Today, Matisyahu looks more himself than ever.
Sitting legs out and barefoot on his green comforter spread while nursing a mug of Colombian yerba mate tea, the "King Without A Crown" rapper's unorthodox appearance fits the occasion.
Matisyahu's newest album Spark Seeker (released July 17) is a direct result of his transformation from Hasidic MC to independent artist and record label owner (sans yamaka). The once dark suit-wearing reggae rocker may have swapped his curly locks for a shaggy cut but his music continues to reflect who he is.
Born Matthew Miller, the 33-year-old musician retains his Jewish identity in his catchy hooks and insightful bars mixed with the experimental melodies crafted by producer Koool Kojak (Ke$ha, Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj).
Before his performance at Catalpa's two-day music festival on Randall's Island July 29, the White Plains native opened up about dealing with backlash from the religious community, finding happiness and recording in Israel with Shyne. —Adelle Platon
VIBE: I was at the festival yesterday and this young Asian girl came up to me. I asked her who she looked forward to seeing the most and she goes “I can't wait for Matisyahu!” When you make music, do you wonder who your songs reach? It obviously transcends different ethnicities and religions.
Matisyahu: When I make music, I don’t think of anybody. I don’t think really too much. Music is emotional. It has always been kind of my therapy or my way to soothe myself. And in the process of doing so and putting it out there for other people, they relate to it. So it’s like what the music is doing for you, it will do for other people in their own way. When you’re talking about music, [it's] an expression of the soul. The soul is not something that is limited by race, or religion, or people. It’s just beyond all of that. So I always found it sort of irritating for a while, I lived in Crown Heights, and I was very immersed in the Jewish world and sometimes religious Jews would come up to me and say “Can you imagine that these people listen to your music?” and it would always really piss me off and rub me the wrong way. [I'd be like] 'Don’t you get it? Music is beyond..it’s beyond.'
Spark Seeker is actually the first album released independently from your label Fallen Sparks Records. Do you feel like you have more control going the indy route?
Yeah. It’s cool. I released Spark Seeker and we saw that we were #19 on iTunes. We sold 19,000 copies the first week, which is the same number and the same amount of records almost as my last record, Light, which was on Sony/Epic. So we released it independently and we’ve done the same thing. And I have not only the ownership, but I reap the benefits. When you’re on a big label, you get a small little slice of the pie. I changed everything. I started my own management company, my own record label, in the course of the last year and brought everything in-house. On this bus is my band, my crew and my manager and we’re a family and there’s no one on the outside giving input unless we’ve brought them in. And it’s a great feeling. It’s sort of like growing up a bit. I've been doing this eight years or so and you learn a lot in that time, in the industry, about who you wanna have around you.
In terms of the creative process for the album, is there a reason why you traveled to Israel instead of recording here?
Really organically, I was working with this producer (Koool) Kojak. He’s done a bunch of stuff and we just were gonna write a song together, just to see where it goes. And we just did another one, and another one and I decided I really wanted to work with him and make the whole record with him. So we were in L.A. for most of that process. For the second point, he’s not Jewish but he really wanted to see Israel. He’d never been there...and I was trying to lock him down into the studio because he’s a busy man, so that’s what we did. We went to Israel and we took the studio for a couple of weeks and we recorded and it was amazing. It gave the record a whole other dimension.
You invited a bunch of local artists to work with. What was the criteria for the people that you chose?
I got a couple of good friends who are amazing musicians and I was hoping to get the best people. I don’t care who it is, I don’t care what instruments they play. Just get people to come to the studio and get really great musicians and that’s what we got.
You also collaborated with Shyne and used to perform over "Bad Boyz" back in 2000. What was that initial conversation like? Did you tell him you used to rap over his songs back in the day?
I read some article in Jewish Times about him, and I called him the next day…
Did you guys know each other beforehand?
No. I said “This is Matisyahu, and I support you fully. I just want you to know that. You have a friend and I believe in what you do. I know you’re been through a lot and I’m so blown away by your transition.' That’s what I told him, and then when I was coming to Israel, I let him know and I said 'Let’s work on a track together.”
What was the chemistry like in the studio?
Shyne is like an alien.
He’s like an artist fully. You can’t figure him out. He’s like part thug from Flatbush, not like a rapper who’s trying to be something. He is that. That's where he's from. That’s who he is. And then he’s got this whole Hasidic thing going on. He’s immersed 100 percent into that, lives in Jerusalem, spends his day learning in the shivas around rabbis. I know what that’s like cause I did that too. And then, he came in. He was cool. He was tired when he came to the studio, and he was limping also. He had a cane. It was like an old man almost, kind of worn down, been through s lot. There was a heaviness, a darkness with him. And his first words were, his voice all raspy, “Matis, I wouldn’t do this shit for anybody but you.” Jerusalem is like a 40-minute drive. And then he came in, took a nap on the couch for like a couple of hours, then he woke up and he was ready! [laughs] And he started writing, and he was ready to write a whole album that night. And he doesn’t write, he just sits there for like a half hour, 45-minutes just rapping to himself. Then he’s just like “I’m ready,” go into the booth, do his thing. He’s like a perfectionist. He’s gotta prove himself, but it was cool. He’s got a lot of depth and a lot of wisdom and he’s been through a lot and we got him to open up and talk about his experience. We actually have some footage of him talking about being in jail and what that was like.
Definitely have to check that out. But your album overall has a certain vibrancy to it. It’s positive and uplifting. Is the fact that you’re a father play into that at all, like you wanted to make feel good music because of where you're at in life?
Not really. My kids bring me a lot of joy. They stress the hell out of me too. [laughs] It’s just that time of my life [where] things are just starting to open up for me. I started to feel certain happiness that I’ve never felt before in my whole life and looking for certain freedom. And I still struggle with stuff. We all have ups and downs but there’s a certain light that came to me this year and I don’t know if it’s just coincidence or whatever but I moved to L.A. to promote the record. [Spark Seeker] was made in L.A. There’s more light there. Ironically my last record, which was called Light was made in the winter of New York in someone’s basement. That was a much heavier experience. I was everyday going and praying in Williamsburg, just a different phase in my life. This was just more, working with Kojak, He’s just a happy dude and a fun dude. We just had that chemistry and enjoyed ourselves in the studio and was just like fuck all the bullshit and just have a great time and make music.
In terms of your new look, how has the reaction been from fans who were so used to the way you were when you first came on the scene back in 2005?
It’s been hard because I have a lot of fans who were really supportive and very accepting and understanding. Then I have fans who are extremely judgmental and think that they know, and understand what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s true, what’s not true. It’s painful for me because I go on Facebook and Twitter and people are just so judgmental. People think they know stuff. In life, what do you know? What do you really know? My life has taught me that, because I don’t know. One day, I might believe something. Another day, that could change and you gotta be free to change and make decisions. Some people get so caught in their decisions and what they think is the right way. I have a lot of those people as fans, by nature of coming into this through the religion.
Was the backlash coming mostly from your Jewish fans?
Oh yeah. I have backlash from religious Jews and then I have backlash from random schmucks. Anything that I do in my life, I do it because I wanna do it. I don’t do it for a reaction. People that don’t know that about me, haven’t gotten that through my music and haven’t been listening in the first place. My music is about change. It’s about acceptance. It’s about not being judgmental based off everything that is right.
In the time that you’ve been doing music, social media has just blown up. You have 1.5 million followers and that’s an accomplishment that not many artists can achieve. What do you think it is about your online presence that makes people wanna follow you?
It’s just timing. We got on Twitter early. Before it exploded, I had a really good guy who got me on there and got people to follow. And then it just blew up real quick, and I’d like to take the credit for that but I can’t. In terms of the other stuff I’m on, I hired one person who doesn’t work on anybody else or anything else except Matisyahu Online. So I’m on there a lot, especially when I’m touring or promoting a record, I constantly post and put up things that are interesting to me, I don’t put things up for the sake of putting it up. I think that ‘s what it comes down to: content. People forget that. They start to see that, “we can put this out and put that out and our numbers will grow” and I’m always trying to just bring it back and I’m not putting something out if it’s relevant to me or if it’s not important to me. So I go up there, and I chat with people. And my fans know that. They have direct access. They know if someone’s writing something mean, they know I’m going to read it. They know I’m there and I’m interacting. There’s someone on the other side.
With this album, what do you hope to accomplish that your other projects haven't?
My dream for this album is that it really gets out there in a big way. I think it deserves to, I think it’s a great record and I think that it will benefit a lot of people. I think the songs are empowering for people and my dream is that it flourishes.
Do you still think of yourself as the Hasidic reggae rap star or is it sort of changing now?
On some level, I didn’t think of myself that way for a long time.
But you’re the only one in your lane.
When I started, I was very much Hasidic and I made a roots/reggae record, and that’s where I was at that time. And I think over the course of the last decade, I changed a lot. My music changed, I changed, even though my appearance didn’t necessarily change. So I haven’t thought of myself in that way, and now certainly I don’t think I could really consider myself Hasidic. I read a lot and I am inspire by a lot of the teachings. It’s in the music. But I don’t think I’m the representative of that community anymore.