“There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air, if you listen carefully now, you will hear..” Bob Marley
The MYSTIC REVEALERS play a unique role, past and present, in their contribution to a fertile environment that defined Rastafari philosophy as the root of Jamaican music. For those who do not know Jamaica’s, Billy “Mystic” Wilmott, or those who do not have a deep understanding of the role he played in the success of roots reggae music, stay tuned to this interview captured by Photojournalist, Beverly “Sista Irie” Shaw and Entertainment Attorney, Lloyd Stanbury in the Spring of 2015. In Billy’s own words, a new light of consciousness beams from his humble assessment of years gone by regarding the evolution of roots reggae music. This is the story behind the story.
The band’s four founding members include Kingston-born vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Billy “Mystic” Wilmot; Nicholas “Drummie” Henry, bass guitarist Leroy “Lion” Edwards and guitarist and vocalist Steve Davis, the son of legendary song writer Sangie Davis. Their arrival on the reggae scene began in the mid 1980’s with a song entitled ‘Winner’ released on their own Negus Beat Label. Their contributions to reggae music came at a time when spiritual Rastafarian concepts had formed the foundation of roots music from earlier legends such as Burning Spear, Jacob Miller and Bob Marley. Jimmy Cliff also took notice and produced a second Mystic Revealers single entitled ‘Mash Up Apartheid’ on his Oneness label. Jimmy has continued to be a strong mentor to lead vocalist Billy Mystic, owner of JAMNESIA and creator of the Jamaica Surfing Association.
The musical success of the Mystic Revealers gave them lucrative opportunities to tour the USA, UK, Japan and Europe, most notably on the early Reggae Sunsplash World Tours. However, at that time the reggae music industry in Jamaica began to change rapidly, both musically and technologically, impacting the viability of some of the Island’s most profound roots contributors.
The Mystic Revealers CD release (1995) entitled “TIME AND SPACE” was even more prophetic in that those very words describe the impact that both time and space had on the success of many Jamaican artists. Just as the Mystic Revealers completed their most productive years with multiple releases, time changed everything. Jamaican music suddenly took a major detour away from roots Reggae with the rise of Dancehall dejays and the onset of computerized production, slack lyrics and glorification of gangster lifestyle . Roots became a thing of the past, and for many years was lost in a warp of time and space.
Ironically, and thankfully, for Billy Mystic and friends, time could never stand still. Although, his interests turned to surfing and acting as a result of the declining financial return of the roots music industry, Billy kept the musical incubator fired up, and over time, his influence on a new breed of roots reggae artists is as immeasurable as it is remarkable. Everyone is now talking about a Reggae Revival, however, many fans do not know what was happening behind the scenes. Billy Mystic, was the architect of the emergence of those young artists who suddenly appeared on the scene as saviors of roots reggae music. Remarkably, he did this through a south coast surfing venue where the waves of the sea met the waves of the music and JAMNESIA found it’s memory.
Billy Mystic Interview – with Sista Irie and Lloyd Stanbury at JAMNESIA Bull Bay St Andrew, Jamaica on the beach, against the breeze.
SISTA IRIE : As a radio DJ in Austin, Texas, I received copies of the Mystic Revealers CDs in the mid-nineties and became very excited about the band’s music. It was amazing but then the Mystic Revealers suddenly disappeared. What happened?
BILLY: Well, what happened really… the music business happened. That’s really what that was all about. We know how many record stores closed down coming into the digital era, and we know how many big record companies downsized. Their income stream had been from record sales and that is what made them able to support groups with recording contracts. It was in their best interest to invest money in a group and produce an album that they would have exclusive rights to distribute and sell.
When the digital era came, music became much more available to people, they could access songs much more easily. If the record store didn’t have it, it wasn’t a problem, you could hear it somewhere. You could go online. The argument at that time, was you would have many more additional fans that you did not have before. But, with all these new fans, there was no way to collect a dollar from them. So it really struck home to me. Even before that, when records moved from vinyl to CD, I realized I didn’t know how we were going to make money. We were a full band going on tour and the record company could not cough up $30,000 in tour support for even a month. They didn’t have interest, as they were not selling large numbers anymore. So we started losing that kind of financial support from record companies. If you are not selling millions, and record companies are wondering who they are gonna let go, the groups not selling as much suffer, such as our group.
At that time dancehall was coming on strong, and our type of sophisticated reggae was not in the forefront in Jamaica.
Bob Marley was no longer flying the banner out there in the world and dictating what internationally produced reggae should sound like. There was no new king of reggae. There was King Yellowman. So when people looked to Jamaica, now that Bob Marley was gone, they had to re-learn Jamaican music, re-learn this new genre, this new dancehall thing. We were in a situation where we couldn’t operate in that environment without the type of financial support from the record company that we used to have. We had a lot of people necessary to make the tour work at the level we were operating. We were unable to support that, and with the record contract coming to a close, we did not really want to pursue a new record contract. It looked like we were getting less and less and less. We still considered our music and material at the same caliber and value. We decided maybe it was just the end of our era, and let’s just stop and see what happens next.
LLOYD: This was about when?
BILLY: Late nineties to early two thousands.
LLOYD: You really felt you were done?
BILLY: Yes, done with the music. It’s like I have a family of five children to feed, and all of a sudden, when I used to come back from touring with thousands of dollars in my pocket, I am now coming home with hundreds of dollars. It is not like I have fewer responsibilities or less expenses. They were just as much or even more.
SISTA IRIE: Well, now you are starting to record again. What has changed?
BILLY: It’s really the people are asking for the material. We are just going along with it. What happened is Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and Jesse Royal. All of them are kids who came through the JAMNESIA experience. They gathered experience right here with their stage performance long before they were artists of note. They were just another youngster picking up a mic and performing. JAMNESIA was a venue, a date, and an occasion that could satisfy their experiences of what it is like to be on a real stage. To perform in front of a live audience with a band behind them, not on a sound system with a riddim track, not with a band in a rehearsal room, not in a studio with headphones on, but the REAL THING, in front of REAL PEOPLE.
For a lot of young artists coming up, even in our days, you write a song, you try to compose some music, whether you are an instrumentalist or you hire people, or you find a producer or whatever you need to transform music from an idea in your head into a produced and recorded track. Then, you take that track and try to get it on the air with the radio station disc jockeys, and also take it to the sound system man who may play the track. Hopefully some man fire some shot and flash some lighter and forward up your tune two time and put it on the radio, and the radio station get jam up with calls, saying give me that one again and ray ray. When that start happening, some show promoter says he want you for a show and you get your first show with your tune mashing up the place, but you have never been on a stage in your life. When they call you out on stage, you are unsure, shy, you have no stage presence, you can’t command the audience, you don’t treat the thing like all of this is set up for me. You know? Like this is my shit in front of me here. You don’t feel like that, because it’s a brand new experience.
Well now you have these new young artists who were not getting booked but they were tremendously popular. JAMNESIA happens every two weeks, so they come and when they come, they get a live audience who do not have to pay a cover charge. You never know what you are going to see. Sometimes its garbage, but we clap them and say good try anyway. It’s not the kind of stage where someone is afraid. It’s one of the most welcoming if you have never been on a stage, and it is going to happen regularly. You are going to be able to come and you don’t have to get booked. You just come and sit down by the stage and when one man come off, you just try to beat everyone else to the stage and do your thing, and if people like you, they give you some forward. When you finish Uncle Billy come to you and say, my youth you don’t have enough eye contact with the audience, you look too much at the bassie.
SISTA IRIE: So you coach them?
BILLY: Yeah Man. Anything I see coming across that takes away from what they are trying to achieve, I point it out to them. So they take these things and work on them until they get good. And when they return they start to mash up JAMNESIA and build a following. Then the JAMNESIA crowd hears this artist, Chronixx is performing at another venue, and they been watching Chronixx for two years, and now here is the first public show for Chronixx. They all want to be there because they know nobody knows this youth, but they want to watch this youth mash up the crowd now. You understand what I am dealing with? And when he goes out there on stage he is used to that feeling of commanding a place and a space. So the first time the general public sees him, he is so professional, polished and poised, and knows what to say, when to be quiet, when to wheel it. Even with the same lyrics, had he not had that polish, he would never have had that impact. So these youths then go on tour and do interviews. Eventually a question is asked about the development of their career, and they say…. JAMNESIA. And everyone then start to mention this ting.
SISTA IRIE: When did JAMNESIA start?
BILLY: About eight years ago
SISTA IRIE: And it has always been an open house?
BILLY: Yeah since the beginning and that is what really pulled Mystic Revealers out because people started making the connection. What began to happen is that these young artists attracted a new set of reggae aficionados in the marketplace. They bring fans their own age, their own generation. But they attracted them not to dancehall reggae but to the more roots, and these aficionados are the ones who have gone back looking to see where the root of this music come from? It is not something new. It is a revival…so what is being revived? When they go back now and find out, all of a sudden, Billy Mystic and the Mystic Revealers is something, because we played a major part in this revival thing. So there is natural attention being paid. At the same time I formed the Surfing Association and did a whole heap of work promoting surfing in Jamaica. Millions of surfers love reggae music too, so there is that connection. So when VP come to we and say they would love to have our catalogue since it is not out there,
I said no, but I can give you a compilation and see what happens and what kind of response we get. We have a whole heap of songs for the next release.
SISTA IRIE: So it sounds like you have an album about to come out?
Billy: It depends on the response to this “Crucial Cuts” movement now. We want to do some touring because we want to make some money. We cut down the group for the past two years. Me, Nicky and Lion been getting some private rehearsals, and make our own harmonies. We have been doing a lot of hard work to play and sing. Right now if people call me and want an acoustic set we can be a drum, base and guitar and entertain for about an hour. So we are at that level now. So we can travel with ourselves, and also, a keyboardist and engineer.
SISTA IRIE: What do you think about the fact that so many of the hottest selling acts in the USA and Europe are bands like Rebelution, SOJA, Alborosie, and Gentlemen. They are the ones selling records and packing the concerts? What do you think about that?
BILLY: Well good music is good music. You can’t say where somebody comes from makes their music good or not good. You have some musicians and artists who come from Jamaica that are making garbage. They may be recording at Tuff Gong and pure rubbish they make. So if you hear good music is made somewhere else you can’t be surprised.
Jimmy Cliff say, there is a thing called music and another thing named music business, and him say to me “Billy you have to remember you are getting into the music business. It’s not just music, its music business, but guess what, it is ten percent music and 90 percent business.” So, you have to be aware and watch the thing.
When you ask me what I think about these groups, obviously, they have their shit together. You understand? They study the market.
They are doing their business. They know what the people want to hear. They realize they are competing in a marketplace where people want to hear reggae music. “Can we make reggae music in such a way the people will come to listen to us instead of paying three times as much to see a group from Jamaica? Hell yeah! We went to music school. Hey let’s take a trip to Jamaica and hang out for a month or two. Let’s make a track with Buju or Sly and Robbie.” When them go back home them legit, because they spent three months in Jamaica recording with Sly and Robbie so you can’t talk to them. Them is the closest you are gonna get to Jamaica. So its like the people up there say, “Rebelution, I heard they just got back from Jamaica, they are doing a new album and I even hear they have Chronixx on one of the tracks and it is SICK BRO! SICK. I am buying a new bong for that concert man.”
They know what they are doing. I could never be upset with them for taking advantage of something we neglect. We are the ones that look stupid. When you feel you can’t tour unless you take fifteen and twenty men, and can’t take less than thirty thousand for a show, you want five star hotel, and you have to have a coach, and you need Evian water, and you have all these kinds of demands that make things difficult. You cut off your own neck. I can never be upset as long as the music they are making is good music and the message is good. Give thanks, JAH see to make it go that way. And let’s give thanks that the message is good and not a negative one because right here in Jamaica, at least 50% or more of the reggae music going out is rubbish, and half of the rest is not fit for airplay. I have nothing against the exposure nor the explosion uprising and success of foreign reggae groups. Mi applaud them.
LLOYD: How do you see the relationship between Ganja and reggae music, and what do you think of this whole law reform process both locally and internationally when it comes to marijuana?
BILLY: Well it’s like when people make music, when some man has his girl, him not just take out him girl and carry her home to make love to her. Him feel a little better or she feel a little better if she has a drink of wine. Or he might take two stout, two Guinness, two Dragon or him Spirulina or what have you. Something to get him feeling that way, feeling less inhibited. So you find, nuff man use alcohol to achieve that so he can get into that emotional state of mind, and he find that alcohol enhance that. So maybe he is a little shy to say something romantic to him girl, so when he has two juice, he will say it. He is not ashamed and feel no way about it. Him find the lyrics easier in that time!
A lot of reggae music was created by Rastafari people, and Rasta been using marijuana even before there was a formal recording or music industry in Jamaica. You find, all of these Rasta who singing and chanting and beat Buru drum, all of them smoke dem chalice and burn them hot rod pipe and do them things from them times. It was just another part of the music environment. It’s not like weed was singled out and used and now we make a music. Weed was just part of everyday life. Weed was always the poor man’s cigarette. If him can’t buy it, him can pop off a bud and smoke it. Ganja was available and part of that environment. That to me, is what it was and it’s relationship. It was just part of the Jamaican culture and same way it play a part in reggae music, it play a part in law, because lawyers smoke it, and same with medicine since doctors smoke it. Ganja plays a part in the business because the businessman smoke it. Even granny who fight against it, boil tea. So, you can’t get it out of the culture. So when you look at the legal aspect and toward the law and legislation, if me was in charge of the government, I would not have a problem with weed. I would see weed as a big opportunity for the government to make a whole heap of money.
First of all, for all the people incarcerated on a weed charge, you have to feed, shelter, secure, and provide electricity and water and keep their place clean, provide toilet facility and maintenance of the property. Each one of them have a bill per annum. We wouldn’t have that cost.
I would want to establish certain fundamental bylaws. If you plant weed, you have to own or lease land or rent it. You must be able to prove you have a right to use that piece of land. Then you come and fill out an application and tell me how much weed you are going to produce. I will give you a license and provide police protection for your crop and agricultural officers to help assist you in marijuana production. Those people already exist. You bring them up to speed so they understand medical and other types of ganja use and production. They could encourage the growing of marijuana for medical, industrial or needs other than smoking, and issue licenses for all growing from which revenue will be collected by the Government.
The man who comes from town in a panel van and goes to buy 250 pounds must have a commercial license for wholesale and distribution. When he brings it to town and Johnnie’s Hideout want a pound and half, Johnnie must have a license to distribute like a liquor license and charge GCT to the public and pay it over to the government. The government can collect all that money right down the line. The only law to really worry about is that you must be 18 or older to smoke. Please smoke responsibly.
I would not make it into a big thing like you have to prove that you are Rasta and it is for sacramental use. Do I have to prove I am Roman Catholic to buy wine? Why these Roman Catholic have wine as a sacrament and offerings and tings, and yet no one has to prove they are Catholic to drink the wine? That is stupid.
It is either legal, or its not legal. The half way thing is designed to create more complication so the legislators happy and can say they have something to do.
LLOYD: – How do you see the relationship between Jamaica as a country known for marijuana and the rest of the world. It is easy to understand and relate to your scenario as to how the government should deal with marijuana, but we all would like to see the world partake in marijuana from Jamaica that they love, just like they love the reggae. How do we deal with that in an environment where there are still international conventions. Even the Jamaican government uses that as an excuse, by saying the international conventions prevent them from moving forward. This has nothing to do with our internal affairs. How do you see dealing with that?
BILLY: That’s why I say our thing is sufficient to create industry within. It’s already there running. We can’t provide ganja for smoking purposes internationally.
LLOYD: We could also provide an environment within Jamaica that brings the international community to Jamaica.
BILLY: We have to be the leaders. We can’t wait until the world is ready.
SISTA IRIE: I think medical marijuana will open the door for people coming to Jamaica and looking for high quality marijuana for medical reasons.
LLOYD: Yes, it definitely will, but I agree with Billy we should go all the way. It should not be decriminalized and available for medical use only, and then later on we revisit it. Just go all the way.
BILLY: For example with hemp. They put in a plan, hemp to make rope and cloth and all them things, and Jamaica gonna stop using plastic rice bag. They could replace it with hemp. We need a leader who will stand up to the people selling us rice. Why should my grand-pickney suffer in the future? People don’t look far enough down the line. You can’t be independent if you can’t feed yourselves. We need to create our thing internally first. Our thing must make sense locally. We have to say why it is we need hemp production. We need to cut out plastic. We must look at all aspects of hemp production. We also need to expand solar and wind energy and hydro. That we have. Seven thousand feet of elevation and 500 rivers that come down the mountainside. We have the sun and can provide our electricity every day of the year. The trade winds blow every day of the year. We deal with all the power we need. We need some brave leaders to get this sorted out. Some will suffer, yes, but if we don’t make these changes, all of us will suffer forever.
LLOYD: Lets flip back a bit to Revealers. Are you headed back on the road?
BILLY: Yeah man. The people want it. We are here and we can sing same way. We have a whole heap of interests, and we have another thing going for us because of the years we have been in it. We have gained respect from people in the industry. Before, it was not as apparent. Some of the big musicians we respect when we were coming up, now that we reach an age, I see the same acceptance of Revealers as one of the forerunners that gain respect and notoriety for Jamaica. When you get that kind of respect and acknowledgement from your peers, that encourages you. One time I was a little youth but now I realize that I am a big man and things are not the same. Life change now. The first time someone look up to you and call you an elder, you say to yourself when did I go there suh? If it was left up to you when you are grey and your beard touch the ground, you still feel like a youth. We have levels where we say yeah he is an adult now and you gain respect and notoriety and when that comes it puts you in a better position for people to listen to your thing. You are not competing to have a hit single.
Your career does not depend on a hit by end of the month. You are in a different category now. You just put out a song and it becomes part of a collection. That is why now it seems like our time has come.