As a member of the legendary hip-hop collective All Natural, Marcel Wilks (aka Mr. Greenweedz) has always stood out as a large-than-life personality. His charisma on stage and love for hip-hop culture is matched only by his skills as a lyricist, host, orator and all-around music aficionado. Greenweedz's talents have taken him all over the world and he's shared the stage with a laundry list of luminaries like Liquid Soul, J-Live, Atmosphere, Chuck D, Melle Mel, Snoop, Ramsey Lewis and BB King, to name a few.
As an artist with very astute sensibilities, Greenweedz has been able to stretch his vision across several different genres with an equally diverse group of artists. His most recent foray has put him in alliance with local funk and soul pioneers JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, and the result has been, as he describes it, "sparkling." Centerstage recently sat down with Greenweedz to talk about the adventures that have decorated his colorful career.
When did you begin your career as a lyricist and what was it about hip-hop that compelled you to become a performer?
I tried for the first time to rhyme in 1986, but I got good as far as writing goes pretty quick. I officially got addicted around late '87 when I met this crew, Raw Material. But I go to two moments in my life when I said, "OK, I'm in!": It's when Grandmaster Melle Mel went on stage after me and pretty much used the same call and response that I did; and I was so influenced by my big brother, when I saw him with his fat gold chains and Adidas outfit that I said, "Shit, I wanna rap."
How and when did you hook up with All Nat?
My brothers! First cat I met was Tone B. Nimble through a mutual friend at Lower Links in '91, a cool spot that threw hip-hop parties where a lot of dope and not so dope cats were hanging. And you knew 'cause cats steady tested each other. Then about a year later me and Capital D started hanging real tough. We use to have this posse called Unison at first and then it morphed into Family Tree; recording horsing around and vibin'. A lot of tunes just came out of spinnin' a disc and phrases. Just typical word snatchers we were.
Eventually you linked with Liquid Soul in 2000. How did that relationship come about?
MCB all day long. Around that time B wasn't gonna be available for some hits. So LS was like, "Man you got to go find a replacement." I've been mucking with B for a minute, so he hit me and asked me if I wanted to sit in with the band and I said of course.
Was the live band dynamic something new to you at that point?
Yup, looking back on it, because Liquid Soul didn't hire me immediately. I performed at their record release party at the Metro and I didn't think I did too well either - maybe because Uma Thurman was there. Fortunately, I got a second chance later that year at the Double Door. See, my first hit I tried to kick writtens over live complete instrumentations. Trying to plug lyrics to a piece rarely works. For me, that's hard! When a DJ is spinning an instrumental, the beat pretty much remains the same BPM, but when you play with musicians there's a lot of coloring that takes place, though often subtle. You could have a drummer that drives harder as the song progresses. I totally over thought it. That second hit, I floored 'em! I free-styled and that worked for me cause there's no pressure - you off the cuff in the first place. Basically, I also learned when you play with musicians there's a certain language and shorthand that happens. You got to understand that too, or at least feign it.
So from one legendary band to a now burgeoning band, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, how did you guys come together?
First off I got five syllables, Billy Bungeroth. If you ever happen to meet Bill at a party, plant yourself there. You'll be in for a treat. So I get a call from Bill Bungeroth last year early December, whom I've known for about 13 years. We had a fiction writing class together at Columbia College back in the day. The course was writing intensive and we had to read each other's work and discuss; it was only eight of us so we all got close quick. Bye the bye everyone got an A but me — I got a B. Anyway he connects back with me through Chris Neal the saxophone player and keyboardist of the band. They were doing a Christmas benefit for Second City at the Double Door. I must say I never heard of JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound before the hit. I couldn't make rehearsals, and I didn't research them. When I sat in, it was refreshing! The whole band made me feel at home — from a chill dressing room to building with me individually: Renaldo, Ben, Kevin and JC.
What's your experience been like performing with the Uptown Sound?
Sparkling! Because everything comes back to the show. JC Brooks is a superstar and it's like he stepped in a time machine and leaped to the future. He reminds me of the quintessential soul singer in every sense of the word. With no ego. We like Sam and Dave when I'm up there with him. The whole Sound is a brave bunch. To incorporate a rapper in a genre that's very particular to its soul music can be a tricky tightrope to walk. But it goes over because I'm connected to soul music naturally.
First off it was prevalent in my household during my childhood. When I first started rhyming - remember in the mid to late 80s — all hip-hop was James Brown samples or variations of soul. So that was my wheelhouse. In order for me to understand something at times I need a reference point, so even though I know this is raw power soul, when you add my vocals it's like I'm kicking rhymes like I did during my youth. Plus in some way rock steady, northern soul, gospel, blues, hip-hop, etc., is all connected when done right. Some soul cats hear it and get it immediately, others may diss but still bob their head to it in disgust.
We (JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound) are all about trailblazing and we own whatever energy we put out there. I don't know a lot but I do know this: When you decide to be the first or amongst the first, cats will mock, then they catch on and then if you present it right they follow. I'm never afraid of doing something new, don't mean it's fresh every time but it could be. If it's not then we plain and simply don't do it. Presentation is key, if you serve steak and potatoes on a clean plate then they eat it, you take that same meal and try serving it on a trash can lid then it's not as appetizing.
You've had the opportunity to host and open for a lot of different acts throughout the years, who has been the most memorable?
The most? Maybe it was one time at Chicago State about six years ago when I moderated a panel discussion with Kanye West and Capital D. Basically, Cap D came to me earlier and suggested I should break into a rhyming session after the Q&A; I'm with it. Let me set you up for it: I'm at the podium, Cap is to my left at the table and Kanye is to my right at the table. So I start with Kanye, who was down, and he kicks a verse. Then Cap D goes and kick some writtens. Now I didn't initially plan on rhyming, I even go back to Kanye. Then Cap D gets on the mic and asks the crowd "y'all wanna get Green on the mic and hear the moderator rhyme?" the crowd claps...ahhhhh. The old alley-oop.
Now, what I didn't tell you is that Cap and Kanye were kinda laid back poetics and I knew I wasn't going that route. I projected my voice with inflections along with body language. The crowd liked these guys, of course, but I had em rollin'! It was like I was a comedian up there. They were laughin' and I kept walking into the applause with more rhymes. This turned up the volume and Kanye pushed away the table stood up and got hyped, so did Cap. But that day was mine from a rhyming standpoint. You just had to have been there. I know gold when it arrives and it took a seat that day.
For as long as I've known you and your work, I've always seen you as a true-blooded Chicago artist. What is it about the city that continues to inspire you?
It's grit! People here are some of the hippest, hatingest, lovingest, critical, sensical, intelligent and cut-throat people you ever wanna encounter. Cats will kidnap you for $1500. Man that's cold, but it's fair. When I travel, I take Chicago with me. Chicago gets respect over the globe. Homey, sometimes I wonder if we're aware of that. A lot of my homeys that visit here "hate it" because they never get any sleep when they're here. Chicago throws better LA parties than LA. It's a great city for out-of-towners too. In the summer ... winter time can hurt at times but it's Chicago.
What's your take on the hip-hop scene here?
I don't know. I used to really feel I should have an answer for this question at all times, but I don't. There's no scene really, I mean cats throw parties here and there but there's no "scene". But I'm spoiled because I can recall when there was a semblance of hip-hop every night of the week. I go to a lot of parties that's reminiscent of hip-hop in my own mind. Like soul parties, for example, where I freestyle to myself. When I hear the DJ play a Temptations tune that PE might have sampled back in the day. Plus the mental makeup of a soul aficionado is similar and snobby like a hip-hop purest of 10 or so years ago, no offense. In addition, I might go to an underground reggae party where the Soul Summit DJ's doing some toasting or I can check some riffs that I might have been exposed to through a hip-hop record. Oh, there's some coolness over at Beauty Bar. I go to a periodic family reunion when an old school artist falls through The Shrine. I guess hip-hop is morphing into dance and everyone's down to sell out. But there's always hip-hop vigilantes out there. I know them and they lookin' for a hero or lookin' to become one.
What's on deck for you in the coming months?
Man, I've been really on more of the business side of things in addition to being an artist. I'm what you call a rapper/manager or player/coach like Pete Rose without the gambling. I've always been hands on but I really like to facilitate myself. Cosmos Ray started a management team called Hey Lil' Baby and it's been a blast! In addition to rockin’ with JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, I also rock with Rita J. Hey Lil' Baby manages both entities.
Right now, I've been keeping myself fresh by contributing my talents to projects I believe in and that I find to be trailblazing as hell. That hits me where I live. A lot of cats in JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound knew my work in some capacity and reached back or out to me, depending on how you look at it and so has Rita. As artists, both of these groups had they boat in motion and decided to add another sail. I feel so blessed and warm right now. I got music brewing and stewing in me and not like in an Axel Rose kinda way, but just when I start it I wanna be able to sink in to it. I don't stress creativity in a sense where it drives me crazy anymore. I'm just doing what I've been doing, fucking with music and working my number.