Memories of growing up with the future reggae/rap star back when he was just Matt Miller.
Written by Daniel Isenberg (@stanipcus)
Watching an old friend from your neighborhood become famous is pretty thrilling. I’m sure a lot of you reading this know someone from your hometown who's been on TV, or is a professional athlete or something. It’s cool, right? When their name comes up, you can say, “I played rec league soccer with him!” or “She was in my 4th grade class!” It can score you some cool points, and if finessed properly, might even get you laid. Well, Matisyahu is my famous friend. But our friendship is much tighter than a name-drop during happy hour.
When I first met Matisyahu, he was Matt Miller, a kid one year younger than me who lived a couple blocks away in the Highlands neighborhood of White Plains, New York. We went to the same high school, played ball on the same local courts, and chilled with the same crowd at the same golf course and house parties on the weekends. There were other, more coincidental similarities too. We were both tall and Jewish, had both lived across the country as little kids in Berkeley, California, and both our parents did similar professional work. But most of all, we both loved music, and were beginning to explore making our own.
I was a straight-up hip-hop kid in high school... Matt, on the other hand, was more of a reggae head, and into jam bands. He loved Bob Marley and Phish, had dreadlocks, and was sort of a free spirit.
I was a straight-up hip-hop kid in high school. I had all the CDs, copped all the street mixtapes, collected vinyl, read The Source and whatever hip-hop publication I could get my hands on, stayed up to tape Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito on the radio, trekked to shows in Manhattan, and wrote my own raps. If I was working at the tennis courts in town, I was writing raps. If I was in Social Studies class, I was writing raps. If I was at the crib chilling, I was writing raps. And by senior year, I was recording my own cassettes with a bullshit mic and turntables I bought with my summer camp counselor money.
Matt, on the other hand, was more of a reggae head, and into jam bands. He loved Bob Marley and Phish, had dreadlocks, and was sort of a free spirit. He was earlier to the drug scene than I was (though I never did more than smoke weed), and lived a much more experimental lifestyle. But regardless of our differences, it was pretty impossible to hang out in New York in the early ’90s and not be completely inundated with hip-hop. This was the time of Nas, Wu-Tang, and Biggie. We were living through our very own Golden Era. It was influencing all of us, and Matt certainly had an authentic appreciation for it.
One night during my senior year, some girl from Harrison that none of us knew had a massive house party, and we all ended up in her backyard drinking 40s and smoking Ls. Me and my boy K-Wet started freestyling, and Matt and another mutual friend Howie joined in. When Matt started beatboxing it was incredible. All of a sudden, our amateur cipher felt like some epic shit. And it was confirmed with that backyard keg party rap session that Matt Miller had some serious talent.
Fast-forward a few years, and I was entering my senior year at the University of Maryland. I had already earned a reputation for being nice on the mic. I even had my own CD that was circulating around campus and back home in White Plains. People knew me as Stanley Ipcus, and I was earning a little shine and respect. After making a bunch of appearances on the University radio station WMUC, I was starting to do my own live performances on and off campus—Battle of the Bands, Greek Week, frat parties, shit like that.
Matt and I had gotten closer over the years, mostly due to our shared interest in music. We’d hang out when I was home in New York and anytime I had a show I would invite him to come down to College Park and perform with me. He would hop on during my set, rocking a crazy adidas track suit or something, spit an insane verse, then start beatboxing. Ironically, he had a rhyme back then that started off like, “I close my eyes and see visions of Hasidics...” He was always a bit of a throw-off for the crowd, like, “Who’s Ip’s friend? Dude is kind of ill.”
He would hop on during my set, rocking a crazy adidas track suit or something, spit an insane verse, then start beatboxing. Ironically, he had a rhyme back then that started off like, 'I close my eyes and see visions of Hasidics...'
Around 2000, the tables finally turned. As a student at The New School, Matt had been getting gigs back in New York—and he would invite me to come join him on stage. One fall day he opened up for Doug E. Fresh at an outdoor show in Mount Vernon, and I joined him during his set, along with our mutual friend and extraordinary beatboxer Max B. We closed with our own rendition of Shyne’s “Bad Boyz,” where I kicked a rap about recidivism, and Matt sang Barrington Levy’s scat-singing part. As much as Max and I did our thing, Matt murdered it with the reggae style. And when we stepped off stage, all the little kids rushed him for his autograph.
It was pretty crazy to see. We had all performed together as a collective, with Matt and I going verse for verse over Max B tracks, and the two of them beatboxing for me. But once Matt hit that reggae shit? Yo. He was the star and we were just the supporting cast. We weren’t jealous or anything—dude really did kill it. Even we didn’t see it coming. He never practiced that part during our rehearsal at his apartment. But from that day on, it was clear that Matt was destined for stardom.
Soon after that performance, a lot changed for both of us. I graduated from college, and got a full-time job working as a director for a child-care company in suburban Maryland. And Matt, well, he went through a spiritual transformation, embracing his Judaism to the fullest. He grew a beard, studied at the Yeshiva, and started living a stricter lifestyle. I didn’t see or talk to him for a year or two, other than occasional phone calls when he would try to recruit me to spend a weekend at the Yeshiva. Still I supported him completely. Did I think it was kind of crazy, that he became super religious and wasn’t hanging out anymore or making music? Of course. But it was all love, always. That was my boy.
In late 2003, around the same time I moved home to New York to pursue my own music career after being offered a production deal with a new label working out of Sony Studios, Matt started performing again under the name Matisyahu. He had the support of a Jewish record label called JDub Records, which was well funded and totally gung-ho about him. And he had a pretty unique niche as a Hasidic Jew—with full beard and garb—who could sing reggae, rap, and beatbox his ass off.
Matis had a pretty unique niche as a Hasidic Jew—with full beard and garb—who could sing reggae, rap, and beatbox his ass off.
Matis hit me up in December of 2003, and invited me to come perform with him at Southpaw in Brooklyn. I hadn’t talked to him in at least a year, and hadn’t seen him perform under his new moniker either. When me, K-Wet and one of my other boys from White Plains rolled through, we were surprised to see that the place was completely packed—wall to wall. “Oy vey,” I thought. “My dude is popping off right now.”
He spotted us in the crowd, probably after K-Wet yelled out “White Plains!” between songs, and he called me up on stage. I had a lot of rhymes, but honestly, I didn’t know what to spit. My shit was all about chicks and trees, and his act was the farthest thing from that. We stumbled through a performance, and I tried my best to find a synergy with my old friend, but it felt off. We hadn’t even had a chance to really talk, or catch up and share ideas, so we tried to pick up where we last left it in Mount Vernon. And it didn’t work. I was honestly embarrassed for myself. For the first time, I felt out of place on stage next to my friend.
But what was I to expect? He was moving in a different direction, and was in his own zone. I was recording straight-up rap music in Sony Studios on 54th Street. I had just kicked it with a young Kanye West in the lab. I met Kay Slay walking out of a session. I was trying to be the next Eminem, a white boy from the suburbs of White Plains who was going to break through and get a major label deal talking that fly party shit. He was singing in Hebrew, referencing the Torah. Shit, I never even had a bar mitzvah!
I spent 2004 trying my best to get a major label deal and support myself, balancing studio time at night in Manhattan with a day job working in White Plains directing youth programs. I was putting in work, stacking tracks, and sharpening my skills, while the label I was recording for was gassing me that I had next. And Matis, well, he really had next. Dude just kept getting bigger and bigger. He got interviewed on CNN, and appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, which was a monstrous viral moment for his career. We all bugged out back home when he mentioned he grew up in White Plains on national television. Yup, our boy Matisyahu, the Hasidic Reggae Superstar, was about to blow.
Though Matis would still extend an invitation to me to come join him every once in a while for a performance, and show mad love by getting us all into shows for free, we still couldn’t find the chemistry on stage. While sitting in with him during a boat cruise performance around the island of Manhattan, I even got heckled by one of his fans for not being Kosher enough. I was having a hard time adjusting to his new musical world. But to him, it was all good. He’d give me a hug as I would thank him for having me, and he’d simply say, “That was dope.” But I knew the connection wasn’t the same as before.
I pulled him on stage for a rap session, but again, we were out of synch. As we traded bars, I said something about 'titties,' and he started to walk off.
A couple months later, during the summer of 2004, I had a show at the Korova Milk Bar in Manhattan. White Plains flooded the joint, as did a bunch of my college buddies who were living downtown, and Matis showed up too with his wife. I pulled him on stage for a rap session, but again, we were out of synch. As we traded bars, I said something about “titties,” and he started to walk off. I quickly switched it up to some earthy type flow. He said, “Now you’re speaking my language,” and continued on with a little beatbox solo before coming off stage. I felt bad, feeling I disrespected him by talking too breezy while he was up there with me. But at that point, it was natural for me to say crazy shit in my raps. That was my specialty. Still, I didn’t want to be disrespectful towards him or his wife.
I decided that if I was going to be sharing the stage with Matis in the future, I needed to be more prepared, and write some more thoughtful material, without any profanity or sexual innuendos, so that the next time we performed together, I would be well-equipped. I wrote a couple verses to stash away, so I wouldn’t offend my friend—or embarrass myself on stage.
Later that fall, Matis had a show at SUNY Purchase that we all went to check out. We got inside, and posted up in the back, and about two or three songs in to us being there, Matis’ band dropped a slow, hip-hop style instrumental. He spotted my tall, lanky self in the back of the room, and saw me nodding my head. Chuckling with a smile, he said into the mic, “You got something for this?”
Matis’ band dropped a slow, hip-hop style instrumental. He spotted my tall, lanky self in the back of the room, and saw me nodding my head. Chuckling with a smile, he said into the mic, 'You got something for this?'
I parted the crowd, hopped on stage, and followed up his singing with a verse I had written specifically for occasions like this, all about the nostalgia of growing up in White Plains. No cursing, no crazy sex or blatant weed talk. I can’t front—I killed it. And it felt great. I gave him a huge pound, and hopped back off stage to join my crew in the back. It was the first time since Mount Vernon, four years prior, that things felt right between us musically. We shared a moment. Maybe it was a chance for him to really listen and feel me out, or a chance for me to finally adapt to his change and lock in with who he was now. Or a chance for us to back-track and find that common ground. I’m still not exactly sure. But it just felt right.
Things simultaneously crumbled and popped off for me in 2005. Nothing was happening with my label, to the point where the Sony Studios sessions stopped altogether. I found out later that the head of the label was banging one of the female artists, which seemed to complicate things and take the focus off of me. And eventually, the whole label folded. But I had some dope tracks, one of which got played by DJ Eclipse on the The Halftime Show, which was a big deal to me. I was doing solo shows at Don Hill’s in Manhattan fairly regularly that were being curated by hip-hop legend Sam Sever. I even won a contest through Sonicbids to open up for Slick Rick, and also opened up for Smif N Wessun thanks to Dru Ha, the big homie from White Plains who recognized that I was doing my thing.
But these were all small looks in comparison to what was going on with Matis. His album Live At Stubb’s had an official video that was getting burn on MTV, and he eventually got signed by Epic Records to do a proper major label studio debut. We still hadn’t really hung out at all, other than seeing each other at shows. But it was understandable. He was living in Crown Heights, and touring all over the place, becoming a star. And I was living in White Plains, still working full-time in the community with the youth, trying somehow in my downtime to make it to the next level as a rapper.
Over the summer of 2005, Matis called me out of the blue and said, “I’ve got a song I want you to rap on for my album.” I was a little surprised, but really excited. We had performed a lot over the years, but never recorded anything before. To have our first joint be on a major label album was crazy. He played me the beat over the phone as I sat in my office at work, then I went home, sat down, and wrote my verse in less than ten minutes. I was fired up.
A week later, I drove out to a studio in West Orange, New Jersey with our mutual friend from White Plains. It was a beautiful, sunny, late summer afternoon. The kind of afternoon where you get lost driving somewhere because you’re distracted by the weather—which is exactly what we did. But we finally arrived, just in time, and Matis greeted us with hugs and pounds as we stepped into the lab.
Matis had mentioned over the phone the day before that he had another song he wanted me to get on too. “Remember that verse you kicked at Purchase?” he said. He had put together a song about growing up in White Plains, and left a 16-bar space in the second verse for me to get busy. So I hit the booth for that first.
Over the summer of 2005, Matis called me out of the blue and said, 'I’ve got a song I want you to rap on for my album.' I was a little surprised, but really excited.
I’m pretty sure I did it in one take, to which the producer Bill Laswell responded with an emphatic “Ipcus!” I ran through the verse one more time, and laid down a couple ad-libs, but it was all done fairly quickly. I was focused, and wanted to rep for my friend properly. Then, they put on the other track, and I spit my verse for that one too, nailing it in a couple takes. On paper, I loved my verse for the second song, but it didn’t feel as good as the first, the one about White Plains.
We didn’t spend much time hanging out afterwards. They were really busy wrapping up the album—which would eventually be titled Youth—and my job was done. But I left knowing that something special had gone down, something that was the culmination of years of friendship and making music with Matis. We were both immortalized on wax.
Matis called me a few days later. He told me he was naming the song “WP,” and that everyone loved it. He had played it for some people at the label, who had given him some shit for putting an unknown on the song when he could’ve gotten a “big name” for the record, and told me that once they heard my verse, they understood. In fact, months later, when the album dropped in March 2006, Epic even showed interest in signing me. The other song never made the record, and rightfully so—“WP” was the one. A few days later he called me again, this time from the hospital, to let me know his first son had just been born.
Matis and I have performed it together on stages all over New York City, even at Madison Square Garden. Imagine that: two Jewish kids from the suburbs rapping about their hometown at The World’s Most Famous Arena. Not a bad look.
We finally found some time to really hang, off stage, building about life and music, and also just busting balls and talking shit with our old crew. You know, the regular stuff that was missing for so many years. In the midst of his rise to stardom it was challenging to find those moments, especially with him being a new dad, and being on the road so much, while we were all back home in White Plains. But we made it happen. He made it a point to get up when he was back home, and invited me out on the road with him to do some shows. We even wrote a couple songs that we would incorporate into his set from time to time.
Since “WP” was recorded, I’m proud to say that Matis and I have performed it together on stages all over New York City, even at Madison Square Garden. Imagine that: two Jewish kids from the suburbs rapping about their hometown at The World’s Most Famous Arena. Not a bad look. I’ve rapped in some of the best known venues around the country because of him having me out on tour, which has allowed me to share my talent with the masses in a way I was never able to do on my own.
Of course I did what I could for him, too. I brought him out for his first hometown performance since his rise to stardom at a show I did at a White Plains hot spot called Thirsty Turtle. And I brought him up to see my dudes Cipha Sounds and Rosenberg at Hot 97 for an interview, where we ended up recording an intro for their show that played on the reg for months. It was nice to incorporate him into the local success I was having with my own rap career. I wanted to look out for him, just like he looked out for me.
I never got that record deal with Epic. I had other chances too, but they never panned out. Matis always told me, “You’re gonna get there,” and I came close. Sometimes I wonder what things would have been like if we both blew up. It would have been nice, but we’re two different guys, who were destined for different paths. Shit, I don’t know if I could handle flying all over the world all the time. I hate planes!
I haven’t spoken to Matis in a few months, other than some texts and emails. He’s off living in California, sporting a new, un-bearded and blonde look and getting ready to drop his new album, Spark Seeker. I’m proud of him, proud that his career is still flourishing. He even tried to get me on a track for the new album, and although it didn’t work out in the end, it was the thought that mattered to me. I did see that he has Shyne on a couple new cuts, which I think is cool, considering it was a Shyne song that we rocked over back in 2000 in Mount Vernon when Matis first showed off his reggae superstar potential.
As for the music on his new album, well, he’s going in a different direction from the roots reggae stuff he started off with in terms of production, but from what I’ve heard, it’s still dope. He’s making big records, with universal appeal, and it’s hard to front on that. His first single “Sunshine” is definitely a pop hit, and I look forward to seeing it get huge. It was pretty mind-blowing when his last big record “One Day” made it to the commercial for the 2010 Winter Olympics, so we’ll have to wait and see if “Sunshine” or any of the other new songs can top that. The song I layed a verse for, “Searchin,” has a futuristic hip-hop bounce to it that’s pretty undeniable.
In terms of his recent appearance shift—shaving off his beard and going blonde—I’m behind him one hundred percent. He’s still the same Matis. And I think his true fans will see that too, even if he looks different now. What made the world fall in love with his music came from inside, his appearance just lured them in. I haven’t had a chance to have a real heart-to-heart with him about it all, but I got his back regardless of what he wants to do. Beard or no beard, that’s my dude, and he will always be the top Jewish music artist of our generation. Drake is the man—don’t get me wrong. I can attest that Matis highly respects his skills and digs his music, regardless of how the press tried to interpret his comments. But no one has represented for Jews in popular music like Matis has, ever, and I say that as a guy who still has Take Care in heavy rotation. Matis still wears that title, even if he’s not wearing a yarmulke in his new videos.
Other than an occasional live appearance with Matis, my last which was in February, I don’t rap anymore. As thrilling and fulfilling as it is to get out on stage with him once or twice a year, I’m just not inspired to record my own material. I found a new outlet for my creativity and love of hip-hop, doing interviews with legendary artists, writing for Complex and other media outlets. Journalism seems to fit my skill set much better than trying to write a hot 16.
Beard or no beard, that’s my dude, and he will always be the top Jewish music artist of our generation. Drake is the man—don’t get me wrong. I can attest that Matis highly respects his skills and digs his music, regardless of how the press tried to interpret his comments. But no one has represented for Jews in popular music like Matis has, ever.
Don’t sleep, I’m still nice with it! But I’m at peace with not becoming a big rap star, though I must say, it’s always a pleasure to join him on stage for a taste of the life and the chance to get some shine with my old pal, especially since he boasts one of the most impressive live shows around. And I don’t get heckled anymore! Nope, not even close. In fact, his fans know my name now and cheer when I come on stage, and even ask me for pictures and autographs sometimes after the shows.
And even though I never made it to the next level of rap stardom in my own career, I lived out my other, more important dream of having a family, with a gorgeous wife and two beautiful sons. That’s better than any deal a major label could offer me. And Matis—well, he’s through the roof now. Dude is a worldwide star, with success bigger than he probably ever imagined. Shit, Paul Rudd cracked a joke about him in Knocked Up, one of the biggest comedies of the last decade. How sick is that? Plus, he’s got a great family, with a loving wife and three sons. And though we live fairly different lifestyles, we’re forever connected through our music and friendship, and now, fatherhood.
This past Thanksgiving, Matis and I returned to White Plains High School for the Turkey Bowl football game together, with our sons in tow. It was an outing we were long overdue for, away from the stage. We shared old stories, and laughed about memories from back in the day, pointing out spots where we used to cut class, and the hills we used to run during team practices. We threw the pigskin around with our sons and said what’s up to old classmates. We were Dads now, with wives and some grey hairs, but it felt like nothing had changed. And it hadn’t. We just evolved.