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On the Money

Beastie Boy pal Money Mark likes to make new music the old-fashioned way.

When asked whether he likes Hello Nasty, the latest album by the Beastie Boys, singer-songwriter/keyboardist Mark Ramos Nishita, aka Money Mark, pauses. For a long time.

Under most circumstances, this wouldn't be much of a news flash: Even though most listeners who've heard Nasty dig it like a stretch of beach peppered with clams, a handful of naysayers (grouchy critics, mostly) have turned up their noses at it. But Nishita isn't just anyone. He was an important contributor to two of the Beasties' best discs, 1992's Check Your Head and 1994's Ill Communication--so much so that observers started to refer to him as "the fourth Beastie Boy." Nishita also pops up on the Nasty cuts "Song for the Man," "Song for Junior," "Dedication" and "Dr. Lee, PhD" (on the last three tracks, he's credited as a co-writer). Furthermore, he appeared with the Boys on a series of just-completed European dates, and he's on the bill for the group's much-anticipated North American tour; in addition to performing his own set, he's slated to serve as a sideman to Mike Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz during much of their time in the spotlight. "I have my entrances and exits," he says. "It's like acting, really. It's fun to do."

Given all that, Nishita would seem to be the last person anyone would expect to slag a platter by the very trio that dubbed him Money Mark in the first place. And he doesn't; not exactly, anyway. When he finally gets around to giving his opinion of Nasty, it's positive--but also diplomatic. "I do like it," he insists. "I think I like everything the Beastie Boys have done. But then again, I'm a fan--probably their number-one fan. So I like it. But I have to listen to it more; I haven't really been listening to it a lot."

Why not? Mainly because Nishita became a solo artist in his own right following Ill Communication's arrival. Mark's Keyboard Repair, his 1995 solo debut on the Mo Wax imprint, received rapturous notices and moved oodles of units in Europe, and his follow-up full-length, Push the Button, a more song-oriented CD than its purposefully schematic predecessor, has been embraced by overseas fans, too. But another factor is the Boys' decision to embrace the kind of modern recording methods that don't much interest him. As an example, he cites "Dr. Lee, PhD," which features a guest appearance by Jamaican wild man Lee "Scratch" Perry.

"I wasn't there when Lee Perry put down his vocal," Nishita says. "I was in the studio one day and I put down a riff, and then the percussionist came in later, and the music was done. And then Lee Perry was invited to do the Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York--the one last year, not this year. And while he was in town, he went into the studio and threw something down, and then they arranged the piece after that. It was a real disconnected thing.

"Hello Nasty was all done like that--on a computer," he reveals. "Cut and paste like mad, everywhere. It's another kind of method that I'm...not doing."

That's an understatement. In fact, Nishita regards his new long-player as a mini-rebellion against all things inorganic. "I really think that technology has dehumanized us," he says, "and the defiance of that is what Push the Button is all about. It's about the buttons that we push, and how our muscles don't get exercised anymore. Just our little pinkies and ring fingers get tired.

"Those buttons that we're pushing, those are the choices that we're making. One destroys the world and one orders a pizza, but they look exactly the same."

Fortunately, heavy-handed statements like this one aren't typical of Button; Nishita makes his points about the joys of simplicity with more subtlety. The album's title track is sprinkled with robotic voices not far removed from those on "Intergalactic," Nasty's first single, but they are backed by an effortlessly funky rhythm track. Equally beguiling are unassuming instrumentals such as the dub-friendly "Monkey Dot," the ultra-cool "Bossa Nova 101" and "Destroyer," with its witty, trash-can percussion sound. And when Nishita sings, as he does on around half the offerings here, he rejects polemics in favor of unpretentious lyrics about emotions and relationships. On "Tomorrow Will Be Like Today," "Too Like You," "Rock in the Rain" and "I Don't Play Piano," he sounds like a sweeter, less strident Elvis Costello--an inspiration Nishita recognizes.

"'Tomorrow Will Be Like Today' is probably the most derivative piece on the album; it's like being back with my Get Happy record, or Pure Pop for Now People," he says. "But on other songs, it's not purposeful or deliberate. It just so happens that my vocal range is in that same area. That's just how I sing. But the rest of it is really just my impressions of a lot of different things that I've been influenced by in my life."

Nishita was born in Detroit, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was six. A couple of years shy of his teens, he started playing keyboards. Before long, that instrument and numerous others he mastered along the way became his companions. "I might be dating myself here, but I grew up before DJs were controlling the party scene," he says. "When you'd go to a house party, you'd bring a guitar or a keyboard or a drum kit or something, and you'd have a little jam session. That was the music that was provided at the parties back then, and because of that, everyone I knew could play a guitar, strum a guitar or knew at least one song. But that's not the way it is anymore."

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