When Matisyahu emerged in 2004 with his debut album, Shake Off the Dust...Arise, his musical persona seemed a novelty to some.
Here was a Hasidic Jew -- dressed in a black suit with a broad-brimmed black hat worn over a yarmulke, and sporting a full, untrimmed beard -- who nevertheless performed toasting raps about the glories of traditional Judaism over reggae beats in a dancehall style directly from Jamaica. Moreover, he punctuated his performances with stage diving. It may have seemed like a joke at first, but Matisyahu was serious about his craft, and his diverse style soon garnered Grammy nominations, gold record certifications, and a broad audience.
Matisyahu was born Matthew Miller on June 30, 1979, in West Chester, Pennsylvania. His family moved to Berkeley, California, which they eventually ditched for White Plains, New York. Miller initially rebelled against his traditional Jewish upbringing, considering himself a Deadhead and a hippie by his early teens. But at the age of 14, during a camping trip in Colorado, he reconciled himself to Judaism and visited Israel shortly thereafter. After returning to White Plains, he dropped out of high school and traveled the country to attend Phish concerts. Back at home again, he agreed to let his parents send him to a wilderness school in Bend, Oregon, where he became enamored of reggae and hip-hop, and began rapping at open-mike competitions. He returned to New York at 19 to attend the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, but also joined the Carlebach Shul, a synagogue where his musical interests were encouraged. Meeting a Lubavitch rabbi, he became interested in the strict Lubavitch Hasidic sect of Judaism and renamed himself Matisyahu.
Continuing to perform, Matisyahu assembled a backing band consisting of guitarist Aaron Dugan, bassist Josh Werner, and drummer Jonah David. The group recorded Shake Off the Dust...Arise, which was released by JDub Records in 2004. While touring in support of the album, Matisyahu recorded one of his February 2005 concerts and released the material as Live at Stubb's, which was issued in April courtesy of Or Music before getting picked up for national distribution by Epic Records. Epic reissued it on August 23, 2005, as Matisyahu toured around the country and prepared a second studio album with producer Bill Laswell. The final product, Youth, appeared in March 2006 and was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Reggae Album. A simultaneously released dub version of the album was made available to mail-order customers.
Meanwhile, Matisyahu's backing musicians chose to release additional material on their own, adopting the name Roots Tonic for the side project. Roots Tonic Meets Bill Laswell marked the group's debut in May 2006, and by the end of the year the EP/DVD combo No Place to Be was also released. Jonah David dropped out of the band in June 2007, however, and Roots Tonic effectively disbanded, despite the enlistment of replacement drummer Skoota Warner. The entire group (sans David) turned its focus back to Matisyahu instead, and Light marked the singer's third LP upon its release in August 2009. Two years later, Live at Stubb's, Vol. 2 would appear, this time with a companion DVD release. In late 2011, the singer posted a picture with a shaved head and payes cut with the caption, "No more Chassidic reggae superstar." As such, his 2012 effort Spark Seeker was more secular pop, and was produced by Kool Kojak, who had previously worked with Kesha and Nicki Minaj. In 2014, Matisyahu released his fifth LP, Akeda. The tracks had been written while on tour and then recorded at Studio G with producer Stu Brooks. After a tour that included a stop in Jerusalem, Matisyahu returned to the studio for Release the Bound, a digital EP released in 2016. The collection included collaborations with Stu Brooks, the Polish Ambassador, and Salt Cathedral. In 2017, he issued the singles "Step Out Into the Light" and "Back to the Old." ~ William Ruhlmann