Seated behind a folding table in the small lounge at Lee Harvey's, next to the Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga arcade game, Mark Griffin is flipping through a book of CDs, trying to pick the next song when two 30-something guys walk in, halt in their tracks and stare at him for a moment. One looks at his friend, at the two other people in the room and then back at Griffin.
"Is this MC 900 Ft. Jesus?" he asks with a nervous smile.
That is a good question.
The fan, Matt Castrinos of Washington, D.C., had extended a business trip by a day just to see MC 900 Ft. Jesus after seeing his name on the Web site of his favorite Dallas bar. He was expecting a performance from one of the most innovative indie-rap MCs to ever have a video on MTV. The MC 900 Ft. Jesus that Castrinos expected to see was one of indie-rap's true innovators in the late '80s and early '90s, a funny, self-deprecating abstract philosopher whose beats combined turntablism and live music in an ever-evolving blend of hip-hop, pop, techno, jazz and industrial rock music.
Castrinos was not expecting to see a 51-year-old Borders clerk and amateur pilot playing jazz CDs.
Mark Griffin has had a life of constant reinvention. In the early '80s, years before he was MC 900 Ft. Jesus, he replaced the original trumpet player of the Telefones, one of Dallas' most influential new-wave bands. Before that, he was working toward a master's degree in music at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). His postgraduate studies had followed a stint as a union trumpeter backing touring jazz players such as Engelbert Humperdinck. He explains each drastic shift in his musical endeavors as basically the result of boredom. In fact, he created MC 900 Ft. Jesus because he was unimpressed with the music he heard while working at indie record store VVV.
"I could make better music than that," he thought, and then he did it.
Few outside of Dallas noticed at first, but the acclaim for his one-of-a-kind sound on 1990's Hell With the Lid Off with DJ Zero and 1991's Welcome to My Dream (with the amazing pyromaniac's confession "The City Sleeps") eventually led him away from the Nettwerk label. In 1994, Rick Rubin's American released One Step Ahead of the Spider. Further boosting his profile was the music video for "If I Only Had a Brain," a clever bit of absurdity created by hot new director Spike Jonze. That video's appearance on Beavis and Butt-head sealed Griffin's place in the annals of pop-culture history.
Little did anyone know it would prove to be the final MC 900 Ft. Jesus album.
Griffin admits he was frustrated with his new label's lack of promotional effort. While touring for the album, he'd find himself in college towns without any press interviews lined up. But what ultimately led him to give up on his fourth album was something more internal, a lack of musical inspiration.
"I was burned out on the whole concept of spoken word, real burned out on being even an ironic version of a rapper," he says. "If I was going to keep making music, it was going to have to be in some real different context, but I didn't have any real ideas either. So I just ended up taking a break from it all instead of just changing the record.
"I think I took MC 900 about as far as I was going to take it. I started working on the fourth album, went into the studio a little, and I just couldn't muster the self-discipline to pound any of my ideas into anything that was going to go anywhere. So I spent a bunch of money in the studio, and listening back to some of the tapes realized I didn't have any place I wanted to go with any of that material that I'd just blown a bunch of cash on."
At about the same time, American ended up laying off most of its staff, including Griffin's A&R man, Mark Geiger, and stopped calling him—even though they'd advanced him "a huge amount of money."
"I think I'll probably do some music again at some point," he says. "I mean, never say never, but I don't think it's going to be anything like MC 900 Ft. Jesus."
While Griffin was losing interest in music, he was becoming increasingly fascinated with aviation. He mastered a flight simulator on his computer and then decided to do the real thing and get a pilot's license. Planes had fascinated him since he was a child, and until he made up his mind as a seventh-grader to be a musician, he had planned to be a pilot. To Griffin now, though, the appeal of flying isn't so much in the thrill of soaring with the birds or the opportunity to travel, or any of the answers you'd expect from a creative person. Rather, he likes the quantifiable, incremental nature of the training.
"A lot of it is so opposite from music and the music business—especially the business side," he says. "The music business is so predicated on hype and bullshit and people's nebulous aesthetic ideas that may or may not click with yours. Aviation business is the opposite. When you get a certain license, it means you've demonstrated that you can do certain particular things. And it's done in a real...technical way. And I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do all that."
He hoped to give flying lessons until he racked up enough hours to get a commercial pilot's license, but after 9/11, the demand for flight instructors plummeted. He'd gone through his savings to pay for flying lessons and, after living off credit cards for a couple of months, he was shopping at a Borders bookstore when he decided to apply for a job.
The biweekly DJ gig at Lee Harvey's is proving almost too much for him, he says, and he finds himself wishing he had more new music to play. But he's not a music junkie the way he was in the '80s.
"I don't hardly ever buy anything that I'm not specifically getting for this gig," he says. "I'll buy a new CD and take it home and listen to the first few cuts, and then I'll put it on the shelf and never listen to it again.
"Burnout is a weird thing. I worked at the indie record store for eight years too, and I think that was part of it as well. Listening to the trendy new stuff all day, every day, you get kind of jaded, but you also get kinda burned out on music in general. Your ears get tired."
This isn't Griffin's first DJ job. Some 20 years ago, when he was working at VVV, he had a regular gig at the Inwood Theatre's bar. In a roundabout way, that led to his current DJ work.
"At one point, I was sitting at the bar talking with one of my buddies, and he said, 'We should get you over here DJing again.' I don't put myself out there as a DJ. But I said, 'That'd be cool.' Because I'm getting so old that it takes a team of horses to get me out of the house. But I didn't know if I wanted to take on the obligation. But I'm forced to get my ass out of the house. I get to see my friends, and I get to drink for free, and I get paid to do it."
Burned out or not, Griffin is thoughtful about the music he plays and seems to have a good time as he fades one song into the next. He relies heavily on the Blue Note catalog, favoring '60s jazz with some stuff from the '50s and '70s as well, featuring musicians such as Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Herbie Hancock. Griffin likes to play quieter, instrumental jazz for the first couple hours, so as to not overpower conversation. Later in the night, he may throw on some Miss Kitty, Amy Winehouse or LCD Soundsystem.
"Mostly vintage, real jazz," he says. "It just seems to go real well with the ambience of this place. And then, more toward midnight when everyone's getting a little bit sloppy, I turn it up a notch and play a little more contemporary indie-type stuff and turn up the volume a little bit."
He plays the music he wants to hear and, so far, hasn't had any complaints. Even Castrinos, the fan who expected an MC 900 Ft. Jesus concert, seems to be enjoying himself.