Desert Storm veteran and former security guard Michael Tyler, known in the local rap community as Mystikal, was well into the recording of his debut album when his sister was brutally murdered. But he persevered, recorded a remarkably poignant tribute to her, and is now outselling Aaron Neville and most everyone else in New Orleans.
When you are the hottest rapper in a rap town, it doesn’t take long to draw a crowd. When Michael Tyler, known as Mystikal in the local rap community, stepped out of his 12th Ward home one recent afternoon to scowl for a photographer—he smiles often over the course of his day, but rarely in front of cameras—his street corner was deserted, save a couple of old ladies on a nearby stoop. A few minutes later, the women had retreated inside and the corner was bustling with activity. People on bikes, in cars, and on foot all stopped off for some face time with Mystikal.
A carload of homeboys pulls up—they want to sell Mystikal an NBA jersey, an article of clothing that figures prominently in his wardrobe (eventually, he purchases a Chris Webber Bullets tank top). A group of former co-workers stop by and jokingly offer Tyler his old supermarket job. Two thirty-ish women in a sedan with three young children in the back seat stop and ask for an autograph; Mystikal obliges.
The kids in his neighborhood are more accustomed to his presence. A dozen of them gather to watch the proceedings and banter with the man whose music they hear on the radio and whose face they see on local cable-access channels. They eagerly pose with him for a picture, and are not shy about casting Mystikal as the neighborhood Santa Claus. A plucky 10-year-old elicits a chuckle from Mystikal when she asks if he needs some more dancers.
Another calls out, “Hey Mystikal, we need a swimming pool.”
Counters another, “I just want a Land Cruiser.”
Mystikal laughs at that last one. “I don’t even have a Land Cruiser.”
Scenes like this are part of Mystikal’s daily existence. “It’s like that wherever I go,” he
His mother is famous by association. “He’s put me on the map,” laughs Marie Tyler. “Everywhere I go—school, church, my children’s school, the grocery store where I worked. Some of them I have to convince: ‘You Mystikal’s mama? Oh, that’s Mystikal’s mama!’ Yeah, I’m Mystikal’s mother.”
Homegrown rap does big business in New Orleans, and top acts—be they “bounce” artists, who make a distinctly local rap-lite with repetitive, sing-along choruses, or more standard hardcore rappers—sell tens of thousands of cassettes and CDs. Mystikal’s self-titled debut album was released in late 1994 by Big Boy Records, a rap label based in Kenner. On it, he comes across with a bold, rough-edged, rapid-fire style of rapping that is unusual for New Orleans. “His voice control, what he can do with his mouth—you might listen to his CD and think you’re hearing sound effects, but it’s his voice,” says Robert Shaw, who heads up the management division of the Big Boy operation.
Mystikal’s style has caught on with listeners big-time. According to published Soundscan reports, the top-selling local release in New Orleans the second week of Jazz Fest was not the latest from Beau Jocque, or Dr. John, or Cowboy Mouth, or even Aaron Neville—it was Mystikal’s album. The following week, after Jazz Fest fever had died down and most local artists had fallen off the chart, Mystikal was still at No. 3 (Aaron Neville held steady at No. 5, and Big Boy rap act Partners N Crime stood at No. 10).
At the end of May, Mystikal was enjoying its second run on Billboard’s national Top R&B Albums chart (it reached as high as No. 56).
Mystikal attracts proportionately large crowds when he performs. A huge throng turned out for his Jazz Fest set at the Congo Square stage. The following week, a capacity crowd was on hand when he became the first local rapper to headline the House of Blues, appearing on a bill with fellow Big Boy Records artists Partners N Crime, the Ghetto Twiinz and Fiend.
That Michael Tyler, a 24-year-old Desert Storm veteran, former security guard and all-around nice guy, was able to become a scowling rap sensation is all the more remarkable in light of the tragedy that struck while Tyler was trying to finish his album.
Last September, Tyler’s 29-year-old sister, Michelle, was murdered in the Tyler family’s home. Compounding the tragedy was that Michelle’s boyfriend, who had been living with her and the rest of the Tyler family, was charged with the killing.
And because that boyfriend was Damion Neville, son of Charmaine Neville and grandson of Charles Neville, the Tylers had to endure exaggerated media coverage of the subsequent trial (Damion Neville was acquitted; no one else has been charged with the crime).
Thus, although he is flush with fame and success, Tyler still lives in his old room in the house he shares with his mother, younger brother and nephew. “We’re kind of sticking together for a minute,” Tyler explains. “Healing together.”
As a youngster, Michael Tyler’s family moved around New Orleans frequently. His father, who ran a small neighborhood store out of the building where the family now lives, passed away when Michael was 7. “My mom was mama, daddy, auntie, uncle, grandmother,” says Tyler. “She was all of that.”
The young Michael Tyler got caught up in the fads of the day—breakdancing was popular—and toyed around with rudimentary rhyming and rapping.
At Cohen High School, he was an average student—science, especially astronomy, was his favorite. But he was starting to get serious about his rapping; he eagerly grabbed a mic whenever one was offered, and LL Cool J became one of his idols. “Any auditorium, any sort of assembly, I was there,” he says. “Black History Month, I had a Black History rap. Christmas, I had a Christmas rap. Whatever was going on, I had something for it.”
After graduation, the armed services seemed like his best option. “I was tired of school, but I wanted to keep going, keep doing something,” he says. “And I didn’t feel like just waking up every day and working.”
Tyler’s cousin was a career Army man, so he signed on with that branch of the service. For his specialty, he decided on combat engineering. “My cousin was that. I asked him, ‘Man, what you did in the Army?’ ‘Combat engineer.’ When it was my turn, I said, ‘I’m familiar with combat engineer—give me that.’”
His cousin didn’t mention anything about the possibility of a war breaking out—which is what happened less than a year after Tyler enlisted, when the United States went to the aid of Kuwait in the Gulf War. Tyler soon learned more about his chosen specialty—combat engineers, he discovered, are the ones who precede the other troops, clearing minefields. “Boy, I was scaaarrrred,” Tyler says of his mine-clearing days. “But once you out there, you out there. Suck it up.”
Tyler’s four year hitch in the Army was a pivotal time for him. “If I had all that shit to do over again, I’d do the exact same thing. I learned so much just being away from home. I had never been nowhere but New Orleans, [except for when] I went to Florida once when I was younger, to Disneyland.”
He credits the Army with helping him grow up. “You have no choice. You’re gonna get stronger, or you gonna snap. You have to really know how to adapt. When you get in the Army, that shit can change you. If your mind’s not developed all the way, it can have you thinkin’ a whole fucked up way. It’s so controlled—you have to be able to deal with a motherfucker telling you, ‘Cut your fuckin’ hair!!’ Constantly on your ass. But you can’t quit. You’re there for however long you signed.
“But you can’t look at it like that. It’s way funner than that. I recommend it to anybody.”
While in the Army, Tyler took psychology and business classes, but spent more time performing raps in NCO clubs (yes, he had a Desert Storm rap).
After his discharge, he came home to New Orleans and was hired as an undercover security guard at the Woolworth’s in the Carrollton Shopping Center. Dressed in street clothes, Tyler pretended he was a customer as he kept an eye out for shoplifters. This rapper carried a badge along with his gun.
“I loved that shit. I was just coming back from the Army, I had just come from a war—I was wild. Up every morning, running (I still do that shit now, go to Audubon Park and do exercises—not every day like I used to). Every fuckin’ day somebody [would try to sneak an item out of the store, setting off sensor alarms]. No matter where I was—I could be in the back eatin’—I’d come flyin’, hoppin’ over tables and shit.”
Because of his enthusiasm and his success, Tyler became something of a security guard celebrity. “They used to have me going to other people’s stores. ‘You got a shoplifter problem? We got a good man over here. You want to use him for week?’”
But even as he was chasing down criminals, Tyler’s music career was gaining speed. Before going into the service, he had laid down some vocal tracks with his friends in 3-9 Posse, which turned up on one of the group’s albums on a small local label. Because of his 3-9 Posse association, Tyler was invited to be one of the local acts who opened for Run-D.M.C. and Doug E. Fresh at an outdoor concert at the Treme Center.
Leroy “Precise” Edwards, the house producer for Big Boy Records, was in the audience, and was blown away by Mystikal’s one-song performance of “Not That Nigga.”
“Everybody else that was up there, you were just watching—I didn’t feel anything,” remembers Precise. “I felt his performance.
“This was everybody’s first time seeing him,” Precise continues, “and it was like he had had a record out for six months. The audience was going crazy. I asked people, ‘Who’s that? How long has his album been out?’ They said, ‘I don’t know who that is.’”
That was Michael Tyler, soon to be known as Mystikal. Tyler’s stage name goes back to his junior-high breakdancing days. “Everybody had some kind of little name. I thought ‘Mystikal Mike’ had a nice little ring. [Later] I just cut the ‘Mike’ off and kept the ‘Mystikal’ because it was catchy.”
The day after the Treme Center show, Precise got together with Mystikal to talk. The following evening, they were in Big Boy’s studio in Kenner. Two weeks later, Mystikal’s first single—“Not That Nigga” b/w “Mind of Mystikal”—was in the stores.
Mystikal was an immediate sensation in the New Orleans rap community. Partners N Crime’s Misdemeanor, a veteran of the local rap scene, remembers being advised to check out the new guy called Mystikal.
“When I first saw him, he didn’t have no braids or anything. He didn’t look like a rapper—he just looked like a regular guy,” says Misdemeanor. “People were like, ‘That dude’s so good—he can rap.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, what he kickin’—bounce, or something like that?’ I heard him rap, and I was like, ‘Man, where did this dude come from?’ Next time I saw him he had braids, and that’s the look you need. That fit the way he rapped.”
Misdemeanor, now a good friend and labelmate of Mystikal’s, instantly recognized that this was something new.
“It was a certain type of sound that I had never heard from New Orleans,” says Misdemeanor. “New Orleans had its own flavor—bounce. Or people try to rap hardcore, but it all sounds the same. When he came along, it was a hardcore style that was different. I thought he was from New York or somewhere like that. He has accents on so many words. What he’s saying is basically what everybody is saying—[songs about] life and the way everybody feels. It’s just the emphasis that he puts on so many words that makes the music so different. Mystikal can do tongue-twisters, break it down, slow it down, speed it up. Mystikal has a rage in his voice, and raps fast. Mystikal raps rough and slow, rough and fast—he’s got his own style.”
Tyler says that has been his style for years. “I always had the same kind of stuff that I rapped about—the cockiness and stuff. I always rapped like that. Das EFX gave me the trickiness of it. [I learned from] LL [Cool J].”
When it was time to make Mystikal’s album, producer Precise says he soon discovered that his production style would have to be tailored to Mystikal’s approach. “I was watching every little bit of his reaction. Since his wording, his style and his lyrics are so different, I tried to please him.”
“A lot of the beats I already had in my head, and I’d tell Precise ‘Do this,’” says Mystikal. “I had half the album finished before I met [the Big Boy people]. ‘That Nigga Ain’t Shit,’ I wrote that in the army. ‘Murderer,’ I wrote that in the army. I used to do them in gong shows [while stationed] in Georgia.”
Normally, when Precise makes an album, the musical tracks are built first, then given to the vocalists, who rap to fit the tracks. With Mystikal, the process was reversed: he cut his vocals to a barebones beat, then Precise went back and built and synchronized the tracks around the raps. “The tracks had to fit his style, because his style is so unique,” says Precise. “It’s like buying a Lexus coupe and sending it to California, where they chop the top off and get it custom-made. [The music] was custom-made for Mystikal.”
On his debut, Mystikal leaves plenty of clues to hint at his hometown: “I’ve got more women than a world pimp/more flavor than a boiled shrimp.” He places himself squarely in the firmament of local rappers on “Ya’ll Ain’t Ready Yet”: “I’m Sporty like T and G. like Slimm / I’m Ice like Mike and Smooth like Tim.”
That song would be the album’s hit and the catalyst for its enormous sales. It was the last one written for the record.
After he had written the first verse, remembers Mystikal, he tested it out on friends. His sister Michelle was advising him, too. A singer, she had contributed backing vocals to albums by G. Slimm and Silky Slim, and to a cut for her brother’s album, “Not That Nigga.” She thought “Ya’ll Ain’t Ready Yet” was promising; she especially enjoyed the “did I do that?” line, which Mystikal sings like TV nerd Erkel. The song, and the album, would be finished soon.
Then came the night of September 22.
All members of the Tyler family were asleep upstairs in their house, except Michelle, who stayed downstairs. Michael Tyler got up around 3 in the morning to bring a friend home. When he went downstairs, both the front and back doors were open. The only illumination was moonlight through the open doors. Something felt very wrong.
He looked into the room Michelle shared with Damion. Clothes were strewn about on the bed. Then Tyler saw his sister. She had been stabbed. He nearly fainted.
“Then I started thinking back to my army [training],” he remembers. “When they’d have us in a parade they’d say, ‘shift your weight so you don’t faint.’ I kept myself from fainting.”
Making the incident even more horrific for Tyler, Michelle was wearing a Mystikal t-shirt at the time of her death—and he found the body on his birthday. “What’s that supposed to mean?” asks Tyler. “Is that coincidence or what? What the fuck?”
Tyler was devastated, but decided the best therapy would be to channel his energy and emotion into his music.
“After my sister died, I kind of lost my mind for a minute. Then I focused everything on [finishing “Ya’ll Ain’t Ready”]. Everything. I had so much on my mind, I had to do it. I wanted no doubt for it to be a hit”
Remembers Misdemeanor, “It was like he went on a mission.”
When Tyler and his family gathered at his grandmother’s house the day of Michelle’s funeral, he was working on music. “I had my tablet in my hand, writing stuff, getting ideas—I’m gonna write a story about my sister. I stayed focused. I used that as a push, like a boost.
“That comes from my military background, all that kind of shit that I’ve been through. It hardened me up a little bit. I don’t think without all that shit I would have been able to take them kind of blows, you know what I’m saying?” He shakes his head.
“A lot of people thought that was it, that I wouldn’t come out with nothing else. I had the [“Not That Nigga”] single out before she died. They was waitin’. Waitin’. Waitin’. Then after that happened, ‘He’s already taking long, I know he’s gonna take long now.’ But I was still focused on it.
“I didn’t use it like, ‘Oh, sorry me.’ I’m too strong for that shit. I’ve got too much shit to accomplish. Besides, my sister wasn’t like that. She’d be telling me to do the same shit I’m doing right now. If she were here and I weren’t, that’s how it would be.”
Tyler distilled his grief into what became the final track on the Mystikal CD, “Dedicated to Michelle Tyler.” In this remarkably poignant 70-second spoken word tribute, he sets aside the character of the swaggering, scowling rapper to be Michael Tyler, grieving brother:
“Thank you for being the best sister a brother could have ever wanted—24 years of laughter and joy. Sure is gonna be hard, not being able to see you smile again, baby. So I guess I’ll just hold onto all the memories that we did share until we meet again. You were already an angel; so I guess you’ve just gone home. I’m gonna keep you in my heart, and my thoughts. I love you.”
His barely contained sobs are audible. “It took me like…I kept cryin’,” he says, shaking his head once again. “I couldn’t even make it through. I wrote a line or two [before starting]—but I pretty much knew what I wanted to say.”
In the studio’s control booth, Precise just let the tape roll, so Tyler could take all the time he needed. The level of emotion in the studio that night was high; the vibe was so heavy that rappers from the group Murder Inc., who were there working on other material, had to leave.
“It’s real feelings,” says Precise of “Dedicated to Michelle Tyler.” “It was hard to listen to. Most people wouldn’t show their true emotions like that: ‘I’m a rapper, I’m hard, I’m not supposed to cry.’ He put a lot of true emotion in that.”
Precise says he wasn’t surprised by Mystikal’s desire to carry on in the wake of Michelle’s death. “I wasn’t surprised, because he was strong before that,” says Precise. “When I met him, he had been [rapping] for a long time. You have to be strong to be able to follow your dream. It’s like being an athlete—everybody wants to, but everybody can’t.
“Anything that comes up in front of him from now on, I believe he can handle—good or bad.”
Those black days last fall seem like much more than eight months ago.
“When I think back to that part of my life, it was like a dark cloud,” says Tyler the afternoon of the photo shoot. “The whole house was gloomy in here, you know what I’m sayin’? That’s some shit, boy.”
But things have gotten back to normal around the Tyler house. Mystikal jokes with his mother that she is responsible for the cussin’ on his album, as she laughs and protests her innocence.
Did she ever think her son’s rapping would lead anywhere? “Hell, no,” she says, laughing. “I used to listen to Mike when he was in high school, I knew he sounded just as good as something I was listening to on the radio. I always thought he had potential. I really did.”
And his future looks bright. Among local rap labels, Big Boy is first-rate. Its releases are packaged professionally, the sound quality is high, and the company’s goals are long-term. With Mystikal, Big Boy’s street-level marketing campaign proved highly effective. Before his album was released, commercials that ran on Black Entertainment Television and during sporting events teased viewers with a snippet of “Ya’ll Ain’t Ready Yet.”
Beyond that, says Big Boy’s Robert Shaw, the idea was simply to put Mystikal onstage in front of as many people as possible. When Mystikal performs, his charisma is apparent. And the screams that are triggered whenever he tears off a t-shirt bear witness to his sex appeal. “His look is different—it’s more of a national look,” says Shaw. “We’ve put him in situations where he performs for a lot of people, and let him do what he does best.”
The sales up to this point have been achieved without benefit of a radio single—a cleaned-up radio version of “Ya’ll Ain’t Ready” was not available until recently.
The Big Boy strategy with Mystikal is to conquer one city at a time. As Mystikal notes, New Orleans is “sewed up. The name down here is so strong it helps us anywhere we go.” He has been playing festivals in Lafayette, and jetting over to Houston for well-received shows there; if he achieves the level of success he’s seen in New Orleans in that much larger city, jumping off to national prominence seems realistic.
Though few Louisiana rappers have managed to cash in on a national level, it may only be a matter of time. Big Boy artist G. Slimm, whose Fours, Deuces and Trays was one of the most acclaimed local rap albums of 1994, is in serious negotiations with major label Relativity. And the president of at least one major label was due in New Orleans at the end of May to meet with Mystikal.
His friend Misdemeanor predicts great things for Mystikal. “He’s good. Real good. I feel like he’s gonna go somewhere. The world’s not ready yet—they’ve never heard nobody like that.”
For now, his local success has not made much of an impression on Michael Tyler.
“When it’s gold,” he says of his record, sounding like Mystikal, “that’s when it counts.”