After years of struggles, Mike Marshall is getting his just due thanks to music featured in two of this year's hottest films. (Buckshot Photo)
Michael Marshall knows a lot of people have heard his voice. But that doesn’t mean they know his name.
"They all have my voice in their house, their car and their phone," says the Berkeley-based R&B singer. "Everybody knows me. They just don't know who I am."
Marshall has several hit song credits and has collaborated with renowned hip-hop artists such as E-40, San Quinn and The Luniz over a career spanning more than three decades.
He's also the voice behind songs in two of this year's most talked-about movie releases: the memorable hook in the 1995 Luniz weed anthem "I Got 5 On It," which makes a prominent appearance in Jordan Peele's horror movie Us, and the doleful, tuba-tinged reimagining of the hippie song "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)" in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Now, after years of struggles, the Bay Area vocalist is starting to get his due thanks in part to his contributions to these films.
Los Angeles-based composer Emile Mosseri wrote the score for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and is among a growing group of industry insiders who have embraced Marshall’s vocal gift.
"Everybody was in tears the first time they heard him sing it," says Mosseri of TheLast Black Man production team's response to Marshall's version of "San Francisco." "It was just this incredible performance. They knew right away that they had gold."
Tall, goateed and loosely dressed in sweats and spectacles, the 53-year-old singer says he had no trouble reworking John Phillips and Scott McKenzie’s 1967 hit.
He’s covered other songs by white artists over the years, like Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again," and says he received an immersion in white, hippy culture as an undergrad at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
"I'm pretty good at singing white people's covers," he says. "Un-soul music, non-soul music—I'm good at singing that."
But the music Marshall grew up listening to and singing in church in the East Bay with his single mom and siblings was gospel.
"We sang a lot of good songs which formed my library of melodies and harmonies," Marshall says. "I learned a lot of harmony placement, how to blend with other singers and how to sing from your diaphragm."
Marshall started out performing in high-school talent shows. It was not long after graduating from Berkeley High that he scored his first hit, “Rumors,” in 1986, with his band, Timex Social Club.
Marshall’s career could have taken off at that point. But instead, his life started to derail.
"I was not prepared," Marshall says. "So I'm bumping my head, skinning my knees at every turn."
Marshall says his troubles started after he passed up a ten-year record deal on the back of the "Rumors" success because he didn’t want to be tied down.
"We read all the stories about how artists were being treated," Marshall says. "Prince was complaining. Michael Jackson was complaining."
He then watched helplessly as Jay King, the producer, formed a new band, Club Nouveau. Marshall says he used some of Timex Social Club's musical ideas to fuel new pop hits like "Why You Treat Me So Bad" from 1987.
Marshall partly blames himself for his lack of business sense. But he says King and others swindled him out of royalties and credit, leading him down a long, self-destructive path of drug abuse.
"It was bad," Marshall says. "I was literally trying to kill myself."
Jay King is based in Sacramento, where he still works in the music business. He says he did nothing wrong, and attributes Marshall’s misfortunes to his drug habit. But King is still in awe of the singer’s voice.
"Even with all of the abuse that he's put on his voice, it's so beautiful and resonant that even he can't destroy it," King says.
Marshall was lost to crack cocaine for more than 20 years. But he still released memorable music during that period—"I Got 5 On It" included.
Since being featured in Us, the track has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. But Marshall says for years, he wasn’t recognized for it either.
"People who knew me would say, 'Oh that's Mike!' and all that," he says. "But the radio wasn't saying my name, and the artists were having shows and not inviting me."
Starting around 2004, with the help of his wife, April, Marshall gradually got clean and sorted out his business affairs.
Now, he says, the royalty checks are flowing in.
He has a new album coming out in October with the Bay Area hip-hop artist Equipto. He and his co-writers have licensed "I Got 5 On It" to entities such as the Ellen Degeneres Show and Universal Studios. He also runs a marijuana farm in Mendocino County on the side. "It's a revenue stream," Marshall says.
And the singer has some new projects in mind, including a cover album of songs by the likes of Simply Red, Anita Baker and James Ingram.
"That's the guy I emulated my voice after," he says of Ingram. "I'm a big fan of his."
He'd like to license out more of his own songs, as well as covers, to film and TV productions. He credits the filmmakers behind Us and The Last Black Man in San Francisco with helping him get on track.
"They saved my life," he says. "Otherwise, there would be no second chances for me, and I don't know what I'd be doing right now."
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