When one thinks of hip-hop hotbeds, West Chester, Pennsylvania, doesn’t spring to mind. And when considering the most gangsta things a true hip-hop head can do, dedicating one’s life to Judaism isn’t exactly high on the list.
But for Matisyahu, well, that’s pretty much the way he wants things.
Born Matthew Miller in West Chester on June 30, 1979, the artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Matisyahu spent his formative years kicking around the U.S. with his family, listening to hip-hop, making trouble in Hebrew schools and growing an unfortunate crop of dreadlocks. By the time he reached high school, he was a full-blown hippie and dropped out to follow Phish on tour. It was on the road that Miller started to listen to reggae. Then everything changed.
“I used to listen to Bob Marley and Sizzla and Buju Banton. I used to go everywhere listening to that music. I’d walk around with headphones on, skateboard with headphones on. That music made its mark,” Matisyahu said. “And then about four years ago, I made a decision to become religious, because I was always trying to find a path, and I figured, ‘Let me check into my roots,’ and I found a way to access a place that I was trying to get to for a while.”
While he was still in high school, Miller had made a trip to Israel. When he returned, he was a changed man. But it took going on the road and discovering reggae for everything to come together. Miller decided to rededicate his life to Judaism and use his hip-hop and reggae roots to spread his religion’s messages of love and acceptance.
That’s when Matisyahu was born.
“I wasn’t raised religious, this was a journey,” he explained. “I want to spread my message of trying to stay centered in this world, and of trying to tap into your core and your roots and the godly spark that everyone has.”
Matisyahu moved to the Jewish section of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and started bringing his message to open-mic nights all around New York. After some initial skepticism from audiences, his reggae-tinged raps started to win crowds over, and he began to make a name for himself on the conscious hip-hop circuit. Last year he collected his rhymes and cut a record called Shake Off the Dust … Arise. And just last month his performance at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, was one of the festival’s most talked-about events.
On April 19, he’ll release Matisyahu Live at Stubb’s, and he’s preparing to hit the studio to record a new album (with a “real big-name producer” whose name he won’t reveal) later this year. And there’s still the attention he garners from major labels … but for Matisyahu, a big-buck deal is not what it’s about. He answers to a higher power.
“I’m trying to stay pure and holy for God,” he said. “I’ve got a message that’s universal. I’m trying to show that you can be who you are — and be strong with who you are — and still be unified with other people. It’s something everyone wants to hear.”