Matisyahu’s Signature Blend

Emily Rothkopf

Matisyahu Live at Stubb’s album cover, 2005. source: amazon.com

When studying cultural hybridity and genre remix in music, there may not be a better or more diversified case study than Matisyahu.  Dubbed the “Hasidic Reggae Superstar,” Matisyahu was initially discredited as a novelty act – especially among those who don’t particularly care for the reggae/hip-hop sound.  “Something about a Hasidic Jew spitting meditative verses over reggae-rock beats seemed more SNL than MTV” is how one journalist described the sentiment (Cole 2009).  But for those that get and appreciate his style and sounds, Matisyahu is seen as an innovative and inspirational artist, both musically and for what he represents – a barrier-breaking, globalized phenomenon, who has promoted peace through his music, akin to the anti-war sentiments in 1960s and 70s rock.  And his lyrical abilities just scratch the surface of what he offers musically.  Musical tastes aside, Matisyahu is undeniably a perfect example of the remixing of a century’s worth of genres (and centuries worth of cultural influences).  For almost 15 years now, he has been prolific with his original blend of reggae, hip-hop, rap, rock, pop and his signature hazzan (songful prayer) vocals (Wikipedia 2014).

“In the broader view of pop music, reggae has always been an important influence. Maybe it comes and goes, but if you look back to the ’80s with the Police and even the Clash, to the ’90s with Sublime and No Doubt, there is always some big, popular act that works within that style” – Matisyahu (Cole 2009).

One of the overarching genres in Matisyahu’s music is reggae, which is always credited back to Bob Marley.  Matisyahu, like so many others, connected with Marley’s powerful, yet melodic and soothing music.  Marley was a pioneer in blending popular Jamaican music genres – ska and rocksteady – to develop reggae in the 1960s (Wikipedia 2014).  The slow tempo of reggae is typically what stands out – as exemplified in Marley’s classic “Sun is Shining.”  Matisyahu takes this vibe and spikes it with faster-paced hip-hop/rap inspired vocals.  Repetition is also a major feature in reggae music which, as in all genres, helps elevate it to a pop music level (Irvine 2014).  And lyrically, reggae messages range from feel-good to socially empowering.  Similarly, Matisyahu with Isreali ties, sends hopeful and socially-driven messages through his songs.  He effectively carries over the reggae themes and sounds into his music, but with his own twists – the faster paced vocals and beats, rock instrumentals and the hazzan-style chanting.

“Youth” – Matisyahu 2006

Matisyahu also credits Phish, and the jam-band subgenre of rock, as one of his major influences.  This style can be heard best in his tracks that incorporate live guitar and drumming.  He recorded a live album in Austin, Texas – “Live at Stubbs,” which best exemplifies the rock element in his music.  In “Time of Our Song” from this album, the wide range of genres is shown seamlessly remixed within one five minute song.  It begins with the rock instrumental set-up (guitar and drums) and flows into Matisyahu’s classic reggae and hip-hop vocals.  The tone and accent in his voice signify the reggae style as opposed to a strictly hip-hop based vocal.  The interludes are jam-band inspired but during the longest one (at 2:25), Matisyahu demonstrates his vocal range with a higher pitched, hazzan-influenced chant.

“Time of Our Song” – Matisyahu 2005

“I’ve grown up some, and … I have broadened my musical tastes quite a lot. Reggae is not so dominant in my tastes; I also listen to a lot more rock, hip-hop, and electronic music. But I do think that reggae will always have something important to bring to pop music. And reggae will always be important to me” – Matisyahu (Cole 2009).

Matisyahu

Matisyahu at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Washington DC, 2012. source: time.com

Over the years, Matisyahu has shed his beard and some of his Hasidic persona, and has expanded more into pop/hip-hop with electronic sounds.  However, the cultural and musical roots remain and when you hear a Matisyahu song, you know it immediately; his sound is not easily replicated.  His new album is set to release in June 2014, which he has said will have a slightly grittier and darker vibe (Wete 2014).  Whatever the new sound is, it will undoubtedly be a remix of his varied influences, captured in his signature blend.

 

 

Works Cited

Cole, Matthew. “Interview: Matisyahu.” Slant Magazine. N.p., 29 Oct. 2009. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “Music Analysis Worksheet.” Music Analysis Worksheet – Google Drive. Georgetown University, n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.

“Matisyahu.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 June 2014. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.

“Reggae.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 June 2014. Web. 07 Apr. 2014.

Wete, Brad. “Sundance 2014: Watch Matisyahu Perform at Park City Live. Discuss ‘Akeda’ Album.” Billboard. N.p., 18 Jan. 2014. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.