I first saw Tristan “Phonetic” McCormick at Streetlight Records. With his hoodie up and headphones on, he would silently dig through the bins and leave, barely making eye contact. Then I saw Phonetic, the Jekyll to his Hyde, spit rapid-fire lyrics at the Blue Lagoon to a stunned crowd—which erupted with raucous cheers.
“My mind works really fast, and I don’t know how I do it sometimes,” he explains with a shy grin. “I can get into the zone and nothing else is around me. Just the zone.”
As a teenager, the 30-year-old Scotts Valley rapper was consistently misdiagnosed with different mental illnesses.
“From 14 to 28, I was in a lot of treatment centers,” he says. “I had a lot of anger built up from dealing with mental illness. I didn’t really have a teenage life; didn’t really go to high schools or anything like that. Everything emerged from a different place.”
During this time, McCormick discovered Eminem, opening his world to the healing art of hip hop.
“It all started by not knowing how to express my emotions, so listening to Eminem really caught my attention,” McCormick says. “After that, [Santa Cruz rapper] Playz is the person who got my feet on the ground.”
What sets him apart are his positive messages. Songs like “Takin It Back,” “Keep Your Dreams High” and “Faith Is Out” extol the virtues of diligence, faith in yourself and seeking to inspire others. The forthright McCormick wrote “Killing the Stigma” about society’s perception of mental illness. It’s one of the many he performs in front of high school students and hospital patients while volunteering with mental health awareness groups like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)’s Ending the Silence, and Parents Teachers and Allies.
“I show love,” he says. “It’s what I do, whether it’s with my music or my actions.”
Phonetic is set to drop his second album, Lyrical Fire, next month, and he will be at the next Santa Cruz Cypher Session on Feb. 28 at the Boardwalk.
INFO: 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28. Santa Cruz Boardwalk. 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz. Free. Info: facebook.com/sccypher