Meet the Hasidic reggae newcomer Matisyahu. The rising star's unlikely hybrid style is a surprise hit

When Matt Miller was 16, he bought two tickets that shifted the course of his life. The first was for a Phish concert. The second was for a flight to Israel. Now, sitting in the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, apartment that he shares with his wife, infant son, and volumes of religious texts, the 26-year-old Miller reflects on how these two seemingly unrelated events led to what he is now: a bearded member of the Lubavitch sect of Orthodox Judaism — and a chart-topping reggae sensation. Um, say what?

In one of the oddest culture clashes to hit the pop scene since… ever, really, Miller, now known as Matisyahu (Hebrew for Matthew; pronounced MA-tis-YA-hoo), has grown from obscure novelty into a legitimately successful act. 2005’s Live at Stubb’s sold nearly 400,000 copies; he regularly fills 3,000-seat venues (though never on the Jewish sabbath); and the messianic-themed single ”King Without a Crown” is on rotation on over 100 radio stations. His new CD, Youth, will likely debut in the top 20. ”Musically, ideologically, and emotionally, I feel people from all faiths can connect to my music,” says the soft-spoken singer. ”It’s not just for Jews.”

Raised moderately religious in the suburb of White Plains, N.Y., Matisyahu was deeply impressed by his first Phish show; he left his senior year of high school to follow the jam band on tour. The hippie circus fulfilled his wanderlust, but that wasn’t enough. ”You can’t just get your spiritual sustenance by going from concert to concert,” he recalls. Returning to New York for college, he tentatively explored the world of Orthodox Judaism. Soon enough, Matt became Matisyahu and traded pot smoking for praying and late-night shows for marathon studying sessions at an all-male religious school. But with one need sated, another still called.

”Even though I wasn’t born in Jamaica, I always related to reggae,” says Matisyahu. ”Hearing Bob Marley sing about these concepts in the [Old Testament]…opened up a new thing for me. I felt myself in the music.” With permission from his rabbi, Matisyahu began to play one-off gigs, mixing his deft, ragamuffin-style rhymes with minor-key Jewish melodies and uplifting biblical lyrics.

Fortuitous events quickly piled up. An Internet clip of the 6′ 3” beatboxing, rapping Hasid made its way to Jimmy Kimmel, who booked Matisyahu in August 2004. ”His music is amazing,” Kimmel says. ”He’s a surprisingly charismatic performer.” The comic’s reaction wasn’t unique, as Matisyahu moved from tiny Jewish-centric indie JDub Records to midsize Or Music to major label Epic within a few months. When tastemaking L.A. rock station KROQ added ”King Without a Crown” to its playlist in October, the phones lit up. ”The reaction was crazy,” says KROQ’s Kevin Weatherly. ”It was our number-one requested song for two months.”

Despite the success, one question trails Matisyahu like a cloud: Is it just a gimmick? ”I certainly can’t say that people don’t pay attention because of the incongruity of it all,” says Sony’s Michael Caplan, who signed him. Murray Elias, who works with Sean Paul at leading reggae label VP Records, thinks Matisyahu makes sense: ”He’s crystallized 30 years of flirtation between jam bands and reggae. If a bunch of Rastafarians can go up there and quote Scripture, then why can’t this guy?” Though, he adds, ”He’s not reaching the hardcore reggae audience.” That was evident at a Connecticut show last summer — while the white trustafarians and skullcapped college kids pumped their fists to Matisyahu’s Hasidic skank, the Jamaican contingent seemed mildly amused (if a little bored) as they waited for the night’s headliner, Kingston-based singer Luciano.

For now, though, that doesn’t seem to bother Matisyahu, who’s used to navigating sticky situations. Shakira, for instance, was interested in bringing Matisyahu on tour. His label was pumped, but Matisyahu wasn’t, due to an Orthodox Jewish custom that forbids women from singing secular songs in public. And don’t even think about dancing girls in a video.

At the end of the day, Matisyahu has completely different priorities from nearly every other musician — it’s God first, then everything else. In the middle of a follow-up phone interview last week, that became instantly clear. ”I’m sorry, I have a weekly 4 o’clock appointment to do some studying,” he said, ending the conversation. ”I don’t mean to be short, but I have to go. This is very important to me.” Then he hung up.

Haile Unusual Reggae

Rock Steady With Flo & Eddie (1981)
The former Turtles duo channel their inner Rasta on this bargain-bin novelty album.

Aux Armes et Cætera (1979)
Dub reggae makes an oddly good match for the lothario’s croaky croon.

Throw Down Your Arms (2005)
Always fond of surprises, O’Connor tries on ’70s reggae on this covers disc.

Countryman (2005)
With a pot leaf on the cover, this CD reflects Willie’s love of Jamaica’s two biggest exports.