Suffice it to say that Mystic's career as a hip-hop artist got off to a difficult start. On the day the young, Oakland-based rapper signed with Goodvibe Records in 1999, her excitement was quickly tempered by some tragic news.
"The day that I got my record deal was the day that my father passed away," she recalls. After a long struggle with drug addiction, Mystic's father died of a heroin overdose. Although he was absent from most of her childhood and adolescence, the two had finally made peace in the last years of his life.
"I got to ask all my questions, and they were answered to my satisfaction," she says. "He was honest and didn't make excuses. In a way, I feel like with divine order and a higher power, I was given that time to get to know him."
Among all of the emotions she experienced upon learning of his death, Mystic felt a sense of guilt about her final interaction with her father. "He came over, and I was writing a song for a movie, and I was like, 'Look, I don't really have time right now. I love you, but you've got to go,'" she recalls. "There could be times when it took a lot of energy to be with him. His lifestyle was very different from mine. He was homeless. But at that time, he was clean -- not sober, but clean."
Mystic addresses this relationship in "Fatherless Child," a cut from her stellar debut album, cuts for luck and scars for freedom: "Ten years of hard work finally becoming real...you died/With a needle in your arm and angels by your side/And I miss you, tattooed it in black/Fatherless child, fade to black."
In the song, Mystic recounts a painful incident from her childhood that her mother never knew about before cuts for luck was released this summer. In a verse addressed to her father, Mystic raps, "Got raped in a bathroom and the question stings/Would it have, could it have, should it have been different/If I had your hand to grab?/Would I be easier to love and not so torn inside/If you had beat the man and stood by my side?/Would I write sad songs and court pain daily?/How different would I be if you had raised me?"
Mystic admits that the confessional nature of the song makes her feel naked and vulnerable, but she also says that the process of writing and recording the track was cathartic. And though her father never got a chance to hear it, she's confident that it will resonate with others who have experienced similar struggles in their lives. "If you listen to the way it is written, I'm obviously talking to my father -- but to everybody else, too -- about how I came to be, saying what my father did and the things that I had been through. It was very healing for me. That song took me my whole life to write, and I don't know that I would ever write one like that again."
It is the straightforward honesty and realness of her expression that makes Mystic one of the most inspiring new voices to appear in rap this year. While diehard Bay Area rap fans might know that she rocked Digital Underground's Who Got the Gravy album in 1998 or that she dropped a few bars on Souls of Mischief's last record, it was with the release of her first single, "The Life," that the hip-hop nation got its first real glimpse of what Mystic could do as a solo artist. The song -- which got major airplay this summer -- shows her to be equally adept at singing and slinging rhymes. Over dope, way-ahead-of-the-class beats provided by A+ from the Hieroglyphics crew, Mystic celebrates the lives of those who persevere through their everyday struggles. "The Life," as she puts it, "is for warm days that drift away while the sun sets as the ghettos play" and "for eyes that cry like yours and learn to smile again and rise above the pain."
The video that accompanies the song exhibits a fittingly down-to-earth approach to music. By focusing on life in Mystic's Oakland hometown, the video's images are as visually poetic and arresting as her words. Her artistic perspective -- one that focuses on human issues and real life rather than Cristal-sipping and booty-shaking -- is a welcome departure from the shallow materialism that dominates the imagery of popular rap.
"I wrote the first treatment for it," she says. "I wanted to be at my house. I wanted to be in that rose garden. I wanted to be in the welfare office. I really wanted it to be, for lack of a better word, an accessible video. Videos so much now are this big selling point of creating a fantasy world, and I wanted to put a visual world out there: that this is me, and these are my friends. This is where I lived, this is where I wrote poetry, this is my house. This is me in Oakland."
From B-girl ballads addressed to her man ("Neptune's Jewels") to female-empowerment anthems ("Girlfriend Sistagirl") to tales about the 'hood ("Ghetto Birds"), cuts for luck is a perfect mix of hard-hitting raps and soft, introspectively sung choruses. The album's understated production imbues it with a subtle sophistication; it does not hit you over the head with how bangin' it is. The stories Mystic raps display a kind of hard-earned wisdom that comes from real experience. Narratives like "The Gottas," a tale of a sixteen-year-old "rising ghetto star" who will do whatever to pursue a lifestyle of the rich and infamous, read like real-life scripts for those enamored with The Life.
"I wrote that in 1995 or 1996. At that time, there were a lot of young men that I knew and that my friends knew who were definitely dying while selling drugs to have cars and to have women and to have money -- to have things that are not worth your life," she says. "Really, when you think about it, to die for a block? You don't own that. Somebody else owns that. I wanted to put it out in a non-judgmental way. If I put my music out there, at some point, it will help people to look at themselves or to look at the world. It's rather interesting, at the end of the day, what you're willing to do for the things that you gotta have -- and do you really got to have them?"
A mixture of both new and old compositions, cuts for luck includes tracks that date back to when Mystic, who has been writing creatively for most of her life, started to rhyme at the age of sixteen. Encouraged by a high-school English teacher and by Jamal-Ski of Boogie Down Productions, Mystic realized that she had a gift. "Jamal-Ski came to Oakland and did a show. I read him some poetry, and he was like 'That's dope. Your voice is pleasant to listen to. Why don't you try it?' I had written something prior to that, based off of 'She Leads a Glamorous Life.' My friends were like 'Girl, you better leave that alone.' But I wrote my first rhyme, and I did my first show a few weeks later. I was like, 'Okay. This is what I'm here for. This feels good. This feels natural.'"
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As Mystic refined her skills at shows and conferences around the Bay Area, her reputation as a formidable MC and spoken-word artist grew. In 1998, hip-hop legends Digital Underground asked her to become part of their crew, and later the same year, she toured with the group and took on the moniker of "DU Goddess." The apprenticeship, she says, taught her a lot about the rap game.
"Shock G [of Digital Underground] really hooked me up in terms of taking me out on tours," she says. "I got to do my own material. I was definitely incorporated and presented in that show. I saw a lot of things and learned a lot of things. Those guys are great mentors to me."
Mystic has found inspiration in her female counterparts as well. Her name is now among an esteemed list of artists such as Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott and Missy Elliot -- talents who have helped heighten hip-hop's profile by making intelligent and creative urban music. Mystic's labelmate, friend and fellow female rapper, Bahamadia, was the one who introduced her to the independent-minded Goodvibe label, a New York imprint that also enlists Slum Village. This week, Mystic comes to Denver as part of the Sisters for Hip-Hop & Soul tour, which, she says, is about "giving out the proper information on females who have paved the way and to acknowledge their achievements.
"I hope my album will help to make it so that if you are a female artist in hip-hop, and if you're dope, you're not an exception," she adds. "It's overwhelming -- and in a way, it's very validating -- that you can make an album with basically all underground producers. You can make an album with a small budget. You can make an album where you bare your soul on the table -- and people will understand you. That's amazing to me, because my mother gets it, my friends get it, the people who love me get it. So it's kind of a confirmation that most of us are more similar than we are different."