In 2008, indie-rock bands with black members virtually amount to a genre unto themselves; think TV on the Radio, Black Kids, Bloc Party, the Dirtbombs, Apollo Heights, Earl Greyhound, and Dragons of Zynth, among many others. But that prolificacy was hardly the case 20 years ago, when four African American New York musicians called Living Colour, part of a local movement dubbed the Black Rock Coalition, released their first album, Vivid. Their goal: to assert that a new generation of black musicians could play more than just R&B and hip- hop, and could rock the house as much as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Arthur Lee, and Jimi Hendrix had done before. Now most of the scene’s bands are either footnotes or forgotten. But in light of their heirs, it’s worth looking back on the successes, struggles, and legacy of ’80s black rockers. This is their story, in their own words.
VERNON REID (guitarist, Living Colour): I was born in London and my parents are from the Caribbean, so there were all these crosscurrents. My mom was a fan of the Dave Clark Five and British Invasion music.
CHUCK MOSELY (lead singer, Faith No More, 19831988): I was adopted and mixed. I never really fit into anything. But having Creem magazine and hearing the Ramones when I was 14 completely blew me away. The whole alienation aspect of punk spoke to me — I was already alienated.
ANGELO MOORE (lead singer, Fishbone): I lived in a white neighborhood [in Los Angeles]. In the house we had soul food, black music, and black TV shows like Sanford and Son. Outside of that, I’d go to school with all the white boys and hear Led Zeppelin. “Stairway to Heaven” was one of my favorite songs, and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” too. When my family traveled across country, we’d listen to Billy Joel: “Sing us a song, piano man!” It had energy.
RICK SKATORE (bassist, 24-7 Spyz): Black music had a different presence [in the ’60s and ’70s]. It was rare that you saw a black act on television. But I remember watching A Hard Day’s Night as a child, and there were four guys with instruments and girls were screaming. I was like, “Wow, I can make girls scream if I get one of those?”
JIMI HAZEL (guitarist, 24-7 Spyz): I got branded as “odd” early on. In junior high in 1976, my friend and I were the only black kids in school who had the Kiss logo on our jackets. After Jimi Hendrix’s death, I began tying scarves around my leg and head in his honor, and some kids picked on me.
COREY GLOVER (lead singer, Living Colour): My parents were playing Santana and Return to Forever in our house in Crown Heights [Brooklyn], and as a way to rebel, I turned to the rock station. I found Thin Lizzy, Jeff Beck, and Led Zeppelin. Then I saw [black actor] Carl Anderson in Jesus Christ Superstar. He was singing rock’n’roll. That changed my whole thing.
GREG TATE (author, musician, Black Rock Coalition cofounder): You had this incredible period between ’69 and ’75 of all these black and multi-ethnic rock bands: Earth, Wind & Fire; Funkadelic; War; Mandrill.
HAZEL: In the early ’70s, every R&B band had to have a guitar player with a wah-wah pedal.
SKATORE: I saw Sly and the Family Stone in concert as a kid. [Bass player] Larry Graham came out with a bass that had mirrors on it.
The first stirrings of a new movement begin in the late ’70s with D.C. reggae-hardcore Rastaheads Bad Brains and L.A. boogie rockers the BusBoys. Fledgling musicians begin to take note.
MOORE: The Bad Brains would go from punk rock straight into reggae. I thought, “These white boys are bad. This shit sounds crazy.” And when I found out they were black, I went, “Hell, yeah! If these dudes can do it, I can do it, too!”
MOSELY: The early punk scene [in L.A.] was a lot of rich Jewish kids, a bunch of blacks, and Mexicans. The whole white, middle-class thing didn’t take hold until Orange County.
HAZEL: I remember putting on the BusBoys album [1980’s Minimum Wage Rock & Roll] and thinking, “Thank you.” That said, “It’s okay to do this.”
MOORE: My big punk experience was seeing the Dead Kennedys [who at the time had a black drummer, D.H. Peligro] around 1984. I had my Jheri curl and my pop-lockin’ outfit. I jumped up in the air and the floor opened up and I landed directly on my knee. That was my introduction to punk rock.
REID: I was really trying to conform [in Brooklyn]. It was, “Okay, I’m gonna be a normal musician, do the dance steps.” But rhythm and blues felt very artificial. Kool & the Gang started with “Jungle Boogie” and went to…”Joanna”? When one of the funkiest groups is making a concerted effort to not be — it was weird.
GLOVER: An ex-girlfriend of mine had a birthday party [in 1984], and Vernon was there.
REID: My sister said, “You never do anything! You never go out with me! I’m going to this party and you’re coming!” Life turns on a dime.
GLOVER: I sang “Happy Birthday” to her, and Vernon came up to me and started a conversation: “Yeah, I’m in this band, and I’m a guitar player.” I was saying, “What I really want to do is sing in a rock band.”
TATE: Corey was Vernon’s Robert Plant. If you wanted a voice that went from gospel screaming to R&B whispering to punk freak-outs, Corey could do all of that at the drop of a hat.
MOSELY: A couple of times I filled in [with Faith No More] when they didn’t have a singer. That was the funniest part, because I couldn’t sing. I would try to croon like David Bowie, since he was my favorite singer, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I decided to rap because I couldn’t make heads or tails of their music. So the combination of being a bad singer and a bad rapper forged itself into my style.
HAZEL: The original concept of Spyz was surf music on dust. Drum machines had taken over black music, and everything was “Baby, baby, I love you.” We decided to rebel against it. We rehearsed in our drummer’s house in the South Bronx, on the top floor, and people would say, “What the fuck is going on up there, man? That’s some crazy-ass shit!”
MOORE: When people would first see us, they’d think we were gonna play R&B. The white people would stay, but the black people would end up leaving. When black people hear music that’s past a certain tempo, they have to think too much to dance to it, so they don’t try.
MOSELY: In Boston and a couple of places down South, we’d have skinheads up front. [I heard] “Get off the stage, nigger!” a couple of times.
TATE: Rufus and Funkadelic were rarely played on pop or rock stations. The divide between white and black pop began there. In terms of what rock was in the ’80s and early ’90s, you couldn’t be more rebel than being a black person who had a rock band.
SKATORE: If you played instruments, they’d say, “Are you into Prince?” I would say, “That’s not the kind of stuff I’m feeling.”
REID: I got a lot of “Good luck, buddy.” It’s hard to put into words how incredibly difficult it was. I made the first phone call [about forming the BRC] because I thought, “Am I nuts? Am I facing this alone?” Then we had a meeting and started putting on BRC shows at CBGB.
GLOVER: When I joined Living Colour, I was also in a vocal group that sang in hallways and at parties. I’m on a subway going uptown one day, and I saw one of the guys from the group. And he’s like, “When are you gonna stop singing that rock shit and do some real music?”
MICHAEL CAPLAN (former A&R executive, Epic Records): I went to see Living Colour at CB’s and was blown away. But I was working with the two heads of A&R at the time and thought, “Yeah, I’m gonna bring them a black rock band. Sure.” Black people doing rock was an absurd thought back then.
GLOVER: One person [at a label] thought I sounded too much like Ben Vereen. Or they said the songs didn’t have hooks. But the bottom line was always: “We don’t know how to market this. We don’t know where to put this in a record store. They’ll put you in the R&B section because they’ll see your faces on the cover.”
EARL DOUGLAS (executive director, New York chapter, Black Rock Coalition): When we tried to book bands at black clubs uptown, there was flat-out resistance — this whole perception of us playing white-boy music. The biggest battle was that our audience didn’t drink. I was saying, “Why are they reluctant to bring us back?” And someone said, “You don’t understand — the bar is where the club owners make their money.” I thought, “We need some alcoholics in this organization!”
MOSELY: I was totally aware that I was the lead singer in a white band in a white world. A lot of people thought that was very cool. But a lot of people didn’t. Certain people, not in the band, couldn’t handle that I was supposed to have a say in the decision-making process regarding the band’s future. And when I did, it was kind of not acceptable. When I acted my color, that could be a major issue with some people.[Mosely was fired in 1988 and then went on to replace H.R. in Bad Brains from 1989 to 1992.]
MOORE: The radio stations would go, “We love Fishbone! You black guys are fantastic! Give us $3,000 and we’ll put your song on the radio!” It was frustrating. I remember knocking on WROQ’s door to their studio. The back door. Eventually they let me in, but after a long-ass time of knockin’.
Read the complete oral history in the Nov. 2008 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.
Here, in SPIN.com’s comment section, we encourage you to discuss this article further. Why don’t more African Americans play rock’n’roll? Why didn’t Living Colour, Fishbone, and their contemporaries have staying power? Will we see another black rock surge in rock’n’roll? Sound off here: