Michael Marshall

In 1985, Michael Marshall was the lead singer for a loosely organized musical collective known as the Timex Social Club. They were bound together simply; they started with the limited ambition of creating a song or two for the types of multicultural parties that they frequented. But in less than a year, they would have a top-ten single and be loudly announcing the birth of a new musical form: hip-hop soul. Neither Michael nor the other members had any way of knowing that in less than two decades this sound would become far more than just the sound of their parties, but sound of the planet, the soundtrack to everything from fast food to vacation. And today, though Mary J. Blige and P. Diddy collect a disproportionate share of the credit, it was years earlier that the form first came to national prominence. This came with the release of the hit single “Rumors” and was cemented during the summer of 1986 as the song and a nascent musical form gained traction in the national consciousness.

Radio programmers were perplexed. It was urban and had an edge. But it wasn’t rap. The song charted into the top ten and gained momentum on radio. Suddenly, the band was invited to tour with Run D.M.C. and LL Cool J. A second single, “Thinkin About You” advanced the trend. Finally, after a hastily put together tour and a long summer on the road, “Mixed Up World” would be the final hit for Timex. The members of the collective were headed for an ugly divorce. And legal wrangling left Michael in limbo. The band that had all but invented hip-hop soul would be left out of its first mainstream successes. And the singer who brought the harmonic structures and knack for counter melody made famous by Marvin Gaye and Prince would be forced to wait it out as his music became the soulful counterpoint to grunge in the early 1990s.

Not surprisingly to anyone who knew him then, Michael never stopped singing. There were personal dramas and compulsions. There were moments of famous indulgence. But he sang and recorded compulsively, and a library of demos from this time document his continuous development as an artist. But it was an artistry that was tempered by mismanagement and poor timing. Ultimately, it would be an irony of considerable proportions that would bring him back to prominence.

In 1995, producer Tone Capone sampled the beat from “Why You Treat Me So Bad”; the song had been a monster hit for the Timex derivative Club Nouveau and a consistent source of ire for Michael, as it borrowed liberally from his own “Thinkin About You.” But Tone had a plan for the beat, matching it to rapped verses from Oakland rappers The Luniz and then pairing this product to Michael’s sung chorus. The result was arguably the most singularly memorable song in the history of Bay Area hip-hop: “I Got 5 on It.” In a hip-hop epoch most remembered for bi-coastal hostilities and tragedy, “I Got 5 on It” stands as one of the most durable songs of the genre that didn’t originate in either New York or Los Angeles. Yet still, there was one fact that might be even more significant: the songs form, rapped verses and sung chorus, were suddenly and profoundly on the musical radar. Hip-hop soul had once again mutated, and Mike Marshall was again hugely responsible. Five years this musical structure sampled beat, rapped verses, sung chorus would represent half of the top fourty. For Mike it was a victory, but yet another turning point, another bittersweet moment among a litany.

Again he found himself on the outside looking in. The Luniz were for all intents and purposes a rap group. Mike was not a member. The group would go their own course without him, performing their most popular song again and again without its lead singer. If this irony bothered Michael, it never showed. As always, he remained prolific, continuing to forge musical relationships throughout the Bay Area and write songs. It was during this time that he joined forces with the seminal Berkeley neo-soul band The MoFessionals. For more than two years, Michael would play and record with them, bringing his soulful vocals and dense harmonies to a band that fused hip-hop, soul, jazz, and funk into a roiling stew that was decidedly ahead of its time. For a solid two years, The MoFessionals reigned as one of the Bay Areas premier live shows. They were also most certainly one of its best unsigned acts. But this pressure mounted. As the bands popularity crested, they struggled mightily to complete Finally Over, their only album. After numerous roadblocks, the album was released with minimal support and tour plans were aborted. Neither a failure nor a success, it remains a worthy testament to what could have been, a perfect goodbye letter to fans, a perfect “f— you” to disbelieving record company execs.

Crestfallen and needing a new challenge, Michael seized on an opportunity to live and record in Nuremburg, Germany. In partnership with an expatriated American producer, his vocals charted regularly in Europe, with the highlight being his collaboration with rapper AK Swift on “Light in Me.” The song made it into the top 15 on the German charts and afforded Michael the luxury of doing some modest touring on the continent. As always, he was still advancing the platform that he helped originate. But after several years, it became apparent that he was chafing under the production qualities that European audiences demand. He needed to return home. He needed the familiar. He needed the Bay.

Upon returning, he hit the studio hard. Almost immediately, he settled into a solid working relationship with producer Nick Peace and his Million Dollar Dream label. He sang on “He Said She Said” with rapper Andre Nickatina, a song from the album Hells Kitchen. He also reunited with fellow Timex alumni, producers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy, to write and record songs for En Vogues comeback album, Sunflower. “All You See” and “How Do I Get Over You” featured his vocals and despite the albums middling sales figures serve to remind listeners about one of the areas signature talents. Not all of his efforts during these first years back from Germany were hits. But the volume of work that he amassed is significant and so are the people he worked with.

This list of collaborations stretches on and on, name checking half of the Bay Area and beyond. E-40, Keak da Sneak, San Quinn, Casual from Hieroglyphics, E.A. Ski, Suga Tee, 3XKrazy, Rankin Scroo, Turf Talk, And then the work in Germany with Bootsy Collins. The set with Thelma Houston. The Weather Girls. Michael has been all over the R&B and hip-hop map, mixing and matching, innovating and re-creating.

But Michael’s latest and most significant reinvention would drop in 2004 and 2005: the subtle transformation to a solo artist. Now wielding the stage persona of Mike Meszy, Marshall released two albums in less than a calendar year. First was a collaborative effort with San Francisco-based rapper Equipto, entitled K.I.M. Among the tracks on this album, Beautiful (The Family) and Keep Rising show him in top form, building sticky vocal hooks with dense harmonic choruses and dynamic ad-libs.

The second is his first solo album. Dense with collaboration, the album showcases Michael in top form. The title, Love, Lies and Life is an overt reference to the title of Club Nouveaus Life, Love and Pain. Perhaps this is emblematic of the bitterness that he still harbors for Jay King, original producer of the Timex Social Club and the most prominent member of Club Nouveau. Perhaps this is emblematic of its final resolution. What was once stolen has now been repatriated to its rightful owner. The songs and demo tapes of the last twenty years are now synthesized and released in a potent catharsis, a testimony to the frustration and the letdowns, the unrequited successes and the heartfelt failures. To Germany and to the Bay, to love, to lies and most powerfully to life. To rebirth. To Michael Marshall. To a true Bay Area original. To recognizing him for what he is. To being patient with what he wasn’t. To acknowledging him an innovator. To sharing the frustrations of a pioneer. To a living survivor. To an addict. To a hero. To a role model. To a zero. To a believer. To a friend. To a dreamer. To having five on a sack. To having somebody’s back. To a man. To going there and coming back. To your boy Mike Meszy. Fo sheezy.

Biography Written by: Dan Turman

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Let's Function with Michael Marshall

Friday, June 7 · Doors 9:00 PM at Mavericks - Santa Rosa