from the cover of Terrain to Roam ( Alpha Pup Records / 2006)

Marks X the Spot: Rapper Giovanni Marks Challenges the Hip-Hop Paradigm

Giovanni Marks, the William S. Burroughs of hip-hop, offers up his thoughts on the trials and tribulations of an indie hip-hop artist.


Android Face by bluebudgie (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Every genre has one. And for hip-hop, Giovanni Marks, AKA Subtitle, is the genre’s requisite eccentric. Drifting aimlessly but determinedly on the margins of rap music, Marks has been prolific in his nearly 20 years as a music artist. But he has also been sorely overlooked, perhaps undermined by his dogged pursuit of a sound that is just beyond the reach of the hip-hop contingent making music today. Understandably, due to years of frustration with the industry, Marks, at one point, hung up his gloves, swearing off music. It’s taken him a few years and a rethink to re-enter into the music-making arena, where he works quietly and persistently.

Recording mainly as Subtitle, Marks has released a host of underground albums; bizarre, mind-expanding hip-hop that has intrigued as much as it has frightened. Think Mobb Deep or Das EFX filtered through the terrifying neon-nonsense of the film
Liquid Sky and you’ve got an idea of the kind of sound Marks precipitates in his work. Much of his work is characterized by fractured rhythms, eerie Atari synth-lines and either barely-there skeletal grooves or big, blocky distorted beats. The sonic tirades normally elicit one of two reactions from a listener: He is either fixated on the bizarre, fatalistic noise, or she runs for the nearest exist. Any way one cuts it, Marks’ sound provokes.

It’s difficult to track a proper discography for the rapper; Marks’ output has been erratic, much of it released non-officially. His most creatively fertile stretch spans from 1998 to 2011. Of the more than 20 albums and projects he’s produced in the last decade or so, a number of releases have managed to get some attention outside of the usual underground haunts that host his work.

Young Dangerous Heart (2005) edges as close to pop music as an artist like Marks can get. Alternating between ersatz jazz swings and booming, mutated hip-hop, the album skids, crashes, and explodes like an android gone berserk. The rapper’s rhymes are rounded and lucid, as though laced with the mind-altering chemicals that have seemingly informed works like Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Can’s Tago Mago and Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Pumped full of angel-dusted jams, Marks’ release for the Gold Standard Laboratories label is a serious head-trip that could have earned the artist his rightful place amongst the hip-hop elite, were it not for his image-busting machinations that have worked to deconstruct the conventions of hip-hop. Approaching rap with the blitzkrieg applications of punk-rock, Marks has marshalled his experiments into the musical quandaries that have merged all of his influences together so that they ultimately obliterate the references he sources.

His follow-up to Young Dangerous Heart is 2006’s Terrain to Roam, an album which pares back the thicker textures of the previous release for a more minimal and angular affair. Full of jalopy rhythms, off-kilter melodies, and Mark’s stream-of-consciousness verbiage, the album deconstructs the pop structures so that they lay brittle and fractured, the rhythms taking perilous dives from plateaus of steady groove into gorges of chaotic noise.

For all their riotous clamour, the songs, nevertheless, arrest the attention; the sounds may be fantastically confusing, but the arrangements are executed with true intent. Marks’ way of delivering a section of music is a seemingly genuine reflection of the man behind the machine; there seems to be no divide between the outlandish characters who populate his rhymes and the MC who spits them. He raps like he just got home to deliver the most unbelievable and astonishing news – and he’s got just under a minute to say it all.

Nerves of Ice (2008), an anomaly within the anomaly that has been Marks’ entire career in hip-hop, was the product of Russian money and distribution. Tapped by a label in Russia to release a project of new material, Marks offered them an album that continues the surreal trajectory of his catalogue and further explores the fuzz and buzz of electronic music. Oscillating between rickety grooves and steel-grinding bangers, Nerves of Ice returns the rapper to the pop music flirtations of Young Dangerous Heart.

Marks would prove a tenacious talent in the years that followed Nerves of Ice, releasing a series of feverishly explosive albums that continued to re-imagine the landscape of hip-hop. Among them was the head-scratching Trunk Bomb (2008). Paradoxically-titled, Trunk Bomb is flush with the minimal scatterings of broken beat and the synth bleeps of a demonically-possessed game console. Marks’ flummoxing rhymes continue to intrigue, his castles-in-Spain relations suggesting a memoir’s wealth of fantastical stories.

These days, the rapper has cooled his fingers and felt-tips, opting to lay off the 808s and samplers for a bit, until the churn of inspiration begins anew. His Bandcamp page suggests that he’s been digging his own crates, offering up an extensive back catalogue that has been patiently waiting in the vaults. Taking his time to return to the scene, Marks is currently in the midst of recording a full album of new material. He talks with PopMatters about the stories that have informed the bulk of his visionary hip-hop.

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What kinds of things captured your interest at a young age? What you were like as a kid?

I grew up in Compton, California in the ’80s and early ’90s, so I had all types of interests. Even though the whole gang and drug thing was happening full force directly in front of me, I was encouraged to go my own way. Where that ended up taking me was to skateboarding, comic books, role-playing games and lots of music.

I had experience in the arts due to my scholastic upbringing (the teachers in Compton were very special) and that only fueled my imagination as a kid. While I definitely came from what most would consider an extremely bad background, it was balanced out by the stuff I mention.

What do you remember about hip-hop music and its culture during your high school years? How did you get into music, particularly hip-hop?

I was introduced to hip-hop at a very early age from my mother and other older people around me, namely gangsters. I was in high school from 1992 to 1996, so it was formative in my development. In 7th grade I had an algebra teacher who brought his sampling workstation to school and showed everyone how to use it. I was instantly hooked and knew that I was going to do something with that machine at some point in my life!

At this time, I was also skateboarding heavily and the music in those videos definitely had a large part to play in my musical interests later on. Hanging out at skate shops and with older skaters taught me who was who in music, as well as where/how to find the music in question. There weren’t any real record shops in Compton so you either had to buy your music at the swap meet or a pager/ car alarm/ completely random tape store. There were these weird little stores that sold music, but were in hindsight 100% illegal stores. Nowadays, I’m thinking that these places were the spots selling bootlegs and whatever else that used to make rappers mad. Back then that was your retail option unless you went to LA, Long Beach, or Pasadena.

Getting into rap also meant getting into rapping. I have no idea how or why I thought that I had any sort of talent to get into making music, but my friends and I just did it. People thought that I had a dope voice and that I was good at writing based on all of the weird stuff I grew up reading, watching, and basically ingesting as a sponge. I also got pretty good at the whole freestyle thing, to the point that I would constantly be looking for battles and cyphers to test myself.

By this point, it was 1993, ’94, and I moved to Camarillo, California and went to high school in Oxnard, which was nearby. I would raid the local music store there until I befriended everyone in the place and they started showing me all the weird stuff in every applicable genre. I used to sneak out of my house every Friday and go to this college radio station KCSB, which was an hour away. I’d do the whole freestyle thing there when I was around 15-years-old.

This is also around the time I met a bunch of rappers that were young at the time but also killing it. All the CDP (the Loot Pack’s crew) dudes were around but I was especially friends with M.E.D., Wildchild, and Dudley Perkins. I used to call M.E.D.’s house everyday as a kid and ask him all types of rap questions. He would also play all these crazy Madlib beats over the phone that would blow my mind. He and rapper/producer Oh No had a group called Ships of Kiddim and M.E.D. made the beats at the time.

There’s way more to tell, like how I met Mum’s the Word and he made all of my first original beats, my first shows, when I first went to Project Blowed, all types of stories. Way too many for this interview, I’m afraid!

I know you worked a number of jobs before and (perhaps) while you were making and recording music. You worked in a number of record stores, including Amoeba Records. What were those years like?

I definitely did a lot of retail work as a young adult! I worked for record labels, record stores, clothing stores, the U.S. Census Bureau, and probably some jobs that I’m forgetting. I did work at Amoeba in Hollywood for a minute and before that I worked at a store named Aron’s Records, also located in Hollywood. It’s hard to pinpoint any one story because Hollywood at that time (2000-2005) was just crazy as hell.

Aron’s was in a neighborhood that was very notorious for transgender and male prostitution, so you had a little bit of everyone and everything in that place. The real stories were probably the staff at Aron’s (lots of people went on to bigger and better things in all of the entertainment industries) along with the customers at Amoeba. Since Amoeba was on Sunset Boulevard, it had all sorts of interesting characters in there, as well as around the neighborhood. There was a time Dr. Dre came in before we opened and dug for records upstairs in the warehouse for a couple of hours. The vinyl buyer let him use his desk and Dre ended up tipping him a thousand bucks. Apparently he did that more than once, but I was there that one time.

I used to see certain dudes there all the time. Dilla was a regular up until he couldn’t be. Jesse Hughes from Eagles of Death Metal (a band associated with Queens of the Stone Age) became a very good friend of mine. He played Lab Waste on a popular rock format radio station and he also gave me a bunch of gear (like my SP-404) when he wanted me to join his other project, Boots Electric. Thavius Beck and I worked on both of our solo records as well as the Lab Waste stuff when we worked together at Amoeba. Kanye West came in the Friday after his first record dropped and dragged me around the store, showing me where he got all of his hit samples from. He has all of his first hits tattooed on his arm, so he was just walking me around the store and going down the list! Such a weirdo.

One time I came into work super stoned and it was like a music video in the urban music section. All types of dudes were there. Warren G is walking out the reggae section and then Dilla and Common are digging in the R&B section. Two aisles over in the rap section are DJ Muggs, B-Real and Redman, looking for whatever. I was like “WTF is this?!?” and ran to the bathroom to wash my face! There are more stories, of course – it was a very wild time!

Where did you learn to use all the equipment that you use on your albums; the MPC samplers, the 808s, etc. How did you first come into contact with that kind of technology and what do you remember of your first experiences with it?

I mentioned earlier about my 7th grade algebra teacher and his whole contribution. Mum’s the Word was the first person I knew and got to work with who owned a workstation. He had an ASR-10. Between him and my teacher (who had the sampler that came two editions before the ASR called the EPS) back in the day, that kind of got me stuck on Ensoniq stuff to this very day. My friend Scrib (Rest In Peace) from my first crew the Library taught me how to use the EPS-16 (another Ensoniq sampler), as well as a bit of music theory in regards to what drum sound went where and why along with sampler info.

I got a hold of an MPC 2000 back in 1998 through friends, and Life Rexall from the Shapeshifters taught me how to use it. A lot of musical info. came from those dudes and Anti-MC when I was in this crew, West Coast Workforce. I can’t express enough how much an influence Thavius Beck and the whole Global Phlowtations crew was on my early sound. Those dudes did it all back in the day! I learned Pro Tools back in 2001 from this cat Jay Lader, who went on to be Rick Rubin’s engineer. Shortly after that, I got my own Protools rig together. One of the engineers on the Islands record first showed me Ableton in ’05-’06 and I jumped on that in a major way.

By then, I saw the similarities in most of the equipment out there, be it digital or hardware. When I moved to Europe is when I got more access to gear and started using it with Ableton as a main sequencer. When I moved back to LA in 2011, I stayed with someone who had all types of old analog and early gear. This is when I started using way more of that stuff on my records, as well as buying gear of my own. By now, I’ve gone through most of the machines people use and I know what I do and do not like.

It’s difficult to keep up with all your solo works, since you’ve recorded probably hundreds of albums worth of material. But you did start releasing your own material around 1998. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t been able to hear them all because your work is notoriously difficult to come by. So I can only ask you about the albums I have heard and own.

My first introduction to your work was Terrain to Roam in 2006, which is one of the weirdest hip-hop album’s I’ve ever heard. But I do think, along with Young Dangerous Heart, it’s your definitive work. I know it might sound to a lot of people like you were winging it, but I hear real craft in tracks like “About the Author” and “A Surrealist Life”. What’s the genesis of the Terrain to Roam album? What kind of headspace were you in?

I have a lot of underground stuff out there before, during, and after those two records, so I understand what you mean! On those two records, there was no type of winging it involved because they were extremely calculated. With Terrain to Roam, there was a whole formula being expounded on. That record was a whole different thing because I didn’t make any beats on the record and there weren’t any real singles on the record compared to Young Dangerous Heart, which had at least two. It was definitely a weirder record based on the amount of outside production alone. Not to mention the producers…

At that point, I was trying to work with the illest creative dudes in my community as well as do some new stuff that Los Angeles (and in turn, the world) hadn’t heard yet. This is why it has more of an experimental sound than most stuff out then. I felt that it was the natural progression of what was going on. Based on the lack of marketing budget and aggressive distribution, (Alpha Pup was a very new label and couldn’t spend the money Gold Standard Laboratories did for promo, etc…) people didn’t pick up on the record like intended.

My second introduction to your work was Young Dangerous Heart. I was working backward with your discography, but picking up whatever I could find. I feel Young Dangerous Heart is the heavier-sounding album than Terrain to Roam because it seems more rooted in boom-bap than the broken beat of Terrain to Roam. What can you tell me about writing and recording Young Dangerous Heart?

Between the two, Young Dangerous Heart was obviously first and without it there wouldn’t have been Terrain to Roam. With Heart, I was hanging out with all the rock homies (the dudes on Gold Standard Laboratories at the time as well as other bands) and their way of writing played a huge part in how I did those recordings. My main sonic influences for that record were Slum Village’s Fantastic V.1, Sonic Youth’s record Washing Machine and Kanye’s College Dropout record, as well as the stuff the Mars Volta were doing, since I was next to those guys. These records nailed it for me sonically.

What a lot of people don’t know is that I did another version of Heart that I solely produced. The dudes from Gold Standard weren’t into it because it went all over the place, production-wise and they needed a more cohesive project to release on a semi-large scale. I thought that they were crazy, so I released it myself under the name Lost Love Stays Lost. That record did well in the underground and gave me a great base under which to start Heart up the right way, in regards to writing a real album versus a group of songs. Instead of making all of the beats, I got outside production for 2/3rds of it and that really, really saved the record in hindsight. As a result, I wrote better songs and the outside production made me step my beat game up, which gave me some type of credibility as a producer of some sort.

The whole heavy sound is also attributed to me wanting to make it a rap record that would stand out wherever it was played. It being on a rock label gave it less street cred to people who were way into the hip-hop lifestyle. I wanted to make sure that anyone who liked rap would like that record, regardless of who put it out. Back then what label you were on was a big deal and no one was mixing it up that extreme yet. Now everyone puts out everything and no one cares…

I came across Nerves of Ice around 2009. Research seems to suggest that the album was only official released/distributed in Russia. Is there any truth in this? This album was also released as a proper physical album, with full artwork packaging. Yet it had an extremely limited release. What’s the story behind this album?

That whole story is 100% true. I even went to Russia for nine days to promote it! This label, 2-99 records, was putting out these compilation style records of different LA rappers like Awol One and Existereo and they wanted to do something with me. I was sitting on a bunch of new stuff, so it was easy to put something together for them that was more of an album versus a compilation.

I lived in Berlin at the time, which made it very cheap to fly out there and play a couple of shows. I had to basically smuggle out 219 copies of the record – this is how it even saw the light of day outside of Russia. The label went out of business a couple of years ago, so that stuff is even harder to find! The packaging was way sick though. I’ll probably never do something that fancy again…

You hooked up with producer and rapper Thavius Beck to form Lab Waste. How did the two of you meet? Also, you only released one album, Zwarte Achtegrond (2005). Are there plans for another release?

We met back in the day at Project Blowed, around 1997. I heard his beats and couldn’t believe what I was hearing, because I hadn’t heard anything like that before as far as hip-hop goes. We started hanging out a bit and working together here and there, but didn’t get serious working together until 2002. I brought him on tour with me in 2003 and we weren’t even tripping off of doing a record until the Mars Volta said in a Fader interview that they were releasing our record. We saw this in Spain, of all places, and only then we were like “Oh, I guess we have to make a record now.” So we did and they didn’t want to put it out at the time.

Busdriver ended up releasing the record and while we got a fine response and all, no one stepped to us for another record. We made a couple more but no label was interested at the time and we just said whatever and stopped. We got a couple offers to do something in this day and age but we didn’t make it happen for whatever reason. Personally, I think that it’s a shame and one of the things I regret the most, only because it was all bad timing and people really liked the music.

When we were making this stuff, we were pretty far ahead of the pack but with nowhere to go as far as a real label and that sort of thing. Now that people have caught up to the sound, we aren’t even trying to collect our roses to smell them. We as a group just don’t care. Maybe that will change in the future. Who knows?

I came across your YouTube channel, where you were discussing the issues of making money as a music artist and how digital streaming has harmed the income of music artists, as well as their ability to create more music. I believe you talked about this ten years back. This was around the time you had released Trunk Bomb and you felt that the album would be compromised by the constant digital sharing/stealing/downloading going around. I thought you had a lot of key points to make on this issue.

How do you feel about that now today? What are you opinions now about the physical versus digital methods of releasing music?

That YouTube channel was an experiment in being bored and stoned in Europe with nowhere to go at the time! I can’t even watch that stuff now. As far as how I feel about all of that stuff in 2019, it’s an entirely different business model which makes everything very weird. People can monetize most of these services nowadays, versus back in the day when the numbers weren’t really quantifiable enough to generate ad revenue. There were also no subscription services to speak of.

Back then, people were swearing up and down that the physical medium as we knew it was dead and digital is all that’s going on for all of time. This made a bunch of indie labels cut down and eventually close down because they couldn’t justify the budgets necessary to sell records the only way that they knew how.

This had a domino effect of lots of progressive artists straight up vanishing into thin air because they couldn’t release new material on reputable labels, as expected by the consumer base that grew up getting their music that particular way. This in turn made it hard for promoters to throw shows with out-of-town talent, based on not knowing whether they would have a worthwhile enough draw to make their overhead back. This meant less tours. All of this messed up the game for a minute…

Nowadays you can do a lot more with less and no one is calling you a failure for selling 2,000 copies of a vinyl record. People are still stealing everything in sight, but that translates to more merchandise (like soft goods and weird things like vinyl figures) being sold, since a song is like a sticker to people in this new age. In a weird twist that only the Europeans and Japanese saw coming, the physical format is back in action. Now it’s cool to make expensive vinyl, tapes, CDs, whatever you can print a song on. That part is crazy because it still costs money to market and promote all of this stuff, so who knows who is really selling what?

What is of high interest to me, is musicians getting their products into high-end boutiques like Dover Street Market and Union. These are the places where people who are into lifestyle brands (which is what some of these labels are nowadays) come through and are influenced enough to pay max money for whatever capsule collection/commemorative release, etc. the artist or label in question comes up with.

These people are the new source of disposable income that music was missing because they already have the obligatory streaming service on them at all times. They pay to go to all the events (whatever that is, pop-up or two-day festival) and are very quick to support the brand from season to season or release to release. And as the brand grows, their consumer habits grow with the brand, versus outgrow the brand, which is usually the case in hip-hop…

What was living in Germany like? What did you make of Germany’s hip-hop scene and culture?

Germany’s hip-hop scene is insane because they and France got it early. There’s rap stuff all over Germany and even though I lived in Berlin (a city more known for techno), rap was in full effect there too. Everyone of a certain age group got it and ran with it, so you have most of the same stuff out there as you do here (in the US). In fact, there are labels like Grooveattack, HHV, and a couple others that would drop underground rap records that American labels wouldn’t mess with.

The overall culture is very interesting because there are all sorts of things going on there at once. You have fall-out from the War, the Wall falling, the influx of immigration, the economy – all sorts of things that permeate the air. Through all of this, you have this creative lightning bolt of energy that’s everywhere and is expressed through any number of ways. It’s very inspiring and, while Berlin is not Germany, the country as a whole is still amazing.

Who are some music artists that have influenced you so far? Which artists, working in and outside of the hip-hop genre, do you find inspiring and really interesting?

Too many. The biggest influences besides Sonic Youth, Autechre, the Project Blowed movement, everyone on GSL/Gold Standard Labs, Thavius Beck, Company Flow, Augustine Kofie and Boards of Canada, are all the people I’ve been around my whole time of making and releasing music. I’ve been blessed to be around and befriend some of the best and brightest artists that this world has to offer, whether you can trace their creative output or not. To name some is to miss others and I know that’s a horrible answer, so I’m sorry!

What kinds of films and books are you into? I feel strongly that you have an interest in really weird sci-fi, since your music, and some of the music videos you’ve made, like “A Text Book Life”, reflect that.

I’m definitely into weird sci-fi and I read a lot. The author Grant Morrison is for sure a huge influence on my work. The Invisibles is one of the most important things ever written, in my opinion. I also came up heavy in the conspiracy theory world. A lot of those ideas inform and influence my output whether obvious or not.

These days, I’ve been going back to more “underground” sci-fi. Fredrik Pohl is my current favorite. Chuck Palanhuik is also a beast but I got into his stuff later on. William Gibson is definitely another heavy influence and I can’t forget Robert Anton Wilson because he’s really the one who did it first…

You’ve done some acting as well. And somewhere (not sure if this is true) I heard that you also model.

Acting-wise, it’s been mostly commercials and a couple of random roles in some indie films, which I’ll still do from time to time. I was just in this movie that isn’t out yet, so I won’t mention it, in case all of my scenes are cut. That’s happened before. I was in a Morrissey video one time as well. Super random, but I love the Smiths so it was cool. Morrissey is a dick, though.

As far as modeling, I still do it here and there. I did it a lot more when I was younger, for whatever reason. I was in a couple of magazines, a couple of print ads and some other stuff. I did a runway show too, which was nuts. I had to basically drink my way onto the stage.

What new material can we expect from you in the future? Are you still performing live shows or DJing?

I deejay once or twice a month at Stone’s Throw’s new bar Gold Line (Los Angeles). I also work there, which probably has something to do with that. I’m mixing a record of mine that’s coming out on Self Jupiter’s label ,The Order, as well as working on some new stuff with some new artists. This stuff coming up with this dude JSQD who is also on Jup’s label is way sick. It’s like Jodeci meets Portishead. I’ve also got some remixes and production popping up in some places, but I won’t say where yet. I just did my first show in a couple years not too long ago and more will follow. I have some other art stuff on the way too, so I’m staying busy…