Living Colour's Time Is Now

But the Black Rock Coalition's best-known band wouldn't think of resting on its laurels

Living Colour attends the Seventh Annual MTV Video Music Awards at in Universal City, California, on September 6th, 1990. Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty

First, there was the gold record. Vernon Reid had spent nearly six years' slamming his head against a brick wall of indifference, paying exorbitant dues as he fought for his inalienable right to rock. So when he was finally handed a plaque commemorating a half-million sales of Living Colour's first album, Vivid, Reid – the band's headstrong founder and virtuoso guitarist – almost broke down and cried.

"I was thinking about all the things I'd been through to get this," Reid says a little sheepishly, recalling the postshow ceremony at the Palace, in Los Angeles, back in February 1989. "Breaking up with girlfriends, guys in the band leaving – all of that. I was really close to tears."

Then there was the time Casey Kasem nearly sent Reid into hysterics. "I was in a hotel room in Florida, and I heard Casey Kasem come on the radio and talk about us on American Top Forty," Reid says. "That was mind-blowing, especially when you think about where we're coming from."

But Reid insists that as a measure of success – of the true impact and import of Living Colour's hard-fought black-rock crusade and that of the Black Rock Coalition, the black-music-activist group that Reid cofounded in 1985 – nothing beats the imperial seal of approval that he, singer Corey Glover, bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun received last fall from the self-professed "architect of rock & roll" and black-rock daddy of 'em all, Little Richard. The band, then doing opening-act honors on the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour, was about to drive out of the Los Angeles Coliseum after finishing its set when Richard, who was backstage, walked up and introduced himself with characteristic flamboyance: "Hi! I'm one of those glamour boys you been singin' about!"

"That was heavy," Reid says, laughing. "We were surprised that he even knew us."

The next day, Richard invited Living Colour up to his room at the Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard for a chat. For the band, though, it was more like a private audience with the pope. Even now, the band members are reluctant to divulge the specific nature of their conversation. Glover says simply, "We were so awe-struck. We were catatonic."

Richard himself is anything but, especially on the subject of Living Colour. "I was telling them to make sure they sign all the checks," he says, cackling with glee. "And to play from the heart, which they do. And to give your all. If you don't give your all, you don't give nothing, and Living Colour does give their all.

"They play with feeling and conviction," continues Richard, who contributed a dynamite guest rap to the sidesplitting raver "Elvis Is Dead" on Living Colour's new album, Time's Up. "Do you understand me? They are not just saying words to be saying them. I think black people need to support them as well as white people, to realize the contribution that they are making at this time. The same thing that started in the Fifties with me, they are taking it through the Nineties. And God bless their souls. They are keeping it alive."

"You talk about moments," says Reid. "That was the moment. Hendrix played in Little Richard's band. He was the cat who did 'Good Golly Miss Molly,' who turned concerts into riots. Having Little Richard say, 'You guys are doing the right thing' – if I needed validation, that's it. Everything else really don't mean shit."

An early gig?" Vernon Reid toys pensively with his chopsticks in a Japanese restaurant in New York City's East Village and casts his mind back to the bad old days of the mid-Eighties – before gold records and Casey Kasem, when Living Colour was playing the 2:00 a.m. cleanup slot at CBGB and Reid's dream of a black rock band with sociopolitical heart and jazz-funk flair was getting a universal thumbs-down in record-company A&R offices all over town.

"Okay, this is before the current lineup," Reid says. "We were at Seventh Avenue South [a defunct jazz club], and that night was so bad that the night manager came up to me and said, "You guys had so few people here that if I really wanted to make an issue of it, you owe me money. Ha, ha, ha!' The sound of his laughing echoing down the stairs as he walked away – man, that was a really low ebb.

"I had a vision, though," Reid continues. "I believed in the music, and I always believed that if it got the chance to get out there, that people would like it. I didn't put a number on it, though. Because my scale of things was all very small." For example, Reid looked up to the venerable avant-jazz group the Art Ensemble of Chicago. "They were self-contained, and they'd managed to keep that going," he says. "To me, that was success."

What's happened to Reid, 32, and the other members of Living Colour over the past three years isn't just success, it's sweet justice. Originally given a lukewarm welcome by a music industry that widely believed that a black rock & roll band's album was a contradiction in terms, Living Colour's 1988 Epic debut, Vivid, eventually sold 2 million copies worldwide, mostly on the strength of the band's incendiary live shows and heavy MTV video play. The album yielded two Top Forty singles, "Cult of Personality" and "Glamour Boys." "Cult" won a Grammy for best hard-rock performance, and the band also walked away with an armful of statuettes at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, including Best New Artist.

"I always felt, in the beginning, when we first finished Vivid, that it would at least go gold, with the right promotion," Will Calhoun says. "It was the timing, the image and the fact that these four guys were not gonna go back – that these guys were not gonna soften up their shit. There was no sign of compromise in the music."

The band was not prepared, however, for the speed with which its new album, Time's Up, took off. It entered Billboard's album chart at Number Eighty-two and vaulted into the Top Twenty the following week. According to Living Colour comanager Jim Grant, Epic initially shipped 400,000 copies of the album; before the week was out, the reorders were coming in. What's more, rock radio – which was last to get on the bandwagon for Vivid – embraced the leadoff single, "Type," right out of the box. The track went to the Top Ten in AOR airplay.

"It's sometimes hard to tell how much our success has to do with our own work and how much it's the trappings and the business around it," Muzz Skillings, 26, says warily. "Like what if MTV suddenly stopped playing our videos? It probably wouldn't be as drastic as if they stopped playing, say, Mötley Crüe's videos. But it would definitely have an effect. I mean, we can handle that. We'd just start over. But it is a sobering thought."

The challenge now, Reid says, is "making sure that the band still represents what I wanted it to be in the beginning, that it doesn't become something it was never meant to be, a monster that eats people up – I want to keep it real."

So in making Time's Up, Reid says, "the only pressure I felt was that I didn't want us to look over our shoulders and say, 'Oh, God, now we have something to lose – we have to protect our thing.' " In fact, Time's Up is an album wholly about risk and self-determination, from the defiant hardcore whirl of the opening title track to the climactic majesty of Reid's closing hymn, "This Is the Life," a Zeppelin-like tract of stern but hopeful realism. In "Under Cover of Darkness," Glover and guest rapper Queen Latifah address the high price of serious romantic commitment in the age of AIDS; Calhoun's "Pride," which rocks with magnum "Cult"-style force, is a simple, sobering celebration of African American dignity.

Musically, Living Colour's refusal to simply fall back on the funk-metal meal ticket of Vivid illustrates the band members' deep-rooted spiritual resolve. They skid all over the black-rock map, zigzagging from the fusion meltdown in the midsection of "Information Overload" to the bedrock Memphis soul of "Under Cover of Darkness" and the sweet Soweto hop of "Solace of You." There are also a number of striking spoken-word and sound-effects links placed strategically throughout the record, most notably "History Lesson," which features samples from an old black-history record starring actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and James Earl Jones. The band's producer, Ed Stasium, says he was extremely pleased when his teenage son told him that listening to Time's Up "was like reading a book."

"The common thread that holds that record together is that it's not about conformity, it's about individualism," says Glover. "If you find your own individualism and you look for that inner truth, then you have what it takes to move on in this life, to move on in any direction, to get yourself up out of whatever dregs you're in. That's what makes you you, and that's what makes us all interact and move. And become a people that move."

"That's the secret of the blues," Reid adds. "People think the blues is about being miserable. Gospel, too. Actually, it's about changing that into something else, exorcising those things that bother you. And we try to take a broader perspective. Some of the songs take a broad view of what life is, not so much dealing with the specific issue of being black in America. That is definitely a thread that will be in our records. But something like 'This Is the Life' is about a situation that anyone can be in."

Indeed, Reid is surprised, and rather bummed, that some reviewers have mistaken the explicit urgency of the lyrics and the jump-cut musical frenzy of Time's Up for humorless, hard-rock didacticism – high-decibel pulpit pounding for the Sound-Bite Generation. "The purpose is not to bludgeon people – like, I've read criticism of 'Elvis Is Dead,' " Reid says, referring to the album's hilarious punk-funk swipe at the fanatic deification of Presley and the cold exploitation of his legacy. "One critic took issue with the line 'A black man taught him how to sing/And then he was crowned king.' He said, 'Well, what about his hillbilly roots?' Look, Sam Phillips said, 'If I can find a white man to sing like a Negro, I'll make a million dollars.' He was very clear. He wasn't talking about Elvis's hillbilly roots.

"Part of it is who defines things," continues Reid. "It's not enough for the powers that be to love Elvis, for him to be their king of rock & roll. Elvis has to be the king of rock & roll for everybody. And that is something I cannot swallow.

"Part of what we're doing is just dealing with the fabric of our lives, the things we see happening around us," Reid says. "Like that line in Type': 'We are the children of concrete and steel.' This isn't the Sixties or the Seventies. This is the Nineties, and people are not kidding. Innocence is a thing of the past. No one is innocent. No one can afford to waste the time.

"To me, that's a drag. You see kids, ten and nine years old, what they're talking about, the level of what they have to deal with. It's straight up. They've been forced to know what's at stake. So by the time you become an adult, you're a hard case."

Has it made him a hard case?

Reid pauses. "I don't know," he says. "I'm just stubborn. If I get knocked back down, I just get up and go for it again."

Will Calhoun used to get real bugged during interviews. "In the beginning, everyone wanted to hear the story that we were four ghetto boys playing outside on 125th Street at some broken-down store," Calhoun says, "and Mick Jagger came out of the store and saw us one day, bought us all fresh instruments and we became great."

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. "We come from working-class families," Calhoun, 26, says emphatically. "Our parents busted their ass to get us where we are. Everyone went to college on some level." The band certainly owes Jagger a sizable debt of gratitude for his early patronage; he produced the 1987 demos of "Glamour Boys" and "Which Way to America?" that eventually netted the group its Epic deal. (The performances were so hot they were included, in remixed form, on Vivid.) But Living Colour is the singular product of hard knocks, disparate influences, indomitable racial pride and an uncommon commitment that, in Reid's case, goes back more than a decade.

"Not that I'm more committed than they are," Reid says of the other members, "because they made the sacrifice, too. But the idea for Living Colour had been with me ever since I started playing the guitar, for fifteen, sixteen years.

"It was," he notes a little wearily, "a real process."

Born in London of West Indian parents and raised in Brooklyn, Reid was already a well-known and respected player on the New York scene – equally at home in the progressive-jazz and postpunk camps – when, in 1983, he started the group that would eventually become Living Colour. The band, featuring drummer Greg Carter and bassist Alex Mosely, was originally a side project that rehearsed and gigged when Reid wasn't on the road with the Decoding Society, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson's harmolodic jazz-rock group. Personnel shifts were frequent. The band's first lead singer was a woman, D.K. Dyson, now with the highly touted Black Rock Coalition group Eye and I. Acclaimed jazz pianist Geri Allen was another early member.

By 1985, when Reid left the Decoding Society, his new band had a name (inspired by the old NBC-TV announcement "The following program is brought to you in living color," amended with a British spelling) and Reid had a clear idea of what he wanted Living Colour to be: a full-tilt rock band celebrating the continuing vitality and enduring promise of Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday, Bo Diddley, Sly Stone, Ornette Coleman and Bad Brains (to name but a few), with the muscle and volume of Led Zeppelin. Writing "Funny Vibe," the savage cocktail of jackhammer funk and edgy Hendrixian metal that later opened side 2 of Vivid, was a major turning point, Reid says: "It was the first song written in what would be the Living Colour vein, mixing two different kinds of music together."

The words – "No I'm not gonna hurt you/No I'm not gonna harm you/And I try not to hate you/So why you want to give me that/Funny Vibe!" – spelled out with machine-gun eloquence Reid's rage and frustration in communicating his vision to a rigid, unapologetic music industry rife with racial stereotyping and de facto discrimination. In the fall of '85, he channeled that rage and frustration into establishing the Black Rock Coalition, a black-music advocacy collective dedicated to total creative freedom and achieving uninhibited access to the marketplace and media. Now in its fifth year, the BRC boasts a membership of thirty bands and 175 individuals as well as a newly formed Los Angeles chapter and a busy agenda of concert presentations, recording projects and awareness events. Back then, Reid says, "I was tired of freaking out, and when I heard other people freaking out, I said, 'Something has to be done.' "

Ironically, the sense of unity and confidence fostered by the BRC had a crucial effect on Living Colour's personnel and the band's own strength of will. Muzz Skillings, a native of St. Albans, Queens, who had played with hard-rock, jazz and salsa groups, joined the band after meeting Reid at a BRC meeting. Calhoun, a Bronx-born graduate of the Berklee School of Music who toured with Harry Belafonte, played with the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra before he signed on in 1986. And Corey Glover, who was introduced to Reid at a birthday party back in late 1982 (Reid was impressed with Glover's soulful rendition of "Happy Birthday"), could relate all too well to Reid and the BRC's war on prejudice because of his own experiences as an actor.

"The first time I went down to meet an agent, they had me read some copy, and they said, 'Too ethnic,' " says Glover, 25. "And my mother was an English teacher at the time. If I spoke any less than perfect, I'd hear about it. Then, about a year and a half later, I did this radio commercial for some allover body scent. The guy came out of the control room and said, 'It's just not black enough. Could you make it blacker?' What do you want me to do, slap it on? That was the rudest thing I'd ever heard."

Glover – who landed the role of Francis, the smart-aleck soldier in Oliver Stone's Platoon, before he joined Living Colour in late '85 – admits that the current lineup had its share of growing pains, in large part because of Reid's dual duties as bandleader and BRC president and a lingering public perception that Living Colour was just Reid and sidemen. "In New York, people thought of Living Colour as Vernon's band, which in a way it was," Glover says. "And the first video, 'Middle Man,' was too disjointed. It didn't show us as an entity, interacting enough. Long after the first album was out, people still thought of this as totally Vernon's thing."

Which Reid insists it isn't: "Living Colour definitely started out in the beginning as a vehicle for me to express myself. But I really enjoyed what other people would bring into it. 'Middle Man' is Corey's words and my music. And I like the way that happened. And it grew from there."

In late 1987, with their Epic Records deal practically in the bag, the members of Living Colour formalized their relationship with a letter of agreement that, Glover says, "gave us a united front in dealing with the outside world."

"For example," Glover says, "one of the items in the document was that we were a band and that we all had a voice, and a vote, in making decisions. But Vernon would be the executor for the rest of the band, the principal negotiator, because he was the founder."

The band also established its own corporation, W.T.F.F. Inc., which stands for What the Fuck Factor. "It's when things work, but in a strange kind of way," Glover says. "You do it any kind of way to get something going. It's just in keeping with the Malcolm X philosophy: 'By any means necessary.' "

It was the classic black man's nightmare. Corey Glover was walking out of a movie theater in Brooklyn Heights not too long ago when a police car screeched to a halt literally at his feet with its lights blazing and siren screaming. "Two wheels of a police car get up on the sidewalk," Glover says, "and then it's 'Hey, you're Corey Glover, aren't you? You're in that band Living Colour!'

"I'm going, 'Oh, God, don't ever do that again! You scared the shit out of me.' The reality of it is that my first thought was to 'assume the position,' you know? Because I am a black man, the first thing I think of if there are sirens or something is, they're after me. It's scary."

For Living Colour, writing and singing about the American black experience is no more an abstract exercise than it was for Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington or James Brown. Each member of the band has the personal experiences and the emotional scars to prove it. And if you think the success of Vivid has softened the pain, think again. Just last year, the popular hard-rock magazine RIP published a cover photo of the members of Living Colour with their heavy-metal buddies in Anthrax. One disgruntled reader sent a copy of the issue back to the magazine's office – with the four Living Colour faces burned out.

"You know, we're not raising the issues so much as the people are reacting to us, because of their isms and schisms," says Skillings. "And it's funny, because I used to go through life really ignoring it. Literally saying, 'It's their problem if they want to be stupid or small-minded.' But I've been thrown in situations where I've had to deal with it."

Like the bus driver who worked for Living Colour on one of the band's recent tours. "I know he was a closet racist," says Calhoun. "You know, we're all young black guys from New York City, and he had the vibe when we first got on the bus. He didn't always have the wheels polished and cleaned, he didn't always have the bunk open so you could put your bags in. He gave us all the keys and said, 'Put the shit in there, when you're done, lock it.' You know what I mean?

"But after a while, he started to change, man," Calhoun adds with a smile. "At the end, he was like 'I'm gonna miss you guys, and by the way, can you sign a poster for my daughter?' "

There was no happy ending, though, to the public war of words between Axl Rose and Vernon Reid when Guns n' Roses joined Living Colour for four shows last October at the Los Angeles Coliseum on the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour. During a live radio interview on opening day, Reid and Calhoun were asked for their opinion about Rose's invectives against "niggers," "faggots" and "immigrants" in the infamous G n' R Lies song "One in a Million." "We basically said we didn't dig it because the labeling of people is not cool," Reid says. "It reduces people."

That night, Rose responded from the stage. "When I use the word nigger, I don't necessarily mean a black person," he said, according to a report in the Village Voice. "I don't give a crap what color you are as long as you ain't some crack-smoking piece of shit. All you people calling me a racist, shove your head up your fucking ass."

The next evening, during Living Colour's set, Reid stated his case simply but articulately for the Gunners' hometown fans: "Look, if you don't have a problem with gay people, then don't call them 'faggots.' If you don't have a problem with black people, then don't call them 'niggers.' I never met a nigger in my life. Peace." Living Colour then roared into, appropriately enough, "Cult of Personality."

"What scared us the most," Glover says of the incident now, "was that when he [Rose] said these things, the audience roared. No matter what he said, the audience roared. That's what we were trying to say – this is the kind of control you have over people and the things you say affect people. And to say these things uninformed, and to have people take it as gospel, is scary."

"Leading people is a perilous business," Reid says, and no less so for Living Colour. "They talk a lot about rock stars growing up in public. And that's kind of it for us, working out our relationship to America, trying to deal with our lives in America, as confusing as that is.

"And part of that is in our music," continues Reid. "When we get to the bottom of things, there's something universal there. When I say our lives in America, I'm talking about being African American, and beyond that – with respect to people who want the country to live up to its own Constitution, as citizens of the country.

"But the other thing is, it's not just a grim business. We have a great amount of fun. It may seem real dour, but we have a great time with each other on top of it. And that's the main thing. If it wasn't fun, if it was all polemics, it would be . . . phew! You have to laugh. You got to, man."

For example, over dinner a few weeks ago, the band was having a good yuk about the big helium "floozy" balloons that were inflated during "Honky Tonk Women" on the Stones' tour. "Man, Will has a great idea for our show when we go into those big places," Skillings said, cackling.

"Yeah," Calhoun said with an impish grin. "We'll have these big balloons of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on either side of the stage. And at the end of the show, we can have them come together and shake hands!"

This has to be some kind of déjà vu for Vernon Reid. It's a Tuesday night at CBGB, the place is practically a tomb, and a Black Rock Coalition band is up onstage, blasting away with all its heart and might for about a dozen fans, most of them BRC compatriots, including Reid.

It was only three or four years ago that Living Colour was the band up there, defiantly broadcasting its sound and message to a small but hardy congregation of local fans and BRC faithful. Tonight, though, it's a killer biracial trio from Atlanta called No Walls, who were discovered by Reid while he was on the Stones tour. The group's black singer-guitarist, William DuVall, had passed a demo tape to Reid backstage. "I listened to it, and it just sucked me into it," says Reid, who subsequently brought the group into the BRC fold and helped arrange a week's worth of New York shows, including this one.

Reid's enthusiasm is well justified. No Walls' CBGB set is a brilliant collision of sinewy punk attack, angular jazz-fusion maneuvers and catchy art-pop songwriting, like psychedelicized Prince in a Mahavishnu-Minutemen mood. There are hints of Living Colour's metallic moxie in there as well, although DuVall says that he, bassist Henry Schroy and drummer Matthew Cowley have been influenced not so much by Living Colour's sound as by its example. "It felt so good just to see them make it," DuVall says after the show, "to know that someone with a different concept, who went through many of the same things we are going through, could go all the way. That's so important."

"I'm in contact with guys in bands all the time, and the success of the first record did mean a lot," Reid says. "Certainly it meant a lot to black musicians coming up. 'Here's somebody doing something different, and beating the odds.'

"A lot of things have not changed," Reid continues. "And frankly, I'm very disappointed. I would love to have a custom label, a boutique record label. Because so much stuff is being missed. I hate it when I hear things like 'Oh, I don't know about the songs, I don't know about this or that.' Because it's the same stuff they said about Living Colour. They say the same things over and over. And then they'll turn around to me and say, 'Oh, but I knew Living Colour would happen.' It's jive, it's really jive."

It galls him especially because he's seen the future of black rock, and it looks damn good. "When 'Cult of Personality' hit, I found myself talking to twelve-year-olds and eleven-year-olds," Reid says. "They'd picked up on the album from seeing the video. Which was very important to me. It means their conception of rock & roll is going to include something that's not the same old stuff. In a few years, they're going to be talking about the things they first listened to, and it's going to be Living Colour, Tracy Chapman, whatever.

"It's interesting, too, because the song is about that," Reid continues. "That's the weird thing. The song is about fame, the machinery of fame. On one level, it's about leaders, people being led. But it's also about being trapped. Because in a certain sense, those kind of people are trapped."

Reid isn't worried about that, though. "You get trapped," he says, "only if you say things you don't mean. I mean everything I say. You can't be trapped by the truth."

For more information on the Black Rock Coalition, write to Black Rock Coalition, P.O. Box 1054, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.