IF YOU DIAL UP MYSTIC ON HER CELL, SHE'LL answer with a friendly "Greetings." This would sound coy coming from anyone else, but with all the good juju this R&B earth mama has earned over the last 10 years, she can get away with New Age affectations. But don't underestimate her. In person, the café au lait beauty's eyes lock on you, size you up and get a bead on your bullshit.
Emotionally, Mystic (née Mandolyn Wind Ludlum) is way beyond her 28 years. Having bounced around communes from Northern California to Mexico and Hawaii before settling down in Oakland with her mother, she'd gotten the rebellious impulses out of her system by the time she was 15. "I don't even smoke weed anymore," she says, digging into a chorizo appetizer at the Gaucho Grill, where the waiter admires her right-tricep tattoo: warriors are born, soldiers are made. "Maybe once or twice a year, but it makes me too . . . open." At the outset of Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, Mystic invites you into her world, a mise en scène of drug dealers, broken homes, rape, and life on the block. "People say the album is dark, but I feel blessed to have gone through these things, because now I'm strong."
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With production credits divvied up among The Angel, A-Plus, Dotrix, Planet Asia and Shock G, Cuts' lyrical flavors -- from the shimmery "A Dream" to the West Coast shout-out "W" -- are a mix of purple metaphors and stark reportage, as differentiated as Mystic's moods. Even "Neptune's Jewels," a rapped-'n'-sung ballad of unrequited love, is a semantic curve ball. "I'm still good friends with that guy," she giggles, short of calling him out. "Fatherless Child," the tale of Mystic's dad, who left when she was 3 years old, was homeless by choice and died of a heroin overdose the day she signed her record deal, is more tender than it is recriminating. Flipping the script on "Once a Week," she's as carnal as they come: "Do you wanna, ride wit me/Do you wanna be, down wit me/Do you wanna, roll wit me/Maybe once a week." The same complexity is in effect on "The Gottas," looking at the thug life with a fresh set of eyes. "That's not an anti-bling-bling song at all," she says. "I mean, yeah, selling dope in your own neighborhood is foul, but I knew who [the dealers] were; I understand their reasons. If they bang to this track, I know they respect me."
Mystic started showing up at Bay Area MC battles in the early '90s, often the only woman there, but her refusal to back down from opponents impressed crew members from Hieroglyphics, who encouraged her to hone her flow. "That's where I learned to respect the art," she recalls. The first showcase of her skills came courtesy of Shock G, a.k.a. Mr. Humpty Hump from Digital Underground, who took her on tour and re-christened her DU Goddess (and produced Cuts' first single, "The Life"). Several years later, it would be local film scorer/producer The Angel who generated heat for Mystic as a solo artist. Remixing a Donald Byrd track for a compilation, The Angel superimposed Mystic's vocals onto a song that had been in the Blue Note Records vault for nearly 30 years. After the label released the album, Mystic struck a deal with Good Vibe Recordings. More important, Angel's Byrd remix marks Mystic's transformation from rhymer to singer. "I was like 'nuh-unh, I can't sing,' but Angel was like, 'I think you should try.' I'm more of an MC than a singer, but I don't like to think of it in an either/or way; it's about being an artist.''
THOUGH CUTS WAS RELEASED LAST YEAR, Good Vibe's distribution partner, JCOR, fell apart a short time later. "They were suing each other for 50 percent of the publishing rights, but if you're talking ownership, I picked the beats, I wrote the lyrics, no one propped me up -- the music is me, and you can't cut me up in fractions." Now that DreamWorks is re-releasing the album with two new tracks, the challenge will be presenting something old as new again. "That's a difficult thing to pull off," says The Angel, who experienced an identical scenario with her side project 60 Channels. "Journalists and radio have already been serviced; you can't really give it a second life."
But it's not Mystic's style to second-guess. "Cuts has always been a word-of-mouth album anyway, so putting it out there on an even bigger platform can only spread the word."