Born Mark Griffin, c. 1957, in Kentucky; son of an army officer. Education: B.A. in music, Morehead State University, late 1970s; graduate study in music, North Texas State University, early 1980s. Addresses: Record company--American Recordings, 3500 West Olive Ave., Ste. 1550, Burbank, CA 91505.
The oddly named act is a front for Mark Griffin, a musician who has developed a quirky sound that blends rap rhythms with socially conscious lyrics and bits of classic jazz. "To the eccentric hip-hop fan," attested Vibe's Joseph V. Tirella, "MC 900 Ft. Jesus is a messianic rapper-poet who shatters musical barriers and time-honored cliches." With occasional partner DJ Zero, Griffin has released several albums that made waves on the alternative and college radio charts. Laden with the "sampled" work of other artists and instrumentation that includes everything from trumpet to tabla (the hand drums used in Indian music), the discs are multilayered affairs with dense lyrical content; state-of-the-art mixing technology is responsible for the final effect. Early in his career, Griffin preferred anonymity and little was known about the artist--press releases sometimes even featured a picture of Jesus. Yet he seems to have become more comfortable talking about his music as it has gained wider recognition on its own merits.
Writing in Keyboard, Mark Dery declared that MC 900 Ft. Jesus has "created a musical electroencephalogram of the American religious mind--epilepsy, ecstasy, and all." This hybrid form is defined by Griffin's fascination with the seamier aspects of late-twentieth-century life in the United States; the unbalanced and the devout are of special interest. The peculiar zealotry of fundamentalist religion in contemporary America even provided Griffin with his pseudonym. Evangelist Oral Roberts became infamous for a mid-1980s incident in which he spoke publicly of a vision he'd had: God had instructed him to build a 900-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ.
Born in the late 1950s, Griffin grew up in relatively middle-class surroundings, the son of an army officer. He studied trumpet at Kentucky's Morehead State University, receiving a B.A. in the late 1970s, and relocated to Texas to earn an advanced degree in music at North Texas State University in Dallas. It was there that he began playing in local rock bands, eventually becoming a member of a group called White Man. As part of this ensemble he began honing his medium--literate, laconic rapping over heavily sampled background noise. He later teamed up with DJ Zero, also known as Patrick Rollins, a recording artist who had worked with rap phenomenon Vanilla Ice.
The first release by MC 900 Ft. Jesus was an EP entitled Born with Monkey Asses recorded on Griffin's own label and released in the late 1980s. The name of the disc was derived from the title track, which samples a paranoid schizophrenic patient discussing his theories on what the doctors in the psychiatric facility were doing to the research animals at night. "I'm fascinated by the way the insane build up a picture of the world based on whatever information they get and assemble it in a completely unique way," Griffin told Dery in Keyboard. Another source of inspiration for Griffin's rantings were the people he encountered while working in a Dallas alternative record store for several years.
Hell with the Lid Off was the first full-length release for MC 900 Ft. Jesus and the first time Griffin had appeared on a major record label. It was issued in 1991 on the Nettwerk/I.R.S. label. Its title is a reference to a fire-and-brimstone sermon delivered by Marjoe Gortner, once a child evangelist. Sampled artists on Hell include rappers Public Enemy, jazz ensemble the Weather Report, and Nigerian singer and political activist Fela Kuti. Griffin again pokes fun at the interrelated American cults of personality and do-it-yourself religion; actor and New Age doyenne Shirley MacLaine is skewered on "Truth Is out of Style" as Griffin conducts a talk show interview with himself. Another track, "I'm Going Straight to Heaven," is based on a street-corner preacher prone to ventriloquism. "Spaceman" was inspired by a man who approached Griffin in Los Angeles and began screaming at him, "like I was the source of a major problem in his life," the singer told Rolling Stone's Melissa Morrison. "My songs are ... about mental infirmity that makes you see things in apocalyptic terms," he explained.
Griffin often distorts his voice with electronic gadgetry, sending it through a Quadraverb synthesizer and a guitar overdrive. "If you have a wimpy white voice like mine," he told Keyboard's Dery, "then you have to use electronics." The backbone of beat supporting the work is composed by Griffin and laid out on digital audio tape. His vocals are added later, as are samples fed through another synthesizer. DJ Zero is responsible for the scratchy stylus emissions that provide the distinctive hip-hop sound. "I view Zero as an instrumental soloist," Griffin ventured in Keyboard. "When I write the tunes, I envision four bars where I want him to do something, and I leave the what he's going to do in that space up to him."
Reviewing Hell with the Lid Off for Melody Maker in 1990, Jonathan Selzer called it "the most subversive thing that's happened to rap yet." In describing its sound he asserted that "the music surrounds you. It's a frantic rhythm repeated over and over, unable to break out of its perpetual motion, its perpetual NOW, often with an underflow of late night, narcissistic sleaze."
In 1992 MC 900 Ft. Jesus followed Hell with Welcome to My Dream, which marked a shift toward a more jazzy sound. One track, "Falling Elevators," seemed a direct homage to legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis; it utilized a trumpet and congas. Other cuts were also notable for more traditional instrumentation, including the use of bass clarinet. In a Down Beat review writer Bill Milkowski noted that Welcome to My Dream's musical configurations "are grounded in funk but far more ambitious than the average hip-hop fare."
Another track from Welcome to My Dream, "The City Sleeps," inspired a media controversy in Baltimore, Maryland. The song is presented from the first-person viewpoint of a compulsive arsonist who lights random fires at night. A local television news reporter used it as the soundtrack for a report on arson, then queried the city's fire chief as to whether he saw a connection between the song and local incidents of arson. The chief answered in the affirmative, though he had never heard the song before. The reporter then began an effort to have the song banned from local radio stations, arguing that it could increase the likelihood of arson in Baltimore. "Quite frankly, the impression I get is that it was a slow news day," Griffin said of the flap to Washington Times writer Jeff Alan Hewitt. Citing the First Amendment's protection of free speech, Griffin quipped, "It's really ironic that a journalist would be going around trying to get a song banned."
One Step ahead of the Spider was the next release for MC 900 Ft. Jesus and his first on American Recordings. Musicians such as Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid joined Griffin in the studio for this 1994 opus. Reviewers commented on the continued use of Miles Davis-inspired musical threads, some pointing out Spider's similarities to Davis's seminal work Bitches Brew, an early example of the jazz-rock style known as fusion. Many of the tracks from Spider are several minutes long, and as the album progresses the music becomes more avant-garde. Reid plays guitar on "Stare and Stare," a song originally recorded by soul star Curtis Mayfield; "New Year's Eve" is based on a short story Griffin admired; he raps in Spanish on "Gracias Pepe." Vibe contributor Tirella called the record "a delightful blend of psychedelia, jazz-rock fusion, and [Griffin's] own Beat-like disembodied poetry recited over groove-saturated hip-hop beats."
Not surprisingly, Griffin claims a wide range of musical influences, from aforementioned jazz and soul greats to classical composers. He is also inspired by the writings of novelists such as Jim Thompson and Flannery O'Connor. "People who write very grotesque and difficult but beautiful books are as much an influence on my music as any musician," he told Washington Times contributor Hewitt. He views his chosen form as "something an individual can do on his own with whatever technology is around," remarking "It offers a lot of latitude lyrically." Griffin concluded of his creative method, "What I try to do is take the best aspects of what's happening now and combine [them] with what motivates me."
by Carol Brennan
MC 900 Ft. Jesus's Career
Member of band White Man and worked in alternative record store, Dallas, TX, early 1980s; released debut EP, Born with Monkey Asses, on own label, late 1980s; signed with Nettwerk/I.R.S., 1989, and released Hell with the Lid Off, 1990.
- Selective Works
- Hell with the Lid Off, Nettwerk/I.R.S., 1990.
- Welcome to My Dream, Nettwerk/I.R.S., 1992.
- One Step Ahead of the Spider, American, 1994.
- Born with Monkey Asses (EP).
- Trouser Press Record Guide, fourth edition, Collier, 1991.
- Periodicals Down Beat, March 1992.
- Guitar Player, March 1995.
- Keyboard, April 1991.
- Melody Maker, March 17, 1990; February 15, 1992.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI) August 3, 1994.
- Rolling Stone, October 18, 1990; September 8, 1994.
- Vibe, August 1994.
- Washington Times, January 30, 1992.