Local Hip Hop Pioneer Shyste is Still Writing the Book
“I fell down onto this spinning rock in 1977, in the good ol’ 518. My parents named me Richard and I heard plenty of dick jokes growing up”. Says local hip hop original player Richard “Shyste” Allen. Right from the start of this conversation, we see what has built this man into the artist he is today. Anyone can rap, but can they deliver it straight to your heart? Lyrical brilliance that spit flame engulfed daggers that scar your soul. Staying loyal to honesty, while holding on to the true spirit of underground 90’s hip hop. Contemporary artists are afraid to speak the truth and are more concerned with image, fashion, and bling. Shyste is focused on reality with his latest, most recent ruthless effort “Persona Non-Grata”.
“The Book according to Shyste”
I believe it was a driving force in molding me into the proud, strong, relentless dick that I am today. I digress. I’m the middle child of three kids. I have an older brother and a younger sister. I used to mess with my Mother and claim that the second kid was supposed to be the daughter, but the Universe and I decided to throw them a curveball. ( See? Dick. ). But if that’s true, on their behalf, I’d say they knocked it out of the park. My Father, John, was a big guy, large in stature. He came in at around 6’5, 220 lbs. So, obviously, he accounts for my size. He was a proud Vietnam Vet. He drove a bus for the V.A. transporting sick and disabled Veterans around. On some weekends he would take my brother and me on the Veteran’s field trips. Things like minor league baseball games. It was good quality time with Pops. But, those were some of the craziest days. Two kids, maybe 10 and 12, on a bus with a group of war torn soldiers. Amputees and men with severe PTSD. That shit was scary to a child who hasn’t seen that type of thing up close.
When a guy with no legs starts yelling random, incoherent shit at you, you tend to get a little shook. As an adult, I recognize that they were some of the strongest and bravest people I’ve had the opportunity to be around in life. So I have a genuine reverence for our military. It wasn’t my particular life choice. But I have the utmost respect for our troops and my Father for his service. My Mother, Patti, was the secretary at my grade school for most of my childhood. Never too far away from a tongue lashing. I remember when other kids would get in trouble and called to the principal’s office, the voice on the loudspeaker would be very composed and professional. “Could so and so please come down to the principal’s office? So and so, to the principal’s office, please.”.
But when I fucked up, the whole school was gonna know about it. An irate voice would start projecting out of the loudspeaker, using all three of my names. “Richard Edward Allen… Get to the principal’s office now!”. Other little punk ass kids snickering and giggling. One of my teachers who was also my basketball coach would literally point and laugh as I moped out of the classroom. Good times, for sure. Still didn’t manage to keep me out of trouble. But, it did make me extra diligent and cautious whilst doing the dumb shit kids inevitably do. Grade school is where I first heard Hip Hop. A friend of mine came in with a cassette tape one day, in like the 4th grade, I believe. It had “Sucka MCs” by Run DMC on it. The whole thing just got me. The drums were some shit I hadn’t heard before. The cockiness of the words and the confidence in their voices had a kid like me, who in all honesty, didn’t have great self-esteem, locked into every word.
I mean, the idea of just getting on a microphone and telling everyone that YOU are the shit, and then, indeed explaining exactly WHY you are the shit, just resonated with me. When I told him how much I liked it, he brought in another cassette. This was LL Cool J’s album, “Bigger and Deffer”. This was before he sold out and started making music strictly for females. Again, with that album, it was these hard beats and LL talking mad shit about how dope he was, rocking the fat gold chain and Adidas running suit with the Kango hat. This is what first got my attention. At the same time, my Brother’s friends were putting him on to Hip Hop as well. So we jumped in simultaneously. It was a time when most white kids were listening to Metal and Rock. So I definitely caught a lot of shit for my musical preference.
I would get called a wigger and other dumb shit. Eventually, everybody seemed to catch up, though. In the late 80s, when people started gravitating to more mainstream, Pop Rap, I started catching wind of artists like Rakim, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane and EPMD. These were dudes with amazing wordplay and flow. They talked hella shit, but were also intelligent and presented amazing ideas and concepts. The exact opposite of the dumbed-down shit they push on the masses nowadays. So that’s the path I chose to walk down. By the early 90s, Hip Hop (Not Rap), was overflowing with great music. It was grimey, street shit, as well as socially conscientious material. The list is too long to name all the dope artists. Everyone from Nas to Biggie; DITC to A Tribe Called Quest; Gang Starr to Black Moon; House of Pain to Cypress Hill, and so on.
This is where I found a genuine love for music. The early/mid-90s was most definitely the Golden Age of Hip Hop. And to this day, it’s still my style of rhyming. Hard, lyrical, boom bap, underground music. It’s all I do.
I didn’t actually get into writing and recording until later in high school. My focus up until that point was to play hoop in college. But a bad attitude and genuine dislike for school, in general, took that out of the picture. A friend of my brother was aware of how into Hip Hop I was and asked if I’d ever thought about actually doing it. So I shifted my focus onto that. He introduced me to Jason Panucci aka PJ Katz, who I consider to be basically The Godfather of Hip Hop producers in the 518. He’s blessed many an MC and producer with his talents and creativity.
He’s still a center point locally and has tons of credits under his belt beyond just Hip Hop music. He’s truly an amazing artist and musician and has been one of my biggest influences since 16 or 17 years old. We still work together today. He produced a couple of tracks on my most recent album, “Persona Non-Grata”. It’s a common opinion that whenever he and I collaborate on a track, it’s gonna be fire. Nothing less. So that’s where I started getting my chops in and sharpening my sword, so to speak. We just started making music all the time. We’d be in the basement just creating constantly. Eventually, with a SUNY Albany DJ, DJ Rad, and some other artists from the area, we formed a fairly large collective of MCs, producers, and DJs called CMD, or Cultural Melt Down Records.
The first large Hip Hop collective in the 518, as far as I know. Bars and clubs weren’t booking Hip Hop shows back then. There are particular reasons that I’m not gonna get into because it would just be highlighting people’s ignorance. But for whatever reasons, live shows weren’t an option so we bombarded the college radio stations whenever the DJs were cool enough to let us get on and promote. No mainstream radio, of course. Any independent artist knows how that shit goes. And remember, this was before the internet and SoundCloud and social media.
If you wanted to get your shit out there, you had to find a list of college DJs in the country spinning independent music and send out cassette tapes, typically, as demos. Then hopefully they like your music enough to give it some run. This is around the time when I started standing out from the other artists. It really comes down to me being disciplined with my writing and just making better songs. We would go down to NYC and meet with label executives, shopping songs from the whole collective. More times than not, my tracks would stand out. And so, as time went on, I began to stand out, in general, from everyone else.
Fast forward a few years. I moved to Virginia Beach with a good friend, DJ Excel, who owned his own studio equipment and produced. My decision was basically to “follow the music”. So I stayed there, making music every day and pushing it around. To my surprise, everybody down there was into this east coast NY-style Hip Hop I was pushing. I crossed paths with some music industry folks but nothing ever came of it. The music was dope, but the “packaging” or promotional polish wasn’t really there. In other words, I wasn’t really good at selling myself. One day, I got a call from my Mother back in Albany, saying that Danny Wood from the New Kids on the Block called her house phone looking for me. He was an ex-pop star from the 90s, living in Miami. The dude’s face was on pillowcases. That type of money. I obviously thought it was some weird joke. But she gave him the number in VA Beach and a couple of hours later he called. It turns out, a cassette demo, from a large, random batch I sent out all over the place, found its way into his hands.
He was attempting to rebrand himself as a Hip Hop producer and asked if I would rap on an instrumental EP he was releasing. He wanted versions of a couple of his beats with somebody actually rhyming on them. That’s when things opened up quite a bit. I was 20. I got all the superstar treatment. I was flown down to Miami. A chauffeur with a sharp-ass black Escalade was at the airport holding up a sign saying Shyste. We drove to the pop star’s mansion and I met him and his family, as well as his engineer. We immediately got in the studio and started working. It was me and the engineer, Mark, mostly. But it was cool, because he was a pretty well-known, highly paid engineer, and he started explaining some “industry” shit to me. What it’s like. What the people are like. What it’s like engineering for some of the more famous artists. He was a great guy and very enlightening as far as explaining the situation I had just found myself in. Long story short, I spent the weekend and recorded 3 tracks, then went back to VA Beach. A couple of days later, the pop star called me and said he wanted to record an album with me. It would be my solo album with his production. This was a different situation because now I had to pack up and move down to Miami indefinitely.
Now at the same time, DJ Rad was living in South Beach as a very successful, and one of the only Hop Hop DJs down there. Hip Hop hadn’t gravitated down there quite yet. It was just starting to pick up. So we worked out living accommodations so that I could be on South Beach in the mix of everything. We even worked it out so that PJ Katz could come down for summer and do some co-production on the album. I also talked the pop star into involving a good friend of mine, one of my favorite and most influential MCs, Mic Mangla. They were trying to put me out as some sort of parallel to Eminem, so I was a little against the solo thing and thought a group thing would be better. However, the Hip Hop that Mic Mangla and I do is hard as fuck NY shit. The production the pop star was coming up with was a little soft in the ass and so it wasn’t really meshing. We would record over some of his production, but we were way more into PJ Katz’s beats. As more songs got recorded using PJ Katz’s production and less of the latter, it started to cause a riff.
And the pop star started talking about making more mainstream pop-type shit, which I was completely against. So with all that in play, I finally got a copy of the contract and it was complete bullshit. I’d have to sell millions before even seeing the money I would need to pay back any advances. It made no sense financially to me. Also, bear in mind, that even though the contract was shit, it was the typical contract being offered to artists in the music industry of all genres at the time. What I consider to be some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten came on a flight from Albany back to Miami. We had flown up to go to a big race in Saratoga. One of the silent investors in the whole deal owned a couple of horses with a trainer named Tony Morgotta and their horses were in the races. So we went and partied like rock stars and I remember ending up in a little Italian bar that was shut down except for us and a few others. One was a big deal judge that everyone simply called Judge and one was, I guess, the top defense lawyer in Texas. It was like something out of a movie. When I first sat down, I was nervous and a little awe-struck by the immediate company. By the end, I’m like, “Hey, Judge! Let’s do one more shot of that piss you call whiskey!” He responds, “Son, you ain’t built to drink this piss!”, and everybody’s cracking up. It was just so random. But we also talked about the contract and the business of it, and I was slowly being persuaded into signing, even though something in me didn’t like it. It was either selling your soul and making music you don’t even like or nothing. So, I’m on the flight back to Miami and I’m sitting next to Eric Roberts ( The Dark Knight, Monster Island ). He sees me reading over my contract and introduces himself. He says, “I see your name is Rick. That’s my name too, but people call me Eric.”. I was aware of who he was but didn’t really let on.
He continued, “I see you reading over the contract and, as somebody who been in the business, can I give you some advice?”. I said, “Yeah, of course.”. Then he dropped a gem on me. He said, “Look at the size of that contract. Do you know how much money it took just to have all that written up? Thousands. And I’ll tell you, If this company is willing to spend that type of money on you, somebody else will too. So if you’re even a little bit not ok with it, don’t sign it. Make them go back and redraft it. If they’re willing to do that, awesome. If not, go find someone who respects your craft enough to give you the deal you want.”. That blew my mind because I hadn’t thought of it like that. I saw it from the viewpoint of, “I’m lucky to even have this opportunity, so I should just take whatever I can get.”. There’s no real self-respect in that. That quick convo changed my perception of me, my music and how I should approach getting into the “business”. So we couldn’t come to an understanding and that whole situation went down in flames. I cut ties with the pop star but stayed in South Beach with DJ Rad for a couple of years, working on new music with intentions of pushing it through the club circuit that Rad had a nice niche in.
But even Rad, at the end of the day, thought that the music was too underground to play in the clubs down there. So I made the decision to move back to Albany. Those years in South Beach gave me some real insight into celebrity culture and I saw a lot of crazy, “rich people shit”. All the weird shit people say about Hollywood types and celebrities is not false by any means. It’s the reason why today, I’m very outspoken about how shitty celebrities are and the weird shit they get up to. I don’t believe in the concept of celebrity. You should never put another person up on a pedestal for any reason whatsoever. When you put someone up on a pedestal, you’re not actually raising them up. You’re pushing yourself down, whether you realize it or not. These people, if that’s what you’d call them, are not better than you. In most cases, they are most definitely less than you. They have no pride, no honor, no real virtue. Just a huge hole in their soul that they will fill with anything they can find, be it drugs, sex, material shit, or even just power and manipulation. Fuck celebrities. That includes most professional athletes as well. They ain’t shit. They literally think they’re better than you. Stop being “fans” and give them reasons to think so. Just wanted to get that on the record. They can’t all be Eric Roberts, man.
When I came back home, a new chapter started. When I settled back into the 518, there was a new scene starting to establish itself. That came in the form of PCM. Pitch Control Music. This was a mix of some of the originators of the 518 Hip Hop scene as well as some new, upcoming artists. Some of the guys involved were pillars early on like PJ Katz, Sev Statik, and JB!!. They were making moves when I first started. But there was a sophomore class of artists that were really crushing it. Dez, Sween, Rick Whispers, Awar, and a bunch of other producers and DJs. Too many to drop all the names. But they had started to carve out a local following because the bars and clubs started opening up to Hip Hop. They approached me with arms wide open. It was a different scene from when I first left Albany.
A mix of the 90s Hip Hop; baggy jeans, hoodies, timberlands, 40 ounces of malt liquor, etc. But there was also a meshing of the skate culture and Hardcore culture. Mike Valente, one of the most devoted promoters and musicians in the area, started a show series called Battlebots at the Hudson Duster, which was a mix of Hip Hop and Hardcore. I think that was instrumental in creating the whole idea of “The 518”. We started the “518” chant at those shows. So a lot of people jumped on it. Soon after, businesses started naming themselves “518…. You fill in the blank”. You can look up (the)518 in the urban dictionary and it’s a thing. We started that. We gave this area a calling card. A reputation. A moniker. And that moniker reigns true on all platforms. The “518” is its own entity. And that may be one of my favorite accomplishments. I didn’t do it alone, by any means. But, me and the people I co-created with made it its own thing. That’ll last forever. So, as a collective, PCM started performing all over. Not just locally. This is where I learned the path of an independent artist, grinding it out weekly and touring out of town on the weekends. “Weekend Warriors”, if you will. This was a whole different aspect of promoting my music, that I hadn’t gotten into. That’s why I say this was a new chapter in my Hip Hop evolution.
I had the “wish on a star and hopefully get famous” thing happen. But this was a, “put your work in and develop your brand on a step by step, independent basis” thing. Really grind it out and work for it. I’ve found that the artists I most respect have made their bread and butter off of that type of touring. I was also able to meet other artists from all over the country by bringing them in for shows, and in return, us hitting up their towns when on the road doing the state-to-state thing.
At home, I put together some really dope, local weekly shows over the years. We started with a weekly, improv, Hip Hop night, with a live band and DJ at the Lark Tavern, called Family Tree. Tess Collins was running the Tavern at the time, and she felt confident enough in me to put together something new and different. I was like 24. We created an amazing Thursday night show that was different every week.
We would perform some songs or invite an artist trying to get their feet wet to perform a song or two. But mostly it was entirely improv. Different MCs freestyling, off the head, sometimes playing interactive games with the crowd. For instance, we would have the crowd members write down random words, and then somebody would shout them out as we were rhyming, and we’d have to start rhyming off of whatever word it was. So we gave the local artists a stage to step on, as well as bring acts in from out of town to help push the culture. I bump into people even nowadays that bring up those Lark Tavern nights. They aren’t necessarily into Hip Hop, but they remember the energy and how live it truly was. After that had run its course, I was just recording music. Putting an album out here and there. The first album that really got some movement was called, “The Exception”.
That was released during the Lark Tavern days. It had a mix of different producers and was the album that most people got to know me on. People are still buying that album online to this day. There’s been many more since like, “Slang Pandemic”, “Steel Rosary” and the “Climate Control” series. After a little hiatus from live shows, I linked back up with Mike Valente, and with the help of DeeJay Tone, we started a weekly Thursday night at Bogies called Bottles and Beats. That really set the local scene on fire. Not only did we hold down the weekly, but every few months we would bring in a dope headliner and throw a major show. In the span of about a year and a half, we brought in acts like Mob Deep, Smiff and Wessun, RA the Rugged Man, Blakistan, Reef the Lost Cause, and plenty more.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how instrumental Mike Valente was in helping to build the scene around here. Bogies was a great time for the Hop Hop scene in 518. The only problem was I was wearing myself down and not taking care of myself. I was getting home from these shows at 4 AM and getting up for work at 6 AM. I’m extremely empathic, so being around these crowds of people all the time was seriously messing with my energy. I was off balance and becoming miserable. Just angry in general and drinking excessively to try to get through it. By the end of it, I was just shot. I also had Lyme disease that was continuously coming back and seeming to get worse every time. So by the time we shut that weekly down, I was over shit. I was overperforming live in general. It didn’t feel like it was doing anything for me and it seemed like it was doing a hell of a lot for everybody else. So I became resentful and had to figure out a way to deal with it. I eventually decided to ghost everything. Since I was sick and angry and couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I decided the whole slate needed to be cleaned.
Almost everything had to go. It was nothing personal. I felt like things had gotten so extreme that the change had to be equally as extreme. I stopped doing everything I was doing, including any illegal shit. And there was a lot of that going on too. I say this only because that was giving up a lot of easy money. A correct, but still a difficult decision. But it came down to isolation with the exception of a day job. And then I went into recording mode. After a couple of years of being in the studio by myself, writing and recording song after song. I found that the creativity was healing. Me being alone and trying to work on myself deeply was clearing my soul of all the typical mental and emotional shit the average person goes through. I was zoning in on it, being brutally honest with myself. Taking personal responsibility for EVERYTHING in my life, good and bad. I stopped assuming the things that were making me angry and depressed were outside of me. If I’m angry and depressed, I’m choosing to be that way. It’s an internal struggle. So the only way out is within. Staying disciplined in that regard led to what some might call a spiritual awakening.
I think “spiritual” is a loaded term so that’s not really how I’d describe it. Everything is energy. That’s my understanding of everything. Everything is everything and it’s all energy. That’s the filter of perception I see things through now. It’s faith over fear. I’m not religious but I do believe there’s a reason for everything. The good times are for our appreciation and gratitude and the bad times are there to teach us and build us up stronger. At least, ideally, that’s what it would be for. Not everyone has figured that out yet. But they will as soon as they’ve truly, inherently, had enough of the bullshit and decide to let go. So right now life is good. I have no complaints at all. I’m a textbook introvert, but it’s an intentional, conscious choice. These days it’s important to protect your bubble. I’m still available to whoever. But I choose to just stay in my own orbit, on a personal level.
I’m not actively trying to book shows locally. I’m sure here and there, If opportunities arise, I’ll decide yes or no, depending on the circumstances. I’m more prone to out-of-town shows just for the experience. I can confidently say no Hip Hop artist in this area has performed live as many times as I have, between the shows and weekly events, over the years. It’s not even close. So that’s not a new experience by any stretch. I’m all about new experiences. Not really interested in reruns. My favorite part of all of it is the creative process. I love hearing a new beat, zoning out, and seeing what kinda words and concepts come pouring out. I love recording and manifesting the song itself. After that, I’m like, “Whatever. On to the next song.” I hate promoting and trying to sell the product.
I’ve always had a hard time charging people money to hear my music. It’s a professional personality glitch. I have a pretty decent and consistent international following. If people hear it and like it, great. If they pay money for it, even better. But it’s not what drives me to do it. I do it because I know how good being creative is for a person’s soul. The creativity of any kind. Whatever that thing is that makes you feel like you lost time while doing it. Whether it’s music, dance, baking, gardening, throwing a party for somebody, welding, writing, all of it. Whatever your “thing” is. Do it and do it as much as possible. It’s more important than you realize. It’s infinitely healthy for your soul. So I’ll be making and releasing music for a long time to come. I may set up a tour here and there. We’ll see.
My music may not be on the radio or the front page of YouTube or getting any blog love, but it’ll be there for the people that know it and want to find it. Those are my people. I appreciate their appreciation for me just being me and being good at what I do. Everyone else can just be everyone else. Either way, I’m chilling, just moving around the chessboard of life, Bobby Fischer style. My latest album, “Persona Non-Grata” is out now on all streaming services as well as iTunes and Apple Music. There are new videos for the album on my YouTube page. I’m working on a couple of new projects right now. One will be “Persona Non-Grata 2” and one is a collaborative effort with El Gant of Jamo Gang notoriety.
No title on that yet. I may focus more on just releasing singles after that. It will all be the same hard, tell it how it is, and fuck you if it offends you, type shit I do. I’m freedom of speech all day. I’ve always spoken my mind and I don’t sugar coat anything. I call shit out when I see it. I know words have energy so certain words and the way you project them can rub folks the right or wrong way. To those folks who get offended, I’d say grow up. If you allow someone’s words to push you off balance emotionally, then you weren’t balanced in the first place. The issue is not what’s being said, but how you’re allowing it to affect you. People take offense to what others say because they choose to. That, or because what’s being said is true and their ego can’t bear to examine that part of themselves. Either way, therapy is always an option. Shit hit me up. I’ll walk ya through it.
As far as lyrics go, mine are typically a mix of me clowning, talking shit and me dropping gems of wisdom. If you can get past the cursing and craziness, you may end up learning something positive and productive. Ya gotta earn it. Lol
It’s duality. That’s my personality as an individual though. It reflects in the music. I have a twisted sense of humor and pretty much nothing or anybody is off limits.
My view on the world currently is that it’s a complete shit show. But I do believe it’s darkest before the dawn. If you’ll notice, all the corruption that envelops literally every institution of our society and the globe as a whole is being brought to the light. The government, obviously; our health system, our educational system, our financial institutions, the tech industry, music, entertainment, law enforcement, the judicial system; all of it. It has ALL been compromised by greedy, power hungry, devils. I’ve been saying this for decades. But it’s becoming more obvious to the masses now. We’re not falling for the lies anymore and we want some accountability for these evil assholes. I believe it’s gonna get even worse first because it has to. Like my personal experience, it’s all got to go so we can clean the slate. Then we rebuild. Again, it’s either faith or fear. I have faith. I have faith that the bad guys will implode. I have faith that the sheep will wake up. I have faith that good people will step up and take the reigns. I have faith that things will be ok. Nothing is the end of the world. Not even the end of the world. It’s just another new experience.
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Shyste has been that guy since day one. Much respect. I enjoyed this entire read.
Pass the dutchie on the left hand side!
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