“I exploit you. Still you love me. I’ll tell you 1 and 1 makes 3.”
Living Colour – Cult of Personality
The evolution of Rock music, from the days of Chuck Berry and Little Richard to what we know of it today, will always be a point of contention. On the one hand, the genre falling into the hands of the likes of Elvis and the Beatles sparked worldwide popularity during the 50s and 60s. On the other hand, their popularities were either off the backs of Black songwriters or at the expense of other Black acts trying to make names for themselves. Even with, perhaps because of, the advents of Motown, Funk, and Disco, Rock quickly became a white dominated genre. Because of this shift, Black musicians that decided to stay within the confines of Rock often got overlooked in relation to their white peers.
That’s where I come in.
My relationship with Rock music is an always-growing one. Besides what I came across watching MTV and VH1 with my sister as a kid, I wasn’t actively scoping out Rock songs before my teenage years. Granted, Prince; can be, usually is, considered a Rock artist. Not every Black musician was as lucky enough to crossover as well as he did. While researching for this retrospective series, I made it a point to focus on oft forgotten about bands that were as good, if not better, than their white counterparts. This also resulted in me going down a hole of binging Metallica, Anthrax, Aerosmith, and other bands I’ll cover in the coming weeks. Suffice to say, this has been a lot of fun.
Without further ado, here are three Rock bands worth checking out.
Bad Brains were somewhat an elusive band for me growing up. I heard some of their songs through the video games I grew up with but never bothered to do a deep dive into their discography. Do I regret not taking the plunge earlier? A little bit! Punk is quite up my alley in comparison to other subgenres of Rock, and the energy of their songs definitely rival the likes of Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Sex Pistols. Lead signer H.R. is a force of nature. He may not be the easiest to understand but he’s never not having fun singing and shouting into the microphone. Guitarist Dr. Know matches H.R.’s energy with wild solos that can cause any mosh pit to start a riot.
What set Bad Brains apart from other bands was unfortunately what led to the most infighting: their focus on Reggae. The band has an extensive catalogue of Reggae songs among their Punk songs, and the fusion of both genres can be considered a prelude to third wave Ska at the end of the 80s. Musically, they succeeded well in both genres. The problem was that H.R. and drummer Earl Hudson wanted to focus more on Reggae, while Dr. Know and bassist Darryl Jennifer found more solace in Hard Rock. Add in legal issues, money troubles, no shows, and roster changes, the band definitively called it quits in 1995…only to reunite in 1998. Their last recorded album, Into the Future, was released in 2012 but songs like “I Against I” cement their legacy to this day.
Upon deep diving into Fishbone, the more I realize that this band was probably the most screwed over in terms of not being white. When you have bands like Mr. Bungle, Jane’s Addiction, and Red Hot Chili Peppers citing them as an influence on their music, it’s baffling to notice that they didn’t get as much recognition as their peers. If anything, they are proudly your favorite band’s favorite band with their style and originality. That’s definitely worth singing praise over.
A lot of that has to do with their versatility. They started out focused on Ska and Funk in their early years, evolving into Rock as the 90s settled in. Judging from appearances on Saturday Night Live and a music video directed by Spike Lee, the early 90s were their artistic and commercial peak. Unfortunately, that was also when their lack of accolades weren’t enough for record companies to justify keeping them on their labels. It was also when original guitarist Kendall Jones left the band amid a mental breakdown. This caused bassist John Fisher to track him down to out of fears he joined a cult, only to get indicted for attempted kidnapping. To make matters marginally worse, keyboardist Christopher Dowd flew solo and dissed the band in his 1997 solo album as The Seedy Arkhestra. This is the type of backstory and drama worth making at least a documentary about in place of the lack of recognition. Oh wait, there is!
This is the band that makes me believe there’s at least some justice in our world. Three MTV Video Music Awards and two Grammys out of four nominations, Living Colour is bar none the most acclaimed Rock band with an all Black roster. “Cult of Personality” is a song that all of us have grown up with in some way, shape, or form. For me, it was through Guitar Hero III and following pro wrestler CM Punk’s career. Having those gateways into the band has led me to…also take them for granted growing up. That doesn’t take away from the fact that they are the real deal.
Their debut album Vivid is perhaps the most telling sign of their ethos: bright colors, rompers, swinging dreads, racial commentary, and spirited performances from all members. For lack of a better term, it’s a vivid album from a vivid band. While Hip Hop was steadily on the rise, Living Colour had four Black men wearing outlandish clothing and taking back an entire genre of music, putting their funky twist on it. History may deem them as a one hit wonder. History is wrong for that.
Their downfall was thankfully not as dramatic as their fashion choices. Bassist Muzz Skillings left on amicable terms in 1992 before the release of their third album, Stain, and still shows up for occasional one off appearances. Three years later, the band went their separate ways before reforming in 2000. They are still touring to this day, extending their legacy in ways only they can.
Next Week: Black People in White Bands…