While most hip-hoppers are surrounded by large ego-stroking posses, Money Mark keeps a low profile. Best known as the organist for the Beastie Boys, Money Mark (born Mark Ramos-Nishita) simply loads his one-man keyboard setup into a van and moves on. “For me, touring is based on the 12-volt DC system,” Money Mark says, laughing. “I can play in the outback if I need to. All I need is a car battery to do a show.”
Money Mark’s carefree attitude and no-frills approach are palpable in the low-key funk and soul of his recent debut, Mark’s Keyboard Repair. The album is the first fruit borne of a deal between America’s London Records and England’s Mo’ Wax label, one of the most successful British indies in recent years and the label that gave birth to the hip-hop hybrid that has been dubbed trip-hop. Produced outside the usual American urban centers, trip-hop replaces rapping with a head-tripping spaciness, creating a sound in which hip-hop, experimental rock, jazz, ambient and techno vibrantly co-exist. Mo’ Wax is the brainchild of 21-year-old James Lavelle, who was strongly inspired by British reggae sound systems, especially the DJ-based Wild Bunch collective in the blue-collar port city of Bristol. “These sound-system jams would be mellow, with lots of people smoking weed, and they were very bass heavy,” Lavelle says. “It eventually transformed into the hip-hop side of things.”
The scope of Mo’ Wax has been broadened through singles and remixes to include Tokyo hip-hop star DJ Krush, Detroit techno artist Carl Craig, French acid-jazzers La Funk Mob, Chicago art-rockers Tortoise, and British electronic artists Autechre, Plaid and Luke Vibert. “We’re not trying to compete with Dr. Dre,” Lavelle says. “When hip-hop started, it wasn’t trying to compete with the major acts of the time. There is a huge interest and demand by people for music with a cultural and more experimental element.” Lavelle’s aesthetic can be heard in the most successful trip-hop artists to date: Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. (The latter two negotiated with Lavelle before signing with major labels.) But the record that really established the Mo’ Wax sound was the 1993 single “In/Flux,” by DJ Shadow, a k a 24-year-old Josh Davis of Davis, Calif. A veritable symphony of samples and scratches lovingly sculpted over a gritty profusion of break beats, “In/Flux” transformed the building blocks of hip-hop into something astonishingly ambitious.
“I still insist what I was doing with ‘In/ Flux’ was harking back to the classic hip-hop days,” DJ Shadow says with characteristic modesty. “Mankind has always been fond of repetition, and to me it’s like the ultimate kind of trance.”
DJ Shadow’s long-awaited debut album is due out this fall. “The record was completed for the most part in June of last year, but I usually tweak it right at the end to bring me up to date in terms of what’s inspired me lately,” DJ Shadow says. “If I’m going to live with something that has my name on it for the rest of my life, I have to like it six months or a year later. If it still takes me somewhere, then in my mind I know it’s a classic for me.”
DJ Krush, a. k. a. Hideaki Ishi, has been involved in the Tokyo hip-hop scene since 1986. His eponymous debut album found him experimenting with acid-jazz musicians, and his first British Mo’ Wax release, Strictly Turntablized (1994), captured him investigating heavy-duty scratching techniques. The recently released Meiso brings him closer to American shores. Included on the album are collaborations with American rappers Guru, C.L. Smooth, and Black Thought and Malik B. of the Roots. The album concludes with a wiggy jam featuring DJ Shadow that ladles beats so heavy and dense that it makes most jungle music sound tame. The bulk of the album, however, focuses on DJ Krush’s skill at harnessing chunky, infectious beats while quietly incorporating samples of traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi into the mix.
“As DJs we make instrumental sounds, and I believe people can connect with the music without understanding the language,” DJ Krush says. He points to the hip-hop film Wild Style as his inspiration to start spinning. “I want people to understand that hip-hop changed my life and that I have tried to arrange American hip-hop in my own way,” he says. “I owe something to American hip-hop, and by trying to express myself honestly through samples and the way I arrange them, I hope to pay something back.”
If DJ Krush is attempting to give something back to hip-hop, Money Mark seeks to dig up its roots. Mark’s Keyboard Repair exploits a wide variety of old keyboards – from organ to clavinet – to craft a trippy low-fi brand of soul and funk. Although he’s contributed extensively to the last two Beastie Boys albums and been a frequent collaborator with the Dust Brothers, his own recordings served more as a hobby than as anything else. He released a disc called Mark’s Keyboard Repair on Mo’ Wax in Britain. The record sold out, and shortly thereafter, Mo’ Wax licensed it for re-release in the U.S. The album was also made available as a three-pack of vinyl EPs in the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal fanzine.
Money Mark recorded all of the music alone in his bedroom, suggesting a hip-hop equivalent to bedroom rockers like Lou Barlow. “I feel like I’m a predecessor to these kids who stay in their rooms with their computers and tinker around,” Money Mark says. “I’m in my element when I’m in the bedroom.” Mo’ Wax is dedicated to shining a light on hip-hop rebels. “I started the label to try and let people know about all of this music from different parts of the world,” Lavelle says. With the forthcoming DJ Shadow album, the debut from Lavelle’s own group, U.N.K.L.E., a slew of diverse compilations, and several books on skateboard and graffiti art, Lavelle’s goal of breaking down stylistic walls seems guaranteed.
“A lot of people don’t want to buy into what a certain music stands for, and hip-hop is no exception,” Lavelle says. “I think that’s why people’s tastes are opening up.”
This story is from the July 11th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.