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.
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.
Because of her own crossover potential, Mystic anticipated signing a hefty deal with a major label.
"Everyone [expected] I'd get a huge deal," she says. "Even when I signed with Goodvibe, a lot of people were like, "I don't know why you're signing with them, I'm not sure it's the right place, they aren't talking about no money.' But [Goodvibe] saw my vision. At this point, after 11 years of trying to put out an album, if somebody can see my vision and support me in executing that, that's the right place for me. What I always wanted with a major -- and it shows how ignorant I am -- is for somebody to hear the music and get it, and not want to change it and allow me my freedom. And that's what Goodvibe did, so they could have offered 50 dollars."
After inking her deal in 1999 she exercised her hard-won creative control to the fullest, souping up old songs with better beats and writing new ones that spanned a broad and varied emotional terrain. "Neptune's Jewels" is a wistful, self-described "b-girl ballad" dedicated to an estranged lover, while "Once a Week" tweaks gender politics, as Mystic outlines the ground rules for a "no strings attached" tryst with a prospective partner. "Ghetto Birds" and "D Boy" examine street life nonjudgmentally, and the lackadaisical "W" extols the merits of the "barbecue and weed smoke" West Coast lifestyle. But she extends furthest beyond the usual hip hop topics on "Fatherless Child," a combination of coming-of-age story and elegy for her father, who died of a heroin overdose two years ago. Declared by one reviewer to be possibly "the most naked song in hip hop," the tune is a sobering counterpoint to the recent spate of "baby's momma" tales told from the perspective of carefree deadbeat dads. Over a pensive instrumental Mystic wonders, "How different would I be if you had raised me?," then relates how, "The day my deal was done/ You died/ With the needle in your arm/ And the angels by your side."
She says of the song, "When I recorded it I told my mother how vulnerable it made me feel, and she told me I didn't have to put it out. But I really did need to share it. I feel like my responsibility as an artist is to be honest with myself and honest with the people that are listening to my music. And honesty does not necessarily mean it's comfortable for me, and I'm willing to be a little uncomfortable to tell my story."
In other words, Mystic's reality rap is based on lived experience and not hyperbolic embellishment. She sums up the album's overall tone as very personal and hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic. "I hope that when I'm 80 years old everything's gonna be chill, and there's nothing that needs to be fixed," she says. "But you know what? That's a fantasy. The fact of the matter is there are people that are never going to get out of the ghetto, who will continue to not father their children, and there will always be people who will die over bullshit. There are people who will never find any happiness in their lives no matter what. So all I really hope is that people get a little peace from this album. I don't care what your racial background is, what you do for a living, how much money you have in your pocket, whether you live legal or illegal -- at the end of the album, I hope you can get five minutes of peace."
For Mystic, five minutes of peace is worth more than 15 minutes of fame -- or three and a half on BET.