How Jewish is it?

Rockin’ out with Matisyahu, the LeeVees, and other mensches
By ADAM GOLD  |  January 17, 2007

THE LEEVEES: “If the lyrics reflect Jewish stereotypes, it’s because we’re living those stereotypes ourselves.”

In addition to the usual fare of Messiah and Nutcracker performances and bands dressed up in Santa suits this past holiday season, Boston got an unusually large dose of Jewish culture — far more than the electric menorah in Kenmore Square or the klezmer rendition of “Chanukah Oh Chanukah” on the Holiday Pops program. Jews were in the house (or the clubs) performing music that ranged from the strictly Orthodox to the completely unorthodox, from the reggae-soaked rhymes of Matisyahu to the playful pop of the LeeVees.

This unprecedented attention to Jewish music owed much to the maverick Brooklyn label that helped launch Matisyahu’s career — JDub Records. “If someone had said I’d be working in Jewish music five or 10 years ago, I would have said that was crazy,” acknowledges Jacob Harris, JDub’s vice-president and head of A&R. “I thought of it as kitschy bar mitzvah music.” But he says Jewish music — and its place in mainstream culture — has evolved in recent years. “People are coming back to Jewish music and taking it more seriously. The real difference is that there isn’t this nebbish, Woody Allen–esque attitude that exists in a lot of old Jewish comedy and music.”

Aside from its religious affiliation, what distinguishes JDub is its non-profit status. Most labels are in the business to make money. JDub has a different mission: “To promote proud, authentic Jewish voices and cross-cultural dialogue within popular culture.” Harris: “We don’t have to look over our backs to make sure that everything makes money, every record sells 10,000 copies, every event sells out. We can take a little bit of risk for the sake of culture.”

One of the label’s biggest risks to date is Matthew Miller, a/k/a Matisyahu, the 27-year-old Hasidic reggae icon who signed with JDub in 2001 and left for Epic last March after two gold albums — Live at Stubbs and Youth. “We’re really proud of the work we did with him,” Harris says. “We got him to a place where he had developed a strong career and hopefully something that can continue for a long time.”

Yet despite JDub’s role in developing Matisyahu as a Jewish artist, the singer’s Jewish identity seemed to be the last thing on the minds of his fans last month at Avalon. Although his early material pushed an explicitly Jewish agenda, the striking thing about his sold-out show on the sixth night of Hanukkah was how secular it felt. Aside from an occasional allusion to “moshiach” (the Messiah), the lyrics about empowerment and spirituality spoke to the overwhelmingly non-Jewish crowd as much as the Torah references did to the handful of Orthodox Jews. A Hasidic woman behind me said, “I think the reason people come to see him is because he talks about the Torah.” But the attitude of a nearby twentysomething seemed more representative. “I can’t even understand what he’s saying right now,” he yelled as Matisyahu tore through “Jerusalem,” the single from his latest CD/DVD, No Place To Be (Epic). “I just came for the music.”

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Related: Pop fundamentalism, Holy nights, Mistaken identity?, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Guster (Musical Group), The LeeVees,  More more >
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