Civilized is right. It's Martin Luther King Day, and Urban Mystic is decked out in amber shades, calfskin jacket, and tweed fedora. He's one of the featured performers in both cities' MLK birthday celebrations, and he and his crew -- three back-up singers and two of his three brothers, plus a couple friends and his business manager -- have a full day ahead of them. Despite the plush whip and rock star itinerary, the mood in the car is more Inside the Studio than Girls Gone Wild.
On first meeting Urban Mystic -- born Brandon Williams, called Urban by his friends -- it's hard to not be a little shocked by his size. Album covers and their contents can be deceiving: A peek at Ghetto Revelations, his promising debut on Miami's SOBE Entertainment label (with national distribution by Warner Music Group), reveals a sly, narrow-eyed player looking out at the world the way a cheetah sizes up a gazelle. In person, though, he's five feet five and baby-faced.
Before the limo ride, Williams was hanging out at Fort Lauderdale's Sunland Park Elementary School. It was the finish line for Broward's huge MLK Day parade, and he was scheduled for a 1:00 p.m. performance. "It's funny, because I was just telling my friends I went to school here, and my mom worked here," he said at the time. "The first time I learned to swim was in that pool." That wasn't too long ago. After a gushing introduction and a cheer from the field of onlookers, he took the stage, and everything changed.
Flanked by three young back-up vocalists and an instrumental track, Williams handled the mike like one shakes hands with a familiar friend. His sound is almost timeless, pure libidinous R&B delivered with a streetwise, hip-hop sensibility that renders it smooth and rugged at the same time. He sang a couple of midtempo songs; a cover of his idol Seventies R&B master Bobby Womack's "Woman's Gotta Have It," and then dropped the bomb: the first single off Ghetto Revelations, "Where Were You?"
Folks recognized this one, and they should have. Written by Williams and his veteran production partner Kaygee (formerly of hip-hop hitmakers Naughty By Nature, who also produced New Jersey crooner Jaheim's Ghetto Love), "Where Were You?" has been getting airplay all over 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) and Hot 105 (WHQT-FM 105.1). And, well after its November debut, the video is still getting ranked on BET's 106 and Park Top Ten countdown.
Like an R&B "American Pie," the song strives for a kind of timelessness, pinning passing youth to an unforgettable moment. "Where were you/When you first heard Biggie and Pac and knew you were blessed with the best of hip-hop/When your team came back with the ring/With your crew rolling through you could do anything," he sang.
"I'm looking for öWhere Were You?' to be one of those classics, you know," he now says as the limo pulls onto I-95. The old soul who commanded an audience moments ago is gone, replaced by a young man laughing easily with his friends, cruising in a pimp ride.
Since Ghetto Revelations dropped in November, Williams has toured from LA to Atlanta to St. Louis to New York, "literally living out of a suitcase," he says. It's tiring work, but he understands it's necessary to get to where he wants to be. "We brought the album out last quarter last year, so that gives us four quarters to work with before the new album," he says, plotting his market attack. "That means at least three or four singles." Each of those singles will have been written and produced by a different team, including pop-soul legend El Debarge, Kaygee, and Williams himself.
In South Florida's crunk-hungry market, Williams's respect for R&B is unique. A disciple of the Temptations, the O'Jays, Al Green, Sam Cooke, and Womack, he got his start singing in church when he was five years old. Since then, he has developed his vocal style, incorporating gospel's rapturous power and husky tonality. Ghetto Revelations goes old school, but also nods toward Nelly-esque soul-pop with a club-friendly bump.
Williams still drops in at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale whenever he's in town. "Every Sunday I'm in church, even when I'm on the road. I let it be known that I go, so fans that might wanna see me that bad know I'll be in church and so will they. That's a good thing," he says.
That churchgoing, reverent side is the one that penned and produced "Mama's Song," an ode to his mother's strength (his father died when Williams was seventeen). "She cried the first time she heard me do that," he remembers. Seems like the opposing side to the sexed-up loverman who moans the delicately titled "F*ck Song," but not so.
"My dad used to explain that life is like a battery," Williams says. "You can't work a battery with two negatives or two positives. You need both to make it work. [My mom] knows about that song and when people ask her, she says she knows her son and he's just making good music."
The limo arrives in Liberty City and a large crowd is gathered at the corner of MLK Boulevard and NW Seventeenth Avenue. The performance schedule for this festival is running a little late, so Williams and his crew grab Cuban sandwiches and sodas at a corner store. As he mingles with the movers and shakers backstage, his compact profile is dwarfed by massive dudes in oversize camo jackets and jerseys, dreadlocks exploding off their heads. His diminutive size and around-the-way demeanor render him instantly likable and easily approachable.
The crowd is mostly young black women here to see the main act, Miami rapper Pitbull. Williams and his crew take the stage as the preheadliners, and the audience -- at least those paying attention -- begins to sway. He goes into "Givin' It Up," a sort of anti-bling love song about making sacrifices for his woman's love. "Now the chronic, I ain't even gonna lie/I love it," he sings. "But I put it aside for you, you're worth it/You know what, I'll even stop cursing/Listen, I'll give up the streets and start working."
A crowd of well-wishers is waiting backstage as Williams and the band make their exit. One of the fans is Betty Wright, an original South Florida soul sister and the mother of Asher Williams, one of Williams's backup singers (no relation).
"It's got that throwback feeling," she says of his music. "Throwback, not throwaway." She looks around at the crowd gathered, kids looking for autographs, friends saying hello. "He's not phased by any of [the success] right now, and if he can stay that way, there's nowhere to go but up."
He gets back in the limo, and it pulls away from the crowd and edges onto NW 62nd Street. The sidewalks are lined with people, families barbecuing in the warm evening twilight, teenagers hanging in packs on the corners. A single file of gleaming bubble gum-colored Impalas creeps past, while a steady stream of young guys roars by on motocross bikes, go-carts, crotch rockets, pocket bikes, and scooters. It's a wild scene, but true to Betty Wright's remark, the limo riders gaze out the windows with mild interest.
"It's funny because it's his day," Williams says. "Martin Luther King is definitely one of my heroes, watching what he did and where he came from. He definitely inspired me to know whatever I wanna do, I can do it. It's all about believing, achieving, and succeeding."
On the radio, a 99 Jamz DJ gives a shout out from the party he has just left, name-checking Betty Wright, thanking Pitbull, and giving props to Urban Mystic for rocking the crowd. The group in the limo laughs a little, turns up the stereo, and bumps it all the way back to Fort Lauderdale.