Large-scale photo prints line the wall near the desk where I sit with Marc Griffin -- better known as Marc E. Bassy -- who’s outfitted head-to-toe in black. Sitting across a table covered with tan butcher paper, he absently doodles with a marker during the course of our interview, turning a scrawl of Charles Bukowski's name into a box surrounded by what could be either missiles or stars.
He tells me this space, located in San Francisco’s Lower Richmond neighborhood, is the home of his stepfather. Here, where Griffin stays each time he's back in the Bay Area, the house has an unfinished quality to it. But rather than feeling empty, it seems a canvas waiting to be adorned with new ideas, a lovely work in progress.
The same could be said for Griffin's music career at the moment. Though he’s able to pull from a decade of experience in the music industry, it’s his recent turn as a solo artist that’s finally found him capturing a sound authentic to his experience. It hasn’t been an easy essence to relay, and Griffin's the first to admit that he’s a confusing artist to classify. But his story is one about the amazing results that come from artistic exploration without expectation.
Griffin was raised in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood until his teens, when he moved to Mill Valley and attended Tamalpais High School. Upon graduation, he headed to UC Santa Cruz for college but found little reason to stay. After only a semester, he moved to Los Angeles in 2006 with Matt Reagan, who'd played guitar in Griffin's high school band.
With no industry connections, and grinding well before the ubiquity of YouTube, the two got word out the old-fashioned way.
“We’d go to every open mic,” Griffin recalls. “This was before you could put videos up, so it was all about trying to get poppin’ live... We had a magical energy in LA. People were just attracted to it. We had people quit their jobs to come play with us, and then we ended up getting a record deal [with RCA].”
After going through hundreds of names, the group settled on 2AM Club, an homage to the famous Mill Valley bar Griffin used to frequent. (Some may recognize the name, as the location was featured on the cover of the Huey Lewis & the News album Sports.)
In roughly a decade, 2AM Club experienced what Griffin describes as “blips of extreme mainstream exposure.” Those included an appearance on Good Morning America, a performance spot on ABC Family hit Pretty Little Liars and over a million YouTube views for the band’s 2010 lead single, “Worry About You.” And while the group was composed of musicians that all met in LA, Griffin contends that they weren’t a label creation.
“It looks like it was that, but it was completely organic,” he says, adding, “That was the biggest struggle with it -- that we could really play and sing, but everything we put out to the world sort of negated all of that because it looked like it was a live boy-band type thing.”
Looking back, Griffin admits the period was a good learning experience, noting, “We weren’t really prepared for how to get our message across the right way once we got to the big time.”
He also felt stifled creatively. Though he says he rapped before he took up singing, he was designated the singer in his band, never granted a chance to rap on tracks. Add to that the waiting game to release music, delayed by label strategies Griffin saw as dated and off the mark, and after a near ten-year run, 2AM Club dissolved about a year ago (“Our label flopped us,” he explains). He was still signed to Sony / ATV on a publishing contract -- in the meantime, he was writing for others and living off his advance.
For fun, he connected with his longtime friend Alex Hau, a graphic designer who was releasing music part-time under the moniker Count Bassy. Griffin always trusted his ear, and he was happy with their early collaborations. To show how serious he was about making music together, Griffin took on the name Marc E. Bassy.
The Marc E. Bassy era began in earnest with “Andy Griffith,” which featured Griffin rapping a tribute to North Beach and its many strip clubs over hip-hop drums and airy keys. Then came “Jazzy,” an autobiographical introduction of Bassy to the world, with Griffin playfully rapping “I speak for the betterment of people” and “Remember poetry class? That’s where I became me.” There’s an undeniable joy and nonchalance to these early tracks, released on SoundCloud purely for the sake of sharing music with the world.
“It was really refreshing to finally be independent,” Griffin says. “I like to share my music. I’m not shy with it. I feel like when I get it out, that’s when I can move past it.”
“Chemical High” was the first song from that early batch to feature Griffin’s now-signature hybrid delivery, equal parts rapping and singing. It was also the standout track that started to gain traction for his new artistic persona.
Next came Only the Poets, Vol. 1, released last July. “American Dream Life” found Griffin inserting political commentary into his output, and he paired the track with a powerful video featuring Griffin releasing school children from their oppressive teacher.
“Having a message in music has been corny, but I feel like we’re just getting to the tipping point where that’s about to be the only thing that matters in music,” he says. “There’s no counter-culture... The problems that we’re having as a people are so deep, but they’re not too deep to understand. You could pretty much explain to everybody what’s going on in one song if you wanted to, [but] no one will do that. They’ll just only put a hashtag or a picture and forget about it.”
“American Dream Life” was his response, and despite his worries about releasing the song and video, Griffin says fan reaction has been positive.
Earlier this year, Griffin released his follow-up, the East Hollywood EP. During a month-long stay in East Hollywood in his girlfriend’s vacant apartment, he spent the vast majority of his time reading and writing.
“I was on a big [Charles] Bukowski trip,” he says. Bukowski is featured reading a poem on the album intro and later appears in an interlude that excerpts a famous interview of the writer verbally abusing his girlfriend. “That’s kind of when the whole East Hollywood concept emerged, because that’s where Bukowski lived most of his life and that’s where he wrote.”
For “On Top,” Griffin paints a picture of his everyday surroundings at the time, name-dropping the evangelical Christian rappers and Scientologists he’d regularly come across on the streets. “XX” captures his vulnerability, while “Good Money” is a love song on Griffin’s terms, driven by an irresistibly melodic delivery that finds him closing the song with “Part one was the lost soul, you came the sequel / Got a new balance, you my f---ing equal.”
While the project is driven largely by a sound grounded in the more electronic meditations of modern R&B, Griffin’s melodies are the project’s true centerpiece. It may not be immediately apparent, but the sounds of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway drive his sound.
“I’m not no [Justin Timberlake] / Maroon 5 type, but that’s what people always wanted me to be like, so if I come with some slick, pop-sounding records, then they’re really gonna think that’s what I am," he explains.
“Essentially, I make pop songs,” he continues, “and the mission with the first two mixtapes was to disguise that. Melodically, I like classic soul music, and those melodies are the root of pop music today.”
The best example of his pop aspirations on East Hollywood would be “Some Things Never Change,” a meditation on lost love and the incessant thirst for -- and possible addiction to -- fame and success. The struggle is acutely accentuated by a striking guitar riff provided by Chicago production duo Blended Babies.
“Even though a lot of these themes that come up in my music are just shallow, stupid Hollywood bulls--t – money, fame – I love that s--t. I love being in LA. I get fueled by the drama of it all."
“If you hear me rap or talk about drugs and sex or whatever, it’s not contrived,” he continues. “That’s really me... Essentially, that’s the goal, right? Just put it all out there and get as honest as you can, and try to find your truth.”
That honesty has already caught the attention of the industry. After a year of pushing his second chapter as an artist, Bassy and company recently signed to Universal Republic.
Circling back to Bukowski, Griffin points to his appreciation for the fearlessness inherent in his writing. Asked if he thinks he’s arrived at that same fearlessness as a writer yet, he tempers the comparison.
“I’m getting there,” he says. “I have like 5% of what they have, but I try to get it out there.”
Returning to the major label system, Griffin has gotten a second chance at an industry that struggled to fully accept his creative voice the first time. This time, he’s turning heads by being wholly himself.