The trickster has been part of the African tradition since recorded history, a velvet-tongued creature who changes form usually for some self-serving purpose. A most recent sighting might be in the form of Marc Anthony Thompson a/k/a Chocolate Genius. Armed with the brilliant V2 CD, Black Music, and an alternately seductive and acerbic live show, Genius has you questioning your comings and goings‹like any half-decent trickster should.
What’s the concept behind Chocolate Genius?
That snowballed out of a whim. It’s so funny to choose a name for your project or your group or whatever, because, in hindsight, a lot of names that might have seemed kind of silly, all of a sudden become household names. If I was starting a band tomorrow and somebody came to me, and said, “Let’s call it the Beatles or The Red Hot Chili Peppers,” I’d say, “Man, all those stupid-ass names. Forget about it.” But yet, somehow, as the music is accepted, those names seep into your public consciousness and they work. It’s entertainment. I released a couple of records under my own name that were strictly solo projects, where I played all the instruments, produced ‘em and performed ‘em myself. I wanted to distance myself and say this was a new chapter, so I wanted to change the name. The other thing is, my name is nice, I’m glad my parents gave it to me, but it doesn’t have much splash. It’s just “Marc Anthony Thompson.” It wasn’t something I wanted to call this record.
So, basically it’s sex appeal‹
Exactly. It’s got a little sex appeal to it. Plus, it’s kind of funny. The “genius” thing is funny, but I’m using “genius” as an adjective. I’m not saying, “I’m a genius.” If you see something cool, you say, “Wow, that’s genius.” You can substitute “cool” for that or whatever. And then the ³Chocolate² thing, I just thought the two words sounded really good together. It started out as this side project. I would go onstage with this big Afro wig and I was like a Don Rickles with the guitar. I would insult the audience and pick on tourists for 15 minutes, then we would do a song for three minutes, then I would do this rap for another 20 minutes. The Chocolate Genius character was a joke. He was this guy who was supposed to be from some small town who played in his bedroom, never played live. He always thought he was playing at Madison Square Garden, even if he was playing in front of two people. He was just this cocky guy. But then I kinda dug the name, I just started thinkin’, “Yeah, this’ll work for a minute.” So when the deal came along, I didn’t even question it. It was just ³Chocolate Genius.’³
The album is titled Black Music and, stylistically, it brings Black music back to its fundamentals, its roots. Did the title come first or did the music come first, thus bringing about the title?
The title came last. The record was done and I was putting the art together when I decided to call it Black Music. That wasn’t the concept. These were just songs that were real close to me and the approach the most natural I could have taken at this point. Previously, I¹d been working with a lot of samplers and stuff I programmed myself. This record was a reaction to that; I was just sick of going that route. I wanted to get back to doing an organic record. I wanted to get back to bashing songs out with three or four people sitting in a room. The title came up because people kept commenting on how dark the songs were. I also knew from my experience that usually you bring a record in and they’re gonna try to find market or format for it. It’s always this question of‹at least the label I was on previously [Warner Bros.] was‹how is the Black music department gonna handle this record. And I thought this was a real tongue-in-cheek way to make people question what Black music was in the 90s.
In talking about what Black music has become‹evolved, devolved into, depending on how you look at it‹how do you bring a record like this, being that you are, in fact, laying out a challenge?
I wish I was as competent as I am in the studio in terms of the marketing approach. I’m really competent at making records, I don’t know how we’re gonna get this record across. I know how I would like it to get across. I¹m hopefully raising some questions. I’m not at all being a spokesman for what I think Black music should be because it’s a‹
It’s an individual thing‹
Yeah, it’s an individual thing. I take pride, special pride, in achievements of Black people. But I take pride in all human achievements I think are good. This record, certainly, I just wanted to push the boundaries of what people think Black music is. And it wasn’t even a conscious decision, it’s just how I live. We’ve done too many things to just be pigeon-holed by Puff Daddy or whoever, and saying, “Well, this is Black music in the 90s.” There’s just too much different stuff. I’m certainly hearing and feeling a lot of different stuff. These were all just the musical soundscapes I thought were the most natural for the words of each particular song, but I certainly wasn’t trying to define anything.
What about the overall climate or atmosphere? Because, at least as far as mainstream outlets are concerned, there’s basically one accepted sound or definition of a genre at a given time. People say such and such is what’s happening in terms of Black music right now, but there are so many other expressions by so many other artists. What’s your overall feeling about the climate as far as‹pardon the pun‹Black music?
Well, you hit the nail on the head. I was way into Taj Mahal, way into The Staple Singers, way into Al Green, way into David Ruffin, all these people. Yet at the same time, I like Culture Club, I like the Rolling Stones, I like some techno stuff, Roxy Music. And if it wasn’t for me being in marketplace at this time, I probably would avoid current totally, except for things people tell me are good. So I haven’t really been in a position to have to deal with the climate of what’s going on because I don’t really listen to the radio. There’s too much bad music floating around, they’re signing too many folks. There’s too many people jumping on whatever trend is happening at the moment. For me, it’s like the most natural thing in the world to pick up a guitar and be playin’ some shit that a lot people would call way off the wall. I’ve said before, and I could eat my words, but I think‹I hope‹three months to a year from now, the climate might be right for this record. I’m sure there’s gotta be people who are pretty sick of being fed what it’s supposed to be. There is a pretty slim outlet for new Black music. I think there is a fan base now. Things are diversified. You got kids in Minneapolis or Seattle with their pants sagging. I can drive through Hollywood and Los Angeles and listen to blonde girls playing Wu Tang Clan. Hopefully, this stale-ass climate I perceive, ’cause it’s pretty easy to at least hug cynicism, if not embrace it, hopefully all of that will change a little bit over the next few years.
How do make that transition between having complete control over everything to taking a leap of faith in trusting other people in the studio with your material?
One part is, a bit of maturity. When you gain confidence, the only way you let part of yourself go is to feel absolutely confident in the fact that you know your vision is strong enough that it can stand to be adjusted a little bit. I wasn’t gonna lose my vision; it wasn’t gonna be watered down by collaborating with the right people. The second part is, these were the right people at the right time. Before, I kind of did records by myself by default. I just found myself constantly explaining to musicians what I wanted them to play. And I’d be thinkin’, “Damn, if you just put the guitar down, I could play this part and this would be ten times simpler. I wouldn’t be wasting studio time.” In the end, I just said, “Fuck it, I’ll just do it myself.” In the interim, I started to meet some amazing musicians, who were sympathetic, who I didn’t have to explain things to, because we saw things the same. If not necessarily the same, at least there was a sympathetic language, a synergy that I hadn’t felt before. So I intentionally gave up‹I won’t say control, because I still produced this record with my good friend Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Craig Street. I even gained a certain amount of control by giving up elements. I used to feel like I had to do everything, from the artwork all the way down to print ads. But now I realize you can do brilliant work by surrounding yourself with brilliant people and delineating some of those tasks. You’re not gonna get a watered down project. You might get something that’s even stronger, because you’ve opened yourself up to suggestions. I worked with Abe, a really brilliant drummer who co-produced the record and wrote three or four songs with me. I’ve got John Medeski on organ, Chris Wood on bass, Mark Batson from Nona Hendryx’ band. I’ve got Melvin Gibbs playing bass from the Rollins band. I got Dougie Bound playing drums who¹s played with everyone from Marianne Faithful to Ryuichi Sakamoto and the list just goes on and on. With these musicians I really felt absolutely comfortable. I never for a second felt anyone on this project was there for anything else than working these songs to the way I felt that they should be finished, and everybody was right on board for that. It was really a pleasure. As a matter of fact it’s spoiled me a bit now, because I go down to my studio and I’m trying to start some new songs and I look around and think, “Damn, it sure would be nice if Abe was here with me. Or if I could have John playing keyboards right now.” So it was definitely a very beautiful learning experience and it has opened my eyes immensely to the fact that collaboration can be a really beautiful thing.