Mist Knows Himself: A Story Of Trials, Tragedy & Triumph

Mist is always on the move. 

If he’s not laying down fire in the booth, then he’s putting in work at the gym. And if he’s not at the gym, then he’s doing bikelife with friends or test-driving the latest German whip (of which he has a fleet). You could say life is sweet for the chart-bothering rapper right now—which it is, and rightly so. But it hasn’t always been this way.

“It was my mum’s anniversary when I dropped that tune.” Mist is talking to me from his mansion over Zoom—first getting a haircut (by his private barber), before taking the phone to other spots around the house. We’re discussing last year’s heart-hitting “Cemetery Walks” single. “Sometimes when someone passes, you don’t get time to grieve. It could be one year, two, three, four—it could even be ten years! I just felt like I didn’t have time to grieve. What’s crazy is I felt like a new man after that. I’m not a man to shed tears, but the other day, my brother’s missus had a miscarriage with twins and they decided to do a funeral. I went up to do a speech and as soon as I started, I broke down. I’ve never met these kids. I go to funerals and I’m usually alright. But this one, it brought back a lot and I felt so much better afterwards. I needed to let that one out.”

Born Ryhs Sylvester in Birmingham, Mist lost both of his parents—mum from St. Vincent, dad from Trinidad—when he was just 19 years old. In the same year, he also became a father to a newborn baby girl. The weight of the world was on his shoulders and he spiralled out of control. “My mum took ill when I was 17 and then she was in a rehabilitation place for two years,” he explains. “Three months before my mum passed, my dad passed; he came offstage at the pub after playing his guitar, and had a cardiac arrest. But he went out doing what he loves. Having to be so self-dependent when I was so young, with a kid and a baby mother who’s stressing out because I haven’t got a job, life was mad and that’s when I got into a ‘I don’t care about nothing’ mode and ended up in jail.” In 2014, Mist was sentenced to 14 months for driving without a license—that and the fact that he sped off down the M6 with the feds chasing after him.

But it was while he was locked up that he found purpose, after going to a resettlement course and having to answer one question on the paper — ‘Who am I?’ — which knocked Mist for six. He was unable to answer the question, due to not truly knowing himself at that point, and it changed his life forever. When he got released mid-2015, he returned to his first love: music. Cars and football are close behind. Mist grew up in a very musical household; his father was Steve Sylvester, who played bass in Brum-based disco band The J.A.L.N alongside his brothers. They hit No. 1 in 1976 with the song “Disco Music”. His brother, meanwhile, was a local reggae and dancehall DJ, and he himself became a local celebrity when he was crowned ‘reload king’ off the back of his lyrical acrobatics during grime sets.

Since 2015, Mist has seen his career go from freestyling on the block to invading the UK charts, winning prestigious awards, to now becoming the host of his own Top Gear-inspired car show. He’s achieved a lot in those years—his parents would be proud—but there’s still a long way to go, including that all-important debut album (which is currently in the works). Sure, there’s been a few bumps in the road, but his focus today has never been more sharp.

We caught up with Mist to talk us through his story of trials, tragedy and triumph. 

“You know when people say prison either makes or breaks ya? It didn’t break me: it made me. It made me understand who I am. It made me sit in a cell and understand who Rhys is. Forget Mist—I had to get to know myself.”

COMPLEX: You’re one of the few rappers from outside of London to shake up the scene’s epicentre and be taken seriously. How easy, or difficult, was it for you to break through?

Mist: There’s one thing you can’t deny, and that’s good music. If it’s good music and the people catch on to it, like it or not, you’ll end up having to get with the times. The only negative came from this thing with the Birmingham accent. Everyone’s got their joke about the Birmingham accent, and you can say you don’t like the accent as much as you want, but when it’s getting played at every club you go to, you have to take it in. There’s a lot of people still dissing Brum accent, but when a Brum tune comes on in the dance, you’ll be singing your heart out in your Brum accent [laughs]. I’ll be honest: it was hard to be normalised in the scene and not be classed as an outsider. It kinda felt like we weren’t in the same category as a lot of the Londonders, but over time, that’s changed. 

Do you think your personality and how you present yourself helped with doors opening for you on a wider level? Likeability factor is just as important as the music for a lot of people, especially industry types.

All I can say is I kept in my lane. I didn’t watch anyone. I kept my originality, and kept it me! I changed the video game. I wanted to do things that no one else was doing. And being from Birmingham, it sheds more light on our thing. There’s people with a lot more money and much bigger budgets and a bigger fanbase, but are they putting their creativity and projecting the way I’m doing it? No. I don’t feel like people even cared about videos the way I cared. I remember, before I flew out anywhere… You know who’s a big inspiration? I’m not even gonna say I changed the video game. I did in a sense, but I used to watch Blade Brown and Fekky a lot. Fekky and Blade were the first in the UK scene, before I even dropped anything, to be flying out and making videos. Then I remember Nines doing “Can’t Blame Me”, where he changed his outfit a bunch of times. All these people and their videos were big inspirations to me, but I wanted to take it to that next level. I didn’t want Rolls Royces. I didn’t want girls on the ends. So I had to think of the bigger picture. I’m a big David Attenborough fan so I wanted to show the people more about me than just being that rapper who stands in front of the camera with a hood on. I didn’t wanna be that ghetto rapper from Brum, so I wanted to take it to a new place, sun and sea, which created that vibe.

Birmingham used to be like my second home on weekends. I used to go to Rococos [Nightclub] almost every Sunday! [Laughs] What was it like for you growing up in the city?

Birmingham is smaller than London and you’ve got a lot of high streets and different bits. We’ve got one town centre. That one town centre is where everyone goes, so this is why Birmingham’s a place where everyone knows each other and everyone knows each other’s business. Even though it’s big, we’ve still got places where everyone has to go. If you’re not in a gang, you’re free to go anywhere you want. Growing up, I wasn’t in the gang thing. I wasn’t on the postcode wars, so my friends, they’re all over Birmingham. I can hang out with my white mates, my yardie mates, my Asian mates, and I feel like growing up in Erdington has helped me to adapt to any environment. Erdington plays a big part in that because it’s so multicultural, so you can’t single yourself out to a certain crowd.

Black and Asian people haven’t always seen eye to eye in Brum over the years, but you fully embrace Asian culture: in your music, and more generally on your social media. Did you ever feel any of that tension when it was hot in the city?

I didn’t because I’ve got a lot of Asian friends where I’m from. The Asian community’s fully embraced me and my music, and a lot of our culture in general. Obviously, there’s a lot more people today who’ve embraced the culture, who Asian people listen to, but when I was coming up, there wasn’t no one who Asians could relate to. I wanted to embrace their culture, use their lingo and their language, make it cool and make people embrace it. Because if they didn’t know, they would have to go and find out what ‘karla’ is, which means Black; ‘gora’ means white, and ‘apna’ means Asian. So I was bigging up everyone, involving all cultures with a few little sayings.

Where does Mist’s musical roots begin? Take us back to your earliest memory of music.

My earliest memory of music is seeing my dad playing his guitar. Every now and again he used to have little revival nights at my mum’s house, late night ones, so I got to experience soundsystem culture from young as well. I think the next big musical memory was the pirate radio era. I used to spend hours trying to catch stations on my little radio to catch Graveyard Crew and Midlands Mafia; they both did garage-style grime. That was my wave on the weekends. You remember when you used to have to record over tapes? I used to tape over my brother’s good tapes and he’d be screwing! [Laughs] Like, “Yo! You’ve re-recorded over my good tapes, blood!” I must have been about 10 years old, just before senior school.

mist

Photography by Jordan Bareham

When did you first come in contact with the mic and realise you had a thing for putting bars together?

Do you remember those little sets where there’d be one mic and everyone would pass it around? It was when I went to one of my first grime sets, in my early teens, and my ting got wheeled up. That feeling when the crowd’s going, “Yo! Wheel it! Wheel it!”, that’s when I knew I wasn’t just an average MC because not everyone gets a wheel-up. And it’s even better when no one knows about you and you get a wheel-up. I feel like coming away from those sets was when I first knew I had something special. People were actually feeling the ting.

Were you cool with the other local grime MCs, like Lady Leshurr, Vader, Deadly, the StayFresh crew, and DJs like Big Mikee? 

In my era, StayFresh was the only group that really got a look-in, in my eyes. There was StayFresh and Invasion [Alert], with Jaykae and that. You had Jaykae and Invasion on his side and then you had StayFresh, which was like Birmingham and Wolverhampton MCs together. So I feel like it was more of an Invasion scene to me. I weren’t really on a group ting. There weren’t really many MCs from my ends. I had a pal named Grimmy and we had the little lingo, all the ‘karla’ stuff—from a young age, the Asian community brought me in. As soon as I started mentioning all that Asian slang, that’s when I started getting wheel-ups. That’s what used to get them going. 

From Malik MD7 and Moorish Delta to Stardom and Zimbo, there’s been a solid rap scene in Birmingham for just as long as the grime one. How did you connect on the rap side of things?

I’ll be real with you: I used to listen to a lot of West Coast growing up. The Birmingham thing was to listen to a lot of West Coast. I’m not gonna sit here and say I could relate to everything they were saying, but the music side, that West Coast rap feel, the synths, that “Gangsta’s Paradise” kind of feeling was where it was at. Even though I was a grime MC and grime was my thing—I used to make grime beats as well—I felt like West Coast rapping was next level, bro. I was in an era where people felt like when you rapped, it’s easier to get across to the audience. Don’t get me wrong: grime is a lot different today, but coming up, grime wasn’t looked at the same. People thought it was too fast for them to understand. Grime was a gassed-up era for me. The bars were violent; that was how you got the grime going. But with rap, I could tell a bit more of my story. I could relate on a lot of different levels, you get me? 

Do you feel like your city backs you? 

I would say London’s backed me more than Brum. I definitely think Birmingham has backed me, but sometimes the place where you come from just doesn’t understand. I can’t blame people for that. But on the other hand, I feel like… You know what’s mad about Brum? If London backs you, Birmingham won’t.

That’s an interesting take, but I can see where you’re coming from. In your music, you’ve talked about the influence the roads have had on your life. You’ve been to prison twice, right? Talk me through those experiences and how you feel you’ve grown, as a person, from then to now.

Growing up in Erdington and Birmingham in general, everyone likes bikes and cars. Everyone goes the short way about getting into a car. You don’t always go the best way. So me going to jail, both times were for driving and not being legal. They don’t play that here. They will send you to jail! First time was for dangerous driving; I had a bit of a police chase when I was younger. Second time was just disqualified driving, driving while I was on a ban. People say, “Fucking ‘ell! They locked you up for that?” But we’re in England and you know how the law is. For me, it was a lesson learned because you can get into situations and places where you don’t wanna be. You know when people say prison either makes or breaks ya? It didn’t break me: it made me. It made me understand who I am. It made me sit in a cell and understand who Rhys is. Forget Mist—I had to get to know myself. I wasn’t off the rails, but I wasn’t where I wanted to be. It put me in a place where I understood this is not what life’s about. It wasn’t so much the sentence, but the journey and who I met on the sentence. You meet lifers, you meet young crackheads. You meet all sorts of people. And I realised this is not me. I’m not about this. Yeah, it was fun and I met some cool people, but this ain’t my ting. I can’t live like this. 

So, in prison, I took up a business course and what that did was it kicked me into gear. It made me understand what I want. There was a course that I joined: it was a resettlement course to resettle me before I got back into society. They classed me as someone who was gonna keep driving and not learn so I had to take a course to stop me from doing it again. The first question on that course was, “Who am I?” Bruv, it was the worst experience of my life! I didn’t know what to write. The woman leading the class even said, “I don’t want anyone to write ‘I’m a dad.’ ‘I’m a brother.’ ‘I’m a cousin.’ I want to know who you are.” I was looking around to see what everyone else was putting down, and no one could put anything. There was a couple man who put, “I’m a builder; “I’m this.” Then she goes, “Now you can put ‘I’m a brother, a dad, whatever.’” And everyone starts writing. I went back to my cell and I was devastated. I got asked “Who am I?” and I couldn’t answer it. It was a spider-diagram and you had to describe yourself with eight things. Bruv, I looked at the spider-diagram, like: “What has life become?” She made us take that spider-diagram back to our cells and she said, “Next session, I want you to come back with another one and I want to know who you are.” That lesson there is what made me be where I am today. 

Me being a father at the time, my daughter was 4, I was thinking: “Bro, I haven’t even got a trade I can write down.” I couldn’t even say, “I do a bit of plumbing.” It made me understand this is not what life’s about. How could I not even answer who I am? It’s such a simple thing, but it woke me up. I couldn’t even think of two or three things! I went back to my cell and that’s what made me find out who I am as a person. It then made me start writing bars again. My “#1 Take” freestyle, “The roads dem are slippy/Yeah, I slipped up,” it’s based on that question. It forced me to start writing my feelings down. Again, coming from Birmingham, it was a very small-minded place so anyone I’d hear on the radio, I’d think has blown. Before I knew about the industry, I’d hear a man on the radio on Saturday night—it took me a while to think, “If he can be on the radio, why can’t I? I’m harder than that. I know I’m harder than that.” Then I started writing and writing. I didn’t start writing knowing I was gonna get to where I was going to get to, but I had a vision that I’d try it.

I came out of jail, went into a hostel, on tag, and one day I was spitting bars and the geeza in my hostel knocked on my door and said: “Bro, you sound hard! You know I went to college with a guy who works with P110. You should do a freestyle.” I was about 23/24 years of age at the time, and I was like: “Nah, I can’t. I’m too old for this shit. I’ve got a daughter now! I need to find a trade! I can’t be making videos and rapping.” Today it’s different because everyone’s got a chance. There’s more of a platform to become a popping rapper. To cut a long story short, he convinced me to drop it, which was that first freestyle in the car. And, bro, from that day on it just started building and building. Coming from where I come from, it was the outside areas first; your Notts, your Derbys, your Leicesters, and it was slowly going to London. It wasn’t until I did an SBTV freestyle that things started to properly heat up. I started getting shouted out by rappers like Stormzy, Nines—I can’t remember everyone—but now I’m in that gear where they know about me. Now I’ve made my presence known. I touched London, ended up linking with [Steel] Banglez, then “Karla’s Back” dropped and the journey began.

mist

Photography by Jordan Bareham

What was home life like for Rhys?

A lot of family around at all times. Christmas used to be at mine. I used to live with my grandfather; it was me, my mum, my grandfather and my brothers. My granddad taught me a lot of things in life. My dad’s from Trinidad; born in Grenada, but moved to Trinidad. He was strict and very old-school. Man violate and you get a beating! There’s no going upstairs—the belt’s coming out, or the slipper [laughs]. I feel like that made me who I am today, because it helped me with a bit more discipline. I’ll never hit my own children, but it showed me a bit of discipline when I needed it most. My whole family loved music as well. My dad played in a band called J.A.L.N, him and his brothers, and they were on Top Of The Pops back in the day. My mum’s brother made calypso and soca, and my dad’s brother was a guy called Soca Master and he’d run soca every day on the radio. Outside the yard, I played football a lot when I was younger. I was a hyper kid; I had ADHD. I was a good kid, but I had my wild moments as well. There were things I experienced in life that my mum wouldn’t have wanted me to, but it happens. I’m a lad and it’s hard for lads growing up. It’s even harder today. My mum was always the person who took me on holidays. She used to take me back to where she’s from, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and always made sure I went to see my grandmother, my great grandmother, and see my roots.

Both of your parents passed away before you got in the music game. Condolences. I’m sure they’re proud of you and everything you’ve achieved so far. How did their passing affect you?

My mum took ill when I was 17 and then she was in a rehabilitation place for two years, and three months before my mum passed away, my dad passed away; he came offstage at the pub after playing his guitar, and had a cardiac arrest. But he went out doing what he loves. Having to be so self-dependent when I was so young, with a kid and a baby mother who’s stressing out because I haven’t got a job, life was mad and that’s when I got into a ‘I don’t care about nothing’ mode and ended up in jail. Six months before anyone passed, I had a daughter. So all this happened in 2011, all these things—I had a daughter, my dad passed and then my mum passed. Two years later, my house—my mum’s yard—got repossessed. The savages! At that point, I didn’t give a shit. Everyone deals with stress differently. My brother, for instance, he didn’t really deal with it the way I dealt with it. I was on more of a “Fuck this! I’ve gotta keep pushing” vibe, but my brother went down the route of: “Shit! Mum’s gone. I’m stressed!” But he’s on the up now. We all came out the other side better. 

Was “Cemetery Walks” therapeutic for you?

Very therapeutic. It was my mum’s anniversary when I dropped that tune. Sometimes when someone passes, you don’t get time to grieve. It could be one year, two, three, four—it could even be ten years! I just felt like I didn’t have time to grieve. What’s crazy is I felt like a new man after that. I’m not a man to shed tears, but the other day, my brother’s missus had a miscarriage with twins and they decided to do a funeral. I went up to do a speech and as soon as I started, I broke down. I’ve never met these kids. I go to funerals and I’m usually alright. But this one, it brought back a lot and I felt so much better afterwards. I needed to let that one out. Forget crying in front of man. I let the tears run down my face. But I didn’t understand it. I wanted to be strong, but it just kept coming. It wasn’t until the priest came up to me and said, “It takes a real man to show his emotion. Don’t beat yourself up.” Because I kept apologising, like: “Sorry, everyone. I’ve come up here to say what I’ve got to say and I’m just up here bawling.” I wasn’t ready. I was thinking, “Shit! This emotion ting’s a bit too much.” I shed a tear for the little ones and I felt better for it.

That’s real. Even the strongest in the room have their moments. But back to the music: how would you say that life has changed since your career has blossomed?

Just being able to go normal places, go shopping, go to eat quickly, I have to be very conscious of where I’m going, what I’m wearing when I’m going, because you never know. And I can’t just pop out with my dry foot to the shop, because that’s one thing that changed: I went from just being a guy that rapped to becoming a role model. That happened because of the MOBO I won [for “Hot Property”]—I can’t put out a shit video ever after that—and me signing to Warner, that all came from that and people seeing me make moves. A lot of the artists I was listening to before I started are coming to me and asking for advice. They’re saying I’m the king and I’m the one leading them, and when they say that it gives you a little boost. 

Still, that sounds like a lot of pressure. 

You feel like you’ve got to prove something. One thing about being on top is everyone’s waiting for the fall-off. It’s not always the right way, but a lot of people will like to portray your losses rather than your wins. If something bad happens to me today, every [Instagram] blog’s probably posting about it. Every blog would post if I got robbed today, but would every blog post if I released new music? It’s a lot to deal with. I feel like if you stay in your lane, keep it humble and you don’t overdo yourself for an opinion that doesn’t even matter, you’ll be alright. There’s a lot of opinions in music that don’t really matter. You have to be strong-minded to not take that opinion in. It could even be a fan. “Nah, I don’t feel this one, bro. I feel your old one.” You either take it as he hasn’t seen the progression or you start worrying that the fans aren’t feeling it. But it’s how you take it and what you do with that information.

Do you have any dreams outside of music? If there was a sequel to [the Birmingham-set movie] 1 Day, could we see Mist doing up actor? [Laughs]

100%! I just announced I’ve got my own TV series coming—a BBC Three thing. A petrol head ting! I’ve loved cars from young; watching Top Gear was my thing. Getting this show was always a dream. For me, it’s not about just showing the whips—it’s about showing my love for whips. My love for whips is different. I’m not doing it for the money—I’m doing it because I love the sound of a car. I’d love to do a movie as well. 50 Cent’s movie proper made me understand. And what he did with Power… I’d love to do a Power in Brum, because the North is completely different to London. It’s a different wave over here, and I wanna give people an outlook on that, but a Power side. Everyone does documentaries where they go to the hood, but I’m gonna do scenarios and show what people are on up here. It’s very heavy. It’s very gang affiliated, but there’s other aspects. What about the white geezas? What about the Asian community or the Albanians who do the scrap [metal]? You don’t see a scrap man in London with a scrap van and a horn going, “Bring out your iron!” These things are normal up here. So my dream is to show the world this side of things, i.e. Brum and my life. I don’t think people understand. They just think I’m this rapper, but it’s a lot deeper.

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