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PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Reason to Rhyme

Serious beats, serious storytelling, serious attitude: Albany rapper Shyste echoes the glory days of hip-hop

By Bill Ketzer


Rick “Shyste” Allen’s uptown-Albany studio is no bigger than an office cubicle, but his personality is larger than Manhattan. He weaves his tale in a single, jaw-dropping continuum, emphasizing important points by slapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other, staring at the floor not out of shyness or disrespect, but because he can’t take his eyes off the movie screen inside his head. Basically, he wrote this feature himself; all I need to say is that the Albany native discovered rap in fourth grade, when a classmate exposed him to ’80s artists like LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C. I can also tell you that it wasn’t until his high-school days at Bishop Maginn that he began experimenting with rhymes of his own, studying the works of Nas, Wu Tang Clan and Boot Camp Click. He can tell you the rest.

“Around here, there were only three or four white dudes that even had the balls to rap,” says Shyste. As a Catholic-schooled white kid, he immediately found himself an outsider. “Back then it was tough, because if you were white, you weren’t really accepted by the black kids, but you definitely weren’t accepted by the white kids. It’s a little different now.”

But he didn’t mind. Early on, the young rapper developed a cutting wit and a gift for rhyme that was difficult to deny. Armed with a few friends and a nasty attitude, Shyste gladly ventured into Clinton Avenue house parties to steal the mic from any DJ. “We’d walk up in a spot and just rip everyone’s ass apart,” he remembers, quick to admit that his nerve came more from “being shit-faced and ignorant” than from any sense of virtue or conviction. “Didn’t matter what color you were. If you came at me like a thug, I came at you like a psychotic, like I should be in a facility. ‘You’re gonna cut me? I’ll cut myself on top of you!’ Sometimes we got into brawls, but we always walked out with respect.”

The budding artist took that respect and hit the road at 19, relocating to Virginia Beach with friend and producer Kevin “Iksel” Bartlett. “I basically followed his studio so I could keep making music,” he says. “Washing cars one week, selling weed the next. I made a decision to stand apart, and I did, because I was just a white dude from Albany, but people in Virginia Beach thought my shit was hot. . . . So I know I’m universal in a certain aspect.”

The attraction lies in Shyste’s distinct, preternatural take on the golden age of East Coast hip-hop, with unassuming 4/4 beats, heavy internal rhymes and eclectic metaphors accelerated by innovative sampling (layering in far more than just standard funk and soul tracks), and his gritty, instantly recognizable voice. Longtime collaborator Jason “PJ Katz” Panucci says that “more than anything it’s his tone. . . . It’s like no one else. You know it’s Shyste as soon as you hear [it].”

Word soon spread. After a few years in the Old Dominion state, Shyste received a chance phone call from Danny Wood, fresh from his departure from New Kids on the Block (it pains Shyste to mention this, for fear of being placed, as he says, “in a weird category . . . mainly Gay Pop Star.”) Wood “somehow heard some mixes and asked me to relocate to Miami,” he says, adding that at this point he started looking at rap as more than a pastime. “I mean, the guy had his own doll and shit, so I figured I’d see what his money was about.”

It wasn’t about much. Shyste describes the decadence of South Beach, the fake personalities, the executives, as if it were Steinbeck’s The Pearl, with its pigs and dogs scavenging for dead flesh on Mexican beaches. “It’s Babylon . . . except that everyone’s an imbecile,” he explains. “Everything’s about money and drugs, and that’s why hip-hop is fifth-grade level right now, because there’s a lot more stupid people in the world than smart ones. Storytelling in rap is a lost art. To actually tell a story, as opposed to saying, ‘Hi, I sell rock/I get it down the block/And jump in my IROC’. . . . That ain’t me.”

Despite the downsides, the rapper stuck it out for a year, admittedly starstruck and living rent-free. “I got off the plane and there’s a dude by a limo with a sign that said Shyste on it,” he recalls. “Strip clubs every night. I didn’t pay for shit, but things always dwindle down, and either you speak up for yourself or they’ll control you, and your music.”

Case in point, Wood initially told him that the artists—meaning the two of them—would split 50 percent of the songwriting royalties (with the label gleaning the balance), but the contracts read differently. “I was getting 4.8 percent, which is just ridiculous,” he says. “But that’s basically the average. If you sign to Def Jam, that’s what you’re getting. I flipped his contract, broke up weed on it, rolled a blunt and told him to go fuck himself.”

But Miami wasn’t a complete wash; he met and dated U.K. supermodel Saskia Porter, whose alter ego “DJ Sassy P” scored a European Top 10 hit with “DJ, Can You Play Another Slow Jam,” which Shyste and local producer PJ Katz produced. “She’d come to Miami for modeling season,” he explains. “Her London people liked our remix, so I flew over there for a few weeks. Europeans are way more open to underground stuff, and I kept all those overseas contacts. I still get work from that. It was good exposure, good money, and hey. . . . I got to hang out with Sassy.”

Other opportunities rose from that trip, including production work on the 2004 World Breakdancing Championships DVD, but once back among the stagnant environs of South Beach, his hometown was looking better and better. “I’ll never switch up my style up to make people like me, and that’s what people wanted,” he says with a shrug. “I just like making good music. So I figured I could do without.”

Once back in the Capital Region, he found hip-hop everywhere, a stark contrast to six years prior, when it was shunned by local promoters. “To be blunt, most club owners were completely racist,” he says. “They still are, but there’s a nice little glaze around it now. There’s all kinds of hip-hop [at area clubs], but they won’t give me a show. . . . They know I’m gonna bring in these ’hood local cats, when they want all the little white girls from SUNY and Siena. So they book B-movie rappers like Cam’ron or DJ Clue, who put on horrible 20-minute shows and somehow parlay that into V.I.P. rap stardom.”

Undeterred and armed with stolen masters from the Danny Wood sessions, Shyste immediately resumed work, producing two small-batch CDs (Pro Mode and Cannabis Cup Day) and 2005’s The Exception, which has become a gold standard of sorts in local circles. For 2007, the rapper has no less than three projects scheduled for release, including a collaboration with Mitch “Dood Computer” Smith from Doom Fist. “It’s totally bangin’,” he says. “Half the length of The Exception and better.” He spins a track called “Daddy’s Little Girl,” a sordid tale of corrupted innocence over warped accordions, with Shyste’s somber monologue answered by sped-up samples of Jimmy Roselli’s version of the classic wedding song of the same name. Downright creepy.

Isn’t it?” he asks. “It’s something from House of 1,000 Corpses or something. I’m all about that. You gotta disturb ’em. And I love the sampling. Sampling wax. . . . A lot of times, it’s something you would never think to use. Sometimes a banjo or some nut shit like that sends you off in a whole other direction. Like with this track—it affects how you write, it influences the beat.”

Next up will be Dead Product, a mix tape that is much more self-contained. “Basically it’s freestyles, old throwaway joints and some remixes I have of industry stuff,” he says. “Then there’s the follow-up to The Exception, which isn’t named yet. That’s gonna be phenomenal, I’m just stacking up beats for that. . . . And then I’m gonna start bangin’ ’em in the head with more shows, including a showcase in Baltimore late next month.”

Until then, Shyste continues to host the popular Beatdown Collective with PJ Katz every Thursday at Albany’s Lark Tavern, which attracts rappers, DJs and live musicians as well as curious onlookers. “The first half of the night is laid back with R&B and jazz,” he says. “I host it, then later I’ll spit a few lines, bring up Dez or Sev Statik or Rick Whispers. We pack ’em in, so now every third Tuesday of the month we also dedicate a night to straight hip-hop. DJ Rock comes in with good early mid-’90s stuff. We do mostly improv, because no one else will.”

All are invited, but he ends the interview with a caveat. “There’s a lot of people around here up on MySpace, rapping because it’s cool right now,” he says, walking over to his synthesizer. “The worst thing is they’ll get a Korg and start playing shit like Young Jeezy. I’ll make one of their beats right here. Let’s go to brass.”

And he does, calling up a fanfare chorus of trumpets that climbs in exaggerated, harmonized thirds.

“That’s a down-South beat right there, ready to go,” he says. “Rock like a retard. Platinum song. I played one show at Northern Lights and every band on the bill did that shit. Local dudes, all rapping like they’re from Atlanta. Dude, you grew up on New Scotland Avenue. You suck, so if you want to do this, you might want to do a little homework and actually do it instead of posing in your sunglasses and fur coats.”

For more information about upcoming Shyste shows and releases, visit or shyste. On Saturday (Feb. 10), Shyste hosts the Back to the Underground Fest at Club Lime (124 4th St., Troy, 687-0718) at 7 PM (18+). Featured artists include Rick Whispers with DJ Turnstyle, Ace the Grappler, Bekay, Dezmatic, Sween, Doom Fist, Eraserheadz and many more. Cover is $8 or $10 after midnight.


no rough mix this week

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