Fresh off the release of his third album The Art Of Balance and a California run, The Pier caught up with Mighty Mystic to discuss his new album, his brother Andrew Holness becoming the Prime Minister of Jamaica, and why he sees Boston as a developing hub for reggae on the East Coast. We also discuss how his sound has developed over time to incorporate elements of roots reggae, rock, and hip hop; A distinctive sound that he labels “Hard Roots.”
Jamaican-born and Boston-bred Kevin Holness, known as Mighty Mystic, turned heads with his 2014 hit “Cali Green.” Now, Mighty Mystic is making waves with his new album, which released through E.N Young’s label Roots Musician Records. The Art Of Balance blends bits of rock and hip hop over a sturdy backbone of roots reggae.
In our interview, Mighty Mystic breaks down the state of East Coast reggae scene, and why he thinks it’s time to bring a massive reggae festival to the Northeast. Mystic also expresses his excitement about his latest release, and how the pieces all came together. Finally, he shares his hope to link up both East Coast and West Coast reggae artists, as well as American and Jamaican artists, creating music under a “One Love” umbrella.
Interview: Mighty Mystic
You were born in Jamaica, then you moved to Boston as a kid. How have those two places shaped who you are and the music you make?
Well, I was born in an area of Jamaica called Goshen, St. Elizabeth. Which is pretty much a farming area, ya know? So I’m coming from that to move to America, to a big city, where there’s big buildings and a big way of doing things. It’s the opposite of roots. So me creating music, I try to bring the roots that I grew up with, but obviously I’m influenced by the American hip hop, R&B, pop, and rock. The American way of living has definitely influenced my roots and me coming up as a kid growing up on a farm.
It’s why I call my brand of music “Hard Roots” because it’s a little more edgy, a little more raw, some hip hop elements in there. So we take the reggae roots that we all love, but we add the splish splash of all the elements that kind of influenced me growing up here in the States. Also, being a Jamaican who grew up here in the U.S., I’m kinda looked at as an in-betweener. Somewhat of a bridge between Jamaican reggae and U.S. reggae. One of my passions is to see more U.S. and Jamaican reggae bands and artists working and touring together, and sharing what they both bring to the table.
As a reggae artist performing out of Boston, how do you assess the current state of the reggae scene in your city?
When I first came here there were a lot of West Indians, a lot of Jamaicans coming to Boston. But also a big part about the Boston reggae scene that makes it flourish, is not only just the good West Indian-Caribbean culture, but also a huge college scene here, probably the biggest in the entire country. So there is a huge influx of students coming in and out of Boston, who already either love reggae or don’t know reggae, but hear it and become interested in it. So that thriving university scene in Boston has helped reggae grow.
Every college out here has their local college radio, and all of them have a reggae program, so they broadcast reggae from Jamaica, from the West Coast. They’re playing it constantly. I see Boston as being another hub for reggae. We know California is big already, but Boston I think is that next spot for reggae to flourish. It’s growing and it’s growing fast.
And how about the East Coast in general?
The whole East Coast is really on the rise. I’m big into the East Coast. We do see what see here, and there is a good crop of reggae artists right here on the East Coast that are making some solid noise.
Do you see a difference in styles between the West Coast and East Coast reggae artists, in terms of sound and influences? What have you noticed?
Yeah I see a difference between the East Coast and West Coast artists, but that’s a two part question to me. It’s kind of a difference between American reggae overall and Jamaican reggae, if we can put it that way. Where the American reggae scene is more fun, more focused on the chillin’ and relaxed vibes, the beach vibes. More so than the reggae coming out of Jamaica, which is more focused on a message. More of a deep roots message, subject matter that reggae is all about. That’s what we get from the Jamaican based reggae.
So to answer your question, yes there is an East Coast-West Coast difference, there is a difference in sound. But overall it’s more a difference between American reggae and Jamaican reggae. My discussions with reggae artists coming out of Jamaica, and the number one thing everyone says is “oh, we love the American reggae, it’s nice, but nobody wants to talk about subject matter.”
And is your objective to do a little bit of both?
Yes, Exactly! That’s why we came up with The Art Of Balance. We’re trying to balance between the fun aspect that we love in reggae music: the beach, the smokin’ and the chillin’, the rockin’, but also the deep message that reggae is really essentially all about. You know, political, social, geographical. What ever you see when you walk out of your front door.
Before we get further into your new album, The Art Of Balance, are there any artists that you would love to collaborate with? Anybody from the West Coast, East Coast, or Jamaica in particular?
Yeah man I could give you a bunch! For Jamaica, at one point Dancehall had really taken over the reggae movement coming out of Jamaica, so I’m really ecstatic when I hear guys like Chronixx. He’s doing really great things for reggae music, so I’d love to work with him.
Here on the American side, if I could sit down in the studio with SOJA, Rebelution, Tribal Seeds, I would love to do that too. Especially Tribal Seeds, they’re kinda right up my alley. They have a lot of message in their music. They throw out some anthems that are fun and keep you rockin’, but they have message in the music.
Speaking of Tribal Seeds, you released your new album through E.N. Young’s record label Roots Musician Records. How did that relationship form, and why did you decide to push it through RMR?
Just being on the road, and meeting up with him, and myself and my team had always discussed it. So finally, on the third album, it was only right that we link up with him. We know he does good work. His label is solid and has got a good foundation. We’re in the roots rock reggae world, and he’s in that world, so it was just a natural fit for us to link up with him… It’s been wonderful. We’ve done some good things so far, iTunes top 5, Billboard top 7. So a lot of good things have happened as a result.
The Art Of Balance seemed like a whole new sound compared to Concrete World and Wake Up The World. What would you say the biggest difference is between the new album and your first two?
I would agree. You know, that first album, even though it came out in 2010, I had most of that material finished in 2006. So I was young, still a kid developing. I was trying to find my sound, my team, and all that stuff. So if you look at it, it’s almost been 10 years. From then till now I’ve grown. I’ve found my lane, and found what I really love and what I do best at in reggae. To go back to what I said before, that’s the “Hard Roots.” That’s what I’m pushing, and that’s what I’m about. That’s my avenue and I think that it really shines on this album… Yes, we can improve, but [The Art Of Balance] is a nice benchmark of where I want to be.
You have an acoustic song on the new album called “Solid As The Rock,” which was your first experiment with acoustic. Any plans to create more acoustic songs in the future?
Yeah that was the first one. I’ve played around with it, but never actually put one on an album. I love it, it’s one of my favorites on the album. We’ve got a video that’s gonna drop for it real soon too. It’s right up my alley, it’s a great vibe and it gives the vocals a time to shine.
You use to tour with a backing DJ but now have a live band backing you. The current band playing behind you contains some really talented musicians, including a handful from the Berklee College of Music. How would you say they’ve evolved your live show?
When I first started I had DJ, and now for the past several years I’ve had a band behind me.
When I tell those guys where I want to go with the sound, they pick it up so quick. A lot of that, it’s from being school taught, but they also just have a natural vibe, and so much natural ability to pick up on music. So it’s a simple and easy process to create music working with these guys. It’s a big jump from where I was several years ago creating music.
And your brother, Stephen Thunder, played riddim guitar on The Art of Balance, and co-produced the album with you, how important and influential is he on your music?
Yeah! Stephen use to be in the band with me, but because of family obligations he no longer tours. But when we go to the studio to create music, he’s involved. He plays the guitar and helps on the production side of things. He’s always been involved, but just no longer on the road anymore.
Speaking of brothers, I understand your other brother, Andrew Holness just became the prime minister of Jamaica. Knowing your brother, what can you say this means for the people of Jamaica?
It’s a big thing. My brother use to be the Minister of Education, so he’s coming from that aspect. He wants to bring education to the forefront of Jamaica, and surface change through that. I think he’s the right guy for the job. I can’t speak too much on the political side, but I can speak to the man he is, and he is a solid dude! There is no task too big or small for him to accomplish.
Any major plans for Mighty Mystic going forward?
The focus is just to stay as busy as we can. Stay on the road as much as possible. We’re trying to link up with as many bands as we can, too. I can’t wait to see all the East Coast and West Coast reggae bands link up, and the Jamaican bands, everyone coming together under the “One Love” umbrella. To keep evolving reggae music, that would be my biggest joy.
One last thought. I know in the East Coast we have the Cali-Roots: Carolina Sessions, but do you think that the Northeast needs and could support a big reggae festival like a Cali-Roots?
Out here in the Northeast would be wicked! One in either New York or Boston would be a dope thing. We need a massive summer festival. I think it’d be perfect. Hopefully, they make it happen. There is a big enough market for it to happen too. From New York all the way up to Vermont, there’s so many colleges and ski towns, snowboarders and skateboarders that would come out and support a reggae fest. Trust me. It would be wicked!
Big thanks to Mighty Mystic for taking the time to discuss the details on his new album, and his assessment of the reggae scene across the country. Be sure to check out his new album The Art Of Balance to get a taste of his “Hard Roots” style, and check back to The Pier for any updates from Mighty Mystic.
Watch: Mighty Mystic – “How Many Miles”
Watch: Mighty Mystic – “How I Rock”