Black People Rock II: Black People In White Bands

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“An army of pigs try to silence my style. Off ‘em all out that box, it’s my radio dial!”

Rage Against the Machine – Guerilla Radio

Last week we covered Black Rock Bands who were able to succeed in the genre despite the paradigm shift towards white acts. While these bands were not as acclaimed and revered as their white counterparts, they proved to give the massive genre some influence during their times together. As previously mentioned, Black musicians were usually overlooked in relation to their white peers; however, I proved that isn’t always the worst thing in the world.

How about looking at Black musicians who played alongside their white peers?

Growing up as a Black person in a white dominated society has always felt like a chore. On the other hand, I do appreciate a good chunk of my white peers for letting me be myself on a regular basis. The following bands contributed to a level of diversity that still attempts to transcend race, but ultimately succeeds in proving how much Rock music has touched the lives of so many different people around the world. The addition of the bands’ Black members only inspire more Black musicians to further follow their own aspirations.

No Doubt – John Spence

John Spence was probably the catalyst for this entire series, simply because he is quite possibly the biggest “what if” in contemporary music history. No Doubt is a 90s staple; we’ve all listened to Tragic Kingdom and its songs somehow someway (and if not, you might want to eventually). The real story here is about the lead singer before Gwen Stefani stepped into the spotlight…due to the tragic lack of a real story. Days before an industry gig at The Roxy Theater in December 1987, John Spence died from suicide at 18. Taking inspiration from HK of Bad Brains, he performed with so much tenacity and frenetic energy. On early demos, he sounded in full sync with Gwen, making me wonder how well they could’ve performed together if he was still around.

Faith No More ­– Chuck Mosley

Faith No More carved a niche for themselves in the early 90s by being adopters of a homogenized fusion of Rap, Metal, Punk, and Funk. That’s not even a slight against the band either; their songs hit the right buttons for me and their success gave way to three Grammy nominations. It’s just a shame that the lead singer that helped them reach a higher plane of popularity was ousted right before they made it big.

Chuck Mosley joined the band in 1983 and was the lead singer for the first two albums: We Care a Lot and Introduce Yourself. He had a brash, snarky attitude that was unmatched by their contemporaries. Ask the man himself, and he would even argue that he was the originator of Rap Rock. Unfortunately, that attitude carried on away from the microphone. According to his former band mates, he was erratic, violent, indolent, and off the mark with what the rest of the band wanted to do. After a European tour, bassist Billy Gould nearly quit the band after several confrontations with Mosley and associates. The rest of the band took Gould’s side, effectively excommunicating Mosley.

Faith No More would later commission Mike Patton as their new lead singer, leading to greater popularity, but not without having to settle profits with Mosley first. As his personal rights and assets to the band were given up, he was left to his own devices, including a stint as lead singer of Bad Brains. Following attempts at a solo career and sporadic reunions with Faith No More, Mosley passed away in November 2017 from a heroin overdose. Following his death, Faith No More had this to say:

He was a reckless and caterwauling force of energy who delivered with conviction and helped set us on a track of uniqueness and originality that would not have developed the way it had had he not been a part…We were a family, an odd and dysfunctional family, and we’ll be forever grateful for the time we shared with Chuck.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Jimi Hendrix

One of the most legendary musicians of all time flanked by a white bassist and a white drummer; that’s pretty much self-explanatory. If anything, I just wanted a reason to post Voodoo Child (Slight Return).

Let’s carry on.

Guns N’ Roses – Slash

Guns N’ Roses are the purveyors of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll” more than any band before and after them. While they may draw the ire of parents everywhere with their hedonistic lyrics, they are one of the best selling Rock bands of all time. Part of that has to do with Axl Rose and his scruff, shrill voice, but the other part has to do with Slash being one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

His Blackness was never a major talking point during the band’s heyday because… “sex, drugs, and rock & roll” were usually on their mind. Later on though, he found the humor in his mixed heritage, “so many American musicians seem to aspire to be British while so many British musicians, in the ‘Sixties in particular, went to such great pains to be black.”

Though I should also mention how “One In a Million” is a 6-minute lyrical tirade on people who don’t look like or live the same heterosexual lifestyle as Axl Rose. Slash tried to nix its release but Axl just had to have his way. Surprisingly, that didn’t even contribute to Slash leaving the band in the mid 90s, it was just the overall specter of Axl Rose that made him leave! He rejoined the band in 2016, but not before carving a successful side hustle as a session guitarist for the likes of Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, Carole King, Blackstreet, and Rihanna.

Alabama Shakes – Brittany Howard

This is the most contemporary band I’m planning to cover in this series, and coincidentally the least controversial. The quartet hails from Alabama and they’ve released two great albums after forming in 2009. Simple as that!

They’re also the most wide-ranging band in a way since they don’t limit themselves to just contemporary styles. They pull more from the roots of Rock à la Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Otis Redding to pair with their modern influences of Led Zeppelin, Prince, and David Bowie (and even current influences like Beyoncé and Childish Gambino). Brittany Howard’s heritage as a queer black woman fuels her songwriting and adds dimension to the band’s quality. That’s all there really is to it; Alabama Shakes speak for themselves without any outside influences dictating their narrative. They’re currently on hiatus at the moment due to Brittany Howard’s solo work, which we may touch on next week.

Rage Against the Machine – Tom Morello

If Guns N’ Roses are the purveyors of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” Rage Against the Machine are the rebels with a cause. The most directly influenced by Hip Hop, the band combined groovy drums, addicting bass lines, spirited lyrics, and outstanding guitar work that served as call to arms for anyone dismayed by the corrupt ways of the world.

While fans mostly cite vocalist Zach De La Rocha as the glue that held the band together, I cannot stress enough how seminal Tom Morello is as the guitarist. With his legendary guitar solos, he set a standard with his use of gear and addicting riffs. He made his guitars sound like turntables, harmonicas, or even monsters during his solos. Those musical feats were only rivaled by his upbringing as a rebelling academic. His mother was a schoolteacher whereas his father was the first UN ambassador for Kenya. He described himself as “the only anarchist in a conservative high school,” campaigning for false anarchist candidates at mock elections and writing for an alternative newspaper. He would later on graduate with a BA in social studies from Harvard and even try his hand working in politics under Senator Alan Cranston. A few misadventures in Los Angeles later and he was united with his band mates for a decade full of compelling music with three great albums.

Rage Against the Machine were a tight unit for their initial run. Even after breaking up in 2000, they still remained good friends through activities outside of music, such as surfing and protesting. As much as I would like to expand on them even further, perhaps it’s best to go into more detail about them at another time…

Next Week: Free Agents of Rock