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words Rob Boffard / photography Paul Bence
Mystro straps on his climbing shoes, stretches his fingers and joins me as I take him climbing in London’s east end. There, between the daunting four walls of varying levels of skill, the topics on the safety map are a lengthy career, his music and, er, reality TV.
The man on duty at Mile End Climbing Wall this morning is named Phil. He’s a lanky, grizzled old hand who looks like he could eat Ben Nevis for breakfast. Before he takes a group of schoolkids on their basic training, he’s been asked to give a safety briefing to a first-time climber.
“What’s your name?” says Phil to the climber.
“Mystro” comes back the reply.
Phil pauses. “Is that…er, your real name?”
A grin. “Yeah. My mother gave it to me.”
Mystro has never gone climbing before, but when the idea was put to him the heavily-built UK rap veteran didn’t even hesitate. Even before Phil told him that the padded floor would still break his neck if he fell and he should thus be bloody careful, Mys was already testing out the wall, wrapping his sizeable hands around the multicoloured grips that signify the different routes up the walls.
The simplest routes are tagged VB and V0, and the toughest ones (which include sit-starts and feet-only restrictions) are labelled V5. Like most newbie climbers, Mys isn’t following a particular route as he begins to tackle the wall. Unlike most rookies, he’s actually rather good at it. And while photographers Paul and Emma Jane click away, Mystro does something that you don’t often see in the overly-serious world of UK rap: he has fun.
Before long, Mys is clambering up the walls at speed, hanging off at seemingly impossible angles. Even a tricky traversing section across several wooden outcrops (“How the hell do I get round this thing?” he mutters as he flails blindly for a handhold) is eventually crossed successfully. He doesn’t seem worried about falling – and since he has a ridiculously undersized, bright orange helmet perched on his head, he’ll probably be OK. Maybe.
“Look up this way, Mystro!” yells Paul from his perch on a catwalk high above. “Are you trying to get me killed, mate?” laughs Mys, leaning back for the shot.
Later on, Mys is tucking into a massive fried breakfast in a café by the tube station. “I’m alright, you know?” he says, when asked how he feels after what looked like a pretty punishing session. “I think if anything, it’s just the calluses that start to appear. It’s not that bad, man. I can see how it builds your forearms though! The lighter you are, the easier it would be.”
At this stage of his career, Mys is something of a veteran. It almost seems odd to think of him in this way; it was only in 2003 that he really started to get noticed, popping up on Blak Twang’s seminal ‘Half ‘n Half’ and releasing his own record Music Mystro.
But in the intervening years, he’s has certainly been put through the grinder. His feud with Braintax and the Lowlife label has been well-documented, and although he continued to practice his craft it’s been a long steady climb rather than a sprint for the summit. But now, he seems poised to make up for lost time, readying an EP (Digmund Freud) and an album (Mystrogen) for imminent release. The latter has yet to make an appearance, but the former is a solid exercise in great rhymes and great beats. If nothing else, it shows that Mystro is still capable of out-rapping any rookie rhymer you’d care to name.
“I’ve had the album ready for a little while, and I feel I had to boost my profile before releasing it,” he says.
“I feel that there are a lot of people asking for it but not enough so that when it comes out it will have the impact that I want. I always want to put something out and test the ground that I’m on a new project… but it feels like these days people aren’t interested in hearing a whole album because they already heard the half-hearted version on a mix tape.”
Even a quick listen to the opening track shows that Mys has stepped his game up. Gone is the ultra-aggressive spitting (“I hear ‘Half n Half’ now and I’m like, calm down man!”); in its place is a more mature, considered approach. The track, ‘Around My Way’, is simply a journey through Mys’ ends – a slightly overdone concept in rap, but one which he pulls off with gentle humour and an almost spoken-word flow that suits his deep, gravely voice extremely well.
“I don’t like to read my lyrics anymore,” he says between mouthfuls of toast. “I like to learn them, so it sounds more natural. I find that you express yourself a bit more as well. With reading, you’re always trying to read a line ahead of yourself, and it sounds unnatural. Now it’s like, I know the lyrics, let me go in.”
The EP has been getting some hype, but Mys started the ball rolling late last year with his ‘2009 UK Wrap-Up’ track, a lengthy summary of the year’s comings and goings. Yes, we know Skillz got there years ago, but it was refreshing to hear someone hold up a mirror to the UK market. Mys says that for him, it was a chance to re-establish his name (which even he acknowledges had slipped out of the public consciousness somewhat) and do something nobody else in the country had done.
Mys has a penchant for courting controversy, and a throwaway line in the song about former 1Xtra DJ Sarah Love came back to haunt him. He says the line – “Sarah Love still playing her cards right with half a deck” – made a few people think that he was trying to spark beef. He’s adamant that this wasn’t the case.
“Think about the beginning of the year. She was still on [the station]. And she was still playing the music she wanted to play; she wasn’t trying to be different with it or play the music that everybody else was listening to. Which might be part of the reason why she’s not there any more! But she’s on graveyard shift, early in the morning, and still trying to play what she wants, never compromising that to try and get a better spot. So that was the idea behind the line. Some people thought I’d dissed her!”
Interestingly, Mys reckons that most of the chart-topping UK rappers in 2010 simply haven’t heard of him – an odd state of affairs in the small pond of UK rap. “It makes sense that I’d mention a few people [on the wrap-up] – Charlie Sloth, DJ Gone – I felt like, as much as I was talking about these people, I wasn’t in the same world as them. I don’t think any of them had heard of me before that! I don’t think Dizzee Rascal had heard of me. He might now, but I don’t think he’d heard of me then. I don’t think the majority of the DJs knew who I was. I think the world I was from really wasn’t on their radar…”
Of course, the wrap-up, the EP and the forthcoming album are all small parts (individual handholds, if you like) on the way to his bigger goal of climbing from veteran to rap legend. He’s started to promote himself in ways he wouldn’t even have considered five years ago, including not only an extremely active (and sometimes very funny) Twitter account but a show on Spine TV: Mystro Investigates.
If you haven’t seen an episode of the show yet, get familiar. It puts Mystro in some unusual situations –in a monster truck, taking a horse ride, an acupuncture studio – and then lets him get on with it. It shouldn’t work, but it does. One wonders why nobody has tried this before (Dizzee Rascal Reports? Tinie Tempah’s Daycare? Roll Deep Meet The Neighbours?) because even though it’s very much reality TV, it has the good grace to acknowledge that it is utterly ridiculous. And Mys, for all his battles in his rap career, is a natural on camera.
“[Spine] came to me,” he explains “and said, we want to do a show, and it became Mystro Investigates. I’m not sure what my favourite one is – it changes – but right now, I have to say the monster truck one. I was feeling that! It was fun driving round. We’ve done season one, and we’re just trying to work out a few extra bits and pieces before we do season two.”
And the next step? A DVD boxset?
His deep, booming laugh echoes around the tiny café. “That’ll be the next thing, innit? With guest appearances by Lenny Henry!”
Digmund Freud EP is out now
Watch the complete series of Mystro Investigates on Spine TV
For more music videos and more music hit Mystro on Myspace