Money Mark: In the belly of the Beasties

Before he became their keyboard player, Money Mark was the Beastie Boys' carpenter. Then they made him a star... Or was it the other way round? Fiona Sturges demands the truth
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You can just picture the scene. A world-famous hip hop trio befriend a carpenter and, on realising his extraordinary talent, invite him to play on their record. Our lowly labourer is catapulted to fame and becomes a respected musician with a bank balance to match. "Sure, it's a good story," admits Mark Ramos-Nishita, better known as Money Mark. "But it wasn't quite like that."

What is true is that Nishita was making a living as a carpenter in Los Angeles when he first met Mike D, Adrock and MCA, aka the Beastie Boys. It was 1989, and he had been hired to fix their front gate.

"We got talking and started hanging out together," he recalls. "They didn't know I was into making music. It wasn't even mentioned at first. I suppose you could say we had guy stuff in common. We played a lot of basketball together. Then they wanted to make this new record, and all their gear was in New York. So I told them I had this collection of keyboards, and that's when they started getting interested in my music."

Nishita was aware of the band's reputation as hell-raisers. He was also familiar with their records – Licensed to Ill had shot to the top of the album charts three years earlier – though he says, with more than a hint of diplomacy: "I wasn't doing somersaults over them. But I knew they were sample-based and that they were in the same grouping as LL Cool J and Public Enemy. We certainly had the same musical tastes."

First, Nishita built them a studio. Later on, he was brought in to play keyboards on their third LP, Check Your Head. After the album's release he became known, unofficially at least, as the fourth Beastie Boy.

While the Beastie Boys' talent-spotting skills can only be applauded, it must be said that they benefited from this encounter as much as their new friend. Money Mark has long been credited for bringing about the trio's transformation from pseudo-rebellious upstarts to respected rap-funk outfit (their previous 1989 album, Paul's Boutique, had been largely ignored).

When pressed, Nishita acknowledges his role. "They had a certain profile when I met them, but it was modelled for them. It certainly became something different after I became involved." Eleven years on from his first meeting with the Beasties, he hasn't lost his sense of wonder at how it all began. "I'm in the music business now and I never thought I would be. How it all unfolded is miraculous. I was making a good living as a carpenter and I could have been throwing it all away for nothing. I do have lots of gratitude for all that time."

He quickly caught the attention of the young Mo' Wax impresario James Lavelle, who travelled all the way to California to persuade him to join his record label. Nishita eventually agreed, and 1995 saw the release of his debut Money Mark's Keyboard Repair, a laid-back and distinctly funky album that earned him a strong following. The first single "Hand in Your Head" off his second album Push the Button was his first top 40 entry. Once again, Nishita is circumspect: "Let's just say it was a case of good luck."

Born in Detroit, Nishita is the son of a Japanese-Hawaiian father, an electronic engineer who encouraged him to "look on the inside of things", and a Mexican mother. His musical education came in the form of his parents' extensive record collection: his mother was passionate about jazz, and his father was into "pretty much everything".

"When I was 15, I showed my father this picture on a Herbie Hancock record and said, 'I want this keyboard.' It was a picture of a Fender Rhodes. He actually went out and got it for me. I still use it now – it's on all my records."

In his teens, Nishita took up piano lessons but soon decided that classical training wasn't for him. "The teacher told me to bring in some music that I wanted to play. I can't quite remember what I took in, but I know it didn't go down well. We were both disillusioned with each other. I knew then that I didn't like academics."

Unlike its predecessors, Change Is Coming is an entirely instrumental album. "I thought I could make a cohesive record if I didn't mix up instrumentals and vocals," explains Nishita. "I've never made this kind of record before. For the next album, I'll probably do the opposite and make it vocal-led."

From the languid jazz groove of "Caught Without a Race" to the warm Hispanic rhythm of "Another Day to Love You", and the Samba-inspired "Use Your Head", it's a densely atmospheric, not to say wildly eclectic, work. The sound of Nishita's trusty Fender Rhodes is never far away, either. "Soul Drive Sixth Avenue", a track composed entirely in his head during a New York taxi ride, has his trademark squelchy effects and the laid-back bass groove, all overlaid with a sleepy baritone sax.

The absence of vocals meant that Nishita had to think harder about the song-titles. In some cases, they have several meanings. "I suppose 'Caught Without a Race' is partly about people interfacing with machines," he reflects. "That came from the idea of communicating with people on the internet and how the race of the person you're talking to is irrelevant.

"But it's also got to do with my own racial background. As a kid, it never bothered me but as I've got older I've thought about it more. I suppose you could say that now I'm trying to create my culture and race through my work."

Among the album's many collaborators are Sean Lennon, whom Nishita met when he saw him performing with the Japanese duo Cibo Matto, the hip-hop ensemble Ozomatli and Los Lobos, the Los Angeles outfit best known for "La Bamba". Nishita says that he chooses people as much on a basis of "magnetism as well as musicianship. Sometimes someone might be in the same room and I'll ask them to do something."

He has continued to appear on Beastie Boys albums – the last one was 1998's Hello Nasty. He played keyboards on Beck's "Where It's At" and, more recently, contributed to the soundtrack of Ted Demme's film Blow, starring Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz.

Does he have any more ambitions in this direction? "If I had the chance to do a film from beginning to end and knew what the director was thinking, then maybe. It's a different kind of challenge. I think that I could be good at it."

Nishita says he's open to offers, although as a rule he likes to stay at home and get on with the business of making music.

"I still sit in my room surrounded by microphones, tape recorders, keyboards and other instruments, and listening to records. What I do now is no different to what I was doing as a teenager."

'Change is Coming' is out now on Emperor Norton records.