The MOST IMPORTANT Work Of Their Lives

The last two weeks of the year may not have much in the way of touring acts for Northeast Florida music fans. But that’s actually a good thing—it allows us the rare chance to enjoy local heroes in intimate, celebratory year-end sets. Take soul-infused hip-hop duo Stono Echo’s Dec. 23 performance at Nighthawks. Jay Myztroh and Paten Locke are celebrating the vinyl release of their stunning new full-length Black Diamonds, with a build-your-own vegan feast courtesy of Full Plate Fam and jerk chicken from local promoter Ian Ranne to boot. Does free sound good, too?

“It’s for the fanbase,” Myztroh tells Folio Weekly. “It’s for the people who’s supported Stono Echo’s sound, message, vibe and energy. We’ve felt a lot of love from the people here in Jacksonville, so we wanted to put Black Diamonds on showcase and bring a community energy into it with the food as well.”

Myztroh, well-known in NEFla for his live band Elevated Hip-Hop Experience teamed with Locke and Full Plate Fam founder Dillon on 2016’s excellent Food Chain. But after Myztroh laid down the instrumental tracks, he hinted to Locke that he was an accomplished vocalist who’d been honing his chops in private. “Black Diamonds is a synthesis of all the skills I’ve been refining for the last 15 years,” Myztroh says. “For the first time, I’ve found exactly what my voice is—exactly what I wanted to scream to the world. It’s a representation of exactly where I am right now, how I feel about my art form, and how I feel about society.”

Black Diamonds connects the personal and the political in a dazzling, often devastating way. Myztroh’s yearning lyrics dissect the dissipation of a relationship on “Holdin’,” while “Workin’” celebrates the joy of doing what you truly love. On the flip side, the hard-hitting trio of “Politrickin’,” “SoapBox” and “Yesterday (Another Day)” address a litany of societal ills: police brutality, our skewed justice system and the electoral upheaval wrenching the nation. Which lends itself to the surprising sentiment that Locke delivers: “This Stono Echo album might be the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

“I grew up politically informed—very hands on,” Locke says. “But in my own music, I’ve only spoken on certain things. So to hear these ideas fleshed out in song with Jay’s lyrics … he’s speaking on things I’ve always felt but maybe never expressed as plainly. The sentiments we’ve touched on with this record have always driven me as a person. I’m very happy that Jay is saying the things he’s saying—and saying them now. It’s powerful music. There’s something very important about this record.”

Myztroh seconds that—and says that the reciprocal relationship in Stono Echo, with Locke laying down beats, has empowered him like never before. “The fact that Black Diamonds is resonating on a deeper level is the most interesting thing,” he says. “It’s really about me finally being personal. Saying what’s all the way inside and not running from the way my voice sounds. As a musician on the bar scene, I emulated Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Prince and Marvin Gaye. And like those artists, I had to just be completely and brutally honest with myself. That seemed to be the trick: Be truthful, no matter what that turned into. You gotta let the music be a mirror for yourself.”

Such sincerity follows only when two artists feel genuinely comfortable with each other. Locke says he feels a real kinship with Myztroh, one that transcends collaborator status and carries into the realm of friendship and fandom. “Things have always been very natural between us,” Locke says. “Whenever we speak, we see the same things. Everything about Stono Echo, every discussion we have, we find we’re entirely on the same page. That leaves us room to appreciate each other’s expression.”

And that expression culminates in the vinyl release of Black Diamonds, something Myztroh describes as a dream he’s had since he was a 5-year-old kid putting the needle down on the colorful platters of his first Fisher-Price record player. “I’ll be proud of this for the remainder of time here,” he says with pride. “The fact that it’s this project, where I finally did find my voice, is just the cherry on top.”

Even though the focus is on the new release for the moment, Myztroh says he and Locke have plenty of new material on deck for 2018. Ever the studio genius, Myztroh says he still has to remaster some tracks, laying down background vocals here, inserting new saxophone solos there, and adding a few fresh verses on certain tracks.

“We’re constantly working,” Locke laughs. “We could put out a couple records right now, and there will soon be even more new stuff. There’s gonna be more music coming in 2018. But right now, we’re gonna appreciate Black Diamonds and all the hard work that went into it. We’re proud of this one—and very happy to mark its release publicly with the people who’ve been supporting us all along.”