Living Colour’s Time Is Now
“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.”
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