One Love: Meet Matisyahu

Matisyahu is a 24-year-old reggae phenom out of Crown Heights. When I meet him coming back from Hanukkah get-together with his family, it’s a quarter to midnight in Grand Central Station, and he’s got a menorah in a plastic supermarket bag. Our photographer asks the 6’4” MC if we can get a picture of him standing in line at a hot-dog stand. “Thing is, it’s not kosher,” explains Matisyahu. “It’s dope that it says ‘Shofar’ on it though.” His soft-spoken accent, equal parts b-boy and Yeshiva bocher, belies his New York upbringing he grew up a Reconstructionist Jew in White Plains. But when he gets onstage, he delivers flawless dancehall rhymes. At 18, he had a moderately successful beatbox act in Oregon; after it collapsed, he moved to New York to go to college. His debut album, Shake Off the Dust, Arise is due in April on JDub Records.

Heeb: So when did you start doing reggae as ‘Matisyahu’?
Matisyahu: Last winter. I’d been in Yeshiva for almost a year, and I hadn’t played music, I hadn’t written anything new. And they did a Union Square Hanukkah festival, lighting the menorah. The same shaliach who became religious through, a friend of mine, he knew I did this kind of stuff, so he asked me to come one night. I called a guitar player, along with a drummer, we set up, and it was awesome. And from that I started the band.

Do you prefer roots or dancehall?
I like a mixture of the two. I like rootsy tracks, but with dancehall energy. I don’t like that overdone beat, you know [beatboxing] with a heavy sound to it. I like more of a rootsy kind of organic, real melodic kinda feel to it. But I like the deliverance of the lyrics to be punchy, you know?

Is your music always religious-themed? Do you ever, say, talk about yourself?
Yeah, well, I mean, the whole thing is about myself. The whole concept of this music is about… like the name of the album, shake off the Dust, Arise is all about overcoming, it’s all about beating the negative forces. A person has negative forces and positive forces, and it’s all about that war.

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