On the Money

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."

Music was Nishita's primary focus, and he subsequently did session work for the Dust Brothers and the folks at Delicious Vinyl, an indie known for hip-hop acts like the Pharcyde. But because he loved working with his hands, he also drifted into carpentry--and strangely enough, it was his skill with a hammer, not his abilities on the ivories, that brought him into the Beastie Boys' orbit. The threesome had moved from their native New York City to L.A. in the late Eighties, and when they needed to have a gate at their crash pad repaired, they called Nishita. They hired him again when it came time to build the studio where Check Your Head would be recorded, and when they found out he played keyboards, they invited him to let his fingers do the walking and were thrilled by the results. He soon became part of the band's creative family.

"I was really full-on for Check Your Head and Ill Communication," he remembers. "We were together all the time. We would be working on something, and if it wasn't going that well, it would be like, 'Let's play some basketball,' or 'Let's do something else.' And then, in the middle of it, someone would say, 'Oh, I've got an idea.' It was really enjoyable."

In the meantime, Nishita continued composing his own music. His method was casual in the extreme. "All the equipment was next to my bed," he recalls. "I'd roll out of bed, flip on a switch and come up with something, sometimes in a dream state. It was part of my musical calisthenics. Just exercise, stuff that I'd do at home when I had a few minutes during the day."

Many of the songs that arose from these sessions--Nishita calls them "sketches"--showed promise, and he began releasing some of them on his own label, Pinto Records. A friend later gave one of the recordings to James Lavelle, head of Mo Wax, who stunned Nishita by offering to sign him. "It was weird," Nishita says. "The whole thing was just an experiment. Really, hardly anyone was supposed to hear it."

Plenty did. Mark's Keyboard Repair became the first British chart hit for Mo Wax, a company that has since become synonymous with trip-hop and other far-reaching dance sounds. The CD is crammed with thirty tracks, most of them raw, cheeky instrumentals that exude a bracing cool. But scattered among the wordless snippets are little pop gems like the torchy "Cry," which became something of a radio fave in England. The production is primitive, and many of the vocals are so buried in the mix that they blend into the background like the buzzing of insects. But the album is oddly seductive--a lo-fi delight that whispers rather than screams. "It was defiant of the times," Nishita allows. "It was at a moment when things were kind of slick, and I guess people found it refreshing to hear something that was understated."

Push the Button's sound is considerably more defined; on the vocal tracks, the singing is placed front and center. As for the music, it's at once retro and futuristic. According to Nishita, "It's all part of my personal evolution. I want to say that the virtues of the old and the virtues of the new can coexist together. It's like what's happening in the field of medicine. New techniques work, but at the same time, people are rediscovering things like St. John's wort and other ancient things. You don't have to do just one or the other. I say, let's do both. Plus, my idea of what's old is a lot different from a lot of people's. I think this century just flew by. So now 'old' is just a few decades, whereas 'old' for the musicians of the last century might have been hundreds of years. People talk about 'old Hammond keyboards,' but to me, the Hammond isn't that old. And it's one of the most innovative instruments ever invented. In every good recording studio, there's going to be a Hammond organ. So why should we stop using it just because it wasn't invented last week?"  

He adds: "I'm not to be confused with a purist. I think I'm looking ahead a lot more than I'm looking back. But I think that as a collective, people stepped over lots of things too quickly to get to the place we're at now, and that we've hit somewhat of a brick wall. In the field of music now, you can make a digital recording in your bedroom or your bathroom or whatever, and it's not going to get much better. So I think the best thing that can happen is that we fall back into the roots of things. They're more real. I think when people hear my record, they know there's a person behind it--and to me, that's good."

Thus far, the sales of Nishita's two albums have been quite modest in the States, so he appreciates the opportunity to be part of the Beasties' traveling circus: "I have a lot of gratitude for this experience," he says. Likewise, he's doing his best not to gripe about the public linkage of his career with that of his longtime sponsors. In his words, "I have to acknowledge it. I wouldn't be Money Mark without them--even though, if it had been my choice, I would've been 'Thrifty Mark' instead. I am the most thrifty person around--but I can be generous, too. I can definitely say that.

"The 'fourth Beastie Boy' thing is kind of the same thing. I always say that I'm not the fourth Beastie Boy, but more like the sixth fourth Beastie Boy, because they've worked with Rick Rubin and DJ Hurricane and Mario Caldato and the Dust Brothers and whoever else--Billy Joel, maybe. But I'm able to keep it in perspective. I worked with the Wallflowers the first time around, on the album they put out before the one that became a hit; I ended up playing on three or four songs on it. And I saw what Jakob [Dylan] had to go through being the son of Bob Dylan. Being the fourth Beastie Boy isn't much pressure compared to that."

Beastie Boys, with A Tribe Called Quest and Money Mark. 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 5, McNichols Arena, $26, 830-

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