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Oakland Faders: As Mystik Journeymen expand their empire, their heart remains in the Bay Area.

Almost Famous

Mystik Journeymen helped establish the Bay Area as a hub of underground hip-hop, but that's just part of the grand scheme

By Todd Inoue

COREY "B-FAP" Johnson won't see 8 Mile. He doesn't hate Eminem; it's because Johnson's lived this underground hip-hop shit for almost 10 years as a member of Mystik Journeymen and the Living Legends crew. He and his fellow Journeyman Tommy "Luckyiam/PSC" Woolfolk did all those scary things that Detroit's great white hype did onscreen--step in unfamiliar rhyme circles, live hand-to-mouth, even rock Detroit.

"We played at that place in the movie, St. Andrews Hall; we ripped it with the 'Liks," says Johnson, an Oakland native. "It's some tough shit, but [Detroit] has all types of people, not just the types shown in the movie. 8 Mile overvalidates his credibility. It's a brainwash in a sense."

Watching a glamorized Hollywood treatment of the underground terrain they stomped across would be a disappointment. Mystik Journeymen rewrote the rules of Bay Area hip-hop by dismissing the myth that being signed to a major label or being played on KMEL was the ultimate end-all. They openly rapped about their feelings and about life. They put on shows in galleries and underground clubs, offering discounts if anyone brought Top Ramen or Skittles. They organized Broke Ass Summer Jam--an underground hip-hop showcase (and response to KMEL's star-studded event) that blew up and sold out Maritime Hall.

Mystik Journeymen's methods of selling, distributing, touring and promotion were so different that a new term was coined for what they did: Dirt Hustling. This guerrilla marketing built up a loyal fan base that craved honest hip-hop, stripped down to its rawest core. While their contemporaries were busy creating a lifestyle they neither lived or could afford, Mystik Journeymen and their Living Legends crew stuck up a middle finger and pushed their main message: Control Your Destiny. Their music pulses with an urgency--filled with odd beats pounded out on an MPC player, filtered through a broken-down four-track.

Today, a world weary of the glossy rap machine has finally caught up to them. Demand increased, and they began touring the world and making technically superior recordings with their Living Legends affiliates--rappers and beat makers the Grouch, Aesop, Scarub, Bicasso, Eligh, Murs, Arata, Basik and Elusive. It was a state of mind that helped open doors for now vogue indies like Definitive Jux and Rhymesayers.

In 2003, the definition of what constitutes an underground artist has dramatically changed. Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep and Eminem, who've sold millions of copies, still align themselves with an underground mentality. Mystik Journeymen, too, do things differently than five years ago. They have a tour booker and travel in Winnebagos. Underground is a state of mind, says Johnson, even if the numbers don't match up.

"The role of the underground artist is still the same; nothing's changed," Johnson says. "Underground is 'against all odds.' You're fighting to be heard, so that makes you underground because you're not a part of what's on top of popular culture."

Mystik Journeymen saw their own popularity swing the day they switched from cassettes to CDs in 1998 for their breakthrough Worldwide Underground.

"That was the point everyone said, 'They're not just guys on the corner. We can really take them seriously,'" Johnson says. "People were playing our shit for real. We had a small core of people listening before, but a lot of people were hating because it wasn't on CD."

Their national and international popularity coincided with skyrocketing rents in the Bay Area and overall paranoia against live hip-hop. Tommy and the Living Legends crew moved to L.A. to focus on music full time (Corey was the last holdout, following two years later). To hear Johnson tell it, the bay stopped providing opportunities to spread their message.

"Every day was the same thing," Johnson sighs. "I want to be motivated by doing things. In the bay, there are not a lot of things for us to do unless you're on some KMEL nightclub shit, and that's pretty hokey. The only way you can make it is by being out of your element. I know I can come back to the bay--it's my blanket. I'm on some Linus shit."

Magic Moves

But whatever happened in their lives--format changes, tours of Australia, a website or scenery--Johnson and Woolfolk never stopped creating music. Mystik Journeymen currently have eight albums together, eight albums as solo artists and numerous guest appearances and collaborations available.

Their latest album, Magic, represents a return to the gritty spontaneity that made their earlier releases so revelatory. Woolfolk and Johnson step back and refocus on the lessons learned. "mmMmm" and "Johnny Fame" examine the mistakes of their peers. "Truth" warns against alcohol and tobacco use. "Luv Jonz" is about relationship funk. Another underappreciated artist, Me'shell Ndegéocello, lends her bass guitar work on "Jambalaya." The songs are carried by a woozy production style that suddenly awakens when the bass drops.

With Magic, Mystik Journeymen have reaffirmed their status as one of the world's toughest underground crews. During their 2002 tour through Europe, it was an entirely different experience. Early on in their career, the duo stuffed instrumental DAT tapes in their down jackets and took off for Europe and Japan looking for shows and corners to rock. They made many friends and slept on sofas and floors.

Last year, they went through the same towns, but with an itinerary, transportation and hotels. Most of all, there was little time to reconnect with the kind souls whose couches and floors provided temporary bedding. Thinking back on the tour elicits feelings of melancholy from Johnson.

"We only saw them for an hour, and we had to smash all that reunion time into that moment," Johnson recalls. "If I were them, I'd feel it was fake. How do you express everything you want to express without feeling it's too overwhelming? Everyone knows the secret that you only had, which is this group. People love you more when you're the secret."

It's a secret that can't last much longer. The plan is to conquer L.A. and then move on to New York. Then after New York: Tokyo, Paris, London, Berlin, Kingston, Beijing and beyond. Don't look for them to move back to the Bay Area for a long, long time.


Mystik Journeymen, The Grouch and Mista Sinista play Sunday (Jan. 26) at 9pm at Spy, 400 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $15. (408.298.1900)


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From the January 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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