Dread, Beat, and Brooklyn

Trumystic Sound System Reinvent Reggae In Williamsburg

'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.

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

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.

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.' "

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.

It's a slow process, to build lasting collectives of people that don't kill each other, pull in different directions, or chomp at the bit to compete with flash-in-the-pan hitmakers. "You can build a structure with a wide base, using heavy blocks," says the lager-and-parable-toting Israel of Trumystic's strong foundation. "Then there's the guy stacking one block upon another in a hurry. You will reach the top at the same time. But your structure will remain, while the other will crumble. He has to start over again, if he isn't killed in the fall. He's the guy who goes from a platinum record to working back at KFC."

Soothsayer picks up the thought, then adds to it, a tag-team process that he and Israel have nearly perfected after half a decade. "The only place we run into problems is if we spread too thin working on other projects. Otherwise, everyone's really focused. People may see selling 3 million records as being successful, but we've been successful the last five years in just being able to do what we like to do. That's success to me. I don't have to punch a clock, but I can pay my rent. Not to say a gold or platinum album won't elevate that success." He pauses. "We're preparing for our stuff to be released and out in a more massive way. We're ready. But then we have to ask ourselves, 'Are they?' "

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