Mixmaster Arthur Russell meets wannabe rapper Mark Sinclair (aka Vin Diesel). What could possibly go wrong? That’s what Gary Lucas thought when he brought these two talents together in a recording studio. At the time, Lucas was an A&R scout at Columbia Records as well as running his own Logarhythm label on the side. He and partner Geoff Travis of Rough Trade (UK) thought it would be a good idea to bring these two together, to tap into the burgeoning rap market. Yo! No! Gary Lucas tells the tale here for PKM.
Possessing a keen “eye for talent” is usually the mandate, the raison d’être, of all good A&R folks. And, after many wasted years toiling in the vineyards of CBS Records’ “Creative Services Department”—a department like many others there where good ideas died like dogs—that’s what I aspired to be: an A&R man.
Especially once my mentor, Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), had swooped the scene for the greener pastures of the fine art playing field, and I had little else to occupy myself with than cranking out clever ads on a daily basis, which was mere child’s play and very boring.
A&R seemed like a much more fun gig, as most of the A&R people I knew seemed to waft along in a louche, imperious manner, fueled on various powders and herbal essences and CBS Records’ bottomless bucket ‘o ducats. To be sure, it was a far jollier gig than being cooped up in a tin-walled rabbit hutch at CBS slaving over an IBM Selectric.
After Don Van Vliet, Arthur was the most fascinating and creative musician I’d ever encountered.
John Hammond Sr. was my ultimate role model as A&R man par excellence. Hadn’t he signed Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday, Leonard Cohen, Aretha Franklin and so many other greats? Hadn’t he even summoned shadowy Delta-bluesman Robert Johnson up north in 1938 to play at one of his “From Spirituals to Swing” concerts at Carnegie Hall? (Johnson, alas, didn’t make it, having been poisoned by a jealous girlfriend several months before the show).
At the point I was hired by the folks running CBS Records (circa 1977), Hammond was in his twilight years. In deference to his legendary “eye for talent,” he was allowed to maintain an office way the hell up on a remote floor of Black Rock, the Eero Saarinen-designed black granite monolith on West 52nd St. and 6th Ave.—leaving him isolated, out of earshot and bereft of any influence on the rest of the company. This elegant, grey-haired gentleman came in nearly every day to shuffle papers around and listen to tapes in his office– at least for the first few years I was working there. But I can’t recall him signing anyone in that time other than Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983—after which he just stopped showing up.
INTRODUCING JEFF BUCKLEY
All this is to say that I have on occasion manifested a John Hammond-like “eye,” or shall we say “ear,” for talent. My most consequential find was the young Jeff Buckley in 1991, after I was assigned to collaborate with him by producer Hal Willner, as part of his “Greetings from Tim Buckley” tribute show at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. All it took was a single sung utterance from Jeff’s mouth at our first rehearsal together to instantly know he possessed The Right Stuff.
Excerpts from Jeff Buckley performance at the “Greetings from Tim Buckley” tribute concert, St. Ann’s Church, 1991:
But I would also argue that Jeff was so manifestly gifted musically that really, it was only a matter of time before he would have been taken up and championed even without my insistent advocacy. Still, he wasn’t exactly an unknown quantity, having been kicking around L.A. for a few years with a largely unheard demo tape called “The Babylon Dungeon Sessions”, which fell on the deafest of A&R ears.
But before Jeff, and after Van Vliet, in the mid-‘80s, I was given a chance to prove myself as a potential A&R man by Christine Reed, at the time VP of A&R for CBS Masterworks, the company’s classical division. Christine had recently scored big by talking a reluctant Wynton Marsalis into recording several classical albums featuring his trumpet with orchestra. Once Wynton got over his aversion to playing the music of Old Dead White Composers, and especially once those albums went Gold, he was eternally grateful for Christine’s suggestion.
Christine flung down a challenge; find “the next Phillip Glass” for her new Masterworks cross-over label, FM. This was no mean feat, as both Glass and Steve Reich had already pretty much divvied up the NYC Minimalist turf between themselves. So, the emphasis shifted to “find me a New Age artist”.
In trying to find Christine a crossover artist who might bridge the abyss between classical and rock, and in the process shatter the Glass ceiling, I recalled seeing composer/saxophonist Peter Gordon with his ensemble the Love of Life Orchestra during an early foray to Hurrah’s nightclub on the Upper West Side soon after arriving in Manhattan in 1977. I liked what I’d heard musically. Some of it was definitely in the Minimalist camp, albeit with more overt rock influences. Peter Gordon just might do the trick!
So, I tracked him down and got him signed to the FM label to record a relatively big-budget album—60K all in—with me as co-producer. We turned in what I thought was a really good album, which covered a lot of stylistic bases. But, sadly, it went largely unheard and under-reviewed.
ENTER ARTHUR RUSSELL
For me, the real find of the recording sessions, though, was discovering Peter’s longtime friend and collaborator, the weird and wonderful composer, musician and producer Arthur Russell. He was, at that point in time, largely unknown, except to his coterie of devotees, including Allen Ginsberg, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and Phillip Glass.
After Don Van Vliet, Arthur was the most fascinating and creative musician I’d ever encountered. Like Van Vliet, he was a stone contrarian, adopting absolutely the opposite viewpoint of any proposition you’d care to argue for, seemingly just for the hell of it. He was also very flaky. He had a great work ethic and churned out reams of stuff, but he was definitely paranoid, wary, and hard to pin down vis a vis deadlines and delivery dates, after having been bitten in the ass several times by the commercial music biz.
For instance, he’d gotten a large commission earlier in his career to work on a score for one of theatrical magus Robert Wilson’s pieces, Medea, which was to be premiered at BAM. After numerous clashes with Wilson, he’d walked away from the project at the 11th hour.
But, artistically, Arthur had the goods in spades. Besides recording many minimalist instrumental compositions and transcendental left-of-center pop songs featuring his charming, jazzy Kermit the Frog-like voice and droning cello, he was a genius at creating mutant dance records with coded risqué lyrics—one-off singles under quirky names like Dinosaur L, Indian Ocean, and Loose Joints. These were big hits in gay discos like NYC’s Paradise Garage —bouncy, propulsive, hypnotic anthems like “Go Bang!”, “Is It All Over My Face?”, “Wax the Van”, and, my favorite, “Tell You Today”.
Arthur Russell (as “Loose Joints”)-“Tell You Today”:
My first encounter with Arthur was on a rainy day in June when he waltzed into Woodstock’s Bearsville Studios with his boyfriend Tom to oversee the mix-down of his song “That Hat”, co-written with Peter Gordon. A skinny, handsome, WASPy-looking guy with piercing blue eyes, snub nose, and a face pocked with acne scars pace Charles Bukowski, Arthur asserted a swaggering insouciance and a magnetic pull on all those who came into his orbit. He got into a big fight with Peter over some mix detail or other, insisting that Peter was slowing the track down when Arthur left the room to take a leak (Peter wasn’t).
“That Hat”-Peter Gordon (written by Arthur Russell):
He then invited me out into the corridor to monitor the playback of the track through the thick metal studio door, insisting that the tempo sounded slower out there, as if the door itself was slowing down the sound molecules reaching our ears. Maybe it was! That was part of Arthur’s charm—he saw everything through a skewed prism of whimsy he dreamed up on the spot—and he could usually get people in his immediate vicinity to go along with him. I found his line of blarney enchanting and mesmerizing—up to a point. Like Don Van Vliet, Arthur had character…he was a Character with a capital C. I’ve somehow always been attracted to such personages in the music biz.
I bonded with Arthur at this session and had several lunch meetings with him on CBS’s dime. Over time, I got to know him better, and he brought me a large collection of vinyl and taped examples of his recorded repertoire, which was impressive—especially his smile-inducing disco club hits. I found it all fascinating, very tuneful, engaging—and Different. I craved Different, being easily bored with mainstream music.
I brought Arthur in to meet my buddies at Upside Records, an indie label I had helped create and name for whom I was doing A&R for on the side while keeping my day gig at CBS. Upside was founded and fueled by one of my oldest friends from college, Bob Rubin—and we’d recently established a dance music off-shoot which I christened Logarhythm. Everyone at their offices at 222 Broadway took a shine to Arthur and his antics—and he loved dropping in to shoot the shit at any time of day.
I next brought some of Arthur’s work to the attention of Rough Trade supremo Geoff Travis, with whom Upside had developed a relationship, on two separate trips to London—once on my honeymoon in 1985, and again a year later. Geoff was noncommittal at first—but in the ensuing months after our first meeting an article appeared in The Wire magazine touting the unorthodox dance music emerging from the gay club scene in NYC. The article cited Arthur’s contributions specifically—and this was all the reinforcement Geoff needed to ink a co-deal with Upside / Logarhythm for Arthur’s recording services.
“Let’s Go Swimming” was the first Arthur Russell single we selected to release. It had a bubbling, summery feel to it, with Arthur’s slinky voice and cello to the fore, pumping bluesy keyboard parts, mad bongos, and an indelible chanted refrain– “Let’s Go Swimming”!!
“When they write my legacy, they’re going to say ‘John Hammond discovered Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, George Benson, and then Dylan, Springsteen, and Arthur Russell.’”
We gave Arthur a budget to go into Battery Sound studios to remix the track with his friend, Walter Gibbons, who worked by day at Rock and Soul Records, a DJ mecca on 7th Ave. and 35th St. Walter was his own kind of mad genius, maybe even crazier than Arthur himself. I attended a marathon all-night session with these two birds which started around midnight on a night when the moon was full—exactly the moment when Walter preferred to begin his mixing. The session wound down around 8 a.m., when we emerged into the cold light of a chilly New York morning with one of the most radical mixes ever committed to tape.
Walter had done it the old-fashioned way, with razor blade tape edits of various sections of the song he had “mixed with love” (Walter’s signature byline, which appeared on all of his vinyl mixes). I vividly recall him snipping pieces of tape then hanging them from the rafters of the studio, long pieces of quarter-inch tape flapping in the breeze in the tiny control room where we mixed. After many hysterical outbursts from Arthur accusing Walter of trying to sabotage his career, Walter spliced the pieces seemingly randomly into a cohesive whole. When it was played back at the crack of dawn, it shuddered, heaved and jerked its spasmodic way through all the ecstatic changes of Arthur’s tune in a breathtaking display of creative tomfoolery. It was such a revolutionary game-changer, both sonically and editing-wise, that even cynical mixologist and fellow Logarhythm artist Adrian Sherwood was impressed when I played him the mix. Walter later created a beautiful visual accompaniment for this track, christened the “Coastal Dub Mix” on the 12″ which you can view here:
Arthur Russell – Let’s Go Swimming (Coastal Dub)
We rushed out a “Let’s Go Swimming” 12” single on Logarhythm in 1986, in tandem with Rough Trade issuing a similar version with picture sleeve in the UK—and nothing happened sales-wise, save for the usual excellent reviews.
But we believed in Arthur Russell, so much so that we next backed a full LP of his more song-oriented material entitled World of Echo, which garnered similar plaudits, but no teen-coin.
LOOKING FOR A RAPPER
Arthur Russell aside, I was still on the prowl for the next dance music star, this time, preferably, a rapper. This was the old-school era of original rappers like Melle Mel, Run-DMC and Slick Rick. And, in the meantime, back at CBS Records, where I still held down my day-job, the Beastie Boys had just blown up the universe with License to Ill, which went on to sell over 10 million copies. I adored the Beasties and wrote ads for them, even went into the studio with them to record the radio spot for their debut album, which involved them muscling beloved announcer Don Pardo off the mic and gagging him (“Yo, step off George Washington, man…we’re taking over the radio spot, boyeeeee!!”) to deliver their own rap, which I wrote with them. Rap music was taking over the world and I wanted to find my very own LL Cool J for Logarhythm.
Radio spot for Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill:
Enter Mark Sinclair.
In the summer of 1982, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor called Minter’s opened on the corner of Hudson and Perry Street, a block from where I’d lived since 1977. It was a great addition to the West Village neighborhood. An extremely goofy but amiable, skinny biracial kid named Mark Sinclair worked there. He looked to be about 17 max, and he frequently could be seen trying clumsily to execute the latest complicated break dance moves on the sidewalk in front of the store when things got slow. He also rapped a cappella and could gather a crowd of curious passers-by. He charmed both me and Caroline right off the bat with his comical asides, brash demeanor and overall charisma and intelligence. He lived with his upper middle class family at Westbeth, the artist’s housing complex nearby, listened regularly (as did I) to the incendiary mixes of hip-hop Founding Father DJ Red Alert on Kiss-FM every Friday night, and fancied himself a real street B-Boy badass. He reminded me of a young Richard Pryor, with his own brand of flippant jive.
One day Caroline and I took Ecstasy just for the hell of it. We decided we wanted some ice-cream delivered as we really didn’t want to leave our apartment—so we phoned Minter’s and Mark Sinclair closed down the joint and came over personally to deliver it. He was even goofier than usual seeing us on Ecstasy, and he cracked us up trying out various comical UK accents (he was a wicked mimic). He paid a lot of attention at this encounter to some original comix art I had framed and hanging on the wall. It was a full-color page without dialogue from the original Italian comic strip Ranxerox, created and drawn by Tanino Liberatore and Stefano Tamburini. RanXerox was a muscle-bound male android living in a futuristic sci-fi New York hellscape– the uncredited inspiration for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character. Mark was completely enthralled by this art and the RanXerox persona in general, studying it intently before he left.
He left Minter’s soon after that, but we’d run into him around the West Village now and again. Eventually, we lost track of him.
One day he turned up on the street completely transformed physically into what was to become his Vin Diesel persona later on (RanXerox!). He had put about 50 pounds of pure muscle on his skinny frame, and was buff, cut and ripped to perfection, having found his true self courtesy of the David Barton Gym in Chelsea, where he’d been furiously pumping up for some months. His voice also seemed to have dropped at least an octave to a deep, low-pitched sonorous purr.
“Yo Gary man, it’s good to see you. What’s happening?”
I told him about my recent adventures in the record biz and how I was on a quest to discover the newest rap superstar. I asked him if he was still trying to rap.
“Am I still rapping? My man—look no further!”
He then proceeded to deliver a very forcefull full-throated rap, which he prefaced with some human beat-box chugalug: “Boom Boom BAH!! Ba Boom-Boom BAH! Boom Boom BAH!! Ba Boom-Boom BAH!”
He wound up and pitched, in his best arrogant B-Boy voice: “Rhyme Creat-uh, MC Dictat-uh! Afro Relat-uh, Prognosticat-uh!” And so forth, toasting and boasting about his rapping prowess until he reached the all-inclusive chorus that hustled you into his game: ‘’Cause we ILLin’! BAH! Ba Boom-Boom ‘Cause we ILLin’! BAH! Ba Boom-Boom BAH!!”
He sent himself up in his own rap: “Check this out I’m large and I’m clean… even though I look like a Goya Bean!!”
Supremely self-confident, he went on to predict his meteoric rise to fame: “And of course I’ll be singin’ later on in my career, But for now, treacherous rhymes is what you’ll hear!! ‘Cause we ILLin’!! BAH!! Ba Boom Boom ‘Cause we ILLin’! BAH! Ba Boom Boom BAH!”
It was pure gold. The rhyming nuggets poured out of him like a slot machine paying off big time in Vegas.
It got even better. His other rap was a scathing put-down of rival MC’s, whose memorable refrain went: “Get Off the Band-Wagon!!”
“Mark, want to record a rap record?” I was flashing on hot product for Logarhythm at this point, as I’d had enough of the power-mongers at CBS, and frankly, all of the majors. It was obvious it wasn’t gonna happen A&R-wise for me at CBS, that I’d be stuck in the Creative Services Dept. for the rest of my days there.
Therefore, I was now putting all my A&R eggs into the Upside / Logarhythm basket.
So, when I popped the question to Mark Sinclair about recording his raps for us, he lit up with a 1000-watt smile: “BET!!”
I waited to bring Mark into Upside until Geoff Travis was next in town, as I wanted Geoff’s support to release Mark Sinclair in the UK also to help bolster confidence at Upside in my new signing.
When Geoff next arrived in NYC I wangled tickets for him, Caroline and I to see LL Cool J at the Apollo Theater’s Saturday matinee show—along with a ticket for my latest protege, Mark Sinclair—who arrived typically late.
We got there, found our seats and, right before showtime, Mark made his grand entrance into the hallowed halls of the Apollo even more pumped-up than before, if that were possible. He was also sporting the most outrageous full-length fake-fur pimp coat anyone had ever seen. The young girls seated around us waiting for LL Cool J turned and got a gander at Mark as he hailed us in his booming voice:
They literally swooned to see Mark standing there in all his David Barton Gym splendor.
A buzz went up from the crowd: “Who IS that???”
Mark Sinclair’s basic persona at that point (which got more pronounced over the years) was to exude ecstatic delight in his own coolness, to luxuriate in his Bad Self, to radiate pure joy in his supreme being.
Mark strolled down the aisle with a deliberate slowness, all eyes in the crowd feasting on him. He found us easily enough as we’d been waving and calling out his name since spotting him— and then, unhurried and unruffled, took his time taking the seat we’d been saving for him.
The lights went down, but the ensuing concert was a blur. The main thing on everyone’s mind in our little circle was: “What an incredible impression Mark just made!” And he had not begun to rap– yet.
Geoff knew a star when he saw one. Later, when we all trooped back to my apartment, he was right away thick as thieves in conversation with Mark, who was just as enthusiastic—and who in his deepest basso profundo busted out an a cappella rap or two for Geoff, who seemed into them.
Geoff was already talking recording: “And what shall we call you on the record, Mark—DJ Sinclair?” Geoff asked, the wheels already spinning in his head about how to best rollout the rhymed utterances of this rap Adonis.
“Nah—I just want to be known as SINCLAIR,” Mark announced with a smug, self-satisfied grin on his big ugly mug. He’d obviously thought about this a lot. In an age of eponymous One Name Phenoms on the order of Madonna and Prince, make way for the one and only SINCLAIR!
Later, after Mark had left, I asked Geoff what he thought was the best way to proceed.
“Why don’t we hook him up with Arthur Russell to supply the beats and produce it– and let’s get a single out right away. I think Mark with Arthur would make an intriguing collaboration.”
It was a provocative notion all right—two new Rough Trade / Logarhythm signings teaming up on their first single. It was an old-school concept—and I thought, “This just might work”.
Like me, Geoff was captivated by Rap’s worldwide onslaught, and wanted In. On an energy level Rap was just as relentless as Punk, a genre Geoff had backed early on by signing my favorite band at the time, The Fall—and he had stuck with the basic genre into its post-punk phase with bands like The Raincoats. But Rap was much more all-inclusive than Punk which was basically designed for disaffected white kids to rally round in relatively small numbers.
The amount of kids and oldsters getting behind Rap, on the other hand —black, white, brown, yellow, rainbow-colored people was staggering. Rap was for the masses–and it was taking over the world and going mainstream fast.
Little did we know at the time what such a wild combination of headstrong egomaniacal nut-jobs like Arthur Russell and Mark Sinclair would yield…but it was definitely worth a gamble.
I brought Mark and Arthur over to our apartment to introduce them to each other. They sniffed each other out and discussed current dance music on the order of “What are your favorite records?” And they both passed each other’s smell test. They kind of fell in love with each other at this meeting, frankly. Arthur was definitely attracted to Mark on an aesthetic, and dare I say (okay I shall) corporeal level.
Mark was pushing out such an overwhelming DBG (David Barton Gym) physicality that you pretty much couldn’t not be struck forcefully by his presence, really—you had to either fully embrace and submit to his persona, or turn away and just keep walking.
Mark seemed to also really enjoy Arthur’s charm—he could be quite entertaining and seductive when meeting people for the first time. Arthur beamed wave after wave of his soft-spoken Zen jive in Mark’s direction, coupled with his penetrating hypnotic stare, dialing both of these effects up to 11 for the duration of the meeting. It definitely did a number on Mark, who was laughing his ass off now, captivated and drawn into the game by Arthur’s spooky oddball aura—damn if it might not be a capital idea to work with this decidedly left-field maverick producer.
“Why don’t we hook him up with Arthur Russell to supply the beats and produce it– and let’s get a single out right away. I think Mark with Arthur would make an intriguing collaboration.”
An advance of 5K to Sinclair for his recording services was secured from Upside / Logarhythm/ Rough Trade—not a bad little sum for a fledgling rapper to pocket—and additional funding was set up to pay for studio costs and Arthur’s production fee. A recording session was booked at Arthur’s beloved Battery Sound Studios, high up on the 23rd penthouse floor of 90 West Street– an imposing Gothic Revival skyscraper built in 1905 just a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center. Battery Sound sported a breathtaking view of the city and an outdoors patio (where on 9/11 some years later actual human body parts rained down upon from World Trade Center South a mere 300 feet away).
Battery Sound was owned and operated by Mark Freedman a/k/a Powerman– a sweet guy who had worked out an arrangement with Arthur that enabled him to work at Battery Sound overdubbing and mixing and remixing his songs till the cows came home. Like Adrian Sherwood, Arthur was essentially a dub producer who could squeeze at least 3 discrete songs out of a single 24-track one-inch master tape, hijacking beats from one song and into another just by a flick of the faders.
On the day of recording, I went down there with my Stratocaster to supervise the session, determined to add some guitar parts to the tracks. I was just starting to play out again after five years with Captain Beefheart on sessions for The Woodentops, Matthew Sweet, and producers Hal Willner, Adrian Sherwood, and Kip Hanrahan— and I wanted to put my own touch on what was sure to be a historic recording.
Arthur had specially prepared a tape of beats for Mark to rap over. But in his typically contrarian and diabolical way, he made sure that these beats occasionally dropped out from the mix for a few seconds, or longer. Sometimes it sounded so erratic rhythmically that you couldn’t find the One in the following measure even if it had a pink flag flying from it.
As mentioned, Arthur was the master of “Dislocated Disco”, whereby the traditional downbeat was sometimes totally obliterated, or staggered, or blurred over by other instruments in the mix in an exercise that resembled nothing so much as Coitus Interruptus. Essentially a reggae Dub technique that had crossed over from Jamaica to urban dance DJs world over, this displacement of the One could be hell on dancers, but Arthur made it work on his own records for the clubs by papering over the cracks in the facade with keyboard obligatos and cello drones. The music still possessed a forward thrust, an undeniably propulsive quality that helped it evolve in a continuous trance-like flow, even if it never settled into what Beefheart called “that Mama Heart-Beat—that bomp bomp bomp bomp thing”.
However, these same staggered beats could prove tricky for a rapper to rap over—unless that rapper was extraordinarily adept at free-style rapping; basically, making shit up on the spot to fill in these grooveless nooks and crannies so that the track rolled along smoothly. Sad to say, Mark Sinclair hadn’t developed any free-style rap skills—he was unable to improvise new rhymes on the spot. He could deliver his rote written-out raps the same way each time, having rehearsed them to death over many months trying them out on a variety of friends—but he was unable to free-style soar.
Little did we know at the time what such a wild combination of headstrong egomaniacal nut-jobs like Arthur Russell and Mark Sinclair would yield…but it was definitely worth a gamble.
When I arrived for the session that afternoon, Arthur was hovering over the console with engineer Eric Liljestrand and getting a level on his beats over the studio monitors. A few minutes later, Mark showed up, only a little bit late. They hugged and exchanged greetings.
But then Mark said something—some sort of patronizing, jokey remark he was forever tossing off — which Arthur interpreted as a put-down, and took great exception to. He was clearly wounded by Mark’s remark.
And that, as they say, tore it—before the session had even begun.
Arthur glared at Sinclair with an “I’ll show you!” look on his face.
Mark ignored him. Distracted, he spied a marimba off in the corner of the studio. He strolled over to it, picked up a hammer that was lying around, and then began to forcefully bang on the wooden bars of the marimba trying to produce some sounds. Not with a rubber mallet, mind you, but with an actual steel claw-hammer, enough to do serious damage to the marimba. We were, of course, horrified by these childish antics.
“Mark, what the fuck are you doing!” Arthur snapped at Sinclair. Eric Liljestrand looked seriously angry.
Then Arthur brusquely ordered Sinclair into the vocal booth, where he donned headphones with Eric’s assistance. We got a level on his voice, and a level in his phones. And then, Arthur let his prepared beats roll in all their Roland 808 glory.
After the beat kicked in regular-style, after the first few measures, Mark began to run down “’Cause We Illin”. He warmed up with a couple of pro forma “Ha Ha! Huh Huh! Party People—Time to Get Stupid!”s, and then launched into his rap: “Knew this girl from junior high / she was Puerto Rican and she was fly” and so forth–you can hear it here:
Arthur was the master of “Dislocated Disco”, whereby the traditional downbeat was sometimes totally obliterated, or staggered, or blurred over by other instruments in the mix in an exercise that resembled nothing so much as Coitus Interruptus.
Everything was going along swimmingly, until suddenly, the beat dropped out—and Mark Sinclair was left there holding his dick, silent and at a loss as to how to fill the gap on the track.
“Bring that beat back, Arthur!! Play it again!” Mark commanded, obviously frustrated.
Oy! I hadn’t counted on this. I strummed my guitar nervously on the couch in the booth, praying Arthur could get the session back on track. Instead, Arthur re-wound the tape and began playing the track back again—only this time from a seemingly random spot on the tape. When Mark attempted to redo his rap, the beat suddenly dropped out again, this time in a different place altogether.
Naturally, he was flummoxed and could not get a flow of words going.
“Damn!!” he exclaimed. “Play that shit back again!!”
Arthur backed the tape up to yet again a different place on the tape. He hit Play and Mark Sinclair charged in again with his rap, it was going pretty good this time, smooth as silk, and then…
“FUCK!” he shouted. “Arthur, what the fuck are you doing?? I can’t rap to this shit!! You keep changing up the beat!!”
“Mark,” Arthur crooned sweetly in this soft-spoken, taunting voice. “Maaaaark…try it again, Mark!”
This went on and on and on. I lost count of how many takes were initiated and then aborted as Mark Sinclair kept crashing up against an impenetrable wall of ever-shifting beats Arthur conjured up in his phones— Arthur seemingly trying to thwart the completion of a successful take, which bedeviled the shit out of Sinclair (and me). He was definitely fucking with our heads.
Watching my historic session crumble before my eyes I finally got fed up: “Come on you guys, this is going fucking nowhere—try another rap, Mark!”
It was kind of like the legendary Troggs Tape without the blasted absurdity of it all. It was absolute torture. Arthur cued up yet another bunch of beats for Mark’s latest creation, entitled “Second Edition”. This one boasted the killer refrain “Tell‘ em, Paul!”, referring to Mark’s twin brother, Paul Vincent.
The beats dropped like an infernal machine firing off explosive charges in all directions at once, before settling into a skipping insistent groove: “I’m the Man of Steel! I’m the Man of Steel! I’m the Man of Steel!” Mark asserted repeatedly, prefiguring his later action-hero persona.
But this one too quickly went off the rails as Mark tried to cram more words than even Arthur’s elastic beat space could handle, with mixed results. One minute he’d be totally in synch with the groove, the next minute his rhymes would sound rushed and forced. It didn’t swing, it just didn’t gel, it was not in any pocket, there was no flow happening at all with the One going south every few bars or shifting across the bar lines Arthur-style.
Even if Arthur was going to start each take at the same place each time for Sinclair, there was just no way this was going to work—that was obvious.
you had to either fully embrace and submit to his persona, or turn away and just keep walking.
Basically, Arthur was fond of polyrhythms–and Mark needed, nay demanded, a steady crushing sledgehammer beat to put his rhymes over. Boom Boom BAH! Ba boom-bom BAH!
And neer’ the twain shall meet:
In a brilliant bit of self-analysis trying to explain his failure to launch, Mark exclaimed: “Man, it’s the White part of me that’s fuckin’ it up!”
And so it went for an hour or so. But nothing seemed to work. We finally called it quits a couple hours into the session, with me getting zero chance to play guitar on it as we had no workable tracks.
Mark slunk out of the studio, defeated by Arthur’s crafty beats.
Arthur seemed kind of sanguine about the whole affair, and said in his most sensitive-soft voice: “I just don’t think I can work with Mark, Gary.”
“Yeah, that much is clear. Why didn’t you just give him some straight up four-on-the-floor beats to work with?”
“That’s not my style, you know that. But let me tell you something.”
“It’s about you. You should be playing guitar full-time. Because I’ve noticed you’re happiest with a guitar in your hands”.
I was still a few years away from leaving my day-job at CBS Records, and making the break to full-time musician status was still a daunting proposition. But these kind words of Arthur, as complicated an artist as I’ve ever met, really did encourage me.
Still, I wasn’t giving up on Sinclair so fast. I duly reported to Geoff Travis what had gone down at the session. He was naturally put out to hear this, as it was his idea. Disappointed also were the guys at Upside, who saw dollar bills with wings on them flying away from them.
Me, I was just embarrassed. We’d given this kid 5K –and he hadn’t managed to deliver one complete rap. We were all dazzled by his bravado, but he didn’t have the necessary technical skills when you got right down to it. Although to be fair, the dismal outcome of this particular session was also Arthur’s fault, as he should have at least started the tracks in the same place!
So I convinced my homies to give Mark Sinclair one more shot with another production team to try and make good on that 5k advance.
I called up my friend, beatmeister Keith LeBlanc, and guitarist Skip McDonald, 2/3 of futuristic groove ensemble Tackhead, who with their third member, bassist Doug Wimbish, comprised the original Sugarhill Gang—the house band for Sylvia and Joe Robinson’s Sugarhill Records. These guys had played on Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”, for starters.
“The Message”-Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five:
At this point, they were working mainly with producer Adrian Sherwood in England and Europe. In fact, Upside / Logarhythm had issued one of their sides “Stormy Weather”, under the name Fats Comet. Keith, Skip and Doug were all living in a huge under-heated loft on the second floor of a tenement on the corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street.
I sold them hard on this project. They were intrigued and told me to bring Mark Sinclair up there to meet them. The very next day Mark and I duly arrived at the appointed time.
Mark, sad to say, was even more of a wiseass this time around as previously— his fatal mistake, as far as Keith LeBlanc was concerned. Keith was a pugnacious little bulldog of a guy, a powerhouse on drums and drum machine programming who had been around the block and then some. Two minutes into our meeting, Keith got pissed off by some throwaway remark of Mark’s—just like Arthur got pissed —and right then and there pulled the plug on the whole thing, without even hearing Mark rap!
“I can’t work with you,” he announced. “I’m not gonna let you waste my time. You’re just a punk ass kid—get out!”
I’d seen this movie before. Once we trooped downstairs, I gave Mark a hard stare and said: “That’s it, Mark. No hard feelings—but shame on you! You’re your own worst enemy!! People want to work with you and you just piss them off.”
Then I went in for the kill: “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay. But what’s your FATHER going to think about this when you tell him what just happened?”
That was twisting the knife, but still…what a fiasco! We, all of us–me, Geoff, the Upside posse, Arthur, and Mark–but mainly Mark– had egg on our faces. Mark looked kind of sheepish, like “the jig is up!”—the first time I’d ever seen him look like that, as it dawned on him that he had totally fucked this one up, and there wasn’t going to be a third chance to redeem himself.
But Mark Sinclair had the last laugh on everyone—didn’t he? Not on me, so much, though—as I knew he possessed star quality when I first met him. So I felt kind of vindicated when he busted out worldwide a few years later as Vin Diesel after this early rap fiasco.
After we had parted ways, Mark bounced around and became an actual bouncer at The Tunnel, where he met John Travolta and other movie stars, which gave him the bug to visit Hollywood. Several years later, through sheer self-belief in his manifest destiny, and by the grace of the talents given him, Mark Sinclair reinvented himself with all the inner resources and will-power that takes, to become a global action film star, director, and producer.
He began by making his own films under his new moniker, Vin Diesel. He maxed out his credit cards to make his first short Multi-Facial–about an actor’s tribulations going on auditions around NYC, which he wrote, starred in, directed and produced.
Multi-Facial – A film by Vin Diesel 1995
Somehow, he got Multi-Facial screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Steven Spielberg walked in quite randomly, caught his film, and offered to cast him in Saving Private Ryan. From there, it was but a short step to his calculated morphing into a kind of new-jack urban action hero, based on his (largely fantasy) B-Boy street persona.
Currently, Vin Diesel is producing and starring in three wildly successful film franchises–as secret agent with street-cred Xander Cage (Triple X), as anti-hero android of few words Richard B. Riddick (Pitch Black), and as world-savior street-racer with a heart of gold Dominic Torreto (The Fast and the Furious”)— and he’s commanding a cool 20 mill a picture, plus points.
The Fast and the Furious 9-trailer (2021):
In 2001, I called Mark Sinclair in L.A., after obtaining his number from one of his running buddies in NYC. I left a message on his machine complimenting him for his performance in Pitch Black, which had recently been released. He called back and left a message on my machine and in his deep rumbling voice said “Gary, man…so good to hear from you. I’m glad somebody saw that picture!” Always the joker–as the film grossed $53 million worldwide.
He told me to call him back, which I did on tour in Belgium a few weeks later. I had just performed at a traveling Don Van Vliet art exhibition at a museum in St. Niklaas– and afterwards, alone in the hotel room, I decided to call up Vin. I got his answering machine again, and affectionately, I left my version of his “’Cause We Illin’“ rap on it, which I could recite verbatim by heart.
I never heard back from him.
But Mark Sinclair had the last laugh on everyone—didn’t he? Not on me, so much, though—as I knew he possessed star quality when I first met him.
Thanks to successfully championing his work at Upside and Rough Trade, Arthur’s genius, obscured for many years by self-sabotage and his own flakiness, came into sharp focus– in the press at least –for its undeniable originality—so much so that Geoff Travis signed Arthur to a big budget deal for his new label imprint Blanco Y Negro, financed and distributed by WEA.
The only snag was that Arthur, fearing that this was going to be his last fair deal going down, kept delaying submission of the final master just in case the album tanked—keeping Geoff on the hook for many a year. Arthur tantalized him and kept his interest high by dribbling out micro-doses of his new tracks–letting Geoff hear approximately 40 seconds or so only of his latest remix every time Geoff came to town.
Geoff waited patiently for Arthur to deliver the full album, and significantly, kept plowing more money into the album in order to keep Arthur going and the project alive. Then in the spring of 1992, Arthur suddenly died—an AIDS casualty.
At the wake, held in experimental composer Phil Niblock’s loft, Arthur’s old collaborator and one-time mentor, Allen Ginsberg, got up and spoke of how captivated he’d been by Arthur and his music—until, according to Allen, turning a colder eye in the direction of myself and my Upside buddies, Arthur began dabbling in what Allen called “psychedelic bubble gum music.” Later, Allen passed out and started snoring loudly in the front row as Phil Niblock projected a video of Arthur sawing away on his cello singing his devotional Buddhist songs.
In death, though, the music of Arthur Russell lived on– and eventually, ironically, came to its fullest fruition, propelled by tireless supporters like bassist Ernie Brooks, percussionist Mustafa Ahmed, vocalist Joyce Bowden, trombonist Peter Zummo, and indie label Audika Records, who painstakingly sifted through a vast amount of Arthur’s work and reissued much of it.
Eventually a documentary film came out that typically cut many of Arthur’s closest associates and enablers out of the picture, and Arthur’s music was widely embraced–for a season or two anyway—by hipsters and critics, who rightly hailed him for being way ahead of his time.
It’s been said that Death is a good career move—but to quote Tennessee Williams, overheard in the locker room of the Yale Club in spring ’75: “For the Protagonist, Tragedy is Never Beautiful”.
But I’ll give John Hammond, who died in 1987, the last word on Arthur—as in the course of researching this article to refresh my memories, I came across this quote: “When they write my legacy, they’re going to say ‘John Hammond discovered Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, George Benson, and then Dylan, Springsteen, and Arthur Russell.’”
Turns out that Arthur did demos in 1974 with John Hammond for Columbia Records! Who knew? And just what went down exactly at Columbia to queer the deal?
Thirteen long years after I’d started at CBS in Fall ‘77, I left my day-job to make music for a living full-time—in part due to the encouragement of Arthur Russell. And I dedicated my second album, Gods and Monsters, which was released in Fall ’92, to the memory of Arthur.