Holy hip-hop!

Orthodox reggae rocker Matisyahu returns to Israel this week for two shows, in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, with fellow hipsters Hadag Nahash.

Holy hip-hop! 311 (photo credit: Beau Grealy)
Holy hip-hop! 311
(photo credit: Beau Grealy)
Don’t be surprised if the next Matisyahu album has a decidedly Israeli bent to it.
The American hassidic reggae rocker recently spent time here recording songs with such eclectic collaborators as the klezmermeets-techno stew of Balkan Beat Box, the African Jewish roots music of Yemen Blues and street hip hop of Shyne, the infamous US rapper who’s relocated to Israel.
“We got some great stuff, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had – unbelievable,” said a slightly bleary Matisyahu, speaking on the phone last week from his New York home where he had just woken up from a nap.
The 31-year-old performer, who since his 2005 breakout hit “King Without a Crown,” has helped make tzitzit and peyot cool among the MTV crowd with his free-flowing mix of hassidut, reggae and hip hop, had just returned home from the South Pacific where he had performed in Guam and Hawaii with his Dub Trio band.
“We worked on a whole bunch of songs in Israel, and wrote some while we were there. It’s going to give the record a different feel.”
The idea to record in Israel surprisingly came from the album’s non-Jewish producer, the currently in vogue Kool Kojak (Allan Grigg) whose credits include Top 40 hits from Ke$ha, Katy Perry and Bobby Brown.
“He really wanted to visit Israel and see the country.
He said, ‘let’s go there and we’ll record with a bunch of musicians there,’” said Matisyahu, adding that the highlight of the sessions might have been meeting and recording with Shyne, the Belize-born, New York rapper who was a rising rapper in 2000 when he was convicted for a murder in a New York nightclub and served a 10-year-sentence. He now spends most of his time in Jerusalem where he has adopted an Orthodox, hassidic lifestyle with all the trappings including a Hebrew name, Moshe Levi Ben-David.
“I always wanted to meet him because I was a big fan back in the day,” said Matisyahu, born Matthew Miller, recalling how Shyne actually played a role in his burgeoning musical career.
“One of the first times I ever performed and knew that I was making progress as an MC and reggae artist was at a festival in Mt. Vernon – that’s near Yonkers and the Bronx where DMX, Queen Latifah and lots of other rappers emerged from,” he said.
“There’s a very tough area there called Third Street, right in the heart of the projects. My father was doing a lot of community development work there and was part of this festival – Arts on Third. A friend and I went there and performed, and we did our reggae MC stuff to the Shyne track that was big at that time, ‘Bonnie and Shyne.’” “This was an all black, low income audience from the streets and they just exploded. It was the first time I got that kind of reaction from a crowd and I felt I had earned a certain legitimacy because of that.”
Matisyahu has become a staple in the indie/world music world since that 2005 debut, and while the novelty of a hassidic reggae rapper has worn away somewhat, and his last album, 2009’s Light, was criticized by some for straying away from him reggae roots, he’s intent as ever on conveying his passion and love of music and faith to audiences around the world. His excursion last week to Guam was his first, and he thoughtfully recalled the likely jarring juxtaposition of a Hassidic Jew flaying around the stage singing reggae that the unsuspecting audiences experienced.
“I find when I’m playing in places that are not typically populated with a substantial Orthodox Jewish community, then my appearance and faith don’t really come into the picture,” he said.
“It’s really interesting – the more idyllic island places like that have very little knowledge of who I am as a Jew. They think that Matisyahu is just being a character with an interesting outfit, as opposed to equating it with Judaism.”
The audiences in Israel are a little more astute, and when Matisyahu and the Dub Trio perform here this week – Tuesday night at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv, and Thursday night in Jerusalem at Safra Square with Hadag Nahash, as part of the city’s Front Stage lineup of cultural events this summer – the Jewish pride will be out in abundance.
It will be Matisyahu’s first shows here since last Succot when he played on a bill with Balkan Beat Box at the Tamar Festival. The Jerusalem show will be a reunion of sorts for the singer and Hadag Nahash, Israel’s most successful hip hop artists, Matisyahu revealed.
“Before I broke out with “King Without a Crown,” they were performing at the Knitting Factory in New York. And they asked me to come up sing with them,” he said, adding that a collaboration between the two in Jerusalem was possible.
Besides his frequent performances and visits to the country, Israelis have become more familiar with Matisyahu due to his guest appearance on the second season of Red Band, the satirical musical series broadcast on HOT. His episode of the usually crude series centered on the decision by the debauched Red to become observant after his old New York partying friend Matisyahu arrives for a visit in Israel and is now a hassidic Jew.
Rather than the pious, spiritual seeker that his music portrays him as, the episode demonstrated that Matisyahu can also poke fun at himself “Those guys are great,” he said, referring to the puppeteering team of Ari Pepper, Micha Doman, and Ami Visel, who play the Red Band characters.
“They’re funny and cool, and we just sat and tried to come up with a premise that worked but wasn’t too raunchy.”
“People who don’t know me personally aren’t used to seeing that side of me – they don’t expect me to be so lighthearted. Sometimes, when I do something like Red Band, or put out a funny video with my friends, there’s a weird backlash, like ‘whoa, that doesn’t fit into what I thought he was like.’” While Red Band is unlikely to make a guest appearance this week at the shows, there should still be plenty of laughter – and music – on hand when Matisyahu takes the stage.