what’s happening today?

Hey, we’re just travelled 750 miles from Aspen, Colorado to Omaha, Nebraska. So it was a nice long trip. We left at two o’clock in the morning and got in about an hour ago.

Ouch. You’re touring the new record?

No, no, not yet. We pretty much tour consistently in the States regardless of any record releases. We have a great fan base and go out and do shows all the time. This is the second tour since the record was finished, but it hasn’t come out here yet. This was going to be the tour for the release, but it got pushed back a little bit.

Do you find touring an aid or a hindrance to your writing process? Are you able to write on tour at all?

It’s just a different thing, you know. I feel like there’s a time for touring and a time for writing. For me, on the Light record, I specifically did not tour while I was writing the record, and that’s why it took some time.

I only just got the record last night, but I though it was really interesting sonically. It kind of walked a bit of tightrope between the more acoustically-minded stuff and the more produced, bigger-sounding stuff. Was that disparity something you were specifically interested in exploring?

Definitely, I’m sort of into multiple styles of music – organic instruments as well as electronic – so the record really kind of suggests that. I try not to stick to any rules of any one kind of music. I just sort of continued the evolution between rock and hip-hop and reggae and electronic stuff and organic stuff, and that kind of reflects on the record.

I believe you recorded the album in a few different locations, yeah?

That’s correct, but the majority was recorded in New York. I started out in a writing studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn near my home, then moved on to record most of it with David Cohn in his studio in Manhattan. Then we did go down to Jamaica for a week or so to work with Stephen McGregor, who they call ‘Di Genius’. He’s like a 17-year-old kid who’s still in high school and does all the current dancehall stuff like Sean Paul and all that kind of stuff. Then some of it was recorded with the rhythm section from Fishbone out in LA, and that was pretty much it.

Had you spent time in Jamaica before the recording?

No, this was my first trip.

How was it, especially as something who is so involved in reggae music?

It was cool, I mean, we stayed in Kingston. It’s a beautiful country, but it obviously has a lot of issues with poverty and stuff as well. But for me, I was pretty much in the studio or in the hotel and I didn’t get out that much.

Tell me about the idea behind Light. Themes of togetherness seem to resonate throughout the record. Tell me about what the record means to you.

Prior to the record, I kind of did a re-evaluation of my philosophical take within Judaism and all that. It kind of started out as a comparison I did between different philosophers within the Hasidic movement… I don’t know how much you know about the Hasidic movement, but it basically started in about the 1700s with a sort of rebel movement or a retaliation against the stagnation of Judaism and the hierarchy in place. It was sort of like a re-infusing of energy into the religion, by using non-typical practices in order to get in touch with God. Basically, there were different leaders with different philosophies that came along and I started to do a comparison on these different leaders and their different takes on God and the world.

One of them, who I got really into, was Rabbi Nachman, who they called ‘the Rabbi of the dead souls’. He was sort of an outcast amongst them and his biggest themes were sort of the insanity and madness of God in this world and dysfunction and tragedy. And so a lot of the record was inspired by those themes and his take on them. One of the things he was really into was telling stories. A fire had burned down his house and he lost a child and he started telling these stories, kind of like fairytales that were infused with Jewish mysticism and cabala. One of his stories was called ‘The Seven Beggars’ and that was the sort of main theme that I spent the most time on and kind of used that as the inspiration for the majority of the record.

I don’t know if this is just being presumptuous, but do you feel between worlds in a sense? I’ve read that you have attracted your share negative attention within the more conservative elements of the Hasidic community.

There’s been some negativity, but it’s never really been too bad or been anything that I really pay attention to. But they are definitely some people who aren’t all that hip to what I’m doing. But I don’t really pay any attention to it so much, you know, I just kind of ignore it. Most of the people who I meet when I’m out on the road or most of the kids who are coming to the concerts are not religious certainly – and not Jewish as well – and my focus is on the people who appreciate the music. Not the ones who have something to say about it.

A lot of records that are coming out now were written during a pretty significant period for America, during Obama’s election and so on. Do feel that that different public sensibility had some bearing on your work through that period?

I feel that it might have, but it wasn’t really something that I was tapped into really. My work has been more personal; it’s inner work. My music comes more out of a personal, spiritual, emotional, mental war that’s going on in my head. It’s about me trying to figure my place in it all and how to manoeuvre through the world. I don’t focus too much on politics. I’m obviously aware of all those things, but I feel a little isolated from the happenings of all these things going on in the world.

Tell me a little about your introduction to music and what it was about the idioms of reggae and hip-hop that really made sense to you.

I guess I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock that my parents played. The records that come to mind were Harvest Moon, Neil Young; Wooden Ships, Crosby, Stills & Nash; Grateful Dead records that were around the house; Paul Simon, Graceland; James Taylor, Never Die Young. Those were like the staples that I grew up listening to and when I was about 14 I was introduced to Bob Marley. The music, first of all, I just loved, and being someone that sensitive to music – I was always sensitive to the sounds and songs that were on the radio – I feel like I was just being influenced by everything that was going on through the 80s and 90s.

One of the things about reggae that really perked my interest was hearing a lot of the Old Testament references, references to what I knew as The Torah, the psalms and all these things that I had only heard in a Jewish context in Hebrew school. Mind you, I didn’t grow up religious; I went to public school, but you know, we would go to Sunday school and in that medium, Judaism was such a kind of alien thing to me. It wasn’t relatable to my life in any way.

Then, all of a sudden, hearing Bob Marley singing about this stuff in this different context of Rastafarianism and everything that goes along with that, as a 14-year-old it was totally intriguing to me and I started getting into it more and more and listening to the lyrics and the message. Going through my own identity crisis as a teenager and trying to figure out my own issues with authority and purpose, I really latched onto Bob Marley and reggae’s message.

Where did hip-hop fit into that?

I guess it was just like any teenager who was growing up in the 90s, hip-hop music became like this staple thing. I was always more into conscious minded things, so for me, the first record that turned me onto hip-hop – and I was kind of the hippie who was anti-hip-hop – was the Nas record It was Written, which started out with a slave revolting against the slave master and I just really got into that record.

So that was the record that kind of turned me onto hip-hop music and then I got into beat-boxing and went and saw The Roots and really got into the instrumental hip-hop thing, and basically it’s just continued to grow from there.

The new record seems to step outside both hip-hip and reggae a little…

Yeah, I agree. I guess that’s how I’ve been thinking about music these days. Light has sort of been a bit of departure from reggae and hip-hop and sort of a way of figuring out all these other sounds. I haven’t had one style or type of music that has been my focus, you know. I can’t say that there has been one artist or one genre that has kind of taken over for me. It’s been more about opening up and going ‘Oh, I love the way Goldfrapp sings those high, melodic lines like Bjork and I love the synth sounds in Thievery Corporation’s record and I love the way this band plays dub music’. That’s kind of the long answer.

Dan Rule

Light is out through Sony Music | myspace.com/matisyahu

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