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 that blew up and sold out San Francisco's 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 itsrawest 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 pulseswith 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 differentlythan 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 itwasn'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, followingtwo 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 beingout of your element. I know I can come back to the bay--it's my blanket. I'm on some Linus shit."
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 guestappearances 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 Ndegˇocello, lends her bass guitar work on "Jambalaya." The songs are carried by a woozy production style that suddenlyawakens 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 tapesin 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 elicitsfeelings 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 knowsthe secret that you only had, which is this group. People love you more when you're the secret."