By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit August 26, 2008)
At first glance, it’s a matchup of vocalist and venue that’s simply strange — the kind of idea that just seems “too true to be good.”
At center stage, you’ve got the man known as Rock Wilk, a lifelong New Yorker recently (temporarily?) transplanted to the Shore. A veteran of the recording studio and a chronicler of stories. A poet who works in the cadences of the hip-hop tradition, and a character who claims to do his best writing while riding the subways.
Hovering above it all, you’ve got Stephen Crane (1871-1900), the renowned 19th century author whose Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage has been taught in high schools for generations. A war correspondent and prolific journalist who served as an early editor of the Asbury Park (Shore) Press.
It’s at Crane’s house on Fourth Avenue in Asbury Park that Rock Wilk will be standing in the modestly scaled parlor on Thursday night; addressing visitors to the historic Victorian-era home with a program entitled Ma’Plej’, a “work in progress” that’s built upon a foundation of tracks from his self-released CD Broke Wide Open.
A collection of songs inspired by personal travail, current events and other messy aspects of life — yeah, real songs, with the veteran vocal arranger multi-tracking his vocals into the tight harmonies of millennial R&B sounds — the CD was performed and produced in its entirely by Wilk, inside his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment. A look here brings you a telling of the artist’s life story, the making of the album, and a sharing of the view from his window.
There’s more to Ma’Plej’ — the title’s an acronym of Wilk family member names, as well as a representation of the author’s “pledge” to use his musical gifts for the betterment of the world — than a run-through of album cuts. It’s a performance piece that uses spoken word interludes and visual elements as well, to convey “a show that’s socially and politically charged.”
A serious guy whose steely-eyed intensity brings to mind the younger work of actor Vincent D’Onofrio, Wilk has a background that has allowed him to work on records by some of the era’s pre-eminent purveyors of pop — including Nile Rodgers and Patti Labelle, to name a couple. But, as the singer says, “I try not to be the kind of guy who drops names…I’ve always rather been the guy who speaks out against injustice.”
On closer examination, the Wilk-Crane connection starts to make a lot more sense. The impassioned observer giving voice to the souls in transit beneath the streets of the city. The dynamic young reporter whose sympathetic studies of “women of the streets” enhanced his legacy, even as they jeopardized his professional standing. Together these guys are destined to create a wild duet.
Red Bank oRBit slipped away from a family barbecue to talk with Rock Wilk about his ever-evolving work, his strange new surroundings, and the things that remain constant through good times and bad.
RED BANK ORBIT: I guess the obvious question here would be to wonder just how your presentation traveled from Brooklyn to the Stephen Crane House — you can’t take the subway to the Crane House, and a boardwalk pedal-car jitney just doesn’t mean the same thing. Did you get a look at the place?
ROCK WILK: I did, yeah, and I thought it was great. I open Ma’Plej’ at a theater in Manhattan in a couple of months, and I was looking for a unique place to do the piece down here. Somebody from ArtsCAPintroduced me to (Crane House owner/curator) Frank D’Alessandro, who’s a really good guy — I walked in there and said, “I wanna do it here.” I really like the vibe in there.
It’s a room that’s certainly never seen anything like you’re planning to bring there. Not sure what Crane himself would’ve made of it. But it’s also a very intimate space, so aren’t you thinking that you’re gonna need a bigger boat, as they say?
I’ve done this material for five people out in the street, and I’ll do it for a crowded theater. As long as I’m connecting with somebody, its a piece that will work on any level.
So what exactly is Ma’Plej’, compared to the album Broke Wide Open? Does it utilize all the songs from the album?
It’s a combination of music from my album, including remixes of things on the album, along with a lot of spoken word, and some visuals. It’s personal stories; my life story basically. I’m running the whole thing off my computer.
What kind of visuals?
Believe it or not, a lot of photos that I took with my cell phone. Sometimes I just have it as a background; the visuals together with the music gets the point across.
And you did the whole album yourself at home; tracking all the vocals, playing all the instruments.
Anybody can record a great album now on a laptop. You can do better than Earth, Wind and Fire did back in the 80s. But it’s really not so much what you do with the technology, it’s who you are.
You’re not an unknown quantity, though. You’ve worked with a lot of well known people in the business, so do you think that gives the project a higher profile from the start, no matter how small and personal it may be?
I’m a background singer; I’ve been in bands, I worked with some of the best singers in the world — people who probably appear on about half the records that ever get released. But if you don’t have the funding, you just can’t be part of the mainstream.
Like most new artists these days, you’re savvy enough to know that there’s not going to be a record label looking after the promotional details for you; you’ve got to be versed in all of the alternative methods of getting the word out.
I did very well with MySpace. The MySpace site exploded when I put it up after the album came out. I actually got jobs off of MySpace — I did vocal arrangements for someone in Australia!
I’ve been lucky, doing what I can to make a living. And I’m a pop music freak — Justin Timberlake, Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Eminem — but I’m also influenced by Pete Seeger, Gil Scott-Heron, anybody who has something to say.
And you do all of your writing on the subway.
The subway is the place where I feel most creative. I feel private when I’m there. Sometimes I just ride the trains, all day and all night.
You’re a lifelong Brooklynite?
The Bronx, Manhattan, where I lived for twenty years, and Brooklyn — Bed-Sty. But I’ve actually been down here in Asbury Park for the past eight months. I locked myself in an apartment for all this time, just working.
When I came to town, I didn’t know anybody down here. And when I saw what was going on around town, I said damn.
So you like what you see happening in Asbury?
Well, the west side of town is not part of what’s going on — not a lot of people want to talk about it. It reminds me of Williamsburg about 15 years ago. There was no rhyme or reason to it; people just started coming in and forcing the older people out. Living in Bed-Sty, it’s like — people stayed there, weathered the storm for years, and when the money starts coming into the neighborhood, things start opening up, they’re not in a position to take advantage of the new stuff. They can no longer afford to live there.
I went to one of the First Night events in the downtown, and I didn’t see one person of color. And this is a town that’s been majority African-American for years. Then I met a bar owner over on the west side, and he had never heard of the First Night thing. So, I really appreciate what ArtsCAP is doing, but there’s still a lot that needs to be done, to get people working together.
And you’re thinking that music, or the arts in general, can play a big role in that?
Well, we were talking about influences a moment ago, and the thing that had the single biggest influence on me was this one event; after 9/11 I went to Yankee Stadium to see this program with all of these spiritual leaders coming together. All of these different singers, working together. I said, that’s what music is for. And anything I do from now on, should be along those lines.
Which brings us back to Ma’Plej’ and songs like “New Orleans, a Warning.”
I’m the guy who can’t keep his mouth shut. This is perfect for me!