Marc Anthony Thompson has never become a household name in large part because his music is emotionally deep, musically complex, and doesn’t fit the public’s (or record labels’) expectation of black songwriters.
by Marshall Bowden
Marc Anthony Thompson has spent most of his recording career as the driving force behind Chocolate Genius Incorporated, a loose musical collective named after an alter ego originally conceived as a joke. Thompson has never become a household name in large part because his music is emotionally deep, musically complex, and doesn’t fit the public’s (or record labels’) expectation of black songwriters. Marc is a confessional songwriter who listens to incredibly diverse music. He’s mentioned being a fan of Radiohead, Taj Mahal, The Staple Singers, Culture Club, The Rolling Stones, Al Green, Roxy Music, and techno. He’s been identified as a neo-soul artist who combines blues, jazz, rock, and soul into a sound that is deliberately downtempo and introspective.
Thompson has been associated with the Black Rock Coalition for much of his career. The BRC was formed in 1985 by guitarist Vernon Reid, journalist Greg Tate, and producer Konda Mason as a reaction to the constrictions placed on Black artists by the music industry, specifically in terms of the division of musical genres into black and white for marketing purposes, and to assert the fact that rock and roll music is a form whose origins are based completely on Black musical styles. The electric guitar was brought to the mainstream by musicians such as Muddy Waters who first plugged in and amped up their urban style of blues. Black musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard not only brought rock music to a white audience, they helped codify the music we’ve come to understand as rock and roll. Then there was that Jimi Hendrix guy, who revolutionized rock guitar both onstage and in the studio.
The BRC arrived at a time when punk rock and New Wave music were reinvigorating rock and roll and rescuing it from the formulaic morass that record labels increasingly saw as the best way to make money off the music. Black bands that included Vernon Reid’s Living Color, the ska/punk antics of Fishbone, and the politically aware punk/reggae of Bad Brains began to appear and make an impact on audiences that were increasingly diverse.
Thompson’s first recording as Chocolate Genius Incorporated was 1998’s Black Music. The title is a further play on expectations that would be placed on an album with that title. Thompson had been working with samplers and beats and decided he didn’t want to go that route. Instead, he wanted to bash out a group of songs with a few other musicians in the room. “I also knew from my experience that usually you bring a record in and they’re gonna try to find market or format for it” he commented. “It’s always this question of how is the Black music department gonna handle this record. And I thought this was a real tongue-in-cheek way to make people question what Black music was in the 90s.” He followed that up with the record GodMusic in 2001, establishing a pattern of disappearing for a few years before putting out a new record.
Thompson’s fellow travelers have included frequent collaborator Marc Ribot, Chris Wood, John Medeski, Mark Batson, Melvin Gibbs, Christ Whitley, Vernon Reid, Jane Scarpentoni, Abe Laboriel Jr., Me’Shell Ndegeocello, and Van Dyke Parks. That’s a diverse and adventurous group of collaborators, along with co-production by Craig Street, Thompson’s friend who has produced records for Cassandra Wilson, Holly Cole, k.d. lang, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Nora Jones. Many of these musicians were working at the edges of bringing together the Black sounds of American music into a new kind of pop music that blurred any hard lines between supposedly black or white music genres.
In 2005 Thompson released my favorite Chocolate Genius record, Black Yankee Rock. The title was meant to get people’s attention, and so was the cover, a Confederate flag rendered in Rastafarian colors of red, green, and gold. Thompson began recording the album the day after the 2004 presidential election. “If that doesn’t make you play and sing like it’s the end of the world, I don’t know what would.”
The opening track, “The Beginning of Always” is a rocker that might open any number of alt-bands’ albums, complete with mind-bending guitar, and honking sax on the chorus. “Maybe this time I’ll get better/I’ll try harder/Yeah?/Whatever” he sings, joking with himself. After that things take a fairly mellow turn, with “Amazona,” a slinky soul number with a knockout pop chorus that manages to incorporate nods to country and space rock, “The Yes Eye,” a gorgeous piano ballad, and “Tomboyrockstar” with its Steely Dan horns and jazz guitar. The whole thing sounds like a great Saturday afternoon or Sunday record, and you’ll swear you’ve heard a number of these songs before even if you haven’t.
“Chasing Strange” is one of Thompson’s songs that seems as though he wrote it while it was happening. That’s how strong his lyric game is–it brings you into his life, standing right at his side, for better or worse. If you’ve listened to Black Music you are well aware of just how deeply his songs can affect you whether he’s writing about a recent hangover or his mother’s dementia. This song, with its music box keyboards and hushed percussion, is like a flash of insight delivered unexpectedly, that voice you hear right before you fall asleep. It was covered beautifully by Lizz Wright on her album Dreaming Wide Awake (2005) with Thompson playing guitar and Craig Street at the mixing board.
“Sometimes I fantasize about how they all were just working on each other’s records,” says soulful, psychedelic songwriter Nick Hakim of this collaborative world of New York musicians in the 2000s. “It’s a network of friends all tied into playing together. There’s all these different elements of his community during a specific time in New York. I’m very intrigued by the world that the song came from, and how many people I admire are connected to that community. Weirdly, that web has extended to my own community even now. It’s still alive. It’s a cycle. It’s not linear at all.”
Though many reviews at the time referred to the Chocolate Genius records at the time as a trilogy, Marc Anthony Thompson wasn’t done yet. He released what was meant to be the final chapter in the CGI saga in 2010, with Swansongs, an album that follows in the mold and moods of the previous records. Following the record’s release, Marc announced that he was retiring and moving on from his musical career, but in 2016 he suddenly released Truth vs. Beauty, a record recorded at home, by himself. The album notes state that “Each song was written and (for better or worse) recorded in one session. There was no mixing. Every note was recorded next to my mattress, bathtub, or bidet. Alone.” That may have sounded dire when it was released, but now it sounds like the albums many have recorded at home during the pandemic.
Because the world is not a fair and just place, Black Yankee Rock disappeared with the standard good reviews but no huge media company to back it up with huge promotional budgets. Which sucks, because the world needs Black Yankee Rock and they need Marc Anthony Thompson. Like many folks, I slept on this when it first came around, but I’m here to tell you that the Chocolate Genius records should be part of your collection.