Boyz from the ’boros

Local rappers shine in hip-hop scene

Poised to break into the big time in the world of hip-hop are “Myztery N Sneek,” from left, Sneek (Fred Robles), Myztery (Ron Bartins), Butter (Vernon Robinson), and J (Justin Lee). Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

Hip-hop: Most people either hate or love the genre of music linked to bands such as Notorious B.I.G, Naz, Public Enemy, Lil Wayne.

And for most people over 40, it's probably more the former -- hate -- than the latter, with little chance that anything might change their minds.

Really, now. CD jackets with "Parental Advisory" prominently displayed, lyrics sometimes built around violence, drugs, life in the 'hood.

Not exactly North Boroughs fare.

So to say that one of Pittsburgh's premiere hip-hop bands has a Kilbuck address, with studios located on Camp Horne Road, probably would surprise age groups over as well as under 40.

And to say that the four members of Myztery N Sneek possess talent and a business sense that would eclipse their sometimes rough lyrics would also surprise anyone not too familiar with the hip-hop scene.

The band started performing about three years ago, with Ron Bartins of Avalon, a.k.a. Myztery, teaming up with Fred Robles, a.k.a. Sneek, who were soon joined by Justin Lee of Emsworth and Vernon Robinson, known as "Butter" to friends.

Each member provided an individual talent, but what cemented the group was, as Ron said, "The chemistry of the songs. We started doing them together and it worked."

It's worked so well that Myztery N Sneek took top honors in Faded Fest, an all-ages showcase featuring over 60 local acts representing rock, punk, metal and hip-hop, all performing on Labor Day on five stages throughout Pittsburgh.

"One of the Fest sponsors, Clique vodka, saw our show and our crowd, and set up a photo shoot," Ron said.

Audience size determined the winner, with Myztery N Sneek drawing the largest and most enthusiastic crowds.

"People love us and they know that we love them," said Fred. "We become involved with our audience and they become involved with us."

Fan reaction at the Fest also led to endorsements from Clique, who now picks up the tab for promotional banners and informational flyers, both vital necessities in building audiences.

And the local recognition has begun to grab the attention of some of the big names in the music business. Big, as in Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, the 1997 Grammy Award-winning band from Cleveland, OH. Recently appearing at Mr. Smalls in Millvale, Myztery N Sneek took the stage as the opening act, the second time "BTH" has enlisted the band to pump up their audience.

It took a little ingenuity to catch the attention of the rappers who are on tour promoting their current CD. Ron explains. "I was always a big fan of theirs. I went to Ohio to see one of their shows, and after, I went to the hotel where they were staying. I had a demo tape of our work and a tape player and I asked a security guard to give it to them. He did, and they liked us. That's how it started. We've even gone to California and recorded in their studio."

While the band would like to find a promoter --someone who could help them set up a tour that would be on a national scale -- they are concentrating on the local music scene, which Justin describes as being "…huge. There are venues are all over the city.”

Among those venues will be the Hard Rock Café, where Myztery N Sneek will headline a Dec. 22 show.

Much of the strongest support for Myztery does not come from performing at commercial sites, but from the many college campuses that the band plays. "We like to hit the college markets throughout the Tri-State and we're really known on college radio where they're allowed to play what they want to play, and we have the freedom to do what we want to do," Ron said.

Using their own label, TrackAddict, the band has issued five mixed tapes and four CDs, preferring mixed tapes because, Ron explained, "…they provide promotion for everything else. It lets people know who we are and what we do."

Justin said that what they do goes beyond the "wanna-bes" who "… go on the Internet, download free beats, put it on a computer program, record on their computers and buy time on corporate radio. But an actual audience is not there for them."

One thing that Myztery n' Sneek enjoys is strong backing from local fans. "We have a street team that passes out flyers. They get the information out to high schools and colleges, letting people know where we're playing. They come to our shows and they like what we're doing. They're priceless to us!"

The shows feature the four rappers singing their lyrics to backup music recorded in their Camp Horne studio.

While some of those lyrics are, to be euphemistic, a bit heavy, Ron said, "We do lots of all-ages shows. We just make some language changes and we change our appearances, too -- a little more dressed-up.But it's not fake."

Justin refutes anyone who might regard hip-hop as being violent. "Some people see rappers and they run. But we never once had a fight -- even a scuffle --at one of our shows. It's 100 percent good time."

Ron points out that the band has done charity shows, Partners for Equality among them. "We can be in the middle of the 'hood or in the nice suburbs. We're down with everybody. In West Virginia, the audiences show us love. Their local scene is great."

"Hip-hop gets a bad rap,” Ron says. “A lot of rappers are reporting what they see in everyday life. The news media aren't considered to be violent art forms, but they report what's happening -- drugs, hustling, shootings."

And while Bartins does not have any children, he thinks it would be hypocritical to say he would not allow a 12-year-old to listen to his music.

"We have a generation of homeless children, climbing unemployment, mortgage foreclosures surging, soldiers dying every day for no reason. I have yet to see how any of the world's problems stem from rap music."

Bartins said he started listening to rap music at about the age of 10. "It never made me rebel against society."

And even though some listeners may not find Myztery's music to be their cup of tea, Butter wants people to know, "There's a lot of thought process goes into what we do. If you have a positive message, the better. Eventually, we'll shine through."

Behind the names:

Myztery: Ron was always into characters like the Riddler and the Joker. "I wanted something like 'Who dunnit?' I changed the S to a Z to make the name easier to find on the Internet."

Sneek: The mother of a past girlfriend didn't like him. Ron says, "She always called him a sneak." And so…

Butter: He was a big baby. "My grandmother called me a butterball!"

Justin: Just his name: Justin -- sometimes called "J."

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