Making up the details of Man Parrish's career isn’t necessary. They're already too good. A fan of both Parliament and Stockhausen, Parrish got his big break in the music industry through a porn soundtrack. Which eventually led to release of the song that is often credited as the origin of the phrase "hip hop."
Not that he saw any money from it – Parrish's eagerness to get into the business found him locked for years in an unfortunate contract that saw his record label get rich from licensing. (He had to borrow money to buy a Playstation to hear his music on the Grand Theft Auto soundtrack.)
But while he may have missed out on riches, his life is wealthy with stories. In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with RBMA Radio, we highlight his experiences with Klaus Nomi, performing with a glitter-caked face to early hip hop crowds and that one time the UK press thought he was Madonna’s newest lover.
Can you talk about your formative years and how you developed a passion for music?
My first recollection of music was groups like Parliament. I was the funky white boy. My friends were listening to Led Zeppelin, and I was listening to funk music. At the same time, I was going to a high school for the performing arts. I wanted to be an actor. I was 14 years old and an extra at the Metropolitan Opera. So I would listen to opera one night and I would go home the next night and turn on the TV and listen to Kool & The Gang so... My background is kind of strange and varied.
You were born and raised in New York?
I was a little downtown hipster kind of guy.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I still live there. I left home at a very early age, 14, and became part of the New York City underground scene. Clubs like the Mudd Club, Danceteria. I remember going to Max's Kansas City and seeing groups like Blondie, Aerosmith and Devo before they were even famous. I was a little downtown hipster kind of guy. I also met people like Klaus Nomi, who was a very close friend of mine back then. I wound up working on his shows and his music.
I was surprised to see that on your Discogs page. You have some credits on some Nomi records. For the uninitiated, can you talk about who Klaus Nomi was?
There was a show called New Wave Vaudeville, which was basically a talent show for downtown people… Freaks. [laughs] I had worked on a disco version of a song called "Anarchy in the UK." (Sid Vicious actually helped me do the chord changes.) Disco was "bad" at that point, but I was going to be a rebel and do a disco version of that song. We did a set at the New Wave Vaudeville show at Irving Plaza and I remember being in the dressing room and suddenly all of the loud music stopped. And then I heard this opera music and people came running in, saying, "You have to see this guy. He's singing live opera." We all ran out to the balcony and looked on to the stage and there was Klaus wearing a clear plastic raincoat with a smoke machine on stage. It was quite a trip. Afterwards, I said, "Hey, Klaus, I really like you." And he said, "I really like your electronic music. I grew up in Germany and want to do Giorgio Moroder. Could you do this with me?" We became friends and I wound up working on two or three of his albums and a bunch of his stuff on the live show.
How do you go from training to be an actor, then going to all these clubs and then becoming actively involved in music?
Basically I got involved in music and electronics through smoking a lot of pot.
Well, basically I got involved in music and electronics through smoking a lot of pot. [laughs] Which I did quite a lot back then but don't do anymore. There were groups like Tonto’s Expanding Headband and Stockhausen and all these experimental things that were going on. I wasn’t into regular music, but it was actually great to hear this "head music." So I began to try to figure out what kind of electronic music I liked – couldn't find it – so I went to Radio Shack, an electronics store here in the States, and they had a synthesizer kit for $10 which you soldered together. I didn't know anything about soldering, but I knew this thing made great noises while you were high so I put this little box together and turned the knobs, smoked a joint and sat there with a black light and a strobe light and sat in the apartment and made crazy sounds. [laughs]
Then I started realizing you could use tape recorders. Record sound on sound. So I could layer these sounds into what we know call ambient. I called them soundscapes. I would do these trippy pieces of music that I would smoke a joint and zone out to. That became a passion – to learn how to write music. I'm not formally trained. I can't even tell you what a seventh chord is to this day. I do most things by ear. But by meeting people like Klaus Nomi and being in the downtown club scene, I started to buy a couple of synthesizers and I was the only guy in town that had three or four synthesizers and a tape recorder. So people would come over to my house for demos. So, little by little, I learned how to write music, how to make music, but for me it was always about sound.
Did you go to the Paradise Garage?
I had glitter on my face, had guys twirling in dervish skirts. And then the next act or the act before would be all Kangol hats and Filas. I don’t know how I got away with it, but they accepted it.
I never went to Paradise Garage, and I really wish that I did. Back then, music was kind of segregated. There was disco music, there were gay music clubs, there were urban clubs and there were New Wave clubs, like Danceteria and Mudd Club. I mostly went to the New Wave clubs, but occasionally went to a couple of discos because they were open way later. A regular club would close at 2, 3, 4 in the morning. The after hours were open until noon. Paradise Garage was something I really wished I got to see. Back then, there was no DJ culture and Larry Levan was one of the first situations where you went to the Garage to listen to a DJ. I heard millions of stories, but I never got to go. I did go to a lot of legendary clubs in New York [though]. I performed at Studio 54, came down from the ceiling. Madonna was my opening act. Back then she was unknown. I went to The Saint.
And The Funhouse, right?
The Funhouse was later on. When we were doing my record John Jellybean Benitez was the main DJ at The Funhouse. We used to bring acetate test pressings and John would play it. And standing next to him was this girl with black hair and a t-shirt which said, "I'm Madonna." [laughs] The Funhouse was a warehouse. Columns in it. Very few lights. A really great Richard Long soundsystem. Long was a guy who designed these incredible soundsystems in New York City. The bass boxes were so big you could literally walk into them. They had 30-inch woofers. [laughs] You would go there to listen to music because that kick drum would go through you... The Funhouse was a place that I performed at and went to a few times. But it was not my hangout.
Tell me about you and hip hop.
People sometimes say that I'm the guy who created the word "hip hop" or whatever. Let me explain my song: "Hip Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop)." Hip hop is a jazz term from the '40s. So was bebop. So hip hop is your hips hopping or your hips dancing. Bebop is a form of jazz music. So it’s just a jazz term that we brought forward. At that time hip hop was what we now call freestyle or some people call old school electro. Groups like Afrika Bambaataa, Soulsonic Force, Freeez, Shannon. All of that kind of stuff was called hip hop back in the day. Then, later on, it changed. Hip hop turned from dance music to more of a political or urban thing with someone rapping with a message.
Do you remember what made you create "Hip Hop Be Bop"?
"Hip Hop Be Bop" was an experimental piece of music that I did. In fact, if you listen to it there's no verse or chorus. There's no song structure.
It became a huge record, right?
And, all of a sudden when the hood came off, they realized I was the only white guy in the place.
At the beginning, it wasn't a hit. It was strange. It was listened to in the urban clubs and also listened to in the New Wave clubs. Actually, I had a bunch of reverse discrimination because a lot of places – when they figured out I was a white guy – pulled it because I was doing urban music, but I wasn't urban. When we used to do live shows, I was more like a David Bowie/glam/Boy George thing. I had glitter on my face, I used smoke machines, had guys twirling in dervish skirts. And then the next act or the act before would be all Kangol hats and Fila's. And then here comes this crazy queen with makeup and flamboyant crap, playing at very hardcore serious hip hop clubs. [laughs] I don’t know how I got away with it, but they accepted it.
So there was no hostility then?
Well, rap wasn't around, so there wasn’t the anti-gay, the anti-feminine kind of thing that everyone complains now. Rap back then wasn’t as hostile. It was more about "My mom's a junkie." "I'm living in the ghetto." "I can't get ahead in life." It was a different message back then. I'm not saying all hip hop now is bad. There is some great stuff out there, but it wasn't as polarized. When I started [performing] I was into Star Wars. I had a Darth Vader mask on. All of the smoke would come out. These two guys in twirling dervish skirts would come up, spinning around, and pull my hood off. I had smoke coming out of the hood, so everybody was going, "Hoo, hoo, hoo!" And, all of a sudden when the hood came off, they realized I was the only white guy in the place and there’s this minute of silence where I think I’m going to get killed. [laughs] Here I am in glitter, eye makeup. But it was just like, "Cool. We love your song." That broke the ice. And then it was just a freakshow. [laughs]
How did it go on for you, then, from "Hip Hop Be Bop"?
Well, let me explain how I got into getting my record put out. A friend of mine was an editor for a less-than-reputable magazine and one day he said that there's this guy, Joe Gage, who is doing a porn film and he needs some music for it. And I said, "Oh, OK..." He said, "I think it's a thousand dollars." And I went, "Wow! A whole thousand dollars to do a soundtrack? Great! Do I see it or…?" "No, just call him." So I called him and he said, "I need a five minute piece of music, a two minute piece of music and I need something called 'Heatstroke' which is the title song and it's gotta be 12 minutes long." So I do it and he gives me the thousand dollars and I walk away.
Someone said they were playing my song while a drag queen is breathing fire and a guy is shoving big dildos up his butt. And I was like, "Oh, I guess I made it!"
About six months later someone says that they’re playing my song, "Heatstroke," here in New York City over at the infamous Anvil Bar while a drag queen is breathing fire and a guy is shoving big dildos up his butt. And I was like, "Oh, I guess I made it!" He said, "You should go there and talk to the DJ." So I go and wait around and I'm standing against the wall thinking, "This is… I'm crazy, but this is crazy." It's 8 AM and people are high as a kite, just bouncing off the walls and my song comes on and I go up to the DJ booth and I said, "Hey, where'd you get that record? That's my music!" "This is yours?! There’s a record company here in New York and they're looking for the guy who did this!"
So the next day I went up to the record company and signed away my life, my publishing, everything on a one page deal. We sold over three-and-a-half million copies. I never got paid for any of that stuff. When I went there they said, "What else do you have?" So I played them "Man Made," "Hip Hop Be Bop" and a couple of other tracks and that's how I got my album. Once my album came out and it started getting a little bit of attention, people started calling me to produce records for them. So I did a lot of session work back then. Doing records for $1,000 here and $1,000 there because we were poor. I lived in a loft with no heat. [laughs] We put plastic over the windows and turned the oven on in the wintertime. Peanut butter sandwiches. [laughs]
What happened with your publishing and royalties?
So here's the deal with why I didn't get paid on any of my music and lost three or four million dollars in royalties and publishing. The guy signed me to a one-page deal where I basically signed over everything. I was 22 years old. I didn't know what I was doing. It's pretty much a classic story. About a year later, I was saying, "Where's my money?" And they'd say, "Oh, it takes six months to recoup," and all that kind of bullshit. I kind of wised up and I said, "You know, something's wrong here. I'm not doing anything for you until I get paid." Eventually the label sold my stuff to Unidisc up in Canada for $1,000 by forging my signature on a piece of paper. So the publishing went up to Canada and basically I decided to ignore it like I had been. But every couple of months I would go shopping for CDs and records and I'd see myself on a compilation and think, "What am I going to do? I don't have the money to fight this."
I lost three or four million dollars in royalties and publishing.
Many years afterward somebody said to me, "You're in Grand Theft Auto." I was like, "What?" I had to borrow money to go buy a Playstation and borrow the money to get the disc. I wasn't making any money at the time and there I was on Grand Theft Auto. And I said, "You know, I didn't sign up for video games. I'm in Shaun of the Dead, and I didn't sign up for that. They're licensing this thing everywhere. I gotta do something about it." That's when I finally got a lawyer. There's a lot of laws in the US that aren't very fair to musicians. If you don't claim your stuff within six years, it's difficult. So by that time they'd already made their millions in licensing and stuff like that. There is a business side to this music, and it's really important that young musicians understand that.
How did you go on from there?
It was tough. I'd produce records for $100, $50. [laughs] I was working with these people who didn't have money to do stuff. A friend of mine, Paul Zone, came into my studio in Brooklyn and I was doing it in my bedroom. [laughs] He had a group Man 2 Man with another guy. It wasn't a gay term like everybody thinks. If there were three guys, it would've been Man 3 Man or something like that. We did a record called "Male Stripper," and I think they paid me $50. They wrote in eyebrow pencil on the keyboard, "I want to go from here to here to here." So we put the song together and the next day I gave it to them and they put it out and we sold maybe 2,000 records. That was it.
About a year-and-a-half later, somebody calls and says, "You've got a #14 record on the pop charts in England. And it's gonna go to #7, and they're saying it's going to go to #1." I was like, "What record?!" They said, "Man 2 Man Meets Man Parrish – 'Male Stripper.'" I thought, "I never did a song called 'Male Stripper.' What the hell is this? Oh no… Not that awful thing I did… How embarrassing. And it says Man Parrish?" I grabbed a copy of Billboard, and there it was with a bullet, going up the UK charts.
This kid that worked for the record company was saying things like, "Manny has scratch marks on his back from Madonna."
It took me a couple of months to find Paul. When I did, I said, "Paul, you used my name on a record and you didn't even ask me." He said, "Oh, well, we've been meaning to contact you. We'll split it up three ways and all that. Tell you what, why don't you come to London and you can do a remix on it? But we can't get you working papers... You have to keep it really quiet. You're only here as a tourist." So I get off the plane and there's a whole bunch of press at the airport. The kid from the record company has told everybody that I'm sleeping with Madonna.
And I had to give an interview… I didn't actually answer things, but this kid – this crazy queen that worked for the record company – was saying things like, "Manny has scratch marks on his back from Madonna." And they would ask, "What about Sean Penn?" "Oh, they call him Poison Penn. They laugh at him." "How does Madonna get to Manny's house in Brooklyn?" He says something like, "Well, Manny has a maid named Beulah and she wraps Madonna in a blanket and puts her in the backseat of the car and slips her into the back door." And I thought, "This is so crazy. You realize that it's a joke, right?"
We were so poor we would do all of our interviews based around meals, so that we could get free food.
I wake up the next morning and there's a knock on the door and he shows me the newspaper. On the front cover of The News of the World it says, "Man Parrish Is Sleeping With Madonna." We were so poor in London that we let it go the whole time we there, just to get breakfast, lunch and dinner. We would do all of our interviews based around meals, so that we had free food. They would always ask us if they could drop us back off at the Palace Hotel or wherever. And we'd always just get on the tube and go back to the cheap hotel we were staying in. A place where you had to put money in the heat to turn it on at night. That's how bad it was.
We continued on until I got scared and said to myself, "You know? She could sue me." When my father called me from New York and said the press were calling and they wanted to know if I was Madonna's new boyfriend, I thought it was time to stop. The guy from the record company said, "I've got a better idea! We'll put you in bed with a girl and have a photographer come out on the balcony and 'catch you.'" So we set it up and we're lying in bed and she says, "There's someone on the balcony!" And I turn around and go, "Hey! Get out of here!" And I pointed my finger and they catch me mid-yell and printed it. "Caught! Madonna's Cheating Lover!" [laughs]