A sleek four-door sedan rolls up to Mikael Johnston's Victorian duplex in Alameda, and out pops San Francisco rapper DeGo, a small, compact 26-year-old with a shaved head and stunna shades. Evidently, this is the kid. The venom. Johnston, a 39-year-old electronica producer who comprises one half of the duo Mephisto Odyssey — once signed to Warner, then dropped, then vanquished, then resurrected — excitedly greets his new partner in crime, and leads him upstairs to a bedroom studio. He pulls up a track from his computer — clubby hip-hop with an R&B hook sung by Allen Anthony, a couple verses from DeGo, and a salty cameo by Too $hort. Called "Still a Playa," it's the first single from DeGo's forthcoming album, and Johnston plans to make a whole new beat for it. With the combination of hooky, groove-driven production, DeGo's snarly rap cadence, and the acoustics in Johnson's apartment, the song measures up to anything that's currently on the radio. DeGo beams.
Since relaunching Mephisto in 2006, and hatching plans for his own indie publishing company, Johnston has gotten way into hip-hop. His latest spate of recordings includes several reinterpretations of hip-hop tracks by local emcees, including Z-Man and Del tha Funky Homosapien. He hooked up with Hieroglyphics DJ Toure last year and the two started collaborating. Their first single, "Bump" — a glitchy dance track with a sassy rap from Z-Man and hook sung by DJ Pollywog — has already been placed in MTV's new Paris Hilton show Best Friends Forever and spawned multiple remixes, long before its official release date.
Johnston, who survived a dismal depression between 2002 and 2006 — the years following his tenure at Warner — has finally found something he can really sink his teeth into. Crossover hip-hop-based music is more lucrative in the era of digital downloads, since it lends itself to remixing and licensing, and has a good chance of landing in a video game soundtrack or web commercial. Johnston is smart enough and tech-savvy enough to keep pace with the times, and after more than fifteen years in the music business, he's still managing to stay afloat. More importantly, the new hip-hop collabos are allowing him to expand the dimensions of his work.
A devout computer geek who got into electronic music when it was still somewhat cutting-edge, Johnston launched Mephisto in 1993 with the dance single "Dream the Black Dahlia" (a title Johnston attributes to that fact that he was "24 and pretentious as fuck"). But it helped put Johnston on the map. He had a pretty successful climb alongside outfits like the Crystal Method, Christopher Lawrence, and Überzone, signed to the indie label City of Angels in 1995, and got hired to remix the Jane's Addiction single "So What" in 1997. That year Johnston also met DJ Josh Camacho, who at that time worked at Guitar Center in El Cerrito, and was a self-professed Mephisto fan. Johnston came in to the store one day and heard his music playing on the stereo. In Camacho's version of the story, "He said, 'Oh, that's my song playing in the background. Who's playing it?' They said, 'Oh, that's the DJ guy.'" Shortly thereafter, Camacho became a bona fide member of the band.
Everyone assumed that electronic music was gonna be the next wave of pop. "Warner took a leap of faith and signed us," said Johnston. "We thought we'd be America's answer to the Chemical Brothers." At that point Mephisto also included British turntablist Barry Eves and producer Orpheos Dejournette, and most of the recording and mixing took place in a grimy East Oakland studio. "That was where we wrote the album for two years behind a brick wall," Camacho said. "Warner would just kinda send these different acts in."
It was, admittedly, a pretty weird fit. "I think they didn't put any stock in electronic music at all," Johnston said in hindsight. "You'd go in the Warner Bros. office and it would be like, 'Van Halen might be getting together with David Lee Roth, did ya hear? Did ya hear?' Green Day was probably the most cutting-edge band over there, plus us and a bunch of bands you've never heard of, because they didn't put any resources into us." Mephisto dropped The Deep Red Connection on Warner in 2000, but was better known during those years for collaborating with acts like Static-X and Los Amigos Invisibles. "We kept holding on for the longest time even though we weren't a big earner." But the 2001 AOL acquisition put a lot of pressure on any act still signed to Warner. "You had to have a gold single US to stay," said Camacho, who quit the band in 2001. By the time Mephisto was officially dropped in 2002, Johnston was the only one left.
By then, there was really no room for argument. Johnston moved to Georgia and invested a lot of his Warner royalties in tech stocks that eventually crashed. Camacho moved to Vegas with nothing (though he wound up managing one of the biggest show rooms on the strip). "That in itself is a whole sob story-slash-NBC after-school special," Camacho said. "After the Warner years it was really tough for me, because here you're jet-setting around, the limos are taking you around." And the next thing you know, it's September 10, 2001, you're a starving artist again, and you've just moved to Vegas. "Talk about a lonely place."
Johnston and Camacho hooked up again in 2006, after both returned to the Bay Area and Johnston had begun writing Mephisto-like stuff again. They reunited at one of Camacho's DJ gigs and later wrote the beefy rock-influenced track "Superphonic," and the clubby, party-breaks-filled "Sexy Love." Shortly thereafter they formed the label Groove Quest, which is really a means to promote their publishing company, Groove Quest Diablo Publishing. By now, says Johnson, all the real money is licensing. The idea is to create an imaginary market for each of your songs by getting them out into the blogosphere, selling a couple thousand downloads, and then trying to get them placed in a network show or video game.
At this point, it looks like Mephisto Odyssey — now firmly recast as a duo — is about to enjoy another renaissance. The guys are helping build a new studio in West Oakland that's being bankrolled by Dave Watson, a retired Google software engineer who's devoted his life to creating a "music incubator" for promising talent in Oakland. Johnston is engineering Goapele's new album, indulging his current preoccupation with old-school nerdery (i.e., analogue equipment and MPC samplers), and working on a new side project with trance DJ Dave Dresden. Still, one of the things he's most excited about is the new series of hip-hop collaborations, starting with "Bump" (which is about three weeks away from official release). He met DJ Toure through an engineering gig last year, and the two instantly hit it off. "He was like, 'I really want to do electronica.' I was like, 'I really wanna do hip-hop,'" Johnston said. "It was kinda like, 'You got chocolate on my peanut butter.'"
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