A product of the 90s London Hip-Hop scene, talented emcee Mystro now stands as something of a veteran artist within UK rap circles. With an impressive list of well-received singles, EPs and collaborations under his belt, the self-proclaimed Natural Born Spitta has consistently delivered quality product (including his annual “UK Rap Up” series) since releasing his first single “Kiss That Arse Goodnight” on the short-lived Deal Real Records imprint in 1999.
Influenced by golden-era acts as varied as Ice Cube and London Posse, Mysdiggi’s ability to combine witty lyrical skill with a sharp sense of humour, colourful storytelling and a potent delivery has led to tracks such as 2003’s upbeat “My Type Of Party”, the thoughtful “Blue Planet” and observational “Around My Way” becoming firm favourites amongst not just homegrown heads but also supporters as far away as Australia, where Mystro has built up a dedicated fanbase following extensive touring throughout the years.
Following the release of 2010’s “Digmund Freud” EP, the next step in Mystro’s musical journey was to be the release of the wordsmith’s heavily-anticipated first full-length project “Mystrogen”, an album which almost didn’t see the light of day when earlier this year the charismatic rhymer announced plans to step away from the rap game, due in-part to a growing disillusionment with the politics that Mystro felt had begun to influence the UK scene.
Thankfully, after some serious soul-searching, Mysdiggi decided that, as Jay-Z once said, he couldn’t leave rap alone, the game needs him, returning in early summer with the wake-up call that was “Cockadoodledo”, a punchy track aimed squarely at anyone within the UK scene claiming to be Hip-Hop but not doing their part to truly support the culture.
Having recently released the long-awaited “Mystrogen” (featuring production from the likes of Black Einstein, Mr. Thing and Show N Prove), a rejuvenated Mystro is now ready to embark on the next stage of his career, using the entertaining concept album as a springboard to the future whilst never forgetting the lessons he’s learnt along the way.
Here, the always forthcoming lyricist talks about his reasons for initially announcing his retirement, his new-found passion for directing music videos and the creative process behind the “Mystrogen” album.
Read on, muthaluvaz!
Prior to the recent release of your long-awaited “Mystrogen” album there was talk of you quitting music – what prompted you to make those comments?
“Initially it was a mixture of having to deal with certain people and a certain mentality. It was that whole music-industry attitude where you think people are genuinely following what you’re doing and supporting you, but it’s actually because they’ve got their own agenda and are looking for you to help them out or support an artist they’re pushing, and it turns out they don’t actually know what you’re doing at all. I just started to feel a bit bamboozled by the whole situation and began to question certain things and really started to feel like I was in “The Matrix” or something (laughs). I reached a point where I really didn’t know if the music thing was going to work and someone happened to asked me what I was doing at that time and I just turned around and said ‘I’ve quit!’, like, now what? So that statement was more a reaction to the industry types who just chit-chat for the sake of it but don’t really follow the music. I mean, I was at a Nice & Smooth concert in London in February just after I’d released the last “UK Rap Up” and this guy came up to me who was an artist’s manager and he’s telling me how much he enjoyed the “Rap Up” and how I’m so much of a UK legend and he’s a big fan, and then two minutes later he turned around to me and was like ‘So what’s happening now? Are you still rhyming?’ It was having to deal with similar stuff like that throughout the year that made me really stop and think, like, ‘Is this what the Hip-Hop scene has become here in the UK now?’ I really started to feel like I didn’t want to deal with all that stuff anymore so I just started telling people that I’d quit. Obviously the people around me were telling me that I couldn’t quit and that maybe I just needed a break from it all. That was the point that I realised I’d started to look at music in a way that I never used to, because it had started to feel like a job or a chore, y’know. It felt like as an artist I was making the best music I could but then I was having to beg people to even listen to it. I never got into this to play industry games and have to deal with people who forget about you once they’re not talking to you anymore.”
So basically, after all your years in the music game, it felt like you were banging your head against the wall?
“Exactly. It started to feel like I was putting my all into what I was doing and people weren’t even getting it. That’s when you get to the point where you really start to question what you’re doing and what’s really going on. So after I started telling people that I’d quit, that was when I started to hear people telling me the things that you hoped people were thinking before but that you’d never really hear (laughs). That’s when people start telling you how much they enjoy your music, how you’re one of their favourite rappers, how they can’t believe that you’re quitting, and it’s at that point that I was sat there like, ‘What? I didn’t even know you were following what I was doing!’ because, in my opinion, not that many people were being that vocal about how they felt about my music beforehand. Then I started to come to the realisation of what it was I was really pi**ed off at and what had led to me being in that state-of-mind of telling people that I’d quit. It was then that I started to think that Hip-Hop just needed to wake-up which is when I recorded “Cockadoodledo”. I felt so much better getting everything off my chest on that track in a way that spoke to the wider scene rather than making it about specific individuals and naming names.”
So you wanted people listening to the track to feel like you could be talking to them rather than use names and allow some of those who are part of the problem to feel safe if they weren’t mentioned?
“That was why I said at the beginning of the track ‘Only the offenders should feel offended’ because if you feel like you’re part of the problem then, yes, I’m talking to you. There’s people that I’ve communicated with regularly or had dealings with before that will know I’m talking to them on that track because they know that they turned their backs on what they used to be about with Hip-Hop and now they’re all about riding the wave of whoever’s the current trend at the moment and then two years later they’re cussing the same people they put up there. To me, it just started to feel like Hip-Hop had become full of people pretending and lying to themselves about the music and artists they were supporting and I could only sit back and listen to all of that for so long.”
Did you get any direct feedback from anyone who might have felt you were targeting them on “Cockadoodledo”?
“I only really got feedback from those people who genuinely support what I do and could understand what I was saying on that track. But then the other type of feedback I got was also the silence from some of those people I’d had dealings with who obviously did take offense to the song because they could see themselves in what I was saying on there. I mean, there are some people who I used to chat with who I haven’t even spoken to since that track came out or others who now don’t blog the stuff that I send out (laughs). But I’m fine with that because I’d rather people didn’t pretend to like what I do just to try and build a relationship with me incase they might need me for something further down the line. I’d much rather they just carry on with the bulls**t that they do and leave me out of it. It’s started to become a big problem over here, and in the music industry in general, that because it’s now all about commerce, making money out of Hip-Hop and making it as big as you can, a lot of people are prepared to put their own opinions to the side and pretend they like certain artists and sugarcoat a lot of things and I’m really not with that.”
I think the UK Hip-Hop scene is in a similar place now to where the US scene was in the late-90s when commercial acts were changing the game and introducing a more mainstream sound – we’re really starting to see both artists and media figures distancing themselves from UK Hip-Hop’s original roots and leaning more towards that commercial sound in order to try and save a place for themselves within industry circles…
“Yeah, and that’s also led to there being a stigma attached to artists who make traditional Hip-Hop because now you hear people labelling that as being old-school because it doesn’t sound like the Hip-Hop they’re hearing on the radio. But that’s your world, man. I mean, if you’re someone who’s stepped underneath this whole commercial umbrella and that’s the world you’re a part of now, that doesn’t mean you should have also tried to shun and discredit what else is going on. But look what’s happened now that someone like Nas has come out with his new album that has some boom-bap production on there and he’s talking about ‘all my trapped in the 90s ni**as’ – those same people are saying how amazing it is as if there hasn’t already been a whole bunch of Hip-Hop out there like that – but because it’s a famous artist now coming out with that sound suddenly it becomes a new trend again.”
But then on the flipside of that you see a lot of old-school heads on Facebook and Twitter constantly complaining about the state of the game and saying how the UK Hip-Hop scene isn’t what it used to be without ever really giving any recognition or support to those artists who’re still out there today flying the flag for true-school Hip-Hop…
“A lot of older heads do complain about what’s going on in the scene nowadays when they’re not really a part of the scene anymore. I see people on Facebook complaining about certain things, but when I go to a gig with an artist who’s making the music they’re saying there should be more of, I’m not seeing those same people there. So how can you really sit in your armchair at home complaining online when you’re not actually out supporting the movement anyway? There’s so much of that now because people can be so vocal through social-networking, but people really need to stop complaining so much and start actively supporting the artists who’re doing what they’re saying they want more of. It’s a hard one, but I think people need to start being fans of the music again and supporting what they enjoy rather than just always talking about what’s wrong.”
Now you’ve gone through that period of talking about retiring from music has the experience changed your outlook and approach at all?
“It’s really reinforced the feeling that I was on the right track all along. As much as I thought that I wasn’t getting the exposure I thought I should have been getting, the experience has taught me that it’s a gradual thing and that there’s certain things I need to make sure I’m on top-of to maintain a connection with the following I do have out there, like responding to fans on Twitter and things like that. I just feel a lot more confident now about what I’m doing and finally getting the album out and seeing the response it’s been getting has only boosted that confidence even more.”
With that in mind, how did you find performing at the recent Boom Bap Hip-Hop festival in Peterborough?
“It was good man, I had fun there. It was a shame that the sound cut out during the set, but for what it was I really enjoyed it. It was just good to see that finally someone had the balls to put an event like that on. It was just such a contrast to what UK acts are sometimes used to experiencing when they perform. To go to something like Boom Bap where most of the people there were really into the music and wanted to see the artists that were onstage, that felt good, man. It’s seeing a crowd like that really feeling your music that reminds you that there is a following out there for what we do. It would have been really interesting to know the demographic of where in the country people came from for that event. I spoke to some dudes who were telling me they’d come from Penzance and done a thirteen hour bus ride or something to get there. It was definitely a good experience and I’m glad I was part of and I’m interested to see how it grows because it could become an annual event for the UK scene which would be a big deal.”
You’ve built-up something of a reputation for often having some very unique and original visuals to accompany your music – where does the inspiration come from for your videos?
“I’ve always wanted to be unique in what I do and always wanted to really leave a mark in Hip-Hop because of that. I’ve always tried to push my creative boundaries to the point where I’m doing things that people will remember and still talk about in years to come. I’ve never wanted to go too far leftfield with it to the point where people don’t understand what I’m doing, but I’ve always tried to push far enough to make sure people remember. Now I’m getting more into the whole video thing and doing my own filming, so hopefully people will see what I’m doing and realise that they can do it as well. Everything’s at my fingertips now with technology to the point where I’m able to make my own videos, whereas years ago I wouldn’t have even been thinking about all the post-production stuff that needed to be done. But now, I can actually have a go at it myself and I really want to try and maintain that ‘What made him think of that?’ response when people see my videos. Now I’ve got into making my own videos and I’m learning more I’d really like to start doing videos for other artists as well and gradually get into that side of things. But the main thing that inspired me to want to be different was thinking back to when I was listening to stuff like De La Soul, Gravediggaz and Dr. Octagon, stuff that would make you say ‘Woooah!’ and that really pushed the music and visuals to somewhere else, but that was still within the boundaries of you being able to understand it. For me, that’s what Hip-Hop is about.”
The clip for the album’s first single “That Rush” is a perfect example of that – how long did the creative process for that particular video take?
“The idea came to me about a year ago when I first saw my mate Ian Gamester’s GoPro camera. He was the guy who did the videos for “Around My Way” and “U Live & U Learn”. He had this little tiny GoPro camera which is something that a lot of people use when they go bike-riding or hand-gliding and they can fit it onto their helmet but it has no screen so you can’t see what you’ve filmed until you’re back in front of a computer. We were just playing around with it and I just thought how crazy would it be to attach it to a hand and film from that perspective as if you’re following the hand around. So I brought one myself, just a little camera, and I’d attach it to my hand and start filming footage in different places where I was gigging or visiting and then I was able to put together some sort of story with the footage which then became the video. It worked out and I’m really glad I managed to put it together the way I wanted to and people were really able to see the vision I had for it.”
Plus, in today’s online world where people are eager to click on that next link, it’s important to put videos out there that can really keep the viewer’s attention for the duration of the clip…
“I truly believe the best type of music videos are the ones where you don’t even need to hear the music to be able to enjoy and appreciate what you’re seeing. You could have the volume turned all the way down but the images are enough to make you want to keep watching. That’s why I take the p**s out of the hood style videos because literally anyone can do that. If you’re going to make a video, at least try to make it interesting and different to everything else that’s out there. There’s nothing creative about doing the same thing that the last ten videos you’ve seen have already done. So that’s why I really want to keep pushing the boundaries so that people realise that you can do something different and it doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money to do it because the “That Rush” video basically cost me nothing in terms of the filming.”
Something that really stands-out whilst listening to “Mystrogen” is the fact that guest emcee appearances are kept to an absolute minimum – was that a conscious decision on your part?
“For me, it was mainly about the fact that “Mystrogen” is my first album so I wanted to make sure people knew I could put together a good full-length project that people would enjoy without me having to fill it with guest appearances. I hate it when you tell people about a new album and the first thing they ask is ‘Who’s featuring?’ I made a conscious decision to really keep the album about me as an artist for the most part and, to be honest, I don’t really like to do too many features anyway. I’m quite happy making songs myself and feeling like they’re powerful enough anyway without needing another artist on there. So it was all about making sure this album was a strong album for Mystro and that people would remember it because of Mystro, not because of that one posse cut with a million people on it or that video with everyone in it. I’m glad I stuck to that approach as well because the feedback I’ve been getting about the album so far has been amazing.”
As well as working with former collaborators such as Black Einstein and DJ Thor, you also have the likes of Mr. Thing and Show N Prove contributing beats to the album – did you choose to work with certain producers because you knew their sound would fit the feel you were aiming for on “Mystrogen” or was the beat selection more of a trial and error process?
“I’ll be honest, I did reach out to a couple of other producers but they kinda took a bit too long and the show must go on (laughs). But once I got the material I wanted to use for the album together then it was set anyway because there was always a certain vibe that I wanted the album to have from the beginning. First you’re in the doctor’s surgery, then you get prescribed your Mystrogen, the first thing you feel is that rush, then you come to a realisation and know what you want, then after that you’re hooked on it and by then you’re really in the world of that drug and it takes you to different places and makes you feel different emotions. So although I couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what it was I was looking for musically, as I slowly got tracks from different producers certain pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place and I knew as soon as I heard something whether it was right for the album. So for me, after all the hiccups and ups-and-downs of putting the album together, it definitely turned out the way that I wanted it to. Plus, I think the way the album was recorded definitely played a part in how it feels, because I did it all in the same studio with the producers who were able to make it to the sessions, so it wasn’t about emailing files back and forth and talking about the tracks over Skype, it was about getting into the studio together with people and doing it the way albums used to be made.”
Hearing the way you’re talking about the album it really sounds as though you approached it with the attitude of a new artist with a point to prove – would you say that’s a fair comment to make?
“I do sort of feel that way because even after all the years of making music I’m still not a household name or anything, so I’m always going to feel like I have people out there whose attention I need to catch so they can see what’s going on. Also, as I said, this is still my first album, so I felt it was important to really make sure it was a good project and now my next mission is to make sure the next project I put out is able to better “Mystrogen” because I’ve always tried to make sure each release I put out is better than the last.”
Considering your first single was released thirteen years ago in 1999, what do you remember when you think back to the mid-to-late 90s London Hip-Hop scene that you came out of?
“Man, when I think back to those days I can always remember hooking-up outside Deal Real Records with people, all the different nights that went on in London like Scratch, Jonzi D’s Apricot Jam, Lyrical Lounge. It just always seemed like there was something going on where people could congregate and you’d meet deejays and producers, you’d cypher outside with other rappers, there’d be people everywhere selling their CDs and handing out flyers. The scene was really organic then and to me it felt like that was what Hip-Hop was supposed to feel like. I miss it a lot and you do hope that maybe one day the game will change and get back to that, but I don’t necessarily think it will because we’re in the digital age now and people are comfortable being at home and watching stuff on YouTube, chatting with people online and downloading music. So I don’t really think it will ever go back to the way it was because it’s just a different world now. But at the end of the day, you just have to accept that’s how it is now, accept that you’re not going to be able to go back to when you were younger, but also understand that there is still a lot of good stuff going on today if you keep your ear to the ground. People shouldn’t be so afraid to adapt to change and I think gradually the UK Hip-Hop scene is learning that and I’m definitely excited about what’s going to happen in the scene in the next few years.”
So what’s next for Mystro?
“There’s a lot more coming from me and I’ve already started working on the second album, but for now it’s really just all about that “Mystrogen”. It’s been a long, rocky road to get to the spot where I’m at right now, but I’m glad that I’ve been through it all because now I feel like there’s no road that I couldn’t handle (laughs). I’ve learnt a lot in the last few years from being hands-on and doing everything myself about the way things work and how the music game is changing, so now I feel like I have more control over what I’m doing and I’m ready to turn everything I’ve learnt into something positive and really make something of it.”
“Mystrogen” is out now via MysDiggi.Com.
Mystro – “That Rush” (Don’t Bizznizz / 2012)