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Back in Black

A group of musicians unites to reclaim the right to rock

Vernon Reid

Vernon Reid of Living Colour

Michel Linssen/Redferns

Michael Hill had given up. Ever since he’d seen Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore East in the late Sixties, the Bronx-born guitarist had a rock & roll dream — of plugging the blues into his amplifier and, like Jimi, sending it screaming into the future. Up in the Bronx, though, dreams like that don’t often come true. Last year, Hill, by then in his thirties, was spinning his wheels and wasting his impressive chops on the covers circuit, playing local bars and weddings for a living.

Andre Anthony was no better off. For three years, the young guitarist and songwriter had led his own band, the Deed, confident that the world was hungry for an exerting new group that would fuse the dance-floor thump of funk with the bristling angularity of punk rock, the heady complexity of avant-jazz and the exhilarating slam of heavy metal. He knew it could work. He’d heard the applause and seen the smiling faces at the Deed’s periodic club and college gigs an northern New Jersey. But by late 1985, all Anthony had to show for his faith was a shrinking gig sheet and universal rejection of the Deed’s demo tapes by record companies. The music, they sniffed, wasn’t “black enough.”

Andre Anthony — black. So is Michael Hill. They also have a couple of other things in common. One is that they are members of the Black Rock Coalition, a New York organization devoted to combating racial stereotypes in the music business and creating a forum for undiscovered cutting-edge black talent. The other is that they were both recruited by another young black guitarist who quite literally changed their lives — Vernon Reid.

The Deed had worked only once in nine months when Andre Anthony happened to catch Reid and his group, Living Colour, at New York City’s Village Gate. What he saw and heard blew his mind — a black rock & roll band whipping up a superstew of genuinely atomic funk that was equal parts hard-core punk, sledgehammer mettal and Hendrixian soul, led by a guitarist who shared Anthony’s own fondness for heady soloing and volcanic power chords. Somebody had done it! And he was getting paid for it! “I saw it all,” Anthony says, “and loved it right away. I got Venon’s number, called him up and gave him a tape.” Wowed by Anthony’s tape, Reid begged him not to break up the Deed. Reid also invited him to a meeting of the Black Rock Coalition, of which he is the chairman and founder.

The BRC meeting was, for Anthony, as enlightening as the Village Gate show. Here was a roomful of other frustrated black musicians, rejected because they didn’t conform to the record industry’s established black-music molds — glitzy synthetic funk, gushy love ballads, copycat rap. But what impressed Anthony the most was that the members of the Black Rock Coalition believed that, united, they could do something about it.

“The moral support was quite significant,” Anthony says of Reid’s belief in the Deed and the solidarity he felt at that BRC meeting, “because that allowed me to go back and rehearse again with a purpose, to write a song with a purpose. It allowed me to sing my lyrics with more conviction.” The Deed has since played a number of BRC-promoted shows and received a rave review in The New York Times. And Anthony is shopping his demo tapes around with renewed confidence and pride.

Michael Hill shares his euphoria. He had just scored a gig backing an experimental poet named Sekou Sundiata when he first met Reid, who had also played with Sundiata on occasion. Hill talked about his dream. Reid talked about the BRC and Living Colour, of his dreams coming true. “I finally saw the band at CBGB,” Hill says. “There they were in an original music venue, a black band doing their own stuff entirely. That really motivated me. Seeing Vemon opened me up about what I could really do. I’d talk to him about playing, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, but I want to see you playing your own music!’ “

Today, Hill is doing just that. After seeing Living Colour, he went back to the Bronx and put together the Michael Hill Blues Band with his brother Kevin and four other musician pals. In less than a year, Hill has cooked up a four-star repertoire of hard, meaty originals, and last February he finally played CBGB himself. He is now determined to be the first black artist to make a platinum blues album.

Welcome to the exciting, ambitious, revolutionary, troubled but hopeful world of Vemon Reid and the Black Rock Coalition.

Reid knows all too well what Anthony and Hill have been through. He’s heard the same jive from record companies over and over.

“People telling me, ‘You gotta do something that’s funky, you gotta play funk,’ ” he grumbles over lunch in a Harlem restaurant. “People telling me my music wasn’t black enough. That was weird. Because I am a black person, aren’t I? Where I’m coming from is black. I relate to music that way, as opposed to straightening my hair and going through all that thing. This is me.”

In fact, Reid’s understanding of the word black is quite different from what would appear to be the accepted definition within the American record industry — that is, the absence of color. In their eagerness to strike gold in the white-pop mainstream, major-label A&R squads have narrowed their sights on two particular types of black performers. One is the inoffensive balladeer or sex kitten peddling sweet nothings over vanilla funk and bedroom-bounce arrangements (Luther Van-dross, Gregory Abbott, Whitney Houston). The other is the tough-talking rapper who laces his street braggadocio with crossover doses of white-metal crunch and cartoon flamboyance (Run D.M.C. and their descen-dents). There are notable if isolated exceptions — blues-man Robert Cray, soul thrush Anita Baker, guitarist Jon Butcher, the punk-funk band Fishbone. Other than these, there is almost nothing in between. As Andre Anthony puts it, “You could either be Freddie Jackson or Jam Master Jay. And that feels weird to someone who grew up listening not only to Hendrix and the Ohio Players but Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton.”

Prince, Reid claims, is the exception that actually proves the rule. “He’s played up the quasi-mulatto angle,” says Reid, “which I have a problem with. ‘I’m not black, I’m not white, that’s why everyone can relate to me.’ Why should you have to be that for people to relate to you? If you say something truthful, it’ll connect anyway.

“A lot of people say, ‘What are you complaining about? Talking Heads has all these black members. Sting’s band has a lot of black people in it.’ But essentially, these people are employees. It’s really good that good musicians are getting work. But even though what Sting did was pretty nervy for him, those guys in his band were still in the background. I don’t want to be the guy who is brought in to add some funk to the proceedings, to add some soul to the mix.”

It was that refusal to be just another ghost in the chart machine that led Reid to start the Black Rock Coalition. “At first, I didn’t think of this grouping as an organization,” he says of the BRC, which will be two years old in September. “I was thinking of it as just getting together to compare notes. ‘Hey, we’re all dealing with this stuff. Let’s talk about it.’ “

There was a lot to talk about, as Hill and Anthony can attest. There still is. No one in his right mind can deny that rock & roll is a product of the black experience in America. Its roots are found in the oppressive sorrow and poetic defiance of the blues, in the spiritual release and eternal hope of gospel, in the sexual frenzy and poignant heart plays of rhythm & blues. The great white gods of rock — Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen — were all moved to pick up guitars and seek their fortunes by black sounds they heard on record, on the radio and down on the street corner.

Vernon Reid and Living Colour, together with the twenty other bands and sixty individual performers and nonmusicians that make up the Black Rock Coalition, are only reclaiming what is already theirs. “Rock and roll is black music, and we are its heirs,” states the Black Rock Coalition manifesto, drawn up in the fall of 1985 by Reid and Greg Tate, a prominent critic for the weekly New York newspaper The Village Voice and a founding father of the BRC. “We too claim the right of creative freedom and total access to American and International airwaves, audiences and markets.” Reid and the BRC, in other words, are fighting for nothing less than the right to rock.

That determination fuels every number in the Living Colour repertoire. Not long ago, at a downtown Manhattan club called Tramps, Reid and Living Colour wasted a roomful of rockers with their frenzied fusion of jackhammer punk, AOR hooks and booty-bouncing R&B. One minute, Reid was ripping up a Prince-like gasser called “What’s Your Favorite Color?” with switch-blade chording and orgasmic feedback screams. The next, bassist Muzzy Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun were deftly negotiating the hyperfunk changes of “Desperate People” with soulful aplomb.

The audience, mostly white collegians, probably didn’t appreciate the irony of singing along with Living Colour’s powerhouse vocalist Corey Glover during “Which Way to America?” — an aggressive demand by a young black man for his piece of prosperity pie (“I look at the TV/Your America’s doin’ well/I look out the window/My America’s catchin’ hell/I just wanna know/Which way do I go/To get to your America”). But the standing ovation that followed was proof enough that the audience liked what it heard — and wanted more.

There’s plenty more where that came from. The Black Rock Coalition is loaded with inspired young musicians ready to funk you up, jazz you out and rock & roll all over you. There are, of course, the Michael Hill Blues Band and Andre Anthony and the Deed. But there are also propulsive future funkers: J.J. Jumpers; the Uptown Atomics; the dynamic guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly; the unabashed arena-style rockers Banzai Kik; the progressive-jazz stylists Steve Coleman and Geri Allen; and the maniac surf-metal combo 24/7 Spyz, which Greg Tate jokingly describes as “our Fishbone.”

In the beginning, the problem facing the BRC wasn’t how to put this music in America’s face; rather, it was how to make nonmainstream black acts realize that, in spite of industry prejudices, chiseling club owners and radio indifference, they still had a future in music. If they couldn’t penetrate the white-rock network, hell, they could start their own.

The first order of business at the inaugural meeting of the BRC, held in September 1985, was to lick wounds. “The key word was frustration,” says Greg Tate, who attended that first session. But Tate notes that as the weekly BRC meetings progressed and attendance grew, “the mood of the meeting became more dominated by a sense of community, that we all shared a cultural history. We had all come of age in the Seventies, what we describe as the first black-rock movement — Mandrill, Funkadelic, the Ohio Players. It was a generation that had a lot of the political and cultural ideas but had also been exposed to American pop culture.”

One stumbling block was finding a name for the organization. “We thought of the Black Rock Collective, but we thought it sounded too communist,” Reid says with a laugh. “There was a big argument about whether or not to use the term ‘rock,’ to just use ‘music.’ I said that ‘black music’ was too all encompassing. We needed an image that would make people sit up, to upset them. Some people refused to join because it was called ‘black rock,’ not ‘black music.”‘

Guitarist Ronnie Drayton, a veteran of road and studio work with the Chambers Brothers, Wilson Pickett and Nona Hendryx, was one artist who declined, although for a much different reason. He treasured his independence. “When I was younger,” he says, “I was in the Black Panther party. I’ve already evolved through that. I felt I could say more and do more as a black rock & roll guitar player working all sides of the marketplace.”

Nevertheless, Drayton is one of a number of sympathetic outsiders who have not officially joined the coalition but have participated in BRC-sponsored concerts and seminars. Vernon and Greg, Drayton says, are “the spokesmen. But if I can come to a gig and play a few high harmonics that might pull a few more people in, that’s okay for me.”

The BRC’s most successful public events so far have been the concerts presented at Manhattan clubs over the past eighteen months. The second coalition show, held in February 1986, marked the world debut of the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, a twenty-eight-piece group playing black rock hits like Edwin Starr’s “War,” the J.B.’s “Doing It to Death,” Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” and War’s “The World Is a Ghetto.” The BRC also produced a musical tribute to Otis Blackwell as well as an all-blues evening that featured highly original readings of classics from the Robert Johnson, Skip James and Willie Dixon songbooks.

To date, precious little of this music has been available on records, major label or otherwise. But that is the next item on the coalition’s agenda. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, an early supporter of Living Colour and the coalition, has expressed a keen interest in releasing a BRC compilation album on his own label. And the BRC is holding its breath on behalf of Vernon Reid’s Living Colour. Thanks to rave word-of-mouth reviews on the New York club circuit and the unexpected patronage of Mick Jagger — who was so knocked out by a Reid gig at CBGB that he paid for and produced two demos for the band — Living Colour became the subject of intense record-company negotiations this summer. As this story went to press, Vernon Reid’s Living Colour was about to ink with Epic Records, becoming the first coalition band to get a major-label deal.

The hopes, wishes and fears of the BRC go with them.

To some people in New York music circles, Vernon Reid isn’t just a prominent member of the Black Rock Coalition — he is its very heart and soul. This judgment is true to some extent. Without question, Living Colour is the BRC’s flagship band, the symbol not only of what the coalition stands for but of what its members hope to achieve in their careers. And Reid is me BRC’s most persuasive salesman. When other musicians approach Ronnie Drayton for information on the coalition, he sends them straight to Reid. “‘Cause if he can’t sell you, nobody can,” says Drayton. “He’s a great salesman. I think he’s got some kind of used-car dealership somewhere.”

As both a musician and a music fan, Reid is a direct product of the blackmusic heritage that the Black Rock Coalition is striving to preserve. His musical upbringing is basically the history of black rock in microcosm. And in black rock, all roads eventually lead to Jimi Hendrix. Almost two decades after Hendrix’s death, the legacy of rock’s first superstar black guitarist still towers over Reid and his generation.

In his lifetime, Hendrix was actually a victim of reverse discrimination. Black audiences thought his records sounded too white, too shrill and too far-out compared with the earthy Stax-Volt groove and Motown vocal polish then in vogue. His drug-related demise and tangled financial affairs were ugly reminders of how white pop masters continued to pimp black talent. To many blacks at the time, Andre Anthony points out, “Hendrix was just a drug addict.”

But the acceptance by his own people that eluded him in life came swiftly after his death. Hendrix’s reinvention of the electric guitar over a big rock beat, his dramatic lyric expansion of old blues themes and charismatic stage presence opened new vistas of musical and theatrical possibility for black pop acts. In his wake came the outrageous acid funk of George Clinton and his two-prong rhythm army Parliament-Funkadelic; the gritty street soul of War; the saucy party music of the Ohio Players; and the psychedelicized power funk of the revitalized and expanded Isley Brothers, whose 1973 smash “That Lady” featured a serpentine fuzz-guitar lead by Ernie Isley — right out of the Hendrix manual.

By playing with white musicians, Jimi Hendrix also set a dramatic example of how integrated rock & roll could be. So did Sly Stone and his interracial Family Stone. The combined strengths of black R&B muscle and white-rock experimentation had a lasting impact on the young black generation that would eventually come to form the Black Rock Coalition. “Rock is not a foreign thing for me and a lot of black musicians in my generation,” says Reid. “It’s what we grew up with. I grew up thinking and feeling music that way.”

Born in London, in 1958, of West Indian parents, Reid was raised in Brooklyn with the sound of music all around him — Sarah Vaughan and Xavier Cugat records, seminal calypso sides by the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, hits by Elvis Presley and the Dave Clark Five. “My mother has every James Brown single,” Reid says proudly, “all of them!”

Hendrix, of course, melted Reid’s mind. “He’d do a thing with the feedback that sounded like voices crying,” says Reid, “and then he’d hit the springs on the back of the guitar so it sounded like a big clock. That got to me.” But Reid learned to make his own guitar talk that way only after long, diligent study. Bowled over by Led Zeppelin, he backtracked to the blues, joined a hardcore soul band when he was seventeen (“To get my funk thing together”) and then took a sharp left into serious jazz, absorbing technique as well as musical ideas from horn players like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. Reid’s growing command of jazz forms and his ability to jam in almost any genre led in 1979 to his first major pro gig, with Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society; he eventually recorded six critically acclaimed albums with them. In 1985, he formed Living Colour.

Vernon Reid realizes that as the founder and leader of the Black Rock Coalition as well as its most publicly outspoken member, he jeopardized Living Colour’s future from time to time, putting music-industry people on their guard at the same time he was pursuing a record deal and trying to get gigs. But he insists there is a big difference between demanding equal opportunity and calling some A&R guy a racist motherfucker. “What people have to realize about me is that I’m not out to bait them,” says Reid. “I’m looking for an honest shot. I’m not trying to bust people’s balls. But this is about my life. And it’s not just about my life. It’s about the lives of a lot of black people, people that those radio guys don’t know about.

“On a certain level, I want to reassure people that I ain’t no Mau Mau. But I ain’t gonna punk out. I’m not gonna smile and grin in people’s faces. Because that’s what we’ve been doing all along. We’ve been nice and friendly, and people then feel there’s no problem — ‘We can go on doing what we’ve always done. The formulas are set, everything is cool.’

“Everything is not cool.”

The members of the Black Rock Coalition are aware of just how much work they have ahead of them. While Vernon Reid’s Living Colour is poised on the brink of national recognition, the Black Rock Coalition is still primarily a New York phenomenon. It is imperative that the BRC start casting a wider net.

It won’t be easy. BRC supporter Bill Stephney, who is a vice-president as well as the director of promotion at Def Jam Records, points out that rap and hip-hop music had strong support from urban blacks and that this ultimately forced record companies and program directors to take notice. But, he says, “when Living Colour and J.J. Jumpers play the clubs, all they see are white people. When they send their stuff around to record companies and the tapes go to the black and white A&R departments, at least the white A&R guys can understand where they’re coming from. The black guys say, ‘Get this shit outta here.”‘ ‘This is a creative crisis,’ says Reid, ‘not in terms of being creative, but in being heard.’

Stephney notes that Run-D.M.C. manager Russell Simmons originally shopped his rap superstars to black A&R men. “But they were ultimately signed by a white man with his own independent label,” he says. “The BRC as well is going to have that sort of bias. It’s cutting-edge music. And at this point, especially for black people in America, black cutting-edge music is not their particular choice. They want the Quiet Storm sound, complacent music for complacent times.”

Nevertheless, the Black Rock Coalition has struck a major nerve west of the Hudson River. After reading about the coalition in Billboard magazine, ex-Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson — frustrated in his own attempts to start a solo rock career — became a card-carrying member. During an on-air interview on a New York radio station to promote the BRC, Vernon Reid got a phone call from black singer Deniece Williams, who’d been listening to the show. “She said, ‘You know, I really believe in what you’re doing,”‘ says Reid. The organization has also been receiving letters from young black musicians asking how they can start a BRC in their own town. The impetus to start an organization like the Black Rock Coalition may have been greatest in New York, the capital of the U.S. record industry, but the resentment and indignation of black musicians is universal.

“This is a creative crisis,” Reid says, “not in terms of people being creative, but in being heard. Who knows what we could have if we let these people be heard? We don’t know what kind of future we’re cheating ourselves out of.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Living Colour


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