Matisyahu, the Hassidic reggae rapper who topped charts with his music and performed at the Marshall Student Center Ballroom on Thursday, said he almost never became a musician at all.
Yet the artist eventually struck success and alternated between musical stories and songs during his University Lecture Series (ULS) lecture.
Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, spent his early days in upstate New York, plagued by heavy drug usage. His first attempt to quit smoking marijuana was at age 14, he said.
But he said he was interested in two things growing up – ice hockey and music, the first of which didn’t pan out for him.
“When I was a freshman, I got cut off the team for being a pothead,” he said. “My coach was a total a——. He could have taken me in and been like, ‘OK, this kid is a little troubled and mixed up in the wrong things. Let’s work with him.’ But no, cut. And I wasn’t even caught; I just had a bad reputation. Granted, I had pictures of Bob Marley smoking a bong in my locker and I was wearing sandals in the middle of January in New York. But I’m not bitter about it.”
Matisyahu said he first learned to beatbox while tripping on liquid acid and running through a forest.
“I started hearing these drums,” he said. “I turned out they weren’t really there, but in my head, but it was like this connection I made that I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t intellectual or anything.”
Later while in school, Matisyahu, raised as a reformed Jew who didn’t practice religion much and had little connection to his ancestry, took a trip to Israel to find his roots with his school.
After almost getting kicked off the trip the second day for being caught with someone reeking of alcohol – Matisyahu said he was smart enough “not to get that drunk the first night” – he came to discover a world entirely different from the urban America he grew up in.
“I was a freak back then,” he said. “I used to wear a skirt to the lunchtime cafeteria. I had dreads. I was crazy. Some places in America you could do that, hippies and stuff. But in Israel, they haven’t seen that s— before.”
Yet after being in Israel for a while, Matisyahu said he began to find more of himself, much of which is reflected in the disarmingly autobiographical lyrics to many of the songs he sang Thursday.
“I was a crazy teenager, but that trip gave me a certain sense of identity that I was looking to figure out,” he said. “When I went there I felt something ancient inside of me come alive.”
His style, which mixed his newfound Jewish heritage with beatboxing, reggae and rap, would help him reach musical success. He sang some of his chart toppers such as “One Day” and its seldom heard sequel during the lecture to a packed ballroom of students.
The performer, who appeared with only a bit of stubble, was asked about the absence of his signature chest-length beard. In December, he posted a clean-shaven picture of himself on Twitter saying, “Sorry folks, all you get is me … no alias.”
“Oh, it’s gone – it’ll be back though,” he said. “Shaving kind of sucks. It was just time for a change. Ten years I had that beard. I had that beard for, like, all my 20s. Those are good face years. I’ve thought that one time, but I never said it out loud before.”
The 32-year-old singer, who said he has maintained sobriety since turning around his career and finding himself, said he often still struggles with his sense of self.
“I’m a greedy-a– bastard,” he said. “If I’m famous, it’s not enough famous. If I have some success, it’s not enough success. Right now, I’m trying to come to terms with just day to day, enjoying life.”
But now, he said, he is clean.
“Then, I was high on liquid acid,” he said. “(And even though) this school is never going to have me back, I don’t like B.S. It is what it is. I’m not high on liquid acid right now, I’m high on life.”