One of the first things you notice about Mark Ramos Nishita is his inability to talk a lot of bullshit. “I’ve never been that hot on doing interviews,” confesses the soft-spoken, witty keyboardist known as Money Mark over the phone from LA’s South Bay. It’s not something you’d expect from a guy once known as the “fifth Beastie Boy.” Unlike many musicians with some renown, Nishita actually takes a second to think before he discusses his music and attitudes, rather than just rattle off clichés. He could easily toss out the dependable “my-music-speaks-for-itself” talisman on the subject of his new, grooved-out instrumental album, Change Is Coming, but he doesn’t, and it compels you to listen deeper.
Nishita’s journey to cult stardom is marked by the patient, quasi-Zen perspective he displays both in conversation and in his sound. Born in Detroit to a Hawaiian-Japanese electronic technician father and a jazz-loving Chicana mother from San Antonio, Mark grew up on the West Coast playing every instrument he could get his hands on before eventually settling on electric keyboards. While amassing an enviable collection of vintage analogue gear, Nishita began his recording career in the late ’80s, playing keys for the Dust Brothers on their second-wave hip-hop label Delicious Vinyl, home of old-school rhymers like Young MC and Def Jef.
Nishita made rent as a carpenter, and in an episode he refers to as a “fairy tale,” he got a job in 1991 fixing a fence at the LA house then shared by hip-hop stars the Beastie Boys. Conversations between the two parties led to the Beasties listening to a tape full of Nishita’s goofy-yet-groovy home-recorded sketches, and subsequently inviting him to record with them. The resulting Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were pivotal albums that saw the Boys pick up live instruments for the first time since their punk-rock days. Nishita’s influence is clear: Most of the scattered vintage instruments in the studio photo inside Check‘s gatefold sleeve are his. “It’s funny how I’m always asked about how [the Beasties and I] crossed paths,” Nishita says. “The myth is that they discovered me, when we actually discovered each other. It was a totally mutual thing; we were both walking toward each other. I had a total musical life before I met them. There’s no possible way that this carpenter dude can just come in and throw down these keyboards and all this gear. We couldn’t have made Check without knowing each other and without all that good energy that we all had.”
When he returned from touring the world with the superstars, Nishita released that first tape of sketches (30 in all) as an album (Mark’s Keyboard Repair) on a tiny LA label, and a copy of it made its way into the hands of James Lavelle, head of the lauded British downtempo/trip-hop label Mo’ Wax. Enthralled with the album’s raw, DIY ’70s jazz-funk-bossa stylings — a counterpoint to the slick studio aesthetic being forged in the groove music scene at the time — Lavelle released Repair on Mo’ Wax in 1995, and it went Top 40 in the UK. “That’s still just really funny to me,” demurs Nishita. “I mean, it’s cool that it happened like that, but it was just me [recording] at my house, you know?”
Push the Button followed in 1998, but at this point Mo’ Wax was becoming subsumed under A&M Records, which would eventually leave Nishita a major-label casualty when it folded as part of the Universal/Polygram deal. Though Push found the keyboardist gracefully integrating a straighter, Costello/Lennon-styled songwriting vibe into his unique sound, it wasn’t a product of artistic impulse. “I made it for the listeners, more than for myself,” he says. “My arms were slightly twisted to make pop songs, even though that’s not my forte. So, I took it as a challenge.”
The only challenge to Nishita now is to stay true to himself, which he claims is the object of Change Is Coming, an album made with a full band and released on Emperor Norton. “[It’]s definitely more honest and personal than Push the Button,” he says. “I’m thinking about the world and my place in it. It’s not a corporate record.” Indeed, Change finds Nishita expanding on the spontaneity of Repair, fleshing out its Californian jazz groove arrangements with some sunburnt Chicano rock (“Pepe y Irene,” which features Los Lobos), New York funk à la Yusef Lateef (“Soul Drive Six Avenue”), and hard psychedelic funk that recalls Silver Apples (“Glitch in Da System”). He’s finally added a tight, three-man horn section to the mix that features reed players from Ozomatli (his current touring group features two of those players).
In another departure, Nishita used some digital recording technology on Change, though all the instrumentation remains analogue. “I don’t understand the life of a digital keyboard,” he admits. “I do understand the life of a D-6 clavinet or a Fender Rhodes, because I can open it and look at its bones and flesh and organs. I can understand how it works. I’m really an electromagnetic-mechanical guy, and that’s why I can relate to a Fender Rhodes. It’s my friend. I can’t be friends with digital things. I couldn’t fix a digital keyboard if it were crying for help — I’d chuck it, or change a chip in it.”
Overall, Nishita sounds inspired, whether spritzing out synth fireballs, thumping out boogaloo piano chords, or wringing out cushiony soul atmospheres from his Hammond organ. He credits it partly to a renewed sense of purpose brought on by his two-week recording session in Paris earlier this year with Afrobeat star Femi Kuti, the son of the late, legendary Nigerian musical rebel Fela Kuti. Nishita plays with Femi on both Femi’s new album and the Red Hot Foundation’s Fela tribute, Red Hot & Riot. “That was very influential, a good learning experience for me, because we didn’t just play. We smoked cigarettes and drank wine and talked and listened to each other. He thinks I’m on the right track with my life and music, and that’s why he chose me to play on the record. It was an honor. I mean, this guy deals with fulfilling his father’s legacy, keeping a huge band together, and being involved in his people’s struggle against poverty and corruption. He reminded me that, yes, it’s about music, but it’s also about humanity. I feel pretty free in what I’m doing with the music, and right now it’s gotta come with some responsibility.”
But how does a musician address issues with an instrumental record like Change? To start, Nishita points to the impact of song titles: “Caught Without a Race” deals with his mixed heritage; “People’s Party (Red Alert)” reflects what he calls the song’s “collectivist” flavor; and “Glitch in Da System” brings up his own use of earth resources as an electronic musician. “In themselves, these can sometimes be more effective than a haiku or a slogan. When Roland Kirk names a piece ‘Volunteered Slavery,’ and they’re only chanting the title of the tune, what else is there?”
Most importantly, Change reflects Nishita’s faith that instrumental music can carry a message. “Look at [Kirk] or Miles Davis, or organists like Shirley Scott, or even scat vocals,” says Nishita. “There’s something extra there in the music. We don’t always say what we mean. We live our lives with a sonic intangible that affects the way we communicate, especially with children and animals. To me sound has a lot of weight, the only question is about the purpose of it.”
But it’s not all such deep thought when it comes to the Money Mark live experience. “I really get antsy playing the same set every night, like I did with the Beasties,” Nishita says. “So this show gets a little experimental. I do a pop song, then a cool instrumental thing, then a weirder, more outside piece. I’ll split the band in half and do some theater games, like maybe have them play tug o’ war with invisible rope while I stand in the middle and move the rope a little this way and that. It’s just to break it up.
“Being onstage is like the first day of school, where you start with a grade A that can easily turn into a D. During a show, maybe you want to surf that A by playing your best song first or whatever. You know what? I don’t give a fuck about that. I’m gonna do whatever I feel like at the time. If I feel like going to a C or D on stage, that’s what I’m gonna do. At the end of the night, I’m gonna grade myself with an A+.”
Nishita finally tosses out a cliché, but it seems almost incidental: “I’m trying to keep it real, to keep my ego in check. I’m in a business where you can easily turn into a celebrity. I wanna take each step very deliberately, and in all of that create a freedom to improvise. I think if I’m able to do that, everything else will follow.”