Veteran Aussie rappers are a dying breed. Whether they have lost interest in making music, given in to the reality and demands of middle-aged every day life or aren’t sure where they fit into the modern day Australian hip hop puzzle, releases from the older heads are very few and too far between. That’s not to say we’ve ever had a prolific scene to begin with; unless my memory is failing with age I can’t think of one artist from these shores who has anything like a dozen albums to their name, in fact half of that total pretty much places one at the top of the list (Koolism, Reason and Bias B are thereabouts). Even those that have been around for 20 years or more have hardly given us a solid stream of output e.g. Def Wish Cast, who are seen by most here as THE legends of our scene, have only given us three full lengths since they appeared in the early 90’s, and Sleeping Monk is another old-timer who (deservedly) has somewhat of a rep despite having less than a handful of releases. I could launch into a lengthy tirade about the factors behind this, but in a nutshell I think it comes down to a lack of support from the local record industry, little demand and interest from Aussie heads for home grown product (vs. US hip hop) and the undeniable factor is that being an MC who “stays true” has never been enough to pay the bills in this part of the world (and elsewhere for that matter).
Therefore, I was VERY pleasantly surprised to discover that an all-time Sydney favourite of mine had released a solo album; an album which I had written off as never happening after first hearing mention of its impending release something like 4 or 5 years ago. Once again, this prompts me to have a bit of a go at the local scene; there was no hype for his album at all and I only discovered it via my sporadic lurking on a local hip hop forum, one that is supposed to be focused on the Australian hip hop scene. The topic promoting the album has the grand total of TWO replies, as opposed to Eminem’s MMLP2 which has multiple topics with endless pages of discussion – see what I mean about lack of local support/interest? Sure, comparing the amount of discussion about one of the most well known rappers in the world to that of a local underground MC who isn’t on many people’s radars is hardly fair, and it’s not as if an internet forum represents our whole scene, but I think it’s still a reasonably valid indicator of where things stand. Furthermore, it’s a bit disappointing to think that if things such as internet hip hop forums existed in the mid 90’s, a new release from a talented underground Oz rapper would have still had the same minimal level of interest compared to the hottest US MC of the day; some things never change.
Anyway, I’m here to discuss Mistery and his “Way of the Warrior” album. As above, I mentioned this to be a solo album, as Mistery is one half of one of Sydney’s longest standing crews: a duo called Brethren. Along with rhyme partner and producer Wizdm the guys have been releasing material since 1992 or so (I still have their first cassette only demo release – we go way back). As per what you now know to be the standard for Aussie releases, the complete catalogue of Brethren product struggles to outnumber the total output of Percee P, but I guess the result of that is those releases are treasured – which is certainly the case with the Brethen material in my collection. Actually, Wizdm already has two solo albums under his belt, so the Mistery solo was WAY overdue.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of the album (bear with me, we’re almost there), I can’t let this review go by without mentioning the other ways that Brethren have contributed to the Australian hip hop landscape. They have always been staunch advocates and promoters of the four elements of hip hop. So much so, that over the years they have been heavily involved in the community in holding hip hop workshops and the like; providing instruction and mentorship to younger people interested in the art form. This guidance runs to an even deeper extent, to the point that Brethren created a “Hip Hop Church” called Krosswerdz a few years ago (Krosswerdz is also the name of their record label). It’s also worth mentioning that Mistery is one of the premier graffiti artists from these shores and has garnered much respect for his talents.
Based on the album cover and title, you might be thinking that Mistery is giving us a Japanese slant on the Wu-Tang Clan, and thus this reviewer could be lazy and write “what you have here is a veteran Aussie rapper, rhyming over Japanese themed Wu beats, so enjoy”. However, that’s pretty far off the mark. Sure, Asian instrumentation abounds, and we also have samples from what I’m assuming to be old Japanese Samurai movies, which does lend itself to touches of Wu feel here and there, but “Way of the Warrior” is far less gimmicky than the Shaolin collective, and it doesn’t have the comic book quirkiness and humour of Esoteric’s “Esoteric vs. Japan” album either. The album has a more serious and sincere feel to it, which clearly has a lot to do with the fact that Mistery is a lifelong exponent of Japanese martial arts. Talk of a hip hop church should have given away the fact that Mistery is also a Christian, but don’t expect a fully fledged Gospel Rap album here, as Mistery once mentioned in an interview that he’s a rapper who is Christian not a Christian rapper. However, Christian themes do have a presence on the album, particularly in a historical context.
Those varied aspects of the man’s CV combine to provide the bulk of the lyrical output here. Some of the tracks see Mistery in role playing mode, stepping directly into the shoes of various characters. “Way of the Warrior” has Mistery portraying a Samurai warrior and his struggles to live in accordance to the code of Bushido (i.e. loosely translated as chivalry). In contrast, “Cold Knight” takes Mistery into another part of the world, geared up in a different type of battle dress, where he becomes a Christian knight during the Crusades. He’s clearly well versed in the topics and eras he discusses and I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have to do a bit of research to understand all his historical references.
Mistery often touches on all his interests within the same song. “Character Assassination” once again brings the religious warrior out from within, Mistery telling us he’s “the nemesis from Genesis” and “I’m hitting like a Ninja, injuring the sinners”, but his hip hop persona also shines through when he talks about his “weaponry of aerosol” and “the power of words is like a Shuriken hit”. This intertwining of martial arts, history, religion and reference to the four elements of hip hop forms the lyrical basis of the majority of the album.
As someone who has his own personal interest in Asian culture (more of a China lean in my case) I’m very impressed to find that Mistery and his producers are aware enough to use the appropriate instrumentation in relation to the countries being alluded to in the tracks, rather than just throwing out any old generic “Asian sounding shit”. For example, the Chinese themes in “Dragon Tattoo” are delivered over a soundtrack which features, what sounds to me as, the Chinese traditional instruments Pipa and Erhu. When we’re taken lyrically to Japan instead, I hope I’m not mistaken in recognising Koto strings in “Daggers” and “Ninjalude”. The attention to detail in the production against the themes is totally on point; “Training Day” being a prime example where the tale of warriors in training mode sits amongst sounds of group martial arts training and battle horns. The lyrics correspond appropriately also e.g. “Chinese Whispers” keeps things very much China bound with references to Sun Zi’s “Art of War”, “Fist of Fury”, the Forbidden City, the Muk Jong (i.e. Wing Chun training apparatus) etc.
There is more to this album than an Asian influence though, in fact the album has a pretty clearly defined Side A and B. Once the slightly schizophrenic “Inter-Mission” mid-album interlude is over, the album pretty much leaves the Orient behind and ventures into somewhat more conventional hip hop territory. Although “conventional” is probably the wrong word as this part of the album is welcomed by a German born, French rapping graffiti artist named Darco who joins Mistery on “Weapons”. This is by far the hardest, most intense track on the album, a touch reminiscent of the Britcore realms of golden era UK hip hop, or more-so if you know anything about early 90’s French hip hop, then you’ll probably be thinking of Supreme NTM when you hear the verses from Darco, and appropriately Mistery delivers his most aggressive flows here as well.
In fact, Mistery is in the best vocal form of his career on this album. Not that he’s ever been a weak MC but I never saw him as the strongest or most distinctive rapper from these shores, and admittedly within the Brethren duo I always thought Wizdm was a significantly more natural and effortless sounding MC, particularly when faster flows were required. However, on this album Mistery seems more confident in his flow than ever. Don’t expect intricate wordplay and vocal gymnastics, as he’s always been a pretty straight-forward rhymer, but he’s more than solid on this release and much like I imagine to be the case with his martial arts, years of practice in the MC discipline appear to have honed his skills nicely.
The afore-mentioned “Cold Knight” and also “Dead Man Walking” are big standouts for me in the latter half of the album. “Dead Man Walking” has a moody, symphonic loop that lingers in the mind long after the song is finished, and the presence of Mistery’s Brethren cohort Wizdm on the track leaves a similar lasting impression on me. “Cold Knight” also features a catchy and emotive loop, and the effect of the snappy drum in the track does its intended job of getting the head into nod mode. Crisp and well-defined, mid-tempo beats have always been a feature of Brethren’s work over the years and producers Wizdm, Lex, BRB and Nebs maintain that standard with the overall soundscape being presented across the album. “Mad at the World” appropriately shows us a pissed off Mistery, where amongst other things he speaks on what I was ranting about at the start of this review i.e. taking shots at the lack of regard from fans for our local product. Rather different to the rest of the album lyrically is “Altar Ego”; a really NICE introspective and honest track from Mistery – he bears his soul more than I’ve ever heard him do so on “wax” before, lines such as the below speak volumes for the humility and attitude of the guy:
“Now I’m not overly dope, but yet I hopefully hope
That my vocals with be locally and globally scoped
Now you know that I cope, I’ve been in it for years
Though I’m still to make a mill’ like my international peers
There’s no irrational fears, ignore the national jeers
Because the passion all clears, and yo the casual cheers
Make rocking the mic worth the while
I’m biding my time on the Earth trying to smile”
If there’s any negative on this album it has to be the two posse cuts: “The Gathering” and “Underwraps”. Musically neither track moves me as much as the rest of the album (“The Gathering” is the only track that gets dangerously close to generic sounding with the use of its Asian sample) and both tracks feature a handful of local MC’s who come across as rather unspectacular alongside our veteran host; “Underwraps” in particular has a couple quite dull sounding MC’s amongst its band of brothers. The only memorable hombre from the batch of posse track guests is the deep voiced and charismatic Oakbridge (who released his own album a few years ago). I guess a couple of the guys on “The Gathering” are “aiight” too. The selfish fan in me would’ve liked to see some other local veterans featured on these tracks, but given his proactive approach towards building a new generation of Sydney hip hoppers it does makes perfect sense for Mistery to give some up-and-comers the chance to shine. More impressive are the appearances from Solomon Theta on “Chinese Whispers” and the precise delivery from Brass (AKA Brass Knuckles of Celsius fame) on “Training Day” â€“ both have been around for the last decade or more and are criminally slept on MC’s from these shores who probably would have had a couple albums each under their belts by now had the wheels of time turned differently. American MC JustMe doesn’t do any harm to “Dragon Tattoo” either with his impressive clear diction.
I really enjoy this album and I’m prepared to say it’s one of the better Aussie hip hop albums I’ve ever heard in all my years following this music, although I have to admit that I’m not as in touch with the local scene as I used to be as I’ve become very picky and rather critical about my Aussie hip hop choices in recent years. Granted, thematically “Way of the Warrior” is rather niche, so if your radar is set to pick up things like Asian culture/martial arts, history, religion and staying true to hip hop’s essence then you should get excited by an album like this – I sure did. However, the album won’t exclude the general hip hop fan who just wants to hear dope music either; for anyone who wants to taste Aussie hip hop that is proud of its origins yet doesn’t ram them down your throat and wants to hear an MC that lives, breathes and supports hip hop without putting on a tough guy or pretentious stance, then give this a go. Mistery is, after all, one of the legends of Australian hip hop and has given more back to the scene than most; give the guy some props by checking this album out.