Into the Mystic

After more than a decade of struggles, is Mystic ready for mainstream hip hop success?

Right in the middle of our telephone interview, just as she's recounting how and with whom she recorded her first song, Mystic is interrupted by something on the television. "Oh! My video's playing on the TV! Hold on a sec, I just gotta look at it a little bit. [short pause] Oh, wow; that is absolutely amazing. This is the first time I've seen it played on TV. Now where was I? Oh yeah, Wyatt ..."

Her conversational transition is just that smooth -- without fluctuating in tone or losing her place in her story, she's back talking about her first producer. Total time allowed for disbelieving viewing of video: a minute and 40 seconds, about half the length of the song. No cheers resound from her Austin hotel room, no bubbly is poured by her labelmates on the Goodvibe Family Tree Tour. Watching herself for the first time on cable, Mystic is as grounded as her video portrayal: sitting on a couch in front of a two-story Oakland walk-up, wearing a nondesigner outfit and a minimum of makeup.

The chorus of the video's song, "The Life," begins fittingly, "This is for you and your crew/ The ones that are true/ And always love you/ No matter what you do." Her crew, shown on and around the couch with her in the video, has provided her inspiration and foundation over her 11-year career; how much love Black Entertainment Television will offer remains to be seen.

Mystic: A little luck, a lot of freedom.
Patrick Hoelck
Mystic: A little luck, a lot of freedom.


Tuesday, July 31, at 5 p.m.

Admission is free


She also plays the same night at 7 p.m. at the Maritime Hall, 450 Harrison (at First Street), S.F. Slum Village, Phife Dawg & Jerobi, Dwele, and Fat Cat also play. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door; call 512-7838.

Amoeba Music, 1855 Haight (at Stanyan), S.F.

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Such poise for a burgeoning artist might seem uncommon, but Mystic has had plenty of role models for perseverance in her East Bay coterie, including local stalwarts Hieroglyphics and Digital Underground, of which she's a member. For her first show at Oakland's Mr. Floppy's in '92, she shared the bill with Souls of Mischief and Khaos Unique, both veterans of past videoless guerrilla-marketing campaigns. And the gestation period for her debut album (slated for release July 31) has been unusually long: Many of the songs and concepts have been floating around in her head for at least five years, with the title Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom appearing in rhymes as far back as 1995.

"I've always been really patient with my music -- I believe that time is a blessing," she says of her protracted search for a record deal and Goodvibe's recent decision to push back the release of Cuts for Luck. "Being that I had so long to do this album, that's the reason it is the way it is." By "the way it is" she means that its 18 tracks display the full spectrum of her vocal dexterity, from rapping to singing to her own mixture of the two. "It would have been really interesting to hear what it would have sounded like if it had come out when I was 17," she adds. "It would have been strictly battle rhymes -- not much concept or matter to it at all."

Back in the early '90s, Mystic made a concerted effort to keep her songbird sublimated, channeling all her creative energies into rhyming alone, like a red-blooded Oakland hip hopper should. She concedes, "I came from a straight hip hop foundation: "Emcees don't sing, uh uh, I'm cool on that.' I always wanted to incorporate singing, but I just wanted to write it and have somebody else do it." But, during the recording of a track called "Kofi" for the Blue Note remix compilation New Groove, she wrote a line that begged to be harmonized. At the prodding of her collaborator, jungle/hip hop producer the Angel, Mystic obliged. Still reluctant, she didn't sing a full song until Shock G of Digital Underground persuaded her to cover Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday" for the soundtrack to The Funeral.

"Now I can't deny the fact that I sing anymore," she says with only a modicum of regret. "I can't really say that."

With her own conversion complete and with a style favorably compared to Lauryn Hill's, Mystic just might be the heretic to introduce singing into hip hop orthodoxy. She's certainly got the underground supporting cast to pique interest among rap partisans: Quick-witted MC Planet Asia drops guest vocals on "W," and Spontaneous, the Angel, Chops of the Mountain Brothers, and Amp Live of Zion I all lend a hand with Cuts for Luck's production. If hip hop hard-liners like the Souls of Mischief's A-Plus, who contributed the album's best beat on "The Life," can come around to her vocal style, a sizable cadre of defectors may not be far behind.

"The day after I finished the lyrics I ran into [A-Plus] while I was waiting for the bus and I told him I wrote a song to his beat, and he was like, "Word?,'" Mystic recounts. "And then I told him, "I'm not rhyming; I'm singing.' And he kinda looked at me funny and said, "Oh yeah?' And it wasn't until I got him in the studio and I sang it for him that he finally got into it."

Most often, she reserves her singing for the choruses between her lengthy rhymed stanzas, a compositional habit that maintains a recognizable hip hop song structure while also drawing in listeners with slightly softer tastes. But she's quick to point out that even the cuts without any rapping -- "Forever and a Day," "Destiny Complete," and the Sade-inspired "You Say, I Say" -- aren't R&B or pop numbers. Still, Lauryn Hill's unprecedented success in 1999 blurred the line between hip hop and pop, while proving that a female MC with more bite than TLC could go platinum.

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