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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

RAPPER MATISYAHU - FROM BIBLE TO BILLBOARD

By CHRIS ERIKSON
NY Post
11/22/2005



COULD a bearded, brim-hatted Lubavitcher from Crown Heights be one of next year's breakout musical stars?

It's not as far-fetched as it might sound. Since his live album was released last year, the buzz has been growing around Matisyahu, a 26-year-old vocalist whose music combines reggae, hip-hop and Jewish spirituality.

It's an unlikely brew, but there are growing signs that it may be more marketable than anyone might have guessed. Released last winter, Matisyahu's "Live at Stubbs," a set recorded in Austin, Texas (at, ironically enough, a barbecue restaurant), has sold over 100,000 copies, and is still rising up the Billboard alternative chart, where it's No. 2 in the "heatseekers" category.

Matisyahu turned a lot of heads last summer at the music fest Bonnaroo, when in front of 90,000 people he got up onstage with former Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio to beatbox, chant scripture and duet on the Bob Marley classic "No Woman No Cry." And in January he'll release his major-label debut on Epic Records.

"He's very quickly caught a buzz," says Josh Baron, executive editor of the music magazine Relix. "His music has a lot of appeal, and his live act is great."

It's another odd turn in the life of the former Matthew Miller, who grew up in a Reconstructionist Jewish household in White Plains. Miller got into reggae as a high-school student; after he dropped out, his adventures included several months spent following the jam band Phish on tour.

A spiritual seeker of sorts, Miller connected with his Jewish roots on a trip to Israel, and later became a convert to Chabad Hasidism, after meeting a rabbi in Washington Square Park. While studying 10 hours a day in a Crown Heights yeshiva, he never gave up his music (though dating women and taking drugs had to go). Eventually he released his debut, "Shake Off the Dust ... Arise!" in July 2004.

Onstage, Matisyahu cuts a decidedly original figure, incorporating quotes from the Torah and melodies from Hasidic chants into songs that percolate over a reggae beat, extolling devotion to God while wearing the traditional black suit.

Though a seeming contradiction, it helps that Matisyahu is part of the Lubavitch branch, which is more open to such creative outlets, says Hella Winston, author of "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels" "You couldn't be a Satmar rapper, I'm told," she says.

Still, Matisyahu's rabbi keeps tabs on his career, making sure he lives in accordance with the rules of the sect - he eschews Friday night gigs, for example, and requires kosher food at venues. He'd rather Matisyahu was back at the yeshiva studying, but, the singer has said, he feels a sense of mission about his new calling.


"I have a way to affect people and uplift them," he said last year. "To give that up is to go against what God wants."





Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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