He got game

The animal logic of Keyboard Money Mark's new Push the Buttons

This circle starts with one point: A quarter century ago, before the NBA era of shower-curtain shorts, when the Laker-land Forum floor was slicked with Happy Hairston's hair grease and the sweat of Jerry West, a ballboy named Mark Ramos Nishita towel-dried the lane beneath the Stilt's frame and fed the warm-up Spalding to Gail Goodrich. Off-court, young Mark apprenticed on a brown-dirt piano, establishing a style equal parts Elton John's songs and John Lord's Deep Purple keys.

Flash forward to 1995, when Mark, his name now properly modified by "Keyboard" and "Money," leads Biz Markie and the Beastie Boys in a vampy version of Elton's "Bennie and the Jets" on a flexi-disc inserted inside Grand Royal magazine, issue two--the most popular flexi since Lorne Greene dropped "Songs of the Humpback Whale." And now comes '98; as Laker Nick Van Exel gets Greg Ostertagged out near the end of the first half of the monotonous NBA All-Star game, a Madison Square Garden organist holds the moment by swinging into the familiar vamp of, y'bet, "Bennie and the Jets." The repertoire of onetime ballboy Keyboard Money Mark flows through the NBA's internal organ; Mark's arc has made a complete circle.

Make that Mark's ark: This is a guy more comfortable around animals than people; he's the Jack Hannah of rock and roll, but less about that later. He built his ark at his L.A.-area workshop-studio-home, launched it with his '95 solo debut Mark's Keyboard Repair (key animal tracks: "Revolt of the Octopi" and "Insects Are All Around Us"), and kept it afloat with the just-released Push the Button, the wonderfully varied topography of which reflects this musical journeyman's movements.

"I've gone through almost all the different stages a musician in the 20th century goes through," says Nishita, lounging at a Sunset Strip taco shop. "Sitting in a big studio, being on stage, recording at home, playing in bands in a little club, and I don't disappreciate what I've done with the Beastie Boys. But to put it in perspective, I can give you a story.

"Somewhere in the middle of the Ill Communication tour--arena venues, heavy security, bigger places than I'd ever played before--I'm backstage in the concrete dressing room, not performing yet because they're doing a rap set. Then my cue comes up. I'm moseying onto the upstage area, and I notice this bottle that says FOG JUICE on it. And it made me think: I'm in a band that uses fog juice--what happened? A minute ago, I was just walking down the street."

It was Beasties cohort and top producer Mario Caldato who brought Nishita in. The Brazilian Caldato and the Mexican-Japanese Nishita have known each other for more than 20 years, since attending Gardena High School together for, in the former's words, "a second." The two played together in the late '70s schoolhouse-rock outfit Phaze, and then the ska-punk Jungle Bugs, who, in '84, put out a single, "I Don't Dream About You" b/w "Night Today."

"Basically, Mark's doing the same thing he's always been doing," observes Caldato, who pushed buttons from the producer's chair on Nishita's new LP. "He's been writing songs the whole time, and I think the songs he was writing back then were just as good. Some of the songs he does now are old songs from back then. He's always had the music in him. That's the quality that's enabled him to write good songs with good melodies. I always had faith in his music and thought he was always talented, it was just a matter of connections and time."

Nishita's voice is sweetly reminiscent of New Orleans' legendary writer-producer-ivory tickler Allen Toussaint singing "If I Was a Carpenter," except there'd be no ifs were Nishita to sing the tune; he once paid the rent as a trained carpenter. Hence the oft told tale of Caldato bringing Nishita up to repair the Beasties' Paul's Boutique-era Hollywood crash pad, and Nishita sticking around long enough to play a crucial role in the writing process of Check Your Head (which includes the public transportation lament "Mark on the Bus") and Ill Communication--and also long enough to help expand the Beasties' consciousness by introducing them to the music of Nigerian activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

"Mark helped open up a whole other side of them that they didn't even know existed: playing funky jams, which became a crucial part of their repertoire," Caldato says. "They had been trying to play Meters-type instrumentals. Mark came in and wrote those songs."

As the Beasties globe-trotted to secure their rock-rap status, one of the live highlights was seeing Nishita's high-jumping stage entrance and the body-rock handstands he performed atop his organ without missing a cue. (Nishita laughs when asked his exact vertical leap: "I'd say the height of a Wurlitzer organ--with a Moog Taurus stacked on top of it.")

But it's possible Nishita would never have displayed such skills had he stuck with another band: Before blessing the Beasties with the hit-making organ vamp to "So What'cha Want," before guesting on records by Jon Spencer and Beck, Nishita jammed with an early lineup of the Wallflowers. And he might never have hit the stage solo had another offer panned out: During Lollapalooza '94, he was invited to join the Verve, then out in their psychedelic wilderness. He never actually jammed with the latter band, though.

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