Never has Jewish-themed music been so much at the forefront of the American cultural mainstream as it has since Hasidic reggae singer/rapper Matisyahu achieved commercial success. With two certified Gold records, a Top 10 Single on the Modern Rock charts, and numerous television appearances, Matisyahu has been bringing his energetic and soulful mix of reggae/hip hop/Jewish inspiration to the masses since 2004.
Pennsylvania-born Matthew Paul Miller, recorded his first album, Shake Off the Dust...Arise, while he was a student at Yeshiva Hadar HaTorah in Brooklyn. The album was released in 2004 by JDub Records, a non-profit record company in New York City, but did not chart. His next two albums — the concert album Live at Stubbs and his second studio album Youth — brought Matisyahu and his band Roots Tonic international acclaim. Both albums are outstanding, and deserve to be listened to indepth to truly understand the Jewish overtones prevalent in each.
Live at Stubbs is a live concert album recorded on February 19, 2005, at Stubbs in Austin, Texas. This album captures the true essence of a Matisyahu live show at its best, and is full of energy, danceable music, and biblical references. The album opens with the song “Sea to Sea,” which starts with a simple bass groove, and evolves into a reggae-laden nigun that morphs into the introduction of the Amidah prayer. Matisyahu’s first words on the album are: “HaShem s’fasai tiftach u-fee yagid tehilasecha...Open up my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.” This short yet profound opening song serves as a kind of call to prayer, to prepare the audience and the listener that there is more spiritual music to come.
The next track, “Chop ’Em Down,” is reminiscent of the early dancehall reggae that has heavily influenced Matisyahu’s music. This song is full of biblical references as he tells the story of Jewish slavery and the Exodus from Egypt:
In fact, slavery is a major theme of Matisyahu’s music, and is emphasized in the live version of “King Without a Crown.” Matisyahu sings of the slavery in which human beings sometimes bring upon themselves through materialism and hubris: “You're a slave to yourself and you don't even know/You want to live the fast life but your brain moves slow/If you're trying to stay high then you're bound to stay low/You want G-d but you can't deflate your ego/If you're already there then there's nowhere to go/If you're cup's already full then its bound to overflow.” “King Without a Crown” is an upbeat reggae tune with a high level of energy, which is only intensified by the guitar solo toward the end of the song. The song has been the band’s biggest commercial success, breaking into the Modern Rock Top 10 and peaking at #7.
The highlight of Live at Stubbs however, comes in the song “Aish Tamid,” which is Hebrew for “a continuous fire.” Matisyahu explains at the beginning that the song is about the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and how he is awaiting the rebuilding of the Third Temple. The song describes a vision of what the destroyed Temple may have looked like: “Flash back patches of grass growing wild in fact/Cracked walls burnt black like a kingdom sacked.../Air intermingling ringing with the singin/of songs once sung, hung, flung into the rafters/Catastrophe struck the sound stuck...” Matisyahu makes a metaphorical connection between the Temple lying in ruins and a person who has lost faith. However, he believes that each person has “a continuous fire,” and if they continue to hold onto to their faith in G-d, it will be possible for the Temple to eventually be rebuilt.
Whereas Live at Stubbs captures the raw energy of a live performance, Youth is a polished, well-produced studio album that one would expect from a band that now benefits from the resources of a major record label (Epic Records). Once again, on top of Matisyahu’s singing and beatboxing, the tremendous musicianship of the members of Roots Tonic make this album sound extraordinary. Musically, Youth is so much more than just a rehash of the reggae style that made the band famous; elements of hip hop and indie rock are added to give the album new flavor.
Although this album will mean different things to different people, it is supposed to serve as a call to arms for young people to become spiritually and emotionally involved in the world around them. Matisyahu implies that the youth in this country are in a constant state of confusion and spirtual emptiness because they do not know what to do with their lives, and that they are hungry for a world with meaning. As he proclaims in the title track, “Young man control in your hand/Slam your fist on the table/And make your demand/Take a stand/Fan a fire for the flame of the youth/Got the freedom to choose/You gotta make the right move.” Throughout the album, Matisyahu urges young people to take control of their lives and choose a life full of meaning.
One song that stands on its own on Youth is “What I’m Fighting For” because it does not fit into band’s normal style. The song is stripped down to only a few musical elements: acoustic guitar, keyboard, and Matisyahu, who shines on this song. He begins by saying, “What I’m fighting for/is worth far more than silver and gold.../is a chance to unite the past.” He wants Jews, the “sons and daughters of Abraham,” to “lay down to a higher command” and return to Zion as a united people.
The most poignant track on Youth is the hip hop tune “Jerusalem,” in which Matisyahu paraphrases the biblical adage from Psalm 137: “Jerusalem, if I forget you/fire not gonna come from me tongue/Jerusalem, if I forget you/let my right forget what it’s supposed to do.” In this song, he alludes to the Holocaust, and how throughout the history of the Judaism, some force has always tried to destroy the Jewish people. In the second verse, he sings, “Rebuild the temple and the crown of glory/Years gone by, about sixty/Burn in the oven in this century/And the gas tried to choke, but it couldn't choke me.” He then asks, “Why is everybody always chasing we/Cut off the roots of your family tree/Don't you know that's not the way to be.” Despite the fact the Jewish people have been faced with destruction on several occassions, especially during the Holocaust, they have always managed to continue existing and have never forgotten the importance of Jerusalem.
Youth also contains the studio version of “King Without a Crown,” which is musically pleasing, but lacks the impact and fervor of the live version. A special track, “Old City Beat Box,” is available only if the album is bought online in a digital format. It is a short video of Matisyahu standing in the Old City of Jerusalem beatboxing, and at a live performance; this is highly recommended for those who want to witness Matisyahu in action.
After listening to Live at Stubbs and Youth, one can only hope that Matisyahu’s next album measures up. These are powerful records, full of sincerity, spirituality, and professional musicianship on all fronts. Although there are numerous Jewish and biblical references in these albums, anyone can enjoy them because the music is so accessible.