At Takoma Station Tavern on May 24, Michael Thompson stepped up to the mic to introduce his go-go band. “We’re Lissen in HD,” he said, uttering the name several times before the 11-person band launched into “So Good,” a single from its upcoming album.
There’s a reason for the repetition. Thompson loves the name—which he sometimes spells “L!ssen”—so much so that he’s been fighting three years for the right to keep it. In 2004, former bandmates Frank “Scooby” Marshall, Jasen “O” Holland, and Andre “Tuffy” Jackson tried to trademark the name. In 2005, Thompson filed papers with the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board opposing their efforts. Both parties are still waiting for the board to hand down a decision.
In the meantime, Thompson’s mixing it up by adding the exclamation point and, when he feels like it, “in HD” to describe “a more pure, in-your-face sound,” he says. Marshall, Holland, and Jackson add their own punctuation: They now go by “Lissen Da Grew^p,” which they say connotes maturity and emphasizes their vocals. “It’s more a play on words. It’s more [we] grew up,” Holland says. In April, Da Grew^p released an album, Da Music, Da Story, while L!ssen plans to release CanYouHearUsNow? in July or August.
The Lissen name dates back to the mid-’90s, when all four men attended Eastern High School on East Capitol Street NE. Initially a six-piece vocal group modeled after Boyz II Men, they practiced in Marshall’s mother’s basement and played high school talent shows, recreation centers, and hospitals. One member left the group, Marshall says, and another died in a car accident.
It took a while to settle on Lissen. At first they called themselves Smooth and Subtle, but the mellow moniker didn’t capture the image they wanted to project, Marshall says. They liked Listen, he says, and his brother suggested they tweak the spelling for trademark purposes.
Thompson, however, claims he came up with the name. “I was like, ‘Lissen!’ They were like, ‘Lissen to what?’ I guess they warmed up to it,” he says.
Either way, the rechristened, four-member group released an album, Turning Point, in 1999 and began appearing at local venues, playing a mix of originals and covers. They acquired a band, modeling themselves on Earth Wind & Fire, Thompson says. “At that point, we kind of got hot,” Marshall says. “We started getting more shows, more people. Six, seven, eight, nine hundred people. It grew to the point when we’re getting 1,000 people.”
But somewhere along the way, Marshall says, Lissen’s mission to create original music got lost. “One cover turned into two covers, turned into three covers, turned into four,” he says. “There are two people in the world: those that document history, and those who make history.…We were repeating history.”
Thompson disagrees. It’s true that Lissen played covers, he says, but that’s what most go-go bands do. “The landscape in Washington, D.C., where music is concerned, you have to slide the originals in.…The crowd in D.C. who frequents the shows have been conditioned to like the covers.…You have to feed the beast.…That’s just the lay of the land.”
There were other problems. Marshall, Holland, and Jackson wanted to travel more, Marshall says, while Thompson and the band preferred to focus on D.C. Holland says the band became “complacent.” Thompson says “we wanted to keep our fan base in D.C.”
They also had different perspectives on who constituted Lissen. Marshall, Holland, and Jackson believed the name was limited to the original vocalists, Marshall says, while, according to Thompson, Lissen is “the entire 13-piece, 14-piece band.”
Things got more complicated in 2002, when the four singers were offered a record deal. “It was too good to be true,” Holland says. They were supposed to get $3 million each, he remembers. Then, Marshall says, the investor, ostensibly an African financier, pulled out. The deal’s demise only inflamed tensions already brewing in the band, Marshall says.
By 2004, Marshall, Holland, and Jackson were barely speaking to the other band members, Marshall says, and the three began the process of trademarking Lissen. Thompson’s lawyer, Todd Pilot, served Marshall, Holland, and Jackson with a cease-and-desist letter warning them against use of the name and filed papers with the United States Patent and Trademark Office opposing their claim to Lissen.
In December 2004, Thompson says he and his fellow band members fired Marshall, Holland, and Jackson. “It was hurtful,” Marshall says. It was “disrespect,” says Holland, “to get fired by your own company.” So, Marshall says, “we took it upon ourselves to start our own group.”
Now, he says, “we just want the name to stay with the group.” Adds Holland: “You can’t just be one of the four, leave, and take the name with you.” Both sides say they’re waiting for the courts to decide the matter. “I hope I get my name,” Thompson says. “Hopefully, they won’t be able to use what’s not theirs.”
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board suspended the alcohol license for Turntable Restaurant at 5802 Georgia Ave. NW on May 25, following a May 12 fatal stabbing.
The suspension came just two days before another club-related death: The Washington Post reported that on May 27, an H2O Restaurant & Lounge patron was shot outside of the Southwest waterfront establishment.
According to the board’s suspension letter, the May 12 attack at Turntable occurred at approximately 3:30 a.m. After the attack, the letter says, the victim drove himself to Washington Hospital Center, where he died. Furthermore, the letter states, the establishment was overcrowded that night. Between 80 and 85 people were in attendance, the letter says, even though the restaurant’s license allows only 72. Turntable’s license also indicates that it should have been closed at 3 a.m., the suspension says.
Morris E. Cunningham, Turntable’s owner, says he was there when the fatal stabbing occurred but did not witness it, and he says he disagrees with the alcohol administration’s characterization of the scene that night. According to Cunningham, Turntable was actually under capacity on May 12. “My estimate was 65 people,” he says. He also notes that although the establishment might have been open past closing time, the bar was definitely closed. “My last call is 2:30. I close at 3. I interpret it [as] once my bar is closed, and I clear all the liquor, we can continue to party.” He says the victim was stabbed closer to 2:45 a.m. and that he was driven to the hospital by a friend.
Cunningham compares Turntable to a barbershop. “This is a place where people meet and discuss politics.” He calls the fatal stabbing “my first serious incident” in the 11 years he has owned the restaurant/bar.
But a May 17 letter from Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier to the alcohol administration contradicts Cunningham’s claims. “Since January 1, 2005, the Metropolitan Police Department has been dispatched to this location on at least fifteen (15) separate occasions,” she writes. The chief’s letter details a total of eight incidents in which patrons either threatened or engaged in violence in Turntable’s vicinity.
Cunningham counters that he is being punished for being a responsible business owner and contacting police when incidents occur. “If I’m prosecuted for doing the right thing, I don’t understand,” he says. He says he was caught off-guard by the suspension and has asked the board for a hearing. “An unfortunate incident happened May 12, but it was out of my control,” he says. “I’m not the guy who fights the authorities, but I’m going to do what’s right for me.”
An alcohol board hearing to determine whether the establishment’s license should be revoked has been scheduled for June 13.
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