With Shake Off the Dust... Arise's release in 2005, Matisyahu initially seemed like a cultural hybrid who could exist only as a postmodern gimmick: a Phishhead who became a Hasidic Jew rapping in Rastafarian inflections.
Here's the thing, though: He's so earnest, so true to his faith, and such a unifying force that diehards and random spectators alike can't deny the similarities between the worlds he occupies. And, obviously, it really is catchy.
The Brooklyn resident (born Matthew Miller) has come a long way spiritually and musically, switching communities from one in Crown Heights to another in Boro Park, and is readying a live album, Live at Stubb's, Volume II, a new recording that revisits the setting for his first live release, recorded there in 2005, when he was still wet behind the ears. Now with his band, the Dub Trio, he's got a mature sound, more all-embracing and self-accepting. In light of his headlining performance at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County's inaugural Fedstock, dubbed "two days of love and nachas," at Boca Raton's Mizner Park Amphitheater on December 18, New Times caught up with Matisyahu and discussed his new Hanukkah single, "Miracle," and his artistic growth.
New Times: When did you decide to do "Miracle"?
Matisyahu: [Producer Kool] Kojak was in town, in New York, and we had the idea while we were having lunch. Basically, we went in that night and just recorded it. The idea for me was that the Adam Sandler song ["The Chanukah Song"] made so many Jewish kids feel good about being Jewish, and I wanted to do something like that but in my own style — not as a parody or a humorous thing. There's so much meaning behind the holiday, and I wanted to try to get at some of that, in a similar kind of vein, that would bring out some of the beauty in the holiday in a way that kids could relate to. Then we had these ideas to do these different skits for Hanukkah — like a different skit every night. We basically just combined them all into this one song, this one idea.
How did the video, "Miracle on Ice," come together? I know you're a former hockey player.
The original idea came from my friend Simcha Levenberg. The record company tries to get me to be more mainstream, get me to assimilate, and instead of making a Hanukkah song, make a holiday song. And there was this scene [in which] I was in a blue Santa outfit, and it was just kind of silly, right? And in the end, there was going to be this song, and I was going to decide not to do that — and I'd just go after being myself and all that. That's where the original idea for the song came [from], and we were going to have a song and a video.
We kind of just decided to combine it all into one idea, which is pretty straightforward: I get knocked down; I have this dream. I wake up and find myself and try to make a decision in terms of which path to go on, which is something, I think, everyone goes through in their lives, whether Jewish or not, just in terms of their own beliefs and values. And then we get chased by Antiochs and get put into a cage. The Santa outfits are basically our prison uniforms. And we just wanted it to be really kind of crazy and wacky with the video — really wild costumes, cool lighting, have the whole thing on ice, with this very psychedelic theme to it. In the end, we break out of the cage, and we have this whole hockey fight. There's a lot of meaning to the video, but it was really about having fun for us.
Are you planning to attach it to another album in the future?
I'm trying to decide what to do, because I have a handful of songs that I've done with Kojak, and I also have the direction that I'm going with the Dub Trio, and they're two very different directions. The Kojak stuff is very pop, and the other stuff is much more alternative. I haven't decided where I want to go, exactly, in terms of the record, but probably just... both.
Regarding your latest release, Live at Stubb's Volume II, why did you choose to record again at that particular venue?
It's a full-circle type of thing, a return to something that was a moment in time but that was also a really fundamental element of my career. I wanted to go back to that. And also, I feel like both the music and myself have evolved a lot. It's different. I wanted to give people that same kind of live energy and that live feel but with the new sound, the new vibe.
Can you explain how both you and your music have evolved?
The first thing is just the performance on its own. I've played a lot of shows. I've never really settled where I am. I always feel like I can be better in whatever it is that I'm doing, whether it's delivering a rhyme, whether it's being in the moment, connecting with the audience, listening to the band, singing, dancing, getting into the music. There's so many different things that go into performing and being able to tap into your emotions, your spirit. To become a master at it is something I've always continued to strive for. And I think that I've grown a lot in the last five years.
And then, as a person, it's the same thing. It's just a basic sort of growth — a certain appreciation for life, for living simple, for getting in touch with God and staying centered. Staying focused and not getting distracted by things that aren't important but that seem so important at the moment. Having a vision and a perspective on your life and being able to work hard and get things done.