Dread, Beat, and Brooklyn

Trumystic Sound System Reinvent Reggae In Williamsburg

Though most of Trumystic seem hesitant to admit there's an actual Brooklyn scene, there is. Rappers like e-Boogie and Lloop appear on the same records, and members of hip-hop collective the Metabolics pass the peace pipe with Israeli rappers Sideffect. They interweave through one another's worlds: founding fathers Professor Shehab and Skiz Fernando (who cofounded the seminal studio and label WordSound) working with mix-board master François; rapper Sensational checking out rough experimental techno-heads We; the Brooklyn Beat Rockers— Darkman, Dre, Patrick Dogher, UFA, female MC legend Rabb— collaborating with the Trumystics. Their worlds collide inside independent recording facilities like WordSound, Bass Mind, and Shehab's Baraka Foundation— labels Soothsayer refers to as "brothers and cousins in a large family."

Immigrants from the West Indies had originally settled decades ago in the formerly Hasidic neighborhoods of Brooklyn. By the '80s and early '90s, the borough was giving birth to reggae-toasting supernovas such as Shinehead and Shaggy. Then there was Skiz Fernando, a Harvard grad and Columbia-educated music journalist who became fed up with the corporate politics of music and fled to the cheap rent of Williamsburg in 1992 to set up his own studio and label with Professor Shehab. Fernando had heard of Dr. Israel's work, and of the studio Israel had set up nearby on 6th Street. The two hooked up, collaborating on Doc's first album, Seven Tales of Israel.

Doc met up with Soothsayer in 1993 through a mutual friend at a local Williamsburg Thai restaurant, and they began writing together; Doc would soon meet Kirsty Rock (soon to be Divaship) while walking his three-legged pit bull down 5th Street. "We met because I liked his dog, then we kept running into each other," recalls Divaship. "I said, 'I'm a singer,' and he said, 'Let me take you back to the studio.' " Adds Israel, 'We got back there and she could really sing, so it was like, 'Okay, I guess we ain't sleeping together. I guess I should really work with her.' "

Up on the roof: Soothsayer atop Bass Mind Studios
photo: Michael Kenneth Lopez
Up on the roof: Soothsayer atop Bass Mind Studios

They hooked up with Flatbush native Ish around the same time and asked if he'd DJ a party for them. "I was like, 'Yo, who's the barefoot guy and shit?' " remembers Ish about his initial Dr. Israel sighting. " 'He's not eating anything off the BBQ, just honey and bread.' " Ish brought in old-time friend O.H.M., and O.H.M. brought in Muta. After making money recording other artists' albums (and even working with a Hasidic rabbi lured in by the name Israel), they put together their first Trumystic compilation, Product 3, in 1998. A second compilation, Product 4, is due in late October.

"At this point, everything is just lending credibility to everything else," says Dr. Israel, leaning on the mixing board, eating a bagel while his drooling pit bull Sampson tries to stare the baked good out of his hand. "The volume of music coming out of Brooklyn, even though there's a lot, we're not really competing in the same market. We don't really see similarities between our sounds. It's like saying you look a lot like your brother, and it's like, 'I look totally different than my brother. I weigh a half-pound more!' "

"The local scene has been there, but it's just now starting to be defined," says Soothsayer (a/k/a Reggie Hodges), clearly the organizer at the core of it all— he's the guy who calls to fill guest lists, who decides what repairs need to be done to the studio ("It's endless"), who schedules upcoming release dates. "The more we do, the more we nurture it. But regardless if anyone pays attention, it's still there anyway. Like Muta doing her solo project, Ish working with this guy, Doc with the other. That would be going on regardless."

Trumystic has to rely on bigger distributors such as Mutant Sound System to reach outside fans, but by now they're reaching all kinds. At one recent Knitting Factory show, a weird mix— an out-of-work college professor, a 200-pound heavy metal dude, a pair of drunk Texans— watched the bald chick stalk the kickboxing Rasta while the guitar player rapped alongside the unpredictable, freestyle-mad DJ. It all held together, made sense, actually felt more complete and cohesive than most straight-ahead rock bands no matter how much was happening onstage. Ironically though, the Trumystics are tied to three genres— reggae, hip hop, and electronica— that make for some of most mind-numbing live shows known to man.

"Our personal differences are what makes [the music] unique," says Soothsayer, a Compton native who moved to Brooklyn in his teens and now lives across the street from the studio in a loft with O.H.M. "One of the things we get panicky about is that at any given time, we're ready to break up. Every six months, every fight. Then you think back and go, 'This can't happen.' This is a special thing. We consider that. It keeps us going forward, pressing on."

The Sweet Water Bar, where Israel, Sooth, and Ish (O.H.M. will be down later) are drinking, working, and DJing, is slow tonight. A dozen or so neighborhood folk are here, in this spot where dub collectives like Murder Mind and punk outfits like Distraught come together, shoot pool, and add to the dense graffiti of band names and personal tags on the backroom walls. It's a small and narrow place, built to squish people together for conversation. Tonight, Ish mans the turntables, Reggie pulls the pints (this is his stable gig), and Dr. Israel compares car-crash stories with a tattooed biker.

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