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Photo by Nechama Leitner

PREMIERE: How Matisyahu’s New ‘Undercurrent’ Album Set Him Free

Ever since 2009, when Jimmy Kimmel introduced him as “the most popular Jewish rapper since MC Hammer,” Matisyahu has been walking a cultural tightrope. Nobody who saw the former Yeshiva student’s ferocious barrage of beatboxing, rapping, and raggamuffin dancehall flows could deny his talent. But the smirk on Kimmel’s face during that national TV debut spoke to the fact that some people would always see him as some sort of joke. Yet Matis, who arrived at that talk-show taping accompanied by a posse of Hasidic rabbis, was not playing. The Westchester PA–born and Whits Plains NY–raised MC was every bit as serious about his faith as he was about his music.

That music—often categorized as reggae, for lack of a better term—made him one of the most in-demand acts in that genre, although he never fit neatly within that or any other category. Like King David before him, Matis was an inspired music maker, full stop.

Even as his star rose, Matisyahu staunchly resisted the trappings of pop stardom. Still, the tension between his faith and his creativity continued to build up until three years ago, he shocked his fans and shaved off his beard to announce his spiritual emancipation. In the process he pissed off many of his day one fans. He’s fully at peace with that decision, making up his mind that they were never real fans anyway.

Having  recently relocated from L.A. back to New York, the artist is still processing all the changes in his life—using his favorite tool: music. His new album Undercurrents, which MASS APPEAL proudly premieres today, and which goes on sale tonight at midnight, is without a doubt the best work he’s ever done. Gelling with the sound of his own band—anchored by the taut rhythms of the Dub Trio—Matis is at the top of his game.

The arist took a break from an all-day shoot in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where was just wrapping the long-form music video that accompanies his new project. The conversation was intense and in-depth. Open your ears and your mind and check the reasoning.

How’s the shoot comin’ along?

It’s comin’ along good. We just got our last shot that we needed for the movie, for the visual piece for this whole record.

So tell me, for starters, what exactly is that you’re shooting? Is it like a long form video for the whole album? Or…

Yeah, exactly. But while you’re watching you’re not ever supposed to know that it’s Matisyahu, or even a band playing music. It’s a whole story line. Um, and actually like a lot of it was shot on tour, uh, in a way where like people didn’t even know it was being shot. So, for example like, one of the scenes is, is uh, basically we’re in a group therapy session. And so like for example like I just planted cameras in the room like right before we went on stage. And the like we’re in a psychiatric (inaudible). The drummers like doing a headstand cause’ he’s into yoga, and the bass player’s like grinding coffee like a maniac cause’ he’s like a recovering…whatever. So you know what I’m saying? It’s like the craziness comes out. So some of the scenes we acted in and did the whole thing and a lot of it was shot in ways that was kinda like, kind of almost like a reality show, but not. You know what I mean?

That’s amazing. So was your band not in on it at all?

No, they were aware of it. But the thing is that, basically, the movie was created around my own kind of psychological analysis of each of the members of the band. Mixed with like all the kind of, some fantasy aspects. And, so I told them what I was doing and I wrote the script. And it’s not a script, but it’s like each song correlates to a different members, um, story in this movie, basically. And we all come together and there’s a whole, you know, there’s a whole, you know, there’s a plot, there’s a story line basically. We’re basically on the road searching for this thing. And its, most of it is shot while we’re actually on the road as a band. But then there’s all this music happening and it actually follows along to the lyrics of the songs. So it actually is with the whole story that goes along to the record.

That sounds pretty cool.

Yeah, the band was cool because like they’re not actors and I just knew like, they’re gonna be uncomfortable cause’ it’s not so easy to just act like…you know what I mean? So, but I really wanted it to be played by them, because it’s about them, and it’s about the music, and it’s about this band. So, basically what I would do is say like “Alright, don’t even pay attention to the camera, just be normal”. You know what I mean? Or “I just need you to walk down this hallway real quick, you know, looking paranoid”. Or something like that. And I’d be like “(inaudible) just get this shot real quick.” You know what I mean?

That’s crazy.

Yeah. It’s like a hurry-up offense kind of style, it’s so mixed up. We have one scene where we needed a baseball stadium, you know, and I don’t have any kind of budget. This isn’t like a major label situation, or anything like that. So, like, where we gonna be able to film in a baseball stadium? So, literally the second to last day of the tour we pull up in front of a freakin’ baseball stadium that’s literally open and you could just walk in and shoot. So the whole movie was kind of shot that way.

It’s the most budget, creative, way that you can try to make a movie. Just like, just try to just, pull it, like, fly by the seat of your pants, kind of thing. And it was really fun, it was a lot of fun. It was my first time ever, you know, directing a movie. Me and my friend Shlomo, just like, having fun with it.

So, about this album… I’m curious just about the title ‘Undercurrent.’ It seems like you’re wrestling with some big issues.

Yeah. I mean, this record is in direct correlation to the last record I put out. And my life has been in this kind of like unfolding journey and really like every record has been totally different, and just a different opportunity for me to do something different. Like makes a roots reggae record, or make more of a pop sounding record. But this record right here is my full, this is like, for the last 15 years I’ve been doing this and I’ve like gotten to a certain point. And the way that this all happened really, mainly, is live. Right?

Because I’m an artist who needs to tour to make a living, and I also like touring and I started my career by performing live. So, you know, I’ve just been on the road and it’s been like 200 days a year for over ten years. And I’ve never been able to just settle and just say like “Okay, like the fans wanna hear the song how it is on the record. I’m gonna do that.” Or “I’m just gonna fake it till I, you know, till I make it” or whatever, you know. Just play the songs they wanna hear.

It’s been a real introspective process for me. Performing, and making music, and figuring out how to really do what I wanna do. Trust my own instincts and have the confidence in myself. So basically, this record is like me saying “Okay, I don’t want anyone to listen to this record and be like, ‘This sounds different, the show sounds different than what I’m hearing on the record.’” And so like, I didn’t make any kind of uh… It’s pure art man. It’s pure creativity. It’s just a blending of genres, styles, and you know, it’s just the music that I love. The music that I wanna hear,. The music that I wanna play. So, it’s, it’s cool. It’s a real group experience. Like for me it’s all about, it’s not so much about me as the artist, as much as it is about this collaboration and collaborative experience because you can sit in a studio, you can sit in your bedroom and you can put together sounds and create a record and create a sound. But for me the whole trick was finding musicians that can do it live. Our whole thing sort of comes from what the improvisations and the jams that we’ve been doing live over the past few years. That’s just like a basic breakdown.

Right.

And then sort of spiritually, or philosophically where my head is at is like, the last record I made is called, it was called Akeda. And a lot of people didn’t hear it cause, whatever situation with the label or whatever. It was just like a realllly important record to me. And it was basically, as I… the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain. Like everything that Abraham knows, everything he’s built up, everything, you know, that he believes in, he’s being asked to sacrifice. And that was really like the situation I was in in my life. I was uh, just basically had this realization that a lot of the things I’ve been working toward weren’t real to me and I needed to have this sort of, I needed to break from it. So it was just kind of cathartic break and the music was super intense.

And the way I look at it is like, this record is like, Abraham’s walk back down the mountain. You know, after he’s made this kind of breakthrough experience, like how does he now come back to life? And that’s kind of what this period of time in my life has been all about. Like “Okay, now you broke out of bad relationships, bad habits, religious practices that weren’t working for you, philosophical, you know, mental ties that you had to things.” And, and then it’s like, “Okay, where are you now?” You know? And that’s kind of what this record is. So, you know.

I actually moved from the hills to the river. Like from the Hollywood Hills to the Hudson River. I live now like, I bought this house right on the river ten minutes from where I grew up and um, it really is about these undercurrents. These sort of under the surface… you know? The surface is what you’re doing in your life but these undercurrents, these movements that are constantly kind of pulling you back to certain places, or pushing you in different directions. And I feel like music is sort of this whole process of submerging under the water and sort of like, feeling out those currents; musically and also just in my life, in the journey.

When you say that you were kind of looking for things or working toward things that turned out not to be real, what are you referring to? What did you discover was not real?

Well, what I would say is that, there’s quite a few things, but I mean uh, basically… Basically, okay so, from a personal perspective in terms of relationships and then there’s, and then there’s the career aspect and the art. And I think that like um, for me it’s, music has always been about trying to find this sort of authentic place within yourself, right?

Yep.

And you’re trying to be inspired on a night-to-night basis because, especially coming to a Matisyahu show and looking towards me. They’re looking at me as some sort of spiritual sort of God. So for a long time, even within myself, I really felt I was chasing something. like I was after this metaphoric, sort of spiritual experience and just trying to find meaning everywhere, and just ascribe—I say it in my lyrics, to ascribe meaning and dimension to everything in my world. And so I was on this real trip, you know?

And that’s sort of like the first song “Step Out Into The Light” is like, you know the reprise that keeps coming up is “You’ve been searching, you’ve been reaching all your life. You’ve been tryna step out into the light.” And it’s all about, it’s almost like an appreciation, this sort of like journey that I’ve been on. Then all of sudden it’s like, Oh wait, “Back to the Old”. The second song on the record is like, “What’s right in front of me, the people that I see, the places that I be.” It’s sort of like the whole search for spirituality became very evident to me that it’s found very very much in the realness of the people, and things, and places in your life. It’s totally intertwined and interconnected with this physical reality and these people that are in your band, and that are in your life and the people that you choose to have around you and go through the world with.

So in a lot of ways it’s sort of like me coming off the mountain after all these years, feeling very much like this is my own thing, to this realization that, you know… You need these other members, these people that have chosen to be in my life and my band. We’re a family together. How can we communicate and have a conversation and how can we do that on stage? And actually that the spirituality in the music is all in this atmosphere that we can create for people.

It’s not about how fast you can rap, or how impressive you can beatbox, or how much energy you can have on stage, but it’s all really about actually having a real conversation with human beings on stage with our instruments and then allowing, basically, this space to be created for people to come into themselves. And um…that’s sort of the trip that I’m on right now.

I’m feeling that all throughout the record. On the first track you mentioned, there’s this idea of “ancient melodies come back to me now,” which I found very powerful. It seems as if you’re reconnecting with something, maybe in a new way.

Yeah, yeah. I mean this whole process for me is like, I was like the kid in college and I got really into it on this journey and found myself fully religious and just over time just really studying and trying to live this real, real, spiritual life and exploring it. And I put all of that into my music. The music and the lyrics to me have always been a place for me to just discuss those things, you know what I mean?

Then there was like this process of breaking free from the religion and that for me happened and things became very real for me on the inside. All of a sudden I had this sort of thing where I felt the thing I was looking for. At that point I felt like “Okay, so how much is necessary in terms of all the rules?” And the religion was just kind of making me feel a little bit claustrophobic and creatively you know, everything became very hard. And then I was able to release it and that last record was that taste of freedom, of letting go. Like the moment I walked down the street and I was like “Dude! I can fuckin’ shave my beard! I can do that! It’s my life! It’s my face!”

Like I went all the way in the point where I couldn’t make decisions, you know what I’m saying? Just simple little things that we take for granted. So, that last record Akeda was like this newfound freedom. And then it was like “Okay, well now that you don’t have the religion, you don’t have the discipline, you don’t have these abstract things that religion gave you. So where are you with it all?” And that moment when I’m like “ancient melodies come back to me” now it’s like, give me the real thing, that real moment, you know? Cause’ I’ve had that moment before. You know what I mean?

Absolutely. We’ve seen those moments all throughout. There’s some other images in that song: you talk about “demons waiting on every corner” and “swimming in an ocean of fear.” Is that real? Do you feel that way sometimes?

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely man. I mean that’s part of really what being an artist is. Because, you know again, you could have skilled rappers and singers and musicians, but the artist that I think is the person who really feels, feels things on a deep level. And the ability to really go through your little breakdowns and you know, all kinds of stuff; and to be able to channel that into the music uh, that’s what it’s all about. But yeah man, I don’t walk around all day long feeling like I’m being chased by demons, but I’ve had my moments where I’m walking down the street and I feel like there are demons somehow. You know, there’s also this certain demons that keep coming back in your life. You know? And they’re sort of waiting for you. You might be feeling well, you’re on a good path, you’re on the right path but those demons are just waiting on every corner, man. It’s like crazy to just let down your guard. You know?

Wow, that’s powerful shit. Now on “Back To The Old” you talk about “Seen in a vision on the BQE” and I’ve been along the BQE a number of times. Could share what vision you were thinking about there?

The specific place that I’m talkin’ about is when you’re coming over the bridge and you have that graveyard scene in the back, in the back of the BQE.

Oh yeah!

The rolling hills with the graveyards and the buildings behind it, and you catch that at sunset or something like that and it’s just kind of epic. So actually while I was recording this record I was driving back and forth every day from my house into Brookyln and so yeah, that kind of vision: this love lost and then this moment, just having this vision. It’s all tied together, the grave, and the buildings, and the traffic, and the trucks, and the sun, and the light, and the darkness…and it’s all sort of making this very beautiful picture, which is not very clean. And very much I feel like this record, you know? It’s very real to life I think.

Every time I drive by that cemetery I think of the fact that that’s where Biggie shot the Life after Death album art. You know those pictures…

Yeahhh.

That’s such an eerie thought, him doing this whole shoot with a hearse and gravestones and all that. And then he didn’t even live to see the album come out.

It’s like he knew… That was crazy. I mean, he was on to something. He knew. There’s no question to me.

It bugs me out every time I think about it. Anyway, I noticed that there’s a lot of dub moments on this record. You really let the band do their thing. Who produced those dubs? Sonically, who’s at the mixing board for that stuff?

Dude, it’s full collaboration. We have an engineer who’s literally just, you know, recording, and then we have a friend of ours, Joel Hamilton, at studio G where we recorded who was mixing. He, ya know, the rhythm section of my band is from the
. Joe Camino and Steve Brooks. I don’t know if you know the history of the Dub Trio but they’re like a Brooklyn dub band—like Berklee College of Music kids that were playing this dub, reggae…and then got into it pretty hard and were playing with Mike Patton. They had a band with Mike Patton. They’ve been my backing band for nine years and we have a language that they speak, like a dub language. The bass player dubs out the drummers drums, you know what I mean? The drummer dubs out his own stuff, while they’re playing. They do it live and it’s updated in the studio. So almost all of the dub that you hear, especially anything happening on the drums, is being done live while we’re playing. Like we didn’t cut these pieces all together, if that song is 9 minutes long, that was a 9 minute performance. We took one take, and then we might have gone down and made a couple of edits and put a couple of overdubs, but it’s like this is what we do live, pretty much.

It sounds organic and you really let the songs breathe, which is really nice.

Yeah man, that’s really important to me and a lot of vocalists, they don’t understand that…that there’s a certain humility that I approach it with, which is that, like, “Dude, I don’t wanna have to sing at all if I don’t have to. The vibe can be brought across If the vibe can be brought across without any vocals, then that’s better. And when it comes to vocals, my opinion is: less is more. It’s just about finding the right moments and adding at the right, opportune moments to help. Like, the music for this whole record, we finished it before I wrote one lyric. It was an instrumental record, and then I just basically locked myself in a room for like 10 days and just wrote lyrics. Walked to the studio everyday, recorded, back to the hotel, wrote more, back and forth for like 10 days. But like the record itself, the story was told before we recorded any vocals.

Wow, so what would be your role in putting the instrumental together? Do you sit with the band?

For example, I have a vision…my vision for the sound is I know that I want to incorporate the sound of the Dub Trio. But at the same time, you know, I might have like, just different visions for the sound. So for me it’s just getting the right people in the right room and playing music and listening to music with them. And that process takes…could take a year, it could take 2 years, it could take…For us this was about a two-year process. Finding the right guys and then just getting on the same page with the sound. And then we just recorded improvizations and we went into the studio in September we had a month to write before we had to start recording, we had no songs. We just started listening to those jams and we started working on it. Then, you know, we all chime in but basically… I don’t have to explain. Like you could try to get this jazz drummer and you could tell him, “Play this hip hop beat. Hit the snare on the 2 and the kick on the 4” and it’s not gonna sound like hip hop, you know what I mean? The musicians themselves have to have a certain feel and attitude towards the music. Honestly for me the most important part of all of this is not writing the lyrics, not my vocals, not what I say to them in the studio, it’s finding the right players, finding the right people to form this alliance with.

Yep, yep.

So that way when I say “Okay let’s go from this rock thing into this dub thing”, I don’t have to explain what I mean in terms of, you know, what that means, or what type of thing I’m trying to go for. So, Stu Brooks, the bass player, he produced the last record, Akeda. He’s produced a bunch of music for me. We have like a certain, just a certain connection. And then the guitar player, Aaron, we went to the New School together and we have a whole different musical connection that comes from more of like a rock, kind of jazz, that whole improv side to what we do. Then Stu and Yuki and Joe are more like the hip hop reggae cats. So, you know the first time I ever went to see a live…I saw The Roots back up Common in 1990-something. I was like, I was like the hippie kid while all my friends listened to rap music. And I just didn’t get it. That night I saw that thing being done live, I just got it, like somehow the music and the pocket, the whole thing just hit me and just made sense. So that’s the thing for mre, finding the right players to do it live. If we can do it live, we can put it together in the studio, no problem.

It’s definitely gelling on this record in a serious way.

Dude, I really appreciate it man.

So, tell me about “Blue Sky Playground.” Is there a guest vocalist on there or is your voice just really different on different parts of the song?

It is very different on one part of the song. The chorus, which I’m doing that reggae, dancehall thing in, that’s actually me. When I dropped down an octave and do the low part, that’s not like a machine doing that. That’s me dropping down to that low octave. There is a guest vocalist on that first verse. That’s my boy Dan that I grew up with. He’s on the Youth album, on a track called “WP”

Oh, Dan Isenberg.

Yeah, yeah! You know Dan?

Yeah I worked with him at Complex; I actually edited that story he wrote about you.

Oh that’s awesome dude! I totally remember that article.

Right, okay. So he’s on this record! Crazy

He’s on this record, dude. That’s my homie. We like, we basically, he was like the kid in my high school that could rap. And I figured out somehow that I could beatbox. So I was included in all the cyphers, even though Dan and all his friends were like a year older than me. That’s where I learned about music, man. I learned through beatboxing, basically, and these cyphers. I realized that, depending on the beat, that was how nice the rapper could get. If I hit my drops at the right time, if I brought a bassline in at the right time, or if I broke it down to half time or whatever. Dan is the cat I experimented all that shit with. So he was on the first record and we’ve been homies and I was like, “Yo man, it’s time to get you back on this other record.” So the theme for that record, “Blue Sky Playground”, is like this moment that I just remember in a cypher when I was in high school, looking up at the sky. This color blue. And this feeling and this sensation of youth. Everything just felt young. I just remember, even though I had no concept of what it felt like to be older, this. Everything just felt young. It just felt like totally fresh and totally new. This was really like a new situation, like exploring music for the first time. So that’s what that whole track is about.

Right. You say “We was just kids then.”

Right. We were just kids then. Big love, big visions for the future. I’m talking about actually the love of music, being introduced to like, basically the love of my life, and what that felt like. Just taking this hip hop beat, it feels pretty hip hop, and throwing in this tight reggae like dancehall chorus, but then, you know, at six minutes in, it just turns into this whole jazz…take you back to your youth, and take you back to the playground.

Right, right, right. I’m glad that Dan is on the record. I wanted to ask you about that article and this is the perfect time to mention it. It seems like you guys have been on this journey from very early, and he had a unique perspective on your arc through this music thing. Was there a time where the rules of your faith kind of created some barriers between you and certain things that you couldn’t be involved in? I remember he talks about a time when you were freestyling together and then he said something that you didn’t wanna hear and you left the stage. Do you remember what I’m talking about? Some lyrical thing that came up… Do you remember this?

I don’t remember that specific thing, but dude, I was super religious. I wouldn’t walk down the street with my glasses on so that I wouldn’t see billboards with chicks on it. And I held fast to that even as a blowing-up artist touring. And it was real, it was super real to me. And it crossed over into all different dimensions. I’m sure there were moments where like… You know what it might have been? I went to his wedding and it could have been that I didn’t hug our old friends—you know friends who were girls who were our homies. I might have seen them and not been able to hug them.

So just out of respect for them, and out of your faith, you would not interact with them in a physical way?

Exactly, it was supposed to keep it so there’s no sexual kinda things. You’re supposed to be pure. But in the end it comes off as sometimes like… you know, people don’t understand it. It can feel pretty rude or something like that. So I’m sure there were things like that. Dan saw me go through my whole thing, my whole process. He was always just super-supportive. He was always a guy who never had any bad shit to say—about anyone. Just like a good cat.

Definitely. Any person who’s dealing with their religious faith, that’s a complex thing. It affects all aspects of your life, and decisions of how you live your life. That’s hard enough. But then to add the public aspect of it… People know you. They know your background, that you come from a certain faith and you represent that.  I remember when you came on the Jimmy Kimmel show. He introduced you as “The most popular Jewish rapper since MC Hammer.” Did that make it harder for you, knowing how you were being perceived, and thinking maybe that was part of your brand and your image and you had to  live up to it that much more?

Actually, no. I came into it full on, I had melted in Yeshiva for 2 years in a basement instead of tour. I would squint when I came out into the light. The Jimmy Kimmel thing, for example, it was a joke, right? They thought it would be a joke. And then soundcheck happened anid they were like, “This dude is fire.” and they had to rewrite it.

There was moments like that along but I knew that was just gonna help. If I was good, which I believed that I was, then people were just gonna see the Hasidic thing and it was just gonna blow their mind. To authentically have both things, and put them together in a way that makes sense, that feels right. I just knew it was a combination of ingredients that was just gonna turn heads. Then if I could back it up with the music, I would be good. I didn’t approach it like that. But Jimmy Kimmel for example, I brought a crew of rabbis from L.A. and they literally wouldn’t let the woman makeup artist anywhere near me to do my makeup. They were trying to get me out to soundcheck and stuff and we were learning torah backstage. They were telling the production people, “He’s not ready until he learns this little bit of kabbala.” It was like, close the book, walk on stage, do my thing, and then, bam, out. I didn’t go to parties, it was back to the rabbi’s house. Back to study more torah. I did that for years, man. Walking like miles to a show on Shabbas. Walking up to a whole line of people that are like “Yo, that’s fuckin’ Matis” I’d be walking down the highway four miles to my show, cause’ I couldn’t get in a car on Shabbas. I was in it, not because I thought it would be cool or whatever, I was…I drank the juice. Like, I believed it, like this is what God wants for me.

That’s amazing.

So I was totally blind to all of this. I never thought twice as “Do people see this as kitchy?” Like I was on fire as a hasid, and as a musician, as a 25 year old kid. I didn’t even think about it. Then it wasn’t until that initial when I was like “Oh, like…” You know when I really realized it was when I shaved my beard in 2011. Just the meanest shit that people could think of to say. I was just like “Yo these people were never my fans. They never listened to a word I had to say. If they’re writing this kind of stuff, they’ve completely missed the whole boat. The whole thing of having beard was like, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. It doesn’t jive with me anymore, so I should just keep it? Just to save face? You’ve got the wrong guy.

If you thought that that was who Matisyahu was, you’re 100% wrong, take a hike. Have a nice day! And I literally was like “Goodbye” to a lot of people. Then had the realization that they were never fans, I don’t even know if they heard the music. They were just into the concept. That there was some Jewish cat that was representing, like he was Hasidic or whatever. That moment for me was around Akeda, and that was that breakthrough of Abraham on the mountain, like the sacrifice. Getting rid of the beard, then it was getting rid of all those fans, this extra layer of fans. Then it was like, okay let’s build back from the core. Just make this music for you, just do you. And that core of people that’s gonna grow. And then you’re gonna have real fans. So the whole process have been a journey, man.

That’s fucking amazing. A couple of things come to mind there. First of all, I don’t know what comments people were making. Were they insinuating that you were being insincere and that it was a gimmick all along? Is that the basic gist of what they were saying?

Every perspective that you could think of that could be mean, well because there were a lot of people who had that perspective. Whether they were like “He just gave in” or “This was bound to happen from the beginning” “It was just a matter of time until he gave into the pussy and the drugs and gave up on religion”. So that’s what a lot of people thought. Other people were like “It was never real, it was always a gimmick.” Whatever they know about you, they’ll try to feed on your insecurities. And you have those insecurities, like they’re real. So when you read something in a comment and it’s one of your deepest insecurities and it strikes a cord, that hurts, you know? And people know they have power with their words. So that was intense. That was an intense time for me, I had to go through a lot.

There’s a reason why people say “never read the comments.” But it’s easy to say and hard to do.

Yeah, it is.

Freeway, who was signed with Rocafella back in the day, is also a Muslim. He has been flown to Saudi Arabia and honored as a prominent American Muslim to meet with scholars and talk about the faith. One of the things that he has dealt with is that, as a strict Muslim, you’re not supposed to make music at all. Was there ever any push-back when you were very devout? Did anyone ever say you shouldn’t even be doing music?

Yeah, and oddly enough, I accredit that to my success.

You thought that it was like, jealousy?

No like…I always wanted to do music. I knew. I knew when I was a little kid that I loved music. By the time I was a teenager, I said there’s only one way in life I’m gonna be happy. That’s creating music, on any level, whatever it is. So you could say it was almost like my idol. Almost like my golden calf. If you sign a record deal, then you did it, you made it. You’re going to be happy. If you have fans, if you could make a life out of music, then that was it. That was the ultimate goal. I became religious. In that, I realized somewhere along the line, on a very intuitive level, that I was never gonna get it unless I could let it go. That’s what I learned in the Torah. Water represents humility. The burning bush, which is a flame that doesn’t consume itself, a bush that is on fire. Which is a total metaphor for rock music, or a rapper or rockstar. Being able to hold the fire but not be consumed by it. The only way to do that is through water, through humility. Those are the artists that don’t burn out or don’t extinguish for whatever reason. So that was my whole trip and I knew that in some kind of deep way. There was one person in particular when I was in yeshiva when I was very sort of, broken, and taking guidance.

I became fascinated with this one person who was kind of a nut. He basically was convincing me that it was wrong. There was no way you could be a hasid and walk into a bar. You just can’t do it. OK there’s no specific law against a Hasidic man walking into a bar. But it all depends how you look at it. Every rabbi even within orthdox, even within Lubavich there’s still a thousand different opinions as to what’s the right way. So this cat was really working on me. So one time was he did was told the gabbai, the guy that calls you p to the torah. If you get called up to the torah, it’s a big deal. He told the guy that it’s my birthday and he tells him to call me up at exactly a certain point in the torah. That point in the torah they were talking about idol worship, and specifically idol worship though sounds. He knows that I beatbox. He’s like “Don’t you see? It’s God’s message to you! You’re not supposed to do this!”

After months and months of hitting me with that kind of shit, I finally broke down. I remember the moment that I put it to rest. I was walking down the street and I was like, “OK God, you don’t want this from me? I give it to you. It’s yours. I gave you everything. I don’t dress the way I grew up dressing. I don’t watch what I used to watch. I eat differently. The way I cut my fucking toenails is the way I’m supposed to do it. I’ve given you everything”. Even my ideas about God, I broke them down completely.I even let go of that. This is the one thing that I’ve got. And I fucking gave it away. And I feel like that was the moment. Cause when that shit happened it happened fast. Real fast.

Wow.

This was out of the blue and it was literally a few weeks after that. I had friends at NYU Music Business school that were starting a Jewish label, they were talking about it before I went to Yeshiva. Two weeks later they called me up and they were like “We got a grant, we wanna manage you. We want you to be our first artist.” And then I had to make a decision. But I feel it was connected in a real dark way

That’s crazy. The manipulation of calling you up at that moment to really fuck with your head, it seems like.

Oh this dude was fuckin’ evil man.

So on the track “Tell Me” you’re talking about “You’ve been fighting for years” and “Tell me what’s the reason why your heart is frozen.” Is this related to what we’re talking about?

Yeah it is. A lot of those lyrics that I write a lot of times come from a subconscious place. I don’t always know the literal meaning of what I’m writing. I’ll give you an example, the day that I shaved my beard, I had no intention of telling anybody. I realized at some point I was gonna have a show but I wasn’t gonna mention it or do anything on social media. I was reading my tweets and someone quoted “This lyrics in particular has been helping me through my day.” And the lyric was “When the time comes I’ll lose my disguise.” And I literally cut my beard that day, and I don’t know what I meant when I wrote that lyric but I knew what it meant. I knew there was gonna be a time, or I hoped there was gonna be a time where I moved into the next dimension of myself where I didn’t feel trapped and caught in what everyone else thought of me. I read that lyric, and I was like Boom! I took a picture and I put it up. Number one Google trend for the fucking day. Shaving a beard.

Wow. So, “Force of Faith” you’re asking, “What a man gotta do to get through to you? Is this about a conversation with God?

Again, it’s not necessarily specific to God. It’s one of those lines like, it could be related to God. It could be related to another person—just that breakthrough moment. Where they stop trying and they start asking. It’s more about when you want something so bad and you can’t seem to get it. And there’s that one transitional moment where you go from wanting something to asking. Even though it’s in a demanding way, it’s still asking. You throw your hands up. It’s a question mark. And that’s an important concept to me. You know what it reminds me of, though. When I’m screaming it out to the universe, it reminds me of when I used to hang out with this certain group of hasidims. They pray in screams, like they scream at God. And it’s literally like that “What have I gotta do?”

Wow! I didn’t know there was such a variety within the Hasidic world.

Oh yeah. It’s like rappers. There’s so many styles and ways of service.

There’s a line that really grabbed my attention where you said “770 it’s the beginning of the end.” What were you talking about there?

This is a perfect example dude. So I got to the James bond lyric that led me to 007, and I realized that’s 770 backwards. 770 the beginning of the end—there’s a whole duality there. That’s all it means to me in that moment. Then here’s what happens. I reconnected with the son of a rabbi in Berkeley, California that I used to stay with when I was on tour. I would literally play a $50,000 show for 10,000 people and sleeping on a six-year-old’s bed on plastic sheets. That was the space I was in.
So this older guy, he had a son that was wild and he asked mewhat he should do, what he should get him. I told him to get him some drums, I come back a year later and I heard drums blaring out of the house. A year later, it’s guitar, then it’s bass. Then he’s working on Ableton. I see him 3 months ago in Crown Heights working at a bagel shop and I tell him I need an engineer at the house. He lives upstairs now. He gets his boys that are all kids of rabbis. All of them have 12 brothers and sisters. Their fathers are all important rabbis. These kids are not religious and wento this Yeshiva for bad kids basically. And basically the only music that they knew was Live at Stubbs, Vol II And they studied it. So I just signed these kids. They’re fucking unreal. They’re dope. And I’m sitting here and I heard that lyric. “It’s the beginning of the end.” These kids aren’t religious. They’re parents are all about religion, these kids are like the black sheep of the family. In some ways it’s like the end. Not that I’m at my end, but I’m 37, 38—and these kids are 20 years old, and they come from a certain place. Like, I shaved my beard and in Yeshiva it was a big deal. These kids all shaved their beards, like Mas is still our dude. When you have a lyric that hits like that, I’m writing from a real place.

That’s crazy. What is the signficance of the number 770?

Oh, I’m sorry. The number is 770 Eastern Parkway, which is where I went to yeshiva and the headquarted of Lubavich in Crown Heights. So these kids all come from 770. When I was 23 I went to yeshiva. Now they’re 23 and they’re moving into Matisyahu’s house to make music. This is the flip.

Do those kids have a name?

Not yet dude. This is fresh. They will be opening for me when I’m on tour. That’s for sure.

I’ll look out for that. So “Drifting” is the final track. You say, “Make music, walk a tightrope.” So that tightrope is what we’ve been talking about, balancing. You talk a lot about lows and highs on this record. Have you battled some depression along the way?

Absolutely, absolutely. This is real stuff that I deal with. Ups and downs. There’s another line “All these ups and downs get so tiring.” That’s definitely a theme. As a lyricist there’s certain things that I circle back to. Things that you wrap yourself around. And that’s definitely one of them.

I wanna talk about something that was in the news. You went through a situation at the Rototom festival last year. When I read what they were asking you to do before the concert, it seemed very unfair and arbitrary. But then you went ahead and played the festival anyway, right?

Mm-hmm. Well, yeah. What happened was, basically they reached out and said they were getting pressure from the BDS [the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement], who was claiming that I was not, like, a peaceful artist. That I was an artist with a political agenda of some sort. Which is ironic when in fact I have no political agenda and they are very politicized. So they came, and this is sort of what the BDS does. For some reason this festival got bullied into enough submission that they came to me and said I had to fill out a statement and write down a whole thing. And that I had to actually make a statement saying, very specifically, that I was against Israel’s crimes and that I was pro-Palestinian.

Now you know, I’m not anti-Palestinian by any means whatsoever. But for me to have to make that statement and be singled out—I’m not even Israeli. As an American Jew, to be singled out and have to make that political statement. There’s no fucking way. You’re out of your mind. I’m not doing that shit. Thank you very much, pay me, have a nice day. I’ll take the day off. And that was exactly what happened. And I wasn’t even broken about it. I was cool. I mean, it was frustrating, but I was like, “Alright”. I’m fucking used to that kind of shit.

So basically at that point, they are patting themselves on the back so that the PDS will get off their back. And people would sorta be like “Oh yeah they made such a great move.” They’re like “We threw Matisyahu off this festival.” And that shit didn’t fly. People flipped out, and they were just really irate. People just came out of the woodwork. And they realized that they were going to lose a lot more business because of what happened. And they were stuck. So they reached back out to me, like, “Sorry, but will you please come again? We’d like to reinvite you.” So then everybody was like, “Don’t do it! Fuck them!” But I was like, “Nah, that’s not my style. If I’m being an opportunity to make music, that’s what I do. That’s why I’m here. I’m not gonna not do it as a fuck you to them.” So I went.

Right. And it was a tough gig from what I’ve read.

And when I went, they had like—I don’t know, 3, 4 hundred protestors that snuck in. They made a huge, like, they stood on each others’ shoulders so I couldn’t see past them with like crazy signs saying “Nazi-Yahu” and throwing things at me. I had to perform to that. I came out and—I used to play ice hockey. You get hyped up sometimes for music, but I never treated music like a sport. It’s always been very different for me. I swear to God, I felt like I was in a boxing match in an arena. This adrenaline kicked in and I played as hard as I could. And at some point I just felt this release. Like, “What are you afraid for? It is what it is. It’s humanity.” Isn’t that the whole point of why we are supposed to show up at the table? This is about humanity and not about me versus you.

They actually said “Nazi-Yahu?” That’s outrageous.

Yeah dude. I don’t know if you’ve read about these guys, but that’s what they do. And it’s pretty rough man. I understand everyone wants to make a point, but it’s kind of sad.

Did you address them directly from the stage?

I mean I looked at them. I did say something at one point. I was playing “One Day” and I said something about flags. Cause they all had their flags waving to try to block me from the people. So I said something like “If you have a flag, something you’re proud of, fine. Go for it. If you don’t have a flag, then that’s OK too.” You don’t need a flag. You don’t need to represent anything more than just being here and being with people. So I said something to that extent, I don’t know if people got that message or not, but, I said it.

So you were able to maintain your composure in a very hostile situation.

Which is somewhat rare for me. I’m usually not that guy. I’ve had a couple experiences where I wasn’t able to control myself but it always comes back to bite you when you act out on your own rage. It usually comes back to bite you.

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