In June of 1995, Mystikal, whose self-titled debut for New Orleans’ Big Boy Records label was creeping its way up Billboard’s hip-hop and R&B albums chart (its re-release as Mind of Mystikal on Jive Records later that year hit number 14) made history as the first rapper to appear on the cover of OffBeat. During the Jazz Fest season that immediately preceded that issue, according to Soundscan reports, the album had been the top-selling local release, beating out veterans like Aaron Neville and Dr. John. A week after his first Fest appearance on the Congo Square stage, as the first local rapper to headline the brand-new New Orleans House of Blues, he sold the place out.
21 years later, the Gulf War veteran’s career has been a complicated rollercoaster of success and strife. He jumped between Jive Records and Louisiana’s No Limit label at the height of its power, earning two Grammy nominations and selling multiple millions. He lost his sister, Michelle, to violence. He served six years in prison on charges of sexual battery and extortion and concurrently, on a federal tax evasion charge. Released in early 2010, a misdemeanor domestic abuse charge saw him incarcerated again, for just under three months. In late 2011, he signed to Cash Money Records, a move the rapper said, in a recent phone call, “saved his life” (and indeed, to relaunch his career via the scrappy, street-level local label-turned-global powerhouse seemed sort of poetic at the time). But three years later, having released no new material beyond one single, Mystikal split from Cash Money. In a red-carpet interview at the 2014 BMI R&B/Hip-Hop Awards, he told Rap-Up TV, simply, “I don’t fit the mold of the situation I’m in.”
As he hit his mid-forties and rebuilt his personal and creative life, things seemed uncertain for Mystikal. And then just months later, in early 2015, he was back. Mark Ronson’s throwback soul album UpTown Special, released in January of that year, gave the rapper a feature that seemed tailor-made for him: the firecracker single “Feel Right,” which is for all intents and purposes a Mystikal song. Without the gritty, urgent, livewire vocal style that has long prompted critics to compare the rapper to James Brown, the track would be an entirely different animal. The album made itself at home in Billboard’s top ten, and the song reminded the world that in New Orleans, a unique talent was turning a new page in his career. At Buku on Friday, March 11, he’ll share the stage with Juvenile, another veteran New Orleans rapper who’s working on a fresh chapter of his own.
Now in its fifth year, Buku initially focused on electronic dance music. Buku’s bill usually includes a few legacy names—the Flaming Lips and Public Enemy have headlined—but the space the fest has carved out is largely defined by buzzy, rising acts often making their first appearance in town. For better or worse, it’s also paid less tribute to the local music scene than comparable New Orleans festivals, such as Essence and Voodoo. (Certainly, it doesn’t ignore homegrown talent. Big Freedia, Boyfriend, Quickie Mart and Gravity A, among others, have all played Buku.) Still, Mystikal and Juvenile’s split set at Buku 2016 (also shared with next-generation bounce artist Fly Boi Keno) is a fairly special thing: locally rooted vets, representing basically a metric ton of New Orleans hip-hop history between them.
In the early ’90s, before national distribution came into play, New Orleans’ hip-hop scene was a thriving network of small independent labels. At the top were Cash Money, the mostly Baton Rouge–based No Limit, and Big Boy Records, Mystikal’s initial home base. A rivalry—for public relations purposes only, Mystikal said—sprang up between Big Boy and Cash Money. The early Cash Money group U.N.L.V. taunted Mystikal with “Drag ‘Em ‘N’ Tha River,” from 1996’s Mannie Fresh–produced Uptown 4 Life. On the Solja Rags album a year later, Juvenile declared himself the “Big Boy headache giver.”
Two decades later, both stars are looking both forward and back. With “Feel Right,” Mystikal continued to mine the deep Southern soul flavor fans have heard in his work since the beginning. Juvenile, who reunited with the Cash Money supergroup the Hot Boys at Lil Wayne’s Lil Weezyana Fest in August 2015 (and quietly re-signed to the label earlier that year) will, it’s been reported, be working with his former labelmates Wayne and Mannie Fresh on an album of new material. Will we see teasers of the new tracks at Buku, nostalgic classics, or both? Either way, it’s a sleeper don’t-miss set that grounds the festival solidly in its hometown.