Mark Morrison: Return of the Mack

The one-time bad boy of British hip-hop Mark Morrison is back after his brushes with the law. He's the spokesman for an 'innocent generation', he tells a sceptical Russell Myrie
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The Independent Online

Don't call it a comeback. Nevertheless, after a lengthy absence and a few false starts, Mark Morrison is poised to return to the music scene. Five years before So Solid Crew scared the hell out of mainstream Britain, Mark Morrison was the media's favourite enfant terrible - the red-tops bizarrely referred to him as a "bad boy rapper".

For better or worse, he was one of the most famous people in Britain during the mid-Nineties. Of course, it was not all due to the negativity. In 1996 Morrison had a number-one album, a single to match and three top 10 hits, making him by far the most successful black British artist of the time. There had to be a reason for all that press interest.

When it was bad, it was really bad. "I was in court more than I was on Top of the Pops," he says. Morrison freely admits he was his own worst enemy at times. However, despite the more serious accusations - including a false rape allegation - he was only ever found guilty of carrying a stun gun. He claims not to have known it was illegal in this country. His (pretty stupid) attempt to have a stand-in complete his community service for that charge finally landed him in prison. At the lowest point, Morrison was in Wormwood Scrubs while his debut album was shooting up the American charts.

"I try not to dwell on the past because I can't change anything," he says. "The best gift we have is the 24 hours directly in front of us. When I'm up to my neck in hot water, the show must go on."

It did. A week after Morrison was freed from prison for the stun gun offence, he joined stars such as Keith Sweat, SWV and Kenny Lattimore on Vibe magazine's Magic Johnson Tour. "It was the first time I stayed at this hotel," he says of New York's Barclay Intercontinental. He is in New York for a few last-minute photo shoots. Ten years on from Return of the Mack, he is a lot broader. The Bobby Brown-style lopsided flat-top has become a shaved head, and the fur coat and handcuffs are nowhere to be seen. "We did like 30, 40 states. That was a beautiful time in my life. I felt like an ambassador for the British music scene."

According to Mark, the good times made all the hassle worthwhile. In addition to the two million copies Return of the Mack sold in America - the reason he was invited on tour - the album was number one all over Europe. Morrison predicts sales of "double-figure millions" worldwide. "Mama got a house, Daddy got a house, it's all good," he says with a big smile.

"It just shows how easily people forget. Yeah, we did do two million records in America. And a lot of them were done from a jail called Wormwood Scrubs. It's just a blessing to me. I'm aware that I sold more records in the States than Robbie Williams, and Robbie Williams is a great pop artist.

"Leave it at the facts. I sold two million records in America. Yet the biggest artist from over here can't do that. Still, a major label doesn't want to give me a chance to redeem myself. You read into that what it is. Why? Because I went to jail? Because I didn't want to do my community hours? What did I really do?"

It appears he had done enough. Rightly or wrongly, the damage was done. His 1997 mini-album, Only God Can Judge Me, enjoyed only modest success domestically. Before long, he was dropped by Warner. However, if you believe the rumours, he walked away with a cool million.

"It was a nice little bit of change," he says vaguely. "But a lot of my money went to lawyers. I had mad court cases and I had to stop a lot of cases coming to court that I was totally innocent of. There's a point where you just don't need it. A lot of my finances went that way. Taxes and lawyers and more lawyers.

"I was fortunate enough to have the success in America, and the fact that I write a lot of songs helps. I write the majority of my songs and we've got a big TV ad going on in America for Ford. They used 'Return of the Mack' for the Ford Explorer advert. I've got it here somewhere. I saw it on the TV earlier today." After fiddling with his phone he proudly shows it off.

Prior to his singing career, Mark moved around a lot. Born in Germany, he lived in Leicester till he was 11 when his family moved to Florida. Hence the accent. "People always think this is something I picked up off MTV. This is the way I speak. Palm Beach Lakes High School, class of 1990. Our most famous graduate is Burt Reynolds."

After graduating, he moved back to Leicester and "existed for a couple of years on the dole in a council flat". His first single, 1995's "Crazy", released on the independent label Jetstar, paved the way for Return of The Mack a year later.

But this is now. Although it may initially appear so, "Innocent Man", his latest single and the title track of his forthcoming album, is not even about Morrison's past troubles. "It's not about me going back into yesterday. It's my social message. That's my statement on behalf of my generation, my young brothers coming up. White, black, oriental, Asian, who are coming up from a dysfunctional, disadvantaged background. A dark environment which limits their opportunities and forces them into making decisions that aren't necessarily righteous. I'm saying: 'Look, man, these dudes are innocent in heart, but it may not be consistent with their actions.'"

The remainder of the album demonstrates his command of the different sub-genres heard during the past quarter-century of soul music. It has songs for both Eighties soul lovers and the kids hooked on Channel U. UK soul lovers will love him for collaborating with Gabrielle and unsung UK heroes such as Connor Reeves and Mica Paris.

"And I did that at my peak," he says. "I didn't wait till I fell off or things weren't going well for me. At the height of my career internationally, I went back and worked within the British scene."

That said, the album is in no way limited to British guests. "It just shows that the love we get in America is totally different to at home," he says passionately. "We can get a DMX, an Alexander O' Neal and Adina Howard. With X it wasn't an issue. He didn't have to do it for money. He's got mad money. He doesn't need a hit record. He's got mad hits. I just felt like it reached him, it touched him because of what he's been going through. He was the only person that we felt was right for the job." Regardless of whether the new album succeeds or not, he definitely feels his legacy is intact.

"'Return of the Mack' was the most important record in black British music. You say why? At that time nothing was really happening on the black British music scene. It was Jodeci, R Kelly and Mary J Blige. Everything was from America. Then that record came and ever since it went to number one, we've never stopped having certain spasms of success stories. It restored the faith at radio and TV that black British artists can make music that is just as good as our American counterparts. We can make quality videos, and give good performances."

He has a point. Only time will tell whether or not Morrison can duplicate his previous success. But he deserves a fair crack of the whip. Forget what you may have heard. In 2006 Mark Morrison is an extremely nice guy. "For me right now it's a beautiful thing, whether it works or not I don't know. But I've got a lot of respect and time for the people behind Mona Records, for just taking that chance with an artist like me. I'm not the greatest singer in the world and I can't dance. But I've always given the public the truth. They hate me for it and they love me for it. But like Kurt Cobain or Hendrix or Marvin, you gotta go through shit sometimes.

"Over the past 10 years everyone has seen my ups and downs. However embarrassing or humiliating it was. More the bad than the good. I'm the heavyweight champion who lost his belt and it's gonna take a few fights to get rid of the rust. But God willing, before this year is out, I'll be back to where I was in 1996. I'm happy for the opportunity."

Mark Morrison's album 'Innocent Man' is out now on Mona