Back in the Day
Young R&B Newcomer Urban Mystic Taps Into The Midnight Hour Groove Of Classic Soulsville
It’s about 2 in the afternoon. Later the beach will be jam-packed with hoodies, as every Memorial Day weekend the ghetto fabulous from all over converge to cruise in pimped-out rides with booming systems, sauntering down Collins in their latest gear, styling and profiling as they hit various clubs and parties. The festivities are already well underway for Urban Mystic. He was out clubbing at nearby SoBe Live until 6 this very morning. “I got my crew,” says the crooner whose music is in the soul-man tradition of Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, and Al Green. “Lots of family [is] down, so I’m just gonna ride it out.”
Pegged by Billboard and Jet as one of the new singers to watch in 2005, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native has been rising steadily. His 2004 Ghetto Revelations (SoBe Entertainment/Warner Music) received reviews bordering on the ecstatic, but since the recent neo-soul wipeout, even some of the best R&B and soul acts—the Jill Scotts, the India Aries, the Musiqs, the Jaheims—have been relegated to aging hipster Tom Joyner-helmed stations that play “smooth” R&B, which wouldn’t be so bad, if “smooth” R&B listeners bought records. And the baritone is looking to broaden his audience.
“I want to be able to reach out and touch everybody,” he says, stirring sugar into his iced tea. “Young and old.”
Hip-hop’s annexation of R&B—“hop&B,” “crunk&B”—when done right has led in some cases to the best of both worlds, even better than R. Kelly and Jay-Z’s “Big Chips.” Too often, however, it generates disposable ditties. It’s hip-hop and R&B, sure, but each reduced to its lowest common pop denominator. It usually has a very short shelf life–everybody now, “My neck, my back,” forgotten just like that—and lacks the subtleties and staying power of soul.
Perhaps each genre has actually lost a bit of its soul in this multibillion-dollar merger. And Urban Mystic doesn’t want to lose the soul. Only two songs on Ghetto Revelations have the obligatory 16-bar rap bridge or intro necessary to make an R&B song a hit these days. Jacki-O makes a cameo on the burner “Satisfy Me,” and SoBe/Warner rapper Stack$ does his thing on the Bankhead-bouncing “Watch Out.”
In keeping with Memorial Day, South Beach style, Urban Mystic shows off his bling. He sports a white T over jeans, and the afternoon sun skips on the diamond-encrusted ring on his right forefinger; diamonds drip from a gold waist-length necklace, his ear lobes, and a watch. “Urb”—as friends call him—is iced down eating chicken wings and drinking sweet tea behind designer shades. The youngest of four brothers, and the son of a minister and a church organist, Urb’s first time on record was in 1997 on a CD produced and released by his brother Brian’s contemporary gospel group Blessed Praise, and the regular churchgoer still sings in the choir at Fort Lauderdale’s Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. “What’s today? Saturday?” he asks before laughing, “I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Urban Mystic lives with a foot in the sacred church and another in worldly soul. He is planning a contemporary gospel album and working on a sophomore R&B project, but for the moment, he says, his label is focused on reissuing his Ghetto Revelations, repackaging it with new artwork and a few new cuts to appeal to the young, club-going 106 and Parkers, a crowd with which he’s had some success already.
Revelations’ lead single, “Where Were You,” an anthem whose catchy chorus (“Where were you when you first heard Biggie or Pac/ and you knew you were blessed with the best in hip-hop”) and hip-hop references (fresh new Timbs and brand new Benzes), got voted into 106 and Park’s Top 10 countdown for two weeks in a row last December. “That was crazy,” Mystic says about the nod. “It makes you feel good, and I was definitely excited about that—seeing my face on the screen with the BET symbol by it”
Now he’s going for more visibility in that market: “It’s You,” the club-minded single produced by his go-to man KayGee, formerly of Naughty by Nature, goes to radio July 18. “I sing real music, but we felt the album needed to branch out, spread our wings and do a club song,” he says. “We still keepin’ it real—still old-school, but with a young feel.”
It’s a vibe that is gaining a little heat from an unexpected source, Mariah Carey’s very old-school R&B The Emancipation of Mimi. “I like Mariah’s new record,” he says. “I like Mariah. Mariah’s coming back. Mariah’s giving me a little boost. I wouldn’t mind doing a little duet with Mariah.”
He grins after that, but he’s not kidding. He keeps a wish list of female singers with whom he’d like to do a Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duet: Alicia Keys, Lauren Hill, Carey. According to Urb, a singer’s riffs and embellishments indicate whether or not he or she can sing. “I’m a real soulful guy,” he explains. He hums a short bluesy arpeggio. “That’s the way soulful singers do it. I can tell just by a person’s riffs and extra stuff if they can sang or not.”
His cell phone rings and he has to leave, but not before naming Gerald Levert, Dave Hollister, K-Ci and Jo Jo, and contemporaries Joe, Usher, and Anthony Hamilton as influences, and speaking glowingly about his musical director, classic soul singer Betty Wright. “She’s like a second mother,” he says. “I call her Mama B. She’s great. What more can I say—it’s Betty Wright. The label thought I should hook up with her because I’m doing real singing, just like her. I’m a young guy, but I like the old-school style.”
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