Nathan Isaac Zand - who goes by the moniker Niz - is a Brookline-bred hasidic Jew who puts his faith to a beat and knows how to tear up a stage.
Zand, 25, said when he started rapping as a Jewish teenage hooligan, he never dreamt his basement hobby would attract record companies and earn accolades from his beatboxing inspiration, Matisyahu...
“No one looked at me and thought I would perform at Avalon, including me, for sure,” Niz said. “People would see me and say, “a little Jewish white boy trying to rap - that’s cute, but don’t quit your day job.’ ”
And don’t call Niz a copycat. While he and Matisyahu infuse their rhymes with spirituality, Niz is pure hip-hop, Matisyahu a reggae icon.Niz’s first CD is slated to debut this summer, and he recently returned from Los Angeles where he was given the lead role in a short film about, what else, a Jewish rapper.
Record execs say Niz is fresh. Yet his style recalls the early ’90s New York sound, with biting, witty lyrics like those of Nas and Wu-Tang.
“Stuck between wrong and right like I’m walking the tightrope,” he raps in “Desert Song, “I cope in cold times and in the dark of the night I put a flame to the game and brought a spark of the light.”
Some of Niz’s lyrics also reflect his religious beliefs. But five years ago, before he kept kosher or wore a yarmulke, he never would have guessed that he’d be rapping about Judaism.
After graduating from Clark University in 1994 with a degree in French, Niz flew to Paris, where he made friends with a brother and sister, both orthodox Lubavitch Hasidic Jews and huge hip-hop fans. They inspired Niz spiritually and musically.
“It’s all divine providence,” he said. “God found me. I fully admired and wanted to be part of their way of life at a time when I really didn’t know what it was about.”
As Niz strengthened his faith, his music changed. His lyrics became more spiritual and he stopped swearing. And he became a regular performer at a Paris nightclub, La Villa, where he found that people really loved his music.
“Whatever I said, they gobbled it up,” Niz said.
He returned to the United States in 2005 and became involved in the Kenmore Square Chabad House. His rabbi introduced him to Matisyahu, who asked Niz to perform with him at his Boston show last December. He raved about Niz’s mix CD to Dan Seliger, co-founder of Jewish hipster label 12 Tribe Sound.
“When we find something like Nathan Zand, we’re very happy,” Seliger said. “Niz has got the goods.”
Even with Matisyahu’s breakout success, there are only a few Orthodox Jewish beatboxing performers. Niz, Seliger believes, “has the best chance to explode.
Menachem Shapiro, a rapper with the duo Ta Shma who performed with Niz in New York, said, “with his rhymes and music skills he’s above the rest. He has the biggest attention right now.”
And Niz hopes to make the most of it.
“I pray to God this will get big,” Niz said. “I have two missions. One, to bring Jews closer to their roots. And two, I want to make good music.”