Before Jaheim, Keith Sweat, or Usher, there was Mike Marshall. R&B and rap were still largely segregated territories in 1985, when Marshall and Berkeley High classmate Marcus Thompson formed Timex Social Club, a harbinger of the urban soul revolution to come. The duo unleashed two international hits with "Rumors" and "Thinking About You" -- both charted in Billboard (the former hit #1 R&B and #8 Pop), and Marshall soon found himself playing thirty-thousand-seat arenas on Run-DMC's groundbreaking "Raising Hell" tour.
Stardom seemed assured for the soft-spoken, golden-voiced teenager. But a combination of industry playa-hating, bad business, and Marshall's own personal demons denied him the opportunity he so richly deserved; though his pioneering urban crossover style enjoyed huge success, he seemed destined to be a forgotten man in the annals of Bay Area music history. Miraculously, after sinking into a swamp of depression, addiction, and self-destruction, he has rebounded, regrouped, and rediscovered himself. And with the release of his first solo album Love, Lies, and Life (twenty years after he first burst onto the scene), Marshall's redemption is at hand.
Arriving at Oakland's Jahva House dressed in head-to-toe Raiders gear, Marshall is cheery and chipper, his trademark wide smile and still-boyish face both very much in evidence, though that face bears the well-etched lines suggesting his struggle to reclaim both his soul and his rightful place in soul music.
"I've been waiting twenty years to do this interview," he says -- it's the first time, he adds, that he's ever told the story of his rise, fall, and rebirth. He begins with the end: Timex Social Club fell apart after refusing to sign a ten-year contract with local music impresario Jay King, who went on to score a deal with Warner Bros. for Club Nouveau, largely on the strength of TSC's success. In a 1986 Billboard article, King acknowledged the similarities between the two groups, but insisted, "We were the music, production, and ideas behind" TSC, a claim Marshall vigorously denies to this day.
Marshall says he not only wrote Timex material, but was originally supposed to sing lead vocals on Club Nouveau's hits "Why You Treat Me So Bad" and "Jealousy." Even worse, though Marshall still owned the TSC name after the split, once wide-open industry doors slammed in his face; although he admits he has no factual proof, he speculates King blackballed him behind the scenes.
As the '90s dawned -- and TSC producers Foster & McElroy went on to gold and platinum success with groups like En Vogue and Tony Toni Tone -- Marshall developed a serious cocaine problem, eventually turned from powder to rock, and spiraled lower and lower, stung by both his industry horror story and his own abandonment issues with his father.
Still, Marshall never abandoned his dreams. He performed with a local gospel choir, and in 1991 joined Bay Area favorites the Mo'Fessionals (whose lineup included future members of the Braids, SoVoSó, and Zadell). After meeting local rap producer Tone Capone, Mike started doing session work at Capone's Berkeley studio, and in '95, the connection paid off royally when Marshall sang the hook to the Luniz' gold-selling single "I Got Five on It." The dark clouds seemed ready to part, but sadly, Marshall never capitalized -- few people recognized his voice on the infectious chorus. "I missed that opportunity," he says now, with obvious regret.
After relocating to Germany, Marshall spent six years as a songwriter for BMG, penning tunes for N'Sync and Backstreet Boys, but failing to ignite his own solo career. His addiction problems continued, and though hip-hop moguls Master P and P. Diddy both sampled TSC songs on multiplatinum albums, Marshall returned to the United States only to convert those royalty checks into ashes, residue, and acrid smoke in epic crack binges. "There were times when it was rough; I had no place to sleep," he remembers.
In 2001, Marshall came home to Berkeley, got into a recovery program, and met producer Nick Peace of indie-rap label Million Dollar Dream. He started singing hooks for the likes of Equipto and Andre Nickatina among others (he estimates he's appeared on more than 150 songs), reinventing himself as street-level crooner Mike Meezy, an older, wiser, more self-assured version of the naive kid who once half-rapped, half-sang It's funny how rumors get started.
"I'm just trying to let people know Mike Marshall got something new," he declares, still high (naturally) off his recent record release party at Blake's. "I feel real positive about Mike Meezy."
That positivity seeps effortlessly into Love, Lies, and Life, filled with honest testimonials and reflections as well as killer hooks and sweet melodies. "'What About Tomorrow'... 'An Eagle Flies'... 'Open Your Eyes'... those are all recovery songs," he says. "Sunshine," with ex-Mo'Fos Zoe Ellis and Caitlin Cornwall, also brims with optimism, as Marshall sings I put the sadness behind me, I'm movin' on.
Now clean, sober, and newly married (to a woman he first met twenty years ago), Marshall has finally taken control of his life -- and his music. Miraculously, he never lost his voice, a smooth tenor whose vibrato-laden falsetto doesn't go as high anymore, but still proves reminiscent of Marvin Gaye at times. "I still got it," he says. "Thank God for that."
An all-star roster of Bay Area rappers -- including Equipto, Z-Man, the Grouch, Eligh, Saafir, and E-40 -- make cameos on the album, adding a shiny contemporary patina to Marshall's classic soul man persona; most prominently, the 40-Water-infused "Tryin Na Leave wit Somethin'" has "club anthem" written all over it.
"You need some slumpers," Marshall explains, adding that, initially, he was a little reticent to come across "so -- how you say it? -- hyphy" on a track, though he's pleased with the results. Though some folks expected him to make more of a traditional R&B album, he says he identifies with the "disenfranchisement" of the Yay's indie hip-hoppers: "That's who showed me love." Meanwhile, the production (by Peace, Droop-E, TD Camp, Tone Capone, Sean T., and his old TSC mate McElroy) carries a unique, original sound that's a far cry from today's formulaic R&B and neo-soul.
Marshall now realizes he was at least partially responsible for his troubles. He's no longer holding himself back from success -- "If I had tried to do this at any other time," he says, "I would have failed." Next, he'll assemble a touring band and tackle a new fear: re-creating the album live, with its complex layers of vocal harmonies.
"It seems like I was always ahead of my time," concludes the man they call the Soul of the Bay. "Now things look really good." In other words, Mike Meezy has finally arrived -- and this time it's fa sheezy.
Editor's Note: The above article has been corrected. The original version misidentified Mike Marshall's cofounder in Timex Social Club as Marcus Roberts, a jazz musician.
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