Artist Of The Week – MC Mars
Fifty seven year old MC Mars is like no other MC you’ve ever heard and no other person you've ever met. He’s been a cab driver for over 30 years. He wrote a book about his life as a cabbie titled Don’t Take Me The Long Way and recently released a rap album to accompany it titled Letz Cabalaborate. He had the good fortune to be in the studio with George Clinton at one point, a realized dream that he wrote about in his book, and anyone who hops into his cab might be treated to a live freestyle and leave with some MC Mars related material. “I sell records out of the cab and I sell books out of the cab,” Mars explains, “I’m actually grinding it out so I’m doing pretty well.” MC Mars is also living with HIV. I met Mars at an event for Beyond Race Magazine in NYC a few months ago and this week I linked up with him again to discuss his initial thoughts on the first days of Hip-Hop, how his life has changed since he was diagnosed with HIV, and tripping while on Hofstra University’s unispan.
Adam Bernard: Start off by telling everyone what MC Mars stands for and why you chose it as your moniker.
MC Mars: Interesting question. MC Mars stands for Mystic Consciousness Makes All Reality Shine. To be fair, it’s kind of something I discovered after the fact, but that’s who I really am. Mars is my nickname, it’s been my nickname for 35 years now. The first time I tried to MC I used my name Marchal and the guy introduced me as Marcellus, so I just decided OK that’s the end of that. Now hang on when I make this explanation. When you talk about the god of war some people associate it with a bludgeoning character, somebody who just wants to fight and that’s not what I’m about, but I am somebody who stands for something and somebody who has had to struggle against a number of things, as we all do struggle in life. You know about the HIV and you know about some of the other things that have happened and a name is an important part of who you are, it defines you. I look at this life very much in terms of a hologram and that this life is attached to a whole series of other lives. I believe that we’re living these dramas out in different parts of the universe, and in different universes, simultaneously and non-simultaneously. I also believe that there are lives that we’re attached to and it’s almost as though those other lives are like the planets that orbit the sun and this life is the sun itself in terms of casting out its rays and illuminating the value of consciousness. The notion that life starts with birth and ends with death does not fit into my view of what this is all about. This is all about developing consciousness, and this is all about the battle to develop consciousness, to overcome your weaknesses, and that’s where the warrior aspect comes in, it’s having the inner fortitude to look squarely at a situation and fight hard to surmount it and create victory out of it.
Adam Bernard: You’re a bit older than most of the people jumping into the rap game. What attracted you to Hip-Hop and what made it an avenue you wanted to take to tell your story?
MC Mars: I used to work in Union Square back in 1974, I was repo-ing cigarette machines and in the afternoon during our lunch break we’d go over into the park and smoke a doobie. I was already a poet by then and cats were doing rhythmical poetry. Cats were playing congas and I started writing poems to conga beats and I wrote a whole book of poems like that that I published in 1976 called Early Morning In Manhattan. So to me that was the beginning, it was kind of like The Last Poets type of thing, but a little more literary. I was already studying with Jose Garcia Villa. I mentioned him in the book as one of the people that had a paramount influence on me in terms of my formative years as a poet and my formation as an artist.
Adam Bernard: So you actually were down from the VERY start then.
MC Mars: Yeah, but the Hip-Hop I was hearing, like “Rapper’s Delight” and stuff, didn’t intrigue me because it seemed like everybody was using the same rhythm. Not until I heard Melle Mel and the conviction in his voice did I say whoa. I made my first tapes in ’82 and then when I started driving a cab, I was already in San Francisco by then, I came to San Francisco in late ’77 and I started driving a cab here in 1981. I worked as a copywriter for a while, decided I wanted to live a little more unconventional life as an artist and found myself in the street driving a cab and then Hip-Hop really began to speak to me because of the fact that it grew out of the street was part of my own evolution in the street. It became something that I could do in the cab and I would practice my raps in the cab on my passengers and years later I began to freestyle off the radio. Hey, I know you’re in Connecticut; did you go to school at UConn?
Adam Bernard: No, actually I went to Hofstra University out on Long Island.
MC Mars: Really!? I went to Hofstra, too, for a year and a half. I have a great story about the unispan (the above the highway walking bridge that connects the two sides of the campus). One of my first acid trips I wound up getting stuck in the unispan thinking that everybody in the cars that were coming by were looking at me and were actually seeing right through me. How ironic now that I’ve just developed this transparency. That was 1970 - 71.
Adam Bernard: Everybody needs a good unispan story! Back on the topic of your music, when you recorded your album, Letz Cabalaborate, what were your hopes?
MC Mars: I wanted to put out a record that would represent the people that I’ve been working with over the last three years, the people that I perform with every Wednesday night at The Royale. The whole thing started with the song “Cab Driving is a Video Game.” DJ Spin sent me like 15 beats and I’m listening to these beats and one of the beats struck me as being perfect for “Cab Driving is a Video Game” so I started messing around with it, I came up with the hook and then I thought this kid Aebldee would sound really good on the hook and I decided to go ahead and record the song and one song led to another, which led to another, and next thing I know I’m neck deep in it. Now that it’s out there and it’s tied to the book I’m looking at this as a project, we can do movies off of this. I think it would make a great musical stage piece.
Adam Bernard: One item that isn’t gone into in depth in the book but is the focus of quite a few songs on your album is the disease you are living with. How your daily life has changed since you found out you had HIV?
MC Mars: It influences everything that I do and even everything that I think because of the psychological ramifications. I’m on meds now. I was not on meds for a while. I was diagnosed in ’88 and went until 2000 without using meds. For the 12 years that I did it without the meds I stopped drinking hard liquor and really cut down on my weed consumption and started living a very healthy lifestyle. Then things just started slipping away. I wound up getting sick in 2000 and was told I had to go on the medication. I went on the medication, almost died from the medication, and decided not to go on the medication, then almost died because I got the PCP-pneumonia.
Adam Bernard: Do you consider yourself an inspiration?
MC Mars: At times I do and at times I just consider myself a guy that’s trying to put one foot in front of the other and keep my head up. I want to inspire people by being open enough with my own life to share it in a way that somebody else can look at it and say OK he did it and I can do it, but you can’t go over the top with it because too many things in life send you back flat on your ass and let you know how mortal you are and how many foibles you have.