Local rapper Muhammad Austin articulately spits out words with his melodious, arresting voice, wearing no shoes in the living room of his parents’ home in Blackjack, Missouri. “I go by the name of Mvstermind, born and raised here in St. Louis. I’ve been–I’m a producer. I’m an artist–visionary. Just all together, that is me as a person.” His latest album, which he wrote and produced entirely himself, is called A.D.D. (Artistically Day Dreaming), a play on his childhood diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder. He’s also the ringleader of M.M.E., a collective of young local rappers and vocalists which also includes AtM, Lyrique, Klassik, Sixela Yoccm, and Ciej.
Together, they’re the most active players on the local performance circuit, and have already been featured on MTV, iTunes, The Source, and Pandora. Their single “80-D” was featured nationwide through Charter’s On-Demand service, and in 2013 M.M.E was nominated for Producer of the Year, Best Video, Best Group, and Artist of the Year at the St. Louis Underground Music Awards. At 23, he’s been at the art of music production for a while now. “As a kid I was like, ‘I’m going to be famous by now.’ Nonetheless, I’m ecstatic to see the way life is working out. Just trying to push.”
Rows upon rows of frilly, brightly colored dresses take up most of the foyer, hung up on gleaming silver pipe racks. “My mother’s a fashion designer and she’s still at it, still pushing. She’s gonna make that happen,” says Austin. He has a mass of dreadlocks tied together in a thick ponytail underneath a blue and red hat, which looks like it might suddenly pop off at any second, and his jawline is outlined by slight scruff. “It’s crazy. I have a whole family full of dreamers, and that is the biggest and only reason why I am here today. Without having that backing force, I know it is tough.” Austin has held a variety of day jobs while chasing the dream of making it big in the industry, from greeting customers at IHOP (which made him so miserable he wrote a whole song about it) to his current day job: working at Avis distributing rental cars. “If I was in Atlanta with the resume I have now, I wouldn’t have to work at Avis. I could work at someone’s record label,” he says.
“My father–he’s been involved in music since he was young. He was 3 years old playing kungas at this Johnny Mathis show out in Vegas.” Austin’s father later began managing a local reggae band and would let his young son play music with them sometimes. “I was about like, 3 or 4, and I used to play percussion for them back in the day,” Austin remembers. One night when he was young, his father came home with a version of FL Studio, an audio production computer software, and showed him the ropes. “From there, night after night, night after night, I’d just be on it, be on it, be on it, be on it … I was young, and I would just make beats all the time. All the time. At the time I think my producer name was Mo’ Tracks–I laugh at it now, man,” he says. Austin plays a few sample beats today in the DIY studio he has in his room upstairs. It’s extremely loud, the sound waves ricocheting around the room and through the walls, surely echoing into every room of the house. “I’m in my parents’ house. They understand the mission, I understand the mission,” he says, with an undertow of rhythm and flow to the way he speaks.
Austin grew up in North St. Louis and was bussed into Clayton High School in the County through the desegregation program. There, he teamed up with two classmates, Rachel Nevels and Claude Keaton, with whom he prolifically wrote and produced songs. “That was like MySpace days, you know what I mean?” he says, laughing, nostalgic. “I would produce the music, we would write it, and head to the studio. That was back when I was still shy. I’d hit the mic and go, ‘Ah!’” he says, imitating a noise of fear and anxiety. “I don’t know what was wrong with me. I was shy … maybe because I was short? I don’t know. I was a little tiny kid,” he says. “I was 15 and underneath 5-foot. As I grew taller my confidence started to peak as a young man.”
Together, Austin and Nevels had around 150 songs written, catching the attention of EMI Music. At the age of 16, they almost had a publishing deal on the table. “They wanted more placement,” says Austin, who would tirelessly send over songs and ask whether they were closer to hitting the mark. “Things were going good.” But EMI later merged with Warner, and the deal was lost. “When life hits you, sometimes we let the negative things … they’re comforting. It’s very comforting to be negative. It helps you out, almost, but it doesn’t in the long run.” Austin was, and always has been, determined to find a way in, no matter the external circumstances. “My dream–it’s so broad. As a young child, I was always raised to fulfill my potential in life, my purpose. With that mindset, I always had huge dreams.” Shortly after the EMI deal fell through, Austin leapt on the bandwagon of burgeoning talent in St. Louis and started M.M.E.
He made a makeshift studio in his parents’ home, a collection of instruments, speakers, microphones, and recording equipment. He motions to some of his father’s old percussion instruments, which have taken up residence in Austin’s studio as well. The walls are covered in posters of M.M.E. events, press coverage in newspapers and magazines, and a white dry-erase board which has his structured to-do list for the day. “Since I’m not in college, I treat myself like I have a real job in music. This is my job. My brother-in-law first introduced it to me,” says Austin. He told him, “You are a musician. You treat yourself like that. You wake up, 9 o’clock, 8 o’clock, get out the house, dressed in business casual clothes.”
Austin lists Lupe Fiasco, John Coltrane, and Kanye West among his leading musical inspirations. “He’s a genius,” Austin says of West. “And when you’re a genius and you state that you’re a genius, you’re going to sound arrogant … I give him a little leeway at times because, to be honest, he’s just as great as he thinks he is.” Austin would like to see hip-hop become the universally well-respected genre it deserves to be. “People are like, ‘You’re not a genius, you’re just a rapper. You’re just a rapper, you’re just a … ’ You know, so that’s where I think some of his arrogance comes from. Being a rapper, he still has a limit placed above his head, and he’s much more than that … that’s the reason why I feel like sometimes he’ll flip out and go crazy, because they’ll still put him on that lower pedestal.”
“Brave Soul” is the first song off of A.D.D., thematically full of nostalgia for childhood, pursuing dreams, and learning to accept oneself. “Don’t back up man/ Ain’t no back up plan/ See if I fail to reach my dreams/ Then I just crash land/ And I emerge out the flaming cockpit/ Aim it, lock it, cock it, shoot for the stars/ And we try it again.” Austin started out at school at Loyola University in New Orleans, but couldn’t come up with the funds to finish and get a degree. As an attempt to raise funds, Austin dropped his first album called F.A.I.L., or Forever Always In Last, as he calls it. “When I found out I wasn’t going to be able to pay for college–I don’t know. It was–I don’t know why. It was sad for me. It was a biggie. It was just like, ‘Damn. I’m really not going to make this happen,’” he says.
“That album was supposed to make the money for school–it didn’t make it. That was a big adversity for me. I had to go to Atlanta, and from there I was couch-hopping at my sister’s house. I was just trying to find me, you know? As a young kid, I had all these huge dreams. I had all these huge dreams,” he says again. “And so it was like, ‘Is it not supposed to come sooner?’” Austin has conflicting feelings about whether or not he’ll go back to school. “For some reason now, I feel like, why was I even sad? Grow up, man. There’s so many other things in this world–we get down on ourselves and there’s no need to do so. There’s no need.” When he gets asked about whether or not he’s upset today that he hasn’t graduated, he responds, ‘Not at all. That’s just the way my life panned out. I would love to graduate from college, one day in my life. It’s solely to just learn.” The experience makes it into another verse for “Brave Soul.” “Fillin’ out my FAFSA/ Fuck I’m gonna do after?/ Get a bachelor’s not to be haunted by your laughter?” “I want to go to college,” he says. “I want to go back so I can learn and just grow, and put it mentally out of mind.”
He looks around with light-brown eyes and long, thick lashes, wearing not one, but three layers of shirts, one on top of the other, and beaded bracelets on both wrists, which he fidgets with from time to time. “Me in this industry, I–I don’t know why I’m having a hard time answering this question,” he says, in response to what his biggest dreams and goals are today. “It’s interesting. I want M.M.E. to be a large label. I would like to live beyond comfortably, and be able to take care of my family, my children, and make sure they are in a position to where they’re able to do the same: to grow and learn, and witness their potential. That, right there, is the ultimate goal.”
Austin also cites St. Louis-based rappers Chingy, Nelly, and the St. Lunatics as artists who paved the way. “Those guys? They did it. Millions of records. That’s a beautiful thing. I want to strive and do the same exact thing and keep pushing my city at the same time–help uplift everybody, so we can bring in the big businesses here. This is a music power house.” From his perspective, he’s seeing opportunities for artists begin to surface. “The only thing I would say about St. Louis is we’re missing the resources. We might be entering into a golden age here, because so many different resources are starting to come together,” he says. “Things have changed. We need different music to help represent St. Louis.”
Austin fires up the home studio, preparing to perform a song off of A.D.D. called “Mo-Ham Stegasaurus-Rex.” It’s a song he wrote as a letter to his 6-year-old self. Many of the songs on his album deal with inspiration, chasing dreams, and keeping child-like wonder alive. “If I can be that person to help inspire someone to be that person, I’m happy. We lose track of that as we grow up.” All of a sudden he stands up, a slight, but not entirely unnoticeable shift as he turns into a performer.
“I’m excited to lay down some beats!” he says, turning the backing track back on and getting his microphone ready, which is propped on a long stand. No one in the house rushes in to hear what is causing all the commotion–they’re used to this sort of thing by now. He warms up and gets going. Before the few minutes is up he’s swaying, looking everyone around in the eye. Any indication of the shy boy he says he once was has vanished.
“Dear six year old Mo (huh)
I hope you’re proud of me
I hope you see the inner child beaming out of me
Never ever be afraid to speak out loud to me …
… Six year old Mo (huh)
Reach into the stars
Stretch your fingertips, Rovers find your prints on Mars
You never know how far is far, until you go that far.”
For more information about Mvstermind and M.M.E, visit www.mmettmldom.com.