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An Artist’s Portrait: Thirty Minutes with Marcus Carl Franklin

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When you do a Google search for Marcus Carl Franklin, the man you meet is an actor. He’s best known for his role as an incarnation of music legend Bob Dylan in the film I’m Not There and his cover of Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” on guitar and vocals. Visit his Wikipedia page and you learn of his television appearances in Law & Order, the HBO series Lackawanna Blues, a role in the Broadway musical Caroline or Change, and two more film appearances, Be Kind Rewind and The Art Of Getting By. Stop here and you’d never know the gifted singer, songwriter, composer, arranger, rapper, tap dancer, and producer that’s jam-packed into a 19-year-old raised in Harlem.

I had the privilege of talking with Mr. Franklin for a half hour on his transition from an unfulfilling acting career into what’s sure to be a promising career in music. It’d be easy to extol his various achievements by recounting the minutes from our interview, but I feel there’s no better person to paint a portrait of a young artist’s journey than the man himself. So it’s my great pleasure and honor to present you Marcus Carl Franklin, the musician.

So what’s inspiring the transition from the acting to the music side of things?

As you get older it becomes very difficult in the industry for an—and I’m not trying to brag or anything—intelligent, conscious, black man to get jobs that cater to who he is as an individual. I wanted to do more dramatic roles because I was always very interested in being the forefront character, not the white boy’s best friend, a drug addict, or a gang banger. I was never interested in that and my parents weren’t either so as I got older, auditions grew very scarce. I was feeling rejected and depressed, because I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do, and people started to look at me differently in the industry. So I took to writing music and started to make music, because with music I was in control. I could write my stories and tell the stories the way I wanted to tell them. With music I could be who I wanted to be and that really pushed me into it.

Was music always an interest and now you feel you have a forum for doing it seriously?

I started teaching myself to sing and play piano when I was about four or five. I was always doing music, but I started acting around the same time. I was in a couple of musicals, but never took [music] seriously to that level where I thought, “Oh I could do this, I could actually rap.” It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11, when things started to change on the acting side, that I was like, “Let me have my friends listen to [my music].” People were like, “Oh this is good.” I then thought, “Oh alright, let me run with it.”

So you sing and, based on what I’ve heard, you’re killer on the piano. What else do you play?

It’s just keyboard for the most part though I tap dance, and I’m pretty knowledgeable as far as rhythm and placement.

Is there anything else you’re trying to add to your repertoire as you grow as a musician?

I’m trying to learn the drums and I need to find someone who can teach me to play the drums. I used to play a little guitar, but I was doing so many records and moving around so much between acting and music. I had to kind of put it down because I just didn’t have the time. I’m hoping to learn both drums and guitar in the next year and a half.

In your growth as a musician, who are you listening to in terms of writing, arranging, and composing?

I’m rooted in the old school. My parents really put me on to old school music so the people I’m looking at as far as arranging are people like Rick Rubin, people like Quincy Jones. I love Sammy Davis Jr. and I love the arranging style on a lot of his stuff.

Do you take after him for singing too, because not only do you write your own songs and make your own beats, but you’re singing over the tracks as well?

I really love Sammy Davis Jr. He’s my number one. At the time it was popular to have that in-between tenor or baritone, unlike today where now everybody’s kind of a high tenor. But Sammy Davis Jr. just had such a natural talent, vocally, and it was just him. It wasn’t like he was trying to do things that aren’t him. I can do a lot of things and I have a wide range but my voice is deep for my height, so I’ve always kind of clung to vocalists who seemed to say, “I’m about to do all that high stuff,” and you don’t hear it in the song.

Basically you’re saying that you like to stay in your lane in terms of your vocal range. You don’t like to move into that falsetto unless it’s absolutely necessary.

I can do that, but personally, when I listen to a Barry White record and you hear him go into that [sings a line], there’s just so much soul right there and he just said two words!

Who are the rappers that inspire you?

My number one is Nas. Number two would probably be Rakim. As far as who I was listening to before I started to record, I go back to Grandmaster Flash, of course the Furious Five. I love Slick Rick, but I go back. I don’t really listen to too much now, but I’m really rooted in that old school, as I said before you know. [laughs]

Did your parents put you on to both the Barry White, Luther Vandross stuff and the Rakim, Nas stuff, or was some of that exploration on your part?

It’s a bit of both. My parents put me on to the old school stuff. My dad, I remember, when I was seven he bought me the Jackson 5 Anthology. From there he kept giving me stuff from time to time, but then I stumbled upon his jazz record collection and put all of that on my iTunes. Now he doesn’t really listen to much hip-hop, so all the old school hip-hop was really me. I started getting into J Dilla who is the reason I make beats.

Preach that!

[laughs] When I heard J Dilla I was like, “I have to do this! I don’t know what he’s doing, but I have to figure out how to do it!” I think I was about seven or eight and that’s what really made me go back and say, “Well, what happened before J Dilla?” What he’s doing, somebody had to have done it, so I started to really research.

Is it accurate to say that being original is a centerpiece of your philosophy on music?

To an extent, being original is really just people taking from other people who came before them and making it their own. My parents have always instilled in me, in [my] personal life, that being yourself is one of the greatest things you can do for yourself. It always keeps you balanced as far as how people look at you. When people see you, and they see the same consistent identity all the time, they’re comfortable with that identity and take that for who you are. Whether it’s your friends, your girlfriend, whatever the case may be.

As I moved further into music I started seeing that I was different and didn’t exactly fit in but at the same time I was doing things that people were like, “Oh, that’s cool, I’ll listen to that.” So for me, from very early on, I said, “You know what? I have to be me.” When you try to be other people you lose yourself and it turns people off.

Speaking of identities, you’ve been an actor for a while and, like you said before, the persona that people see most often is the way they’ll think about you. Has your previous career caused any problems as you’ve tried to go into music professionally?

I think I’m not judged off of the records per se. I don’t like being treated different or being treated special because of what I’ve done but I feel, a lot of the time, I get special treatment because I’m an actor and people don’t necessarily listen to the record. [Opinions] from people who know me are difficult because they say, “Oh I love this, oh I love that,” and I know it’s not genuine.

When I take meetings I don’t talk about acting, I just go on stage. I don’t give them a quick bio, I just do a record or a cover, and then I get into it. I want people to see me perform and say, “Wow that was really good, AND he’s an actor, AND he did this, I love that movie.” Instead of saying, “Oh I loved that movie, so I’m probably going to love this.” I want to be judged on what you see and what you hear not my resume.

Right now you are not signed is that correct?

Yeah, I’m unsigned.

Who’s your ideal label?

Universal Republic, mainly because of the artists they have on the label and just the vibe that they give off as far as how they put their artists out. They have The Weekend and I’m in love with The Weekend. I love their music and it’s those kinds of artists, they’re real different. It’s also from what people have told me about the label. They’re into new things and different things. I’ve also heard good things about RCA, but I’m not really picky.

Personally, it’s all about the integrity of the music, and being able to keep what’s mine. The way I come to you is the way I want to be when I get in there and start working. I don’t want to get there and you’re trying to change who I am, if this is what people loved before all that. So any label that would really give me leeway there, I’d lean to.

So it’s not really a question of this label or that label, it’s whoever lets you keep the sound that you create, the way you create it?

Yeah. The two I mentioned, just from what I’ve seen and the artists they have, are on my radar. However, if at the end of the day they didn’t pull through it wouldn’t be, “Oh my God, all hopes are lost.” I would just move forward.

Musically, what’s your day like? Do you just wake up and go right into your process?

I listen to a lot of music, so I’ll listen to music while I’m working out and I’ll get an idea, come back, shower, and start working. I’ll pick different styles or topics that I want to touch on and make three or four different beats for each topic or each style. Then I try to pull the different concepts together and decide, “Is this a club banger, a party record, or maybe a slow jam,” and so on.

Once I have the beats together, I take what I call “critical listens” where I listen to the instrumentation, arrangement, and I may change certain things. Then I go back and take a “recreational listen,” where I just enjoy it, being happy that I made it, and then I start writing. Usually I’ll make a couple beats a day for like a week or two, and over the next two to three weeks I’ll start writing. I often sit down, think of words as they come, and just piece melodies together.

So when you’re writing a song, how long does it take for you to get the finished product?

I would say more recently it’s become a bit shorter, so I would say between three to four days of just consistently following my schedule. But it changes for every record. Interestingly enough, I have records now where I’m doing electro pop or house music and those records are harder because there’s fewer words, which sounds weird. It’s like you’re doing a record like “Where Have You Been” by Rihanna. That record is so ridiculously tailored for that party scene, that party environment, the energy of it, the life of it, the story in it, and I would sing less than maybe 200 words. Records like that will take a bit longer but usually it’ll take me maybe a week and a couple of days.

So tell me what you’re working on currently. What’s today’s project look like?

Right now I’m working with this concept called “Evoke,” which in my head is my debut album when, God willing, I get signed to a label. I’m trying to do like a Thriller, where I have 10 solid records that could be singlesall different, really eclectic production, and each record really representing a part of my personal life, a part of my life as an actor, and my experiences.

How far can we expect to see Marcus Franklin go as a musician?

I know this is going to sound crazy, but this is honestly how I feel and you already know I’m not the kind of person to give you any kind of fakeness. Honestly, my ultimate goal is to be the greatest entertainer of my generation.

So you want people to think about you the way we think about say, Michael Jackson now?

Yeah

Lastly, as an actor transitioning into music, what advice would you give to performing artists who are thinking about making a similar change?

The best advice I could possibly give is to know who you are. Knowing who you are is really like three-quarters of the battle, because knowing who you are allows you to step back and be balanced to the situation. You should be objective to the people who are telling you “no.” To your agent telling you, “I don’t think you can do this, etc.” Ask yourself, “Where do I want to be? Am I happy? Am I comfortable? Do I like the way I look? Do I honestly believe in what I’m doing? Do I believe in what I’m saying? Do I believe in the records? Do I believe in my performances?” When you know who you are, you have self-mastery, discipline, and self-understanding. A lot of people aren’t conscious and that is what’s killing our youth. That, I would say, is the most important.

I must thank Mr. Franklin for allowing me to speak with him on his journey thus far. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that after we finished the official interview, he was kind enough to thank me as well. He expressed reservations about not knowing the right people, and that few (if any) had really taken the time to ask him and know him and hear his story. It is truly a great compliment and honor to be able to provide such an outlet. It is a rare and fortunate thing to posses both great skill and determination, a combination sure to lead this young actor-turned-musician to a career fit only for the history books.

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About Alexander J Smith III