“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.