The places musicians begin, the places they end up and how they get from there to here defy logic so often that predictability no longer has much of a stake in the equation. Mark Griffin was a conservatory-trained classical trumpeter doing sessions and toiling in a Dallas record store when he tried his hand at cutting some hip-hop beats and layering on samples and his voice; in a mixmaster minute, he was MC 900 Ft Jesus (name courtesy Oral Roberts), well on his way to a fascinating career as a beatbox raconteur and imaginative sonic architect.
As documented on the four-song 1989 EP and the following year’s album (which repeats “Too Bad” and a less caustic mix of “Shut Up”), Griffin’s early work isn’t rap or techno, although the MC, working with turntable maestro DJ Zero (at least on the road), certainly employs elements of both. Looped grooves with uncommon elements are the starting point for simple but inventive audio collages and distorted lyrical inventions with more forward propulsion than industrialists and less verbal action than rhymers. Both records are tentative and experimental, but album tracks like “UFO’s Are Real,” “Truth Is Out of Style” and the first-person sci-fi narrative of “Spaceman” introduce a distinctive and intelligent being searching for — and occasionally finding — offbeat ways to express his offbeat ideas.
Welcome to My Dream releases Griffin from his growth-stunting reliance on technology, using a complement of competent live musicians to erect a rhythmically intricate, stylistically varied podium-noir jazz, percolating funk and jumped-up hip-hop are the fundamental struts — on which he recounts his troubled character studies. (Sidemen provide drums, bass, horns, percussion and turntables; the star handles guitar, keyboards and trumpet.) Griffin has a melodramatic flair for evocative art-film detail: “Adventures in Failure,” “Killer Inside Me,” “The City Sleeps” and “Hearing Voices in One’s Head” describe human time bombs slinking through the urban jungle like characters in a particularly grim cartoon strip. Griffin isn’t yet a master of his verbal delivery or music, though; the best beats far outstrip the ones that just toodle along. Likewise, his fables are less engrossing on record than on paper. Lots of promise, but this channel is not quite tuned in yet.
A new label, a full band (with Indian percussion contrasting the horns) and a one-song guest shot by guitarist Vernon Reid help elevate MC 900 Ft Jesus’ creative stature on One Step Ahead of the Spider. The refinement of a vivid vocal style is matched by a vast improvement in the propellers devised to convey the lyrics. Griffin’s connection to hip-hop is gone: the music of “New Moon” and “Tiptoe Through the Inferno” are free-flowing jazz in which voice serves as just one of the instruments. “But If You Go” bubbles lightly with electronic techno-funk and sweet backing vocals; “Gracías Pep‚” ripples on a light ambient bed; “New Year’s Eve” (the album’s highlight, a character study inspired by, and evocative of, A Confederacy of Dunces) glides over a gentle percussion breakdown. At the record’s odd extremes, Griffin nearly sings Curtis Mayfield’s “Stare and Stare” over Reid’s spare wah-wah soul, while “Bill’s Dream” is a quiet instrumental that gives the star a chance to rest his voice and toot his horn. Although Griffin’s coordination of words and music has never been so sympathetic or original, there’s still an ungainly clumsiness to his work. Back to the studio.