In 2004 I met Matisyahu in Minneapolis through mutual friends, Mark and JoJo, who are also the frontmen of the Minneapolis-based band Wookiefoot. “Matt” Miller lived with them in the 90s in Oregon before he became religious.
Matis and I had heard of each other for years and finally met in late fall at his first show in the Twin Cities at the Cabooze, with Wookiefoot backing them.
My brother Avi and I brought him glatt kosher food with all the proper hechsher. He snacked while a friend drove us around the West Bank and we freestyled. Actual, off-the-top-rhyming-vocal-improvisation. Not like the written stuff you see these days (see the 80s and 90s definition of mixtape).
It was dope and fun and natural. He asked me on the spot if I wanted to sit in with him on his first run of shows outside New York City over Chanukah 2 months later. I, of course, obliged.
His appearance on Jimmy Kimmel was just starting to catch fire in the early days of viral videos.
We played for 35 people in Philly, we played a hotel bar in Albany, then we returned to NYC to a sold-out show at BB Kings in Times Square. I got to rap with Drez, the emcee from Native Tongues’ legendary group Black Sheep, as well as a young and hungry Kosha Dillz.
That spring of 2005 I was invited to participate in his debut major label album Live At Stubbs.
Fast forward to 2007 we were the middle bill opening for 311 doing 20,000-seat amphitheaters. On that run, we did some smaller headlining shows too. Our show in Idaho was canceled due to wildfires so we ended up opening for Kenny Loggins in the middle of Idaho at a resort that was built to look like a frontier town and reeked of Wisconsin Dells’ level kitch. It was one of two times In my life I was booed off the stage. I suppose was inevitable; I just never imagined it would be from 2,000 Idahoans screaming for “Danger Zone.”
Matisyahu has built a career that has stood the test of time for nearly 20 years. He is what we call in the industry, a real “road dog,” consistently doing 150+ shows a year.
His return to Minneapolis at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown last week was much like his new self-titled album — honest, vulnerable, musically stripped down, and lyrically dense.
He opened with the first song of the record, “Not Regular,” a Nigerian afrobeat-inspired track that was so current and new, yet a natural extension of his style, while respecting the nuances that separate afrobeat from its Jamaican auntie — dancehall, and fusing elements of his hip hop roots.
It was a great mix of new material and reimagined versions of his classics including an extended, dubbed-out version of “Warrior,” a very upbeat, borderline pop version of “Raise Me Up” that reminded me of what I think Caroline Polachek would have done with it, and a hip hop medley that teased the Mobb Deep classic “Shook Ones” and Raekwon’s “Guillotine (Swordz).”
Then he brought out his 17-year-old son Laivy to perform one of his original songs. Matis backed him. The last time I saw Laivy I was pushing him around in a stroller in Orange County trying to teach him the names of colors during soundcheck. In his song “Fake Friends” he rap-sang the line “chasing my father and chasing the fame” with his dad’s perfect Marley-esque lilting harmony and it brought me to tears.
He closed it out with the hits: “King Without A Crown” and “One Day.” Then his last song was his new single, “Mama, Please Don’t Worry.” The image of my own Jewish mother, my daughter, and every stupid and dangerous thing I did in a youth spent chasing the limelight flooded my heart and my eyeballs once again.
Matis has seen and done many lifetimes’ worth, but the through-line in his trajectory, his catalog, and his creative and spiritual journey goes right back to that first car ride in 2004. Freedom, spontaneity, openness, creative connectivity, and faith in what’s besheret.
He hasn’t lost that willingness to explore and be vulnerable both on record and in concert and I will remain his fan and his friend for many years to come.