Hasidic New York Reggae in The Park
- By Miriam Elder
- Jun. 25 2010 00:00
There once was a time when Matisyahu seemed cool. The weed-smoking hippie turned Hasidic rapper blended worlds that seemed destined never to meet and created danceable music that was unique to the American mainstream.
That was in 2006. Now that he’s been exposed as little more than a gimmick — “Have you heard of the Jewish reggae star?” — Matisyahu is coming to Moscow, the city that loves nothing more than a good has-been.
Matisyahu’s life story is probably better known than his music. Born Matthew Miller, he spent his teenager years in a hazy mist of psychedelic drugs, following Phish on tour and swaying his dreadlocks to the pound of drum-circle bongos. I bet he played Hacky Sack. Ten bucks says he had a Bob Marley poster hanging on his bedroom wall.
Then he went to Israel. A religious awakening followed, and Matthew became Matisyahu. He grew a long beard and moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn’s Hasidic mecca.
Then came the music. Combining the reggae and rap of his teenage years with the intense Jewish beliefs of his young adulthood, Matisyahu blended moralistic messages with bouncy beats. Quickly building his way up through the New York underground, he forged a solid reputation as a live performer, beatboxing his way to coolness.
And finally, fame hit. “King Without a Crown,” released on his first album “Shake Off the Dust … Arise” and then on the best-selling “Youth,” broke through the U.S. Top 40. MTV appeared to break its rule of playing no music videos and showed clips from the video on rotation. The buzz built to dizzying heights, and Matisyahu was hailed, basically, as music’s latest messiah.
There are those musicians that manage to thrive despite the pressure of the spotlight and those that crumble under it. Then there’s the third, and possibly worst, category: those who succumb to mediocrity once they know they’ve got it made. That’s where Matisyahu belongs.
I saw Matisyahu perform at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York in December and can’t remember the last time I saw a less passionate performance. The schtick was there — a disco dreidel hung over the audience in celebration of Hanukkah — but any inkling of feeling was missing.
Who knows, maybe this time it’ll be different. Matisyahu is playing outdoors, at Gorky Park’s Zelyony Theater, and it will be curious to see what the audience will look like. In New York, I hung out upstairs with the middle-aged dads — their 13-year-old sons danced below. (Nothing says, “Mazel tov on your bar mitzvah!” like a ticket to a Matisyahu concert.) In any case, it’s a good excuse to enjoy the summer sun.