Gavin Schmitt Interviews Marvin Young, Young MC
Marvin Young, better known by his stage name Young M.C., is an English-born American singer, rapper, actor and now director. He is best known for his 1989 Grammy-winning hit “Bust a Move”. His debut album Stone Cold Rhymin’ found international acclaim. Also in 1989, Young collaborated with Tone Lōc on the songs “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina”. Young has also appeared in film in acting roles and cameo appearances and has appeared in several television programs.
Young has now pivoted to film. While music will always be his passion, he wrote, directed, produced and even acts in “Justice Served”, due out in May 2017. This psychological thriller presents the hypothesis: what if you got a second chance to face someone who wronged you after the court system let them go? It’s an interesting concept, and Marvin was kind enough to talk with me about it on April 21, 2017.
GS: Before we get to “Justice Served”, it would be a dereliction of duty not to ask a Grammy winner about music. I was reading an article about sampling, and how the classic hip-hop albums could never be made today because of licensing and the potential for lawsuits. You know this world well, so I’m curious on your thoughts.
MY: When we were sampling initially, there was no idea about how much… now, bear in mind, there are certain things I can’t say because I’ve signed non-disclosure agreements. But yes, there are a number of big samples on records that I was involved with that were cleared for cash. In some cases, we just wrote a check and that was the end of it – the original artist received no points, no publishing, nothing. At that time, the original artist might get $5,000 or $10,000 – maybe even $20,000 – for a sample, and they’re thinking, “Wow, that’s great.” They didn’t think of their material as a piece of the copyright or something that was involved in the publishing. So there were a bunch of records made back then that were handled simply by cash clearances.
But then you see how much Rick James made after suing MC Hammer for “U Can’t Touch This”. (Editor note: James settled out of court, so we don’t know his exact payout. However, he was granted a songwriter credit, which not only entitled him to millions in royalties, but earned James his first and only Grammy award when “U Can’t Touch This” won, despite his not being involved in the production.) There are some artists who have an old catalog of records, haven’t received radio play, and are essentially useless… but then they get one sample. With a successful lawsuit, they can go from forgotten to living in mansions. So there’s just no way you can do this anymore.
GS: These are issues you dealt with firsthand.
MY: Oh, absolutely. A classic example is the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique”. That album was legally challenging to record even at the time. Or De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising”. There’s just no way.
GS: Even your big hit, “Bust a Move”, as three or four samples in that one track.
MY: Oh, there are several. You’re not supposed to know about them, but I wasn’t the producer on that album.
GS: You don’t have to admit to them, but I know they’re there. (Note: “Bust A Move” contains samples from “Found A Child” by Ballin’ Jack, “Scorpio” by Dennis Coffey and “Daytime Hustler” by Bette Midler.)
MY: (laughs) Oh, yeah, there you go. To tell you the truth, two of the samples I knew right off the bat, and a third one I stumbled on accidentally later because I’m a record collector. There’s one that I was shocked to find out, but it’s never been brought up to me, so I don’t say it out loud. But it was the production that put the beat together, I just provided the lyrics and vocals. The production dug deep for their samples.
GS: Switching to your film, “Justice Served”, we have the theme of extra-judicial vengeance stepping in when the court system has apparently failed. Was there a particular court case that inspired this theme?
MY: No, not really. What happened is that I had written a bunch of scripts before, and one of them was the furthest along, the most developed, so I gave it to a script doctor. He said that he had problems with the lack of tension. That critique stuck in the back of my mind, so I wondered what would happen if I put two people in a room and one of those people had just been found not guilty of killing the other person’s wife? Now the victim has a second shot, so I just kind of went from there. So no specific connection to any real case, just the idea of how to create tension in a room.
GS: One thing you did that was really clever is that you have multiple rooms. There is the main story – the man with his wife’s killer – but there are other cases side by side, too. And this allows us to see how different people approach the same situation in different ways.
MY: Exactly. Thank you. Yes. Not only how they deal with the revenge angle, but also how different people deal with loss. But yes, would each person be violent? What would they say to their tormentor? Would they use the shock button, and how much would they use it? In the room my character is in, my character has information that the victim never had and even more information than Justice has. That changes the dynamic there. All of these things played in. And, of course, the bigger point is that not only do we have three different victims reacting differently, but it forces the audience to ask, “What would I do?” And that was a big reason why I made the rooms white. There is nothing in there but the people and the issues. That was why I did that.
GS: You mention your character, who is one of the accused. Why did you cast yourself in a villain role?
MY: I think it was maybe because I play a good guy on all my records. If you listen to the music or watch the music videos, I’m a good guy. My first minute on screen in “Justice Served”, for example, I swore more than on every track I’ve recorded in the past 25 years combined. I wanted to play a role that was different from “Young MC”. All my friends are like, “Oh, you’re such a good actor.” But it’s not like that. It was just a matter of asking, “What would Marvin say if he found himself in that position?” But yeah, I did it to kind of stretch myself, because it’s not the image I’m typically known for. People might not expect it from me.
Now, I will say, I did cheat. Because I wrote the script, when it came to writing my own character, I could change the dialogue if something didn’t sound natural to me. If I couldn’t see such a thing coming out of my mouth, I would revise it. So I had the unfair advantage of reciting lines that were not too far removed from what I would say.
GS: But I don’t think that’s cheating. If another actor on set modified what you wrote slightly to sound more natural to them, I think that would just be the right way to approach it.
MY: Yeah, that’s true, and all of them did to some extent. I was very much an “actor’s director” on this film. I know what it’s like to be in the studio with a producer who wants things a certain way or wants to record 18 times even though the second time was perfect. So I never wanted to be that guy. Lance Henriksen, for example, definitely took some liberties, but he gave me exactly what I needed. This guy has done 200 films before. He knew I needed certain lines said, certain things done, but this was my first time directing and Lance knows what he’s doing. Those scenes with him and Christina Rose were the second and third day of directing I’ve ever done in my life.
Those were heavy scenes. And actually, filming them so early on resulted in me modifying my own scenes to be a little bit lighter because I didn’t want the whole movie to be that heavy. During the climax of that scene, the confrontation between Lance and Christina, it was so heavy that there were women on the set reading along with the script and crying. They already knew what was coming, but because of Lance’s performance… and his ad-libbing of lines like “how ‘bout them apples?”… that actually made Christina jump back because she wasn’t expecting it. As a director I was freaked out, because I don’t want my movie to be that dark.
GS: This is your film through-and-through. You wrote, produced, directed and act in it. On the one hand, that offers you creative control. But it must also put a great deal of pressure on you. Can you comment on that balance?
MY: This is what I tell people. I ended up taking a producer credit because I ended up doing more producing than I was lead to believe. I’ve been selling entertainment as commerce my entire adult life, and I have a certain standard that I stick to. This has been with music, of course, but I approached the film the same way. Other people maybe aren’t accustomed to selling entertainment as commerce, and they might say, “Oh, we shot it, we’re good. Who cares who does sound? We can find someone to do the score for a grand, no problem.” They might look at it like that. I look at it and it’s daunting, but you just change the way you look at it. If you say you’re going to college for four years or six year, that’s daunting. But if you say you’re going to take one class, it’s not so daunting. So each day on the film I approached it as it came and if something wasn’t handled the way I wanted it to be handled, I would go handle it myself. If I had known that in advance, it might be daunting, but one day at a time it was fine. So it wasn’t necessarily the plan, but I ended up being involved from the first pen stroke all the way through commissioning the first DCP (digital cinema package). I even sat through the DCP getting made, so that’s about as much as you can do in terms of involvement.
GS: As you said, you’ve been “selling entertainment as commerce”. But you also went to school and got a degree in economics; I’m curious, what was the plan before the music success took over?
MY: Well, music was always going to be a hobby because I was already doing that when I was 11. I went to high school, my parents insisted that I go to college, so I went to college. I was signed to a record label my sophomore year in college. The plan was to get some sort of economics job, maybe with Wall Street, or go on to grad school. After graduating, my parents said I had the summer to either get a real job or go on to grad school. But it timed out that “Bust a Move” came out during finals week of my senior year, and it just ran. There was a plan in place to do something else, but the music path was just so seamless. Had it not gone that way, I would have taken a regular job, but still pursued music as a hobby and saved up enough money to record an album. But everything fell into place.
GS: Returning to “Justice Served”, let’s tackle the big moral question. Is there an ethical difference between a state execution and personal retribution?
MY: That’s very interesting. Honestly, I think in a lot of cases, justice is just revenge with a robe on. If you think one is okay, it’s hard to think that the other isn’t okay. If the thing that motivates someone to say “I want justice” is the same thing that motivates them to say “I want vengeance”, what’s the difference? Of course, people have to pay the price for the crimes they commit. But there’s very little room between justice and vengeance. At least in terms of how a human being viscerally thinks of it. If you look at the family of a victim and the offender has been convicted, they’re happy that offender is off the street. There’s a certain satisfaction they take in knowing the person is going to the chair or will be in prison for 25 years. If you see a robber in your house and you hit them over the head with a rock, isn’t that the same feeling we feel? The difference between justice and vengeance is in the infrastructure, but the feeling is the same.
GS: That’s a fair answer. Thank you for your time, Marvin.
MY: Thank you. I really appreciate you getting the word out.