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Artist Spotlight: Matisyahu

by Jason Gubbels

Artist Spotlight: Matisyahu

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Matisyahu's Rastafarianism-meets-Orthodox-Jew persona was never quite as oddball as some amused observers claimed. After all, Desmond Dekker's 1968 international reggae hit "Israelites" proudly claimed Rastas were descended from the Tribes of Israel; both religions return repeatedly to visions of Zion; and both use images of Babylon to describe forces aligned against them.

When Matthew Miller joined the Lubavitch movement and assumed the Hebrew name Matisyahu ("Gift of God"), he was in the midst of aligning his love for hip-hop (he once rapped under the name MC Truth) and reggae with the music of Baal Teshuva pioneer Shlomo Carlebach, "The Singing Rabbi." Throw in a fealty to jam bands and the attentions of noted worldbeat producer Bill Laswell, and you have the makings of a unique musical stylist -- the Chassidic beatboxer, the dancehall hazzan, sprinkling Yiddish in and among his broad patois.

Matisyahu's new album, Akeda, marks 10 years of music making, and our career-spanning playlist considers everything from debut rarity "Shake Off the Dust ... Arise" to both volumes of his name-making Live at Stubb's concert recordings. Along the way, you'll hear some of Matisyhau's most formative influences (everyone from dancehall hitmakers Barrington Levy and Eek-A-Mouse to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach himself), meet a few of his fellow Rasta/Chassid travelers (Kosha Dillz and Y-Love), and sample a few of the many collaborations he's taken part in (dropping a verse deep within a P.O.D. metal-reggae number, say). As for his latest release, Akeda references the binding of Isaac and is dominated by the language of retribution and survival ("Champion," "Surrender," "Hard Way"), which seems a deliberate reference to the small outcry that followed his abandonment of Orthodox Judaism in late December 2011. But it's also of a piece with his previous output: roots reggae music supporting investigations into spiritual uplift.

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