"A CAR BATTERY THAT NEEDS A JUMP"
Chicago house PIONEER Marcus Mixx is now homeless. It's a cautionary but all too common tale of the city's musical innovators
Words by James McLintock, photography by Jesse Dionne
House music developed in Chicago, in the mid 80s. Marcus Mixx (real name Marcus Shannon) was an significant part of that nascent scene, working at the time as a DJ, producer, promoter and A&R (and briefly manager) of Trax Records – one of the most important record labels in the history of electronic music. Today Marcus’ releases are much in demand; vinyl copies of his work sell for hundreds of dollars.
Right now though, Marcus is homeless. He lives between a handful different shelters in Chicago. We caught up with him to find out a little bit about what that life is like day-by-day.
BOP: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Marcus. First of all, how are you? How's your morning going?
Marcus Mixx: "Hey! It's cold, but like a lot of folks born and raised here in Chicago, I'm used to it!"
You mention to me that you would have to fit the interview around church, hustling legal things and helping other homeless people out. Is that a typical day for you?
"A typical day is getting up an hour early (around 3.30am) before the mad swarm of other homeless dudes, because then I can put something in the seat of the auditorium where service is held three times a day starting at 6am.
After church, it's all about what kind of work is there which I can realistically do. That usually means going online, checking phone and text messages, and word-of-mouth via staff members of the shelters.
Since the phone that I've been using for years has been cut off for almost a month by my family, it's mainly about getting to a library as soon as they open at 9am. Secondly, the laptop that I had access to can't be brought in, or kept in these places for obvious reasons.
If I could have the Mac for a few hours a day, I'd use WiFi at the libraries, and McDonalds to edit and stream audio and video projects for people all around the planet like I've done for along time, and be compensated decently."
Can you explain a little bit about your background and your music career?
"I grew up listening to each and every form of music, from soul to rock to disco to gospel and so on. Living in one of the best neighbourhoods in Chicago called Beverly Hills.
My educational opportunities were outstanding, by attending private school up until eight years old, then going to Clissold Elementary and Morgan Park High! They were mostly white or southside Irish, but back in the early '70s it was a great experience!
I hung out with the most rascist nerds in public who were just average kids when they had no pressure to hate minorities. This all helped me learn to get along, play and, when I got into my teens, party and groove with everyone. I'm a big fan of any and everyone.
In the 80s I started listening to WBMX FM in Chicago on the weekends, where hotmixes were being spun by the original Hot Mix 5. I fell in love with the concept and started DJing as Marcus The Mixer. I got some great breaks from house legends like Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Farley 'Jackmaster' Funk and others from carrying their records in and out of venues, to getting them drinks and food during gigs to eventually opening big parties at classic places, IE The Playground. I also got into promoting parties and got tons of support from them and college radio throughout the city.
I made my first song I Wanna House on an eight track board, syncing everything by hand, because at the time my buddy Gitano who engineered it didn't know what house music was. He got so interested after my first session that he didn't charge me to record anymore and wanted to be involved doing songs like Is This Dream For Real. He also introduced me to the idea of video editing and cable access TV. We became great buds, and a lot of my stuff was done in that circle."
And what about now? What are you up to?
"Currently, I'm living day by day, trying not to give up on what I've been blessed with, for example, producing low budget videos for all kinds of artists through to the average guy who wants to wish his girl a Happy Valentine's day to – yes it's true – tons of stuff for churches.
I was doing fine with 'Cheap, But Not Cheap Videos' in which I only charged $30 per project, if the clients/labels/etc supplied the footage and audio! I averaged about five a week.
Now, since I don't have access to my computer and camera, I don't do any of that. The requests are there and it's very humbling, yet disappointing to cry wolf saying that I can do the task, but knowing full well that I can't. That's why I don't advertise anymore. Life is just non Forrest Gumpian for me – "Life is like a box of wasted flesh!"
Now since I don't have access to my computer and camera, I don't do any of that. The requests are there and it's very humbling, yet disappointing to cry wolf saying that I can do the task, but knowing full well that I can't."
Tell us a bit about where you live at the moment. What's it like there?
"I live & bounce around various shelters and missions in Chicago. Thank God for them! Why? Mainly for me it’s seeing and hearing substantial proof of men and women that were living in the streets of places all around the globe pulling themselves up by getting a little or a lot of help.
I refer to my situation as a car battery that needs a jump. Then I be fully charged and functional again, this time without all of the beer, giving money to anyone who asked on a consistent basis without any repayments ever, and the main thing, actually feeling good about myself and doing things for me."
What took you to the shelters?
"I choose going to stay at shelters when my little bit of money and plans were cut off. I had finished a month rehab for alcohol abuse and then was recommended for The Salvation Army.
I was there for almost a month, but was forced to leave when a family member brought my LINK (food stamp) card up there and gave it to an administrator. That's a huge no no.
That's why I asked my family to mail it in a regular envelope, but they did it their way and I got kicked out. The only options were to attend consistent rehabs in which you can't leave the building for months – no internet, TV, radio, visitors, etc – or live as a homeless slob like I am.
I was having a lot of seizures based off of what I thought was going cold turkey from beer and lack of sleep for one day. But, I eventually found out that I have epilepsy. The doctors say it's mainly because of all of the stress, anxiety, depression and the lost of my dad who I lived and helped take care of due to his dementia and Alzheimer’s. I did nothing during that time, except little things here and there. The lack of being able to do major projects hit and it still hurts a lot. I just sat with him 24/7 making sure he didn't wander off anywhere."
What's it like being in this situation? Is there a lot of support, or do you have to make your own way?
"It sucks not being able to sleep in a venue without hundreds of guys trying to get a bed to sleep on, other than that a floor mat. It goes the same for getting breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are various cliques of people who look out for each other based off of race, gangs, and so on. It helps to have a little publicity sometimes, but other times it causes more jealousy, spite and anger. Always watching my back from the bathrooms or showers to just walking around the neighbourhood to the local Jewel Foods.
The Pacific Garden Mission is the main spot I frequent, because you can wake up and go to a Christian service, and not be put in the cold streets. You don't have to leave the facility unlike tons of shelters that kick you out at 5am or so and you can't come back until 6pm or so.
They're working on getting some work programs and other helpful things, but as far as a place to crash, it's the best! It's free based off of donations from around the world. They don't take government or business funds.
Lastly, I might make a little profit from selling coffee and candy when I purchase them with my LINK card and sell for hard cash. But, getting caught could get me kicked out."
On Facebook you talk a lot about being a “homeless loser”. Why is that? Based on what you're doing day-to-day it seems like you're actually pretty busy, looking for work, volunteering, supporting other people…
"Being a homeless loser is a phrase that I used to mainly describe myself, because I love making lumps of money, partying and sharing my then great, spoiled and precious upbringing. It's not that I'm better, but seeing a bald kid with a lump growing out of their head is just as disgusting to me as someone being born blind and mute for no reason. Yes God knows all and has all of the answers, but being a flesh made human, I like helping in realistic ways. Like if I do a video for a band, I can suggest that a hot babe and or the lead singer can wear a pink cap in some of it for cancer awareness. I don't run around bragging about being able to take food from sponsors and non-sponsors of my TV shows that was still edible and bringing it to people living on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago instead of it going in the garbage. Plus the restaurants got great publicity from doing nice deeds for the poor. It's the same with clothes, haircuts, et cetera. People who have the means should get up off their bloody asses and at least go for it."
I'm a big fan of your music videos. Are you still doing those? Can you tell me a little bit more about where the idea came from and who you've worked with?
"The videos I've done and or helped produce are as diverse as God’s planet. I usually have bands that are into a form of rock, mainly because they can pool up the money to either have me shoot and edit it or do a 'Cheap, But Not Cheap Video'. I, when I'm able, will pump and beat it on 'Marcus Mixxs' BOOOM TV' when I have access to my computer to put together episodes. I'm very proud of helping to spread the word of all artists that try and put forth effort. I don't judge material because there’s no right and wrong in music. There’s a market for everything. I learned that being an A&R for Trax Records in the '90s."
Some of the people reading this might not be familiar with your music. Which tracks would you suggest they listen to first, and why?
"I really don't know what I like the best. I do know that it was an honour, and fun, to work with a few legends like Ron Hardy. He did some mixes for me immediately after some parties that he spun that I promoted. He'd just put the headphones on and go for it.
And what's happening to you in the week ahead? What have you got planned?
"All this week is about trying to get hold of a shovel & begging to clean snow up from the local neighbourhoods that these shelters are in. I could be cleaning bags of clothes for many of the homeless on a consistent basis by simply taking one bag and not separating or folding them during and after washing. I need access to a car for that, as well as a true friend’s place to do it.
That idea came to me a few months ago when I saved $5 and decided to walk a mile each way to clean my 1 bag of crap. People were begging me (pun intended) for me to clean some of their stuff. Once again, no car equals less work. I can clean clothes everyday for $4 each bag. They wouldn't get mixed up, because they have numbered tags that we use to put up our bags overnight and claim in the morning. I'd love to make that $25 plus a day and give it to the person where I clean the stuff. But, as you can figure out by now, no friends are around, because I don't have it.
Lastly, I could be doing videos for people who want to show love to mates, kids, or their parents – but no computer equals no work. I did dozens over the years. But, I suggested that my fans, haters and who-carers simply go to Youtube Editor and do something themselves or spend the money on someone who can do the job."
Thanks for your time Marcus, all the best.
This piece was originally published on The Sound. We have tried to contact Marcus to no avail, but we do hear from people who know him that he's safe and well, and we wish him the best.