By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
'We're like the blueprint of what every cheesy dance producer wants: a rap guy, a woman singing, a guy playing a guitar, and a DJ,' says Ish, a central figure in the Brooklyn collective known as Trumystic Sound System, who perform at the Knitting Factory Friday, September 24. 'But you can see when it's a forced effort, put together by a record company, and then you can see when it's real. As you can see, we're real.'
No doubt. Sitting in front of me in the control room of Trumystic's Bass Mind studios in Williamsburg is an unlikely gathering of personalities, glued together by something far stronger than the promise of a fly-by-night club hit. There's the ebullient, bald-headed singer Divaship, the smart-ass Rasta producer and toaster Dr. Israel, the soft-spoken rapper-bassist-producer Soothsayer, and the poker-faced, foreboding 6'4" spinner and freestyler Ish. Trumystic's two satellite turntablists, O.H.M. and Arab-American goddess Mutamassik, are in adjacent rooms, working on their own solo debuts.
Each has a unique talent: Diva's harmonious voice, Doc's ragamuffin rhyming, Ish's wheels-of-steel alchemy, Sooth's smooth yet husky raps. But they haven't come together as some sort of p.c. experiment or even to demonstrate that the future of music means infusing a zillion diverse tastes with a booming backbeat. Instead, the Trumystics serve as a self-sufficient hub for a larger tight-knit Brooklyn dub network, searching for a common denominator of passion amid all the sounds they love. Suffused in gritty urban poetry, a sense of humor, a surprising respect for hard rock (Rancid and Clash covers, not to mention a whole song based on a loop of Black Sabbath's "The Wizard"), and a deeply rooted sense of spirituality, records such as Dr. Israel's late-'98 Inna City Pressure rise above the base elements of today's stoned-slow reggae, melody-deficient hip hop, songless electronica, and crotch-grabbing Korn-metal.
Soothsayer's debut Zen Turtle, scheduled for release early next year, kicks off with a dejected statement on economic inequity by local dub poet Osagyefo. From there, it's conversational then abstract rhymes, old-skool hip-hop bounce (remember, before the leaden gruffness of DMX?), and laid-back yet insidiously charged Crooklyn commentary. Sooth deals out stream-of-consciousness over minimal percussion and a faraway sax: "Every so often I think Michael Jordan is God, 'cause God is everywhere." The production is awesome, dropping bits of Dr. Israel or Divaship into a blend of eclectic instrumentation (something that sounds like a sitar, then maybe a vintage synthesizer), snippets of TV news and commercials, and more incongruous effects, that together create a graceful yet slightly raw-rubbing backdrop. Doc laments the "hatred everywhere," all sad and creamylike against Diva's nurturing pop harmonies; chopped-up pieces of kiddie piano and disassembled drum 'n' bass trip around Sooth's romantic yet devastating fantasy "I found a way to beat all this mess, lay on my back in the grass, staring at birds nest, animals lick my chest well, maybe not." He even does a sort of nervous breakdown thing in "Modern Issues," reciting laundry lists of consumer woes. Mike G. of the Jungle Brothers guests on the acoustic-guitared "Down the Road," and other Brooklyn dub and hip-hop notables pH10, Lloop, JP Sluys of the Qaballah Steppers add input throughout.
Diversity in electronic music often translates into dully democratic sound: equal time for each element, self-conscious eclecticism made soggy by too much bong water, too many warm and fuzzy feelings, too much emphasis on misunderstood Eastern philosophy. But despite Trumystic's name and hippie-dippy trimmings, not even their flute parts translate as New Age. Mutamassik's upcoming debut album, Kmt the Bomb USA briefly slated for Joan Osborne's Womanly Hips label before Muta opted to go back on her own is a highly visceral combo of warm Egyptian folk melodies, terse studio manipulation, and bursts of jumbled jungle beats. Living in urban reality keeps these musicians grounded; hard-won hope keeps them moving forward.
"The stuff we do is weird," says Dr. Israel, who survives on a strict Rasta diet that none of the other Trumystics can quite figure out. He usually walks around with no shoes on, but today, the 6-foot former metal fan is wearing sweats, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes, ready for his afternoon kickboxing session at the gym. "I think the commercial viability of our music has only surfaced in the past six months, so we don't have a ton of A&R people sniffing around yet. Like I remember in Philly where I grew up, Run DMC hit, and white dudes in limos would pull up to the projects asking, 'Can anybody rap? Let's hear it.' It was like a minstrel show."
There are no limos, not even cars with shiny paint jobs, outside Bass Mind Studio. Nestled between industrial buildings that still serve as meat markets and dockside hangars, the building has no distinguishing signs or plaques just a red, gold, and green door, the colors of the Ethiopian flag. The studio, mere minutes from the Bedford Ave. train in Williamsburg, doesn't need a marker it's a landmark for Brooklyn's underground electronic artists, who come here to record, hang out, and compare notes.