By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
He's that guy with the crooked grin, filing away records in the corner of the store. He's giving you that sly, sideways glance, the bemused look of a kid who's found a new diversion. You don't know whether or not to ask for the help you obviously need, but soon you have no choice. He steps up and fires deadly salvo after salvo of shapeless banter, and you're trapped, caught in the spider web of Mark Griffin, the original Killer Inside Me. The scene is the now-defunct independent record shop VVV Records on Cedar Springs, where Griffin worked for nearly a decade. This was the birthing ground of MC 900 Ft. Jesus.
"When you work in a store like that, you know how you get so sick of it?" asks Griffin, whose resurrection as MC 900 Ft. Jesus occurs Friday night at Trees, after seven years in the musical grave. "And there's so much stuff there that sucks? You get to be a real snob, and you hate just about everything. I kept saying to myself, 'I can do a better record than this,' over and over again, and finally it just dawned on me, I should put my money where my mouth was and try to do one."
Griffin was classically trained on the trumpet and had spent years in seminal area bands the Telefones and Lithium X-Mas, but it was at VVV, where he worked from 1983 to 1991, that he first refined his personal artistic vision. It was during the late-'80s industrial revolution when he turned his ears to Ministry, Front 242 and Tackhead, as well as explosive hip-hop like Public Enemy and scores of lesser-known beat generators laying down their grooves on 12-inch wax.
"I was listening to all these records," he says, "and I'd see things that I liked, and think 'Y'know, this could be like one dude in his bedroom who made this record.'" So Griffin became that dude, thanks in part to the record-label connections he made while working at VVV, and he also became one of the first white hip-hop artists who didn't suck.
It may have been novelty that possessed MTV to air early diamond "Truth Is Out of Style," as well as the semi-hit "If I Only Had a Brain" and ultimate MC 900 mission statement "Killer Inside Me." But it was Griffin's intriguingly daft, psychotic character study that enabled him to carve out a niche for himself, surrounded as he was by funk-crusted layers of spy-plane jazz and turntable workouts. Jesus' roll compounded with the One Step Ahead of the Spider album, which resulted in the "Brain" video getting not only regular airtime, but also a place on Beavis and Butt-Head. It was also Griffin's busiest and most adventurous album musically, as he enlisted a stellar supporting cast in drummer extraordinaire Earl Harvin, pianist Dave Palmer, saxophonist Chris McGuire and bassist Drew Phelps. The year was 1994, and all was right with Jesus' world.
Then, abruptly, the story ends there. MC 900 Ft. Jesus disappeared down a rabbit hole, as suddenly as the Oral Roberts vision that inspired the character.
"I did three albums in the space of four years, and then when we started working on this [new] one and we went into the studio [in 1995], I just felt like I just didn't have any new ideas at that point," Griffin says. "I kinda just wanted to set it aside for a while."
And so he did. Mark Griffin was still around, playing trumpet in VVV buddy Neal Caldwell's band, the Enablers, "for beer money," and doing sound design for the Kitchen Dog Theater stage troupe. But 900 Ft. Jesus was nowhere to be found.
Finally, Griffin got a computer with ProTools software to resume his 900 Ft. Jesus work. Which was fine, until he fell for the flight simulators. Hard. "I totally got hooked on all of them," Griffin says. "I wasted incredible amounts of time, just getting to be the master of the combat flight simulators. Eventually, I said, 'Man, you should just learn to fly a real plane,' so I just decided to do it."
Mission accomplished, as Griffin got his private pilot's license three years ago. Enclosed with the license was a certificate from the school of musical procrastination, with the bill signed by American Recordings maestro Rick Rubin.
"It was weird," says Griffin, who signed up with American before Spider. "I kinda rode this crest. In the mid-'90s, all the majors were just buying up all the alternative stuff, looking for the next Nirvana or whatever. And just about the time I began working on a new album was when [American] was dropping bands left and right.
"What happened with me was that my contract guaranteed me two albums," he continues, "and they had already advanced me a huge sum of money to start working on a new one. But then they decided to get rid of all their bands, so they never officially dropped me, but I haven't heard from them in six years either."
Griffin has actually extended his ride on the MC 900 Ft. Jesus trust fund by working out a deal with Nettwerk Records--which released his debut, 1990's Hell With the Lid Off--to reissue that album and 1991's follow-up, Welcome to My Dream.