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.
"I'll get a little cash up-front for that; that'll definitely keep me going for a couple months," Griffin says. "But it's definitely getting to the point where I'm gonna have to put out a new album or get a day job. Probably both, actually."
After so many years of disuse, Griffin finds that his task is twofold: Reshape his ever-evolving musical vision, and get back in touch with his inner 900 Ft. Jesus.
MC 900 Ft. Jesus started out as just Griffin on his own, with help from DJ Zero, who was previously "just some guy that would come in and scour the [VVV] used-record bins." The product and the two-man live show were very much electronic. Then, as he set off to tour with Nettwerk labelmates Consolidated, he started gradually expanding his lineup.
"That's actually what set me off in a jazz direction," says Griffin. "We were all kinda sittin' around listening to electric-period Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock from around that period, and I was really into the Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff."
Griffin hooked up with Harvin and mates, and MC 900 found himself presiding over a land of muted trumpets and swirling jazz motifs, years before Tortoise made jazz fusion cool again among the indie crowd.
"The Spider album was sort of a culmination," says Griffin. "That may have been about as far as me, not really a jazz musician, could take that. Maybe that's a component of why, when we went into the studio after that, it sounded like we were just rehashing the same ideas. It was really just my own directionlessness."
Now Griffin has come full circle, making music by himself again, inspired by a new generation of electronic music. "What I've been listening to these past few years has got nothing to do with what I was doing in the past," he says, citing Lisa Germano, German dubsters Pole and the abrasive Finnish duo Pan sonic. "I've been trying to figure out how I can twist old MC 900 into something that would inspire me musically these days."
And just who is old MC 900 anyway?
"MC 900 Ft. Jesus is this nebulous concept that allows me to go off on any crazy direction that pops into my head, really," says the man himself. "It really changes from song to song, but there are certain themes that keep on popping back up--the inane silliness, the real threatening and crazy kind of personality. Some of those ideas came from various nuts that I've met in my life. Crazy people and my encounters with them."
Which leads to Griffin's explanation for taking Roberts' infamous vision as his name: "If a person who was a couple sandwiches short of a picnic decided that he was gonna become a rap artist, what kind of crazy name would he come up with?"
Armed with a hard drive's worth of new material Griffin characterizes as "experimental...kinda quiet and mysterious and just turned down a few notches," the MC will lean heavily on his Spider and Dream-era material for the trio of shows he has planned. First will be a show Thursday at the Mercury in Austin, followed by gigs Friday and Saturday at Trees and Dan's Bar in Denton. For these shows, Griffin will be joined by Harvin, Palmer, McGuire, bassist Dave Monsey and guitarist Phil Bush, and the results may go a long way toward deciding the future of MC 900 Ft. Jesus.
"I'm still kinda plugging away at the record and trying to figure out what the hell I wanna do next," says Griffin. "I've got another show with Kitchen Dog Theater right after that [Reckless, which opens November 17 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary], so I'll get back to it around the holidays and either set up a tour of Europe or just buckle down and try to finish an album.
"That's one thing I'm really happy about. If I decide to wake up one day and do something about it, I can do it. If I don't feel like fucking with it, then I don't."