MATISYAHU BUSTED ON THE MUSIC scene about seven years ago, with a truly unique angle. He was a Hasidic Jew, complete with beard, hat, dark overcoat, and payes (the long strands of hair members of the devout group grow above their ears), and he nimbly toasted patois-inflected rhymes about God and the coming of the Moshiach (Hebrew for Messiah). He was embraced by Jews worldwide—particularly, religious Jews, overjoyed to see such a positive reflection of their faith—along with jam-band types, and a sizable chunk of the mainstream: His 2006 album Youth hit No. 4 on the chart. Soon, a back-story emerged: Matisyahu had been secular Jew Matthew Miller, a ’shroom-loving Phishhead and aspiring rapper playing Oregon coffeehouses as MC Truth. A 1995 trip to Israel began a path of discovery that led him to religious Judaism, as a member of the Lubavitch sect of Hasidism. He continued to pursue music and, buoyed by a combination of genuine talent and a curious public, became an unlikely star (he headlined Artscape last year). But recently, Matisyahu has begun to shed some of his accessories. In December, he shaved his beard and posted on his site, “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.” Earlier this year, he tweeted a picture of himself with Wiz Khalifa, who was smoking a joint. And last week, when he released a music video for a new single, “Sunshine,” the yarmulke was gone in all but one scene. Worse still: He had frosted blond tips. Needless to say, many of Matisyahu’s most ardent fans are not happy with the new look and attitude.
Despite all the changes, Matisyahu’s new album, Spark Seeker (out July 18), partially recorded in Israel, includes many references to the singer’s Jewish faith and opens with the words of the Sh’ma, an important Jewish prayer. The sound, however, is a pop-centric mash-up of club beats and Middle Eastern instrumentation, produced by Kool Kojak (Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha). There are also appearances by former P. Diddy protégé Shyne, who converted to Judaism in prison and now lives in Israel and goes by the name Moshe Levy Ben-David.
City Paper: It must be hard to have this fan base that follows every personal, religious decision you make.
Matisyahu: At some point, I’ll just freak everybody out enough that they’ll stop. They’ll get the hang of it.
CP: Is it a problem that when you go out in public or tweet something, you have to stop and think about how your fans will react?
M: Maybe it’s a problem that I don’t think about it too much. If something cool’s happening, I want to tweet it, and if something’s not happening, I don’t force it. Sometimes I won’t tweet for a while. My fans are a mixture of people who are very forgiving, very spiritual and loving, and people who are very judgmental. That’s just what I got. Even close friends that I have sometimes will say something that is sort of upsetting for me, just because of their outlook on it. They see it as, like, I’ve lost something, or I’ve missed something, or that there’s something I don’t understand, something I don’t get.
CP: In the video for “Sunshine,” you throw a picture of yourself at age 16 with dreadlocks into a fire and then rescue it at the end. What was that about?
M: It’s kind of my story a little bit. Going out as a kid and experiencing life on your own terms, which is sort of what I did, leaving home with no money and following the dream, following music. I knew there was something I was going after. I found sparks of it during that trip [to Israel] when I was 17. You grow, you change in your life, you sorta leave behind certain parts of ourselves, and that’s the idea there, in that picture, making peace with my past.
CP: So what brought about all these changes in your appearance?
M: I really immersed completely myself in Judaism for the last decade, for almost all of my 20s. I learned a lot, I explored a lot, and in some ways, I was moving through it. Not that I’m not still inspired and still living, in many ways, a Jewish lifestyle, I just feel not bound by it anymore, that it’s kind of my decision to make, my choice, and I sort of left that out 10 years ago, when I really became religious. That evolution is different for everybody, and everybody goes through their own versions of it.
CP: Was it a conscious decision not to wear a yarmulke in “Sunshine”?
M: I didn’t think about it much, to be honest with you. The first thing that we started shooting was me on a motorcycle, riding through the desert, and I knew that a yarmulke was gonna be flying off my head. And then, before I knew it, a whole day of shooting had gone by, and I hadn’t worn a yarmulke. So I said, “Eh, I’ll wear one tomorrow in one of the scenes.”
CP: I know you recorded a lot of the album in Israel. What was that like?
M: We went to Israel for about two weeks and recorded kinda non-stop day and night. We wrote a few new songs while we were there, but mainly we got this [Middle Eastern] instrumentation and built upon every track that we’d been working on.
CP: I love the two tracks you have with Shyne. What’s he like now?
M: He’s an interesting character, a real artist. He’s very immersed within Judaism now, very much into the rules and the rigidness of the Hasidic dimension. He, at the same time, is like a total gangster-type personality. He’s a real rapper, not a studio rapper, he really went through some shit, spent 10 years in jail fending for his life every day, and even before that. It’s cool to see someone like that come into the studio and go from one character to the other. Once he got into the studio and took off his hat and his kapote [the long black coat worn by Hasidim] and sort of unleashed, it was pretty cool.
CP: Well, it was great to a hear a rapper finally use “wrapping t’fellin” as a double entendre.
M: That was one of my favorite lines! “On a Harley Davidson is King David wrapped in my t’fellin.”
CP: Did you guys relate to each other, since you both came to religious Judaism as adults?
M: I think I understand his connection to the religion from a creative standpoint, being harnessed. There’s a different kind of connection with the religion, with the spirituality, and I think a lot of people won’t get that with him. They’ll ask him, “Did you convert?” and he’ll say, “I was always into it, I always felt a connection.” Certainly, a lot of people won’t get that in the circles that we run in.
CP: It’s a much different, clubbier sound for you on the new album. How did you end up there?
M: Every record, every band that I play with is an opportunity to explore new music. With Kojak, it was like a return to that old-school hip-hop style, like going to my friend’s room in high school and making beats and writing rhymes over them and singing hooks. It was just fun .
MATISYAHU PLAYS RAMS HEAD LIVE! WITH THE DIRTY HEADS ON JULY 9