interview | Money Mark and the Mo’Wax Headz (1995)

From its beginnings in the bedrooms and clubs of teenage whizz-teen James Lavelle, the Mo’Wax label is the definitive futurescape of jazz and hip-hop beats fusion. As the Mo’Wax Headz tour hits Planet on Saturday, January 6, ADAM CONNORS dusted off his grotty sneekers and spoke to Mark Ramos Nishita, aka Money Mark, on the abstract experiments within his life.

When I spoke to him, Keyboard Money Mark was entrenched in the desert of California, “kickin’ it, gettin’ ready” for the forthcoming Mo’Wax Headz tour of Australia. The sometimes-studio musician who does the keys for the Beastie Boys on tour, has his samples littered throughout Dust Brothers productions and has his debut album, Mark’s Keyboard Repair, pumping out of all the right places is quite willing to talk about that absolute no-go of genre-descriptive terms – trip-hop.

You see, I feel that I might have my throat slit for mentioning the term within certain circles. Does Mark consider trip-hop a dirty word? “Oh wow, that’s a bit extreme. But I don’t think hyphenated words are very accurate descriptions. Something is what it is, especially when you are breaking new ground. I think when you hyphenate something, when you take two ideas and put them together, as in trip-hop, you are displaying a lack of trying to have a term.”

Which is precisely the definition I am accustomed to. The mix of hip-hop beats and jazz structure, instrumentation and mood has come to be a very fractured collection of music and musicians, only really bound by their place within certain indie labels – Warp, Mo’Wax amongst few others – and the loose label of trip-hop. Money Mark fits in somewhere within the Shaft-style 70s cop show groove, late-80s B-Boys rap, acid jazz and the 90s Sheffield Massiveportisheadtricky thing. Am I again in danger of overwhelming hyphenation and apostrophy overload? ‘Fraid so.

Money Mark’s form of jazz is stripped back archaic keyboards, seminal roots and funky, ambient hip-hop, though it is far from being confined to any one of these realms. The jazz component, for Money Mark, forms his level of conversation with the audience and sets the boundaries for his experimentation on stage.

“There is a misconception of jazz in that certain people feel they should be entertained, while other audiences of jazz need to feel they are participating.

“I think jazz incorporates the audience much more than say, pop music, which is very much into presentation, the big stage, the well-rehersed songs. Free range jazz musicians just hop up and do their thing, with no preconceptions, and the audience knows that and so they participate in the moment.

“I’m not at the point where I’m not going to involve the audience at all. If I get into a certain thing on stage, to challenge myself, I hope the audience responds in kind to the challenge, they accept the wonderment of the new sounds just as much as I am. But if they’re throwin’ tomatoes I know I’d better kick in some beats or somethin’.”

There isn’t much use of the voice or lyricism in the Mo’Wax world, where abstract instrumentation and beat experiments rule. Keyboard Money Mark too sees the use of the voice as essentially another tool, not a flamboyant centrepiece as in pop music.

“Given that not everyone understands the language, the sound of any random bunch of words which sound good is, like, cool. You don’t have to be constrained by the word when you make a cool sound with your throat – like skat, dope, wax – and when you have a microphone you can [Mark barks into the phone]. Y’know, whatever. I admire lots of different sound sources whether they’re conventional or strange.”

Touring with a stock electric piano, clavinet, analogue things and stuff which makes organ sounds, Money Mark will be playing both the Mo’Wax gig at Planet and Summersault with the Beastie Boys. He will be playing Saturday night with guests on bass and drums, who could quite simply be anyone. And where does he want to hear his album, Mark’s Keyboard Repair, booming out of? “I think it can go anywhere man, the young and the old are with it.

“Maybe it will be pumpin’ out of one of those electric carts that the old folks drive through the supermarket, maybe it will be pumpin’ out of some dope lowrider bike somewhere. Or a mono pocket radio, you’ve got it.”

Sort of like a ‘beats entree’ before the Summersault gigs, the tour features Mo’Wax label head James Lavelle, San Franciscan based DJ Shadow, English producer DJ Charlie and Money Mark.

James Lavelle, the 21-year-old Mo’Wax label founder who moonlights as a journalist for acid jazz magazine Straight No Chaser, is leading his label mates in the mix proceedings as the head of the Headz. As well as his business duties, his recordings with UNKLE and live deejaying still keep him wired and admired. “Mo’Wax has come at a time when people may be getting tired with a lot of the techno and house stuff,” he said in NME in 1994.

“Mo’Wax appeals to people because we’re all part of the same generation.”

23-year-old cohort DJ Shadow was picked up by Mo’Wax when he sent demos to Lavelle who went on to say that the result was the record he always wanted to release. His debut EP, In/Flux, was widely celebrated as ‘Massive Attack on dangerous drugs’ and has set the experimental agenda for the label ever since.

English producer of UK duo Attica Blues, DJ Charlie describes his work as “mad subliminal beat music” as he does the finishing mixes for release. Starting off the Mo’Wax beats-fest, his scope in combining twisted drum loops and existing material from new artists will set the smooth move for the groove to follow.