While Matisyahu's reggae-rap jams were never that observant of formal genre boundaries to begin with, there aren't enough hyphens in the world to accurately describe what's going on with his brand new album Spark Seeker. Part of it is a natural outgrowth of recording part of the album with Middle Eastern musicians in Israel; part of it is the album’s producer Kool Kojak, who gives Spark Seeker a dayglow aesthetic that mixes the old-school with the 27th century. I talked with the newly beardless Matisyahu and the very much beardful Kojak about the making of Spark Seeker.
While the hip-hop and reggae elements are intact from previous records, Spark Seeker has a way broader musical scope than previous Matisyahu records. How and why did you develop the broader sound?
Kojak: Matis and I are fans of so many different styles of music. I feel like he always had those elements represented in his music…the dude beatboxes. Who else beatboxes? That’s old school hip-hop in the place to be. Matis has been beatboxing for years...so to bring an old-school electro beat into the mix is simply an additional expression of the same sentiment! True School Freshness!! What??? Word!
Matisyahu, what is it about Kojak, as both writer/producer and as a person, that convinced you he was the right guy to produce Spark Seeker?
Matisyahu: Honestly, going into this project I didn't know who was gonna produce it. I was just writing demos with different people and then I met Kojeazy. We wrote and recorded "Sunshine" during our first session. Lights out, game over. Every time I was in L.A. we worked together, and every time the fruits of our labor were delicious. Like crunchy sweet red apples. Then we went to Israel and during that trip we became brothers.
Kojak, you've produced songs for so many different artists over the years. How is the workflow with Matisyahu different than someone like, say, Ke$ha or Nicki Minaj?
Kojak: Ke$ha is an amazing artist to write with. She's vibrant and inventive, and we make great music together. She's like a sister to me. Nicki is like no other, as we all well know. That being said, Matis and I are like a street basketball team. If he's movin' to the hoop, I'm throwin' the alley oop. If he's postin' up, I'm on it with the fly behind-the-back pass you didn't even see comin'. We both come from that New York City schoolyard ball mentality, make something out of nothin', and look good doin' it - make it fresh and score points!! We grew up in the New York soundscape, so we appreciate a similar aesthetic. 90's dancehall reggae, old-school freestyle, early hip-hop, disco funk...all of this music influenced the album. So when we get together it's like being back on the blacktop at West 4th St. in Manhattan. Easy mechanics. Like ridin' a bike! And what remains the main focus is Matis's ability to express his spirituality, poetry, and unique and beautiful sense of melody!
I understand you recorded parts of the album in L.A., parts in Tel Aviv. Which parts of the album were made in each city?
Kojak: We got to Tel Aviv, stumbled into the studio, and threw up a bunch of scrappy ideas from scratch, on the fly...like a drum beat, a beat box - and we started conspiring with the various traditional Middle Eastern musicians who were perpetually rollin' thru the studio! We built a lot of the songs right there on the fly, in Tel Aviv. Matis really channeled his connection to the holy land through the music...in L.A. we were more loose, kickin' around different sounds. "Fire of Freedom" sums it up for me. We were blowin' it up for positivity and spirituality! As wide as the gamut may feel on sounds and influences, what remains constant thru the album is the steadfast positivity and spiritual purity of the lyrics and intentions!
Which song on Spark Seeker was the most fun for you to put together from a production perspective?
Kojak: I think "Shine On U" was one of my favorites - the message is great, the opportunity to mix the middle eastern percussions and instrumentations with the modern beat elements, the saxophones, it was alot of fun puttin that one together. I started that song at my brother's apartment in Holland...we blasted so many flavors atop the beat in Tel Aviv, and brought it home to L.A. to finish writing the song. I had this massive session with 50 tracks of arab percussion, 20 saxophones, beatboxes, Arab lyrics, funky guitar samples...and I got down to the business of diggin thru the artifacts and finding Matis' vision and persona thru the music. The process was elaborate and enjoyable.
Matisyahu, you've commented publicly about the shifts in your relationship with Judaism that caused you to shave off your beard and payot. Do you feel like your music - or your reasons for making it - has fundamentally shifted as a result?
Matisyahu: No. I've never made a decision to do music. It's always just been a part of me. Regardless of my career I would be making music cause it's my heart.
Matisyahu, have your kids heard Spark Seeker? What kind of reaction did they have?
Matisyahu: Well yes. I'm sitting here now with my son Laivy. He says the record is cool and his favorite song is "Sunshine" because it's about him.
Spark Seeker is out now. Find out more at www.matisyahuworld.com.