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Oral History

Time’s Up at 30: Living Colour Reflect on Prophetic Second LP

Portrait of American rock group Living Colour featuring, from left, Vernon Reid (standing), Corey Glover (in tie-dyed shirt), Muzz Skillings, and Will Calhoun, late 1980s or early 1990s. (Photo by Larry Colwell/Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

By 1990, New York City’s Living Colour were one of the hottest new rock bands in America following the success of their debut LP, 1988’s Vivid, and a cherished opening stint on the Rolling StonesSteel Wheels tour. 

“When we got to Time’s Up, we could reach out to all sorts of people and it was kind of wild,” guitarist Vernon Reid says, noting how the band landed most of their cameo wish list for the recording sessions.

“I mean, we got one of our heroes, Mr. Richard Penniman, who just passed away, to appear on ‘Elvis Is Dead.’ Mick Jagger also appears on that song. The other special guest we had on there was Maceo Parker. So we had Little Richard and Maceo Parker on the same track. Then we had Queen Latifah come through for ‘Undercover of Darkness,’ Doug E Fresh for ‘Tag Team Partners.’ It felt like all these little magical moments we were able to bring together. There was a lot of inside baseball going on with this record. It was amazing.”

But as all four original members (Reid, singer Corey Glover, bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun) tell SPIN, their acclaimed second LP was more than a good time in the studio. As Jesse Sendejas Jr. surmised so aptly in his recent story for the Houston Press, the album — which turns 30 today — addresses deeper, more serious concerns: “It was actually released 30 years ago,” he writes, “but its themes speak directly to matters of race, police brutality, the value of science, who controls information, even who is the rightful ‘king’ of rock and roll – all topics that have jammed U.S. news feeds since the beginning of May.”

Listening to Time’s Up three decades later — in the context of a new Civil Rights movement pushing up against a global pandemic and a worsening environmental crisis —  it’s impossible to ignore the prophetic quality of lyrics to keynote cuts like “Pride,” “Someone Like You,” “Type” and the Talking Heads-evoking “Solace Of You.” On the album’s title track, the band pushed the era’s boundaries by raising awareness of the growing concern over climate change. 

“It’s funny because some of the things that happened seemed very quirky at the time,” Reid explains. “Corey came up with the lyrics for ‘Time’s Up,’ and that became the title of the album. It was a little bit of an homage, that song, to our friends in Bad Brains. We all came up together in the CBGB scene in the ‘80s. And at the time we did it, nobody was doing hardcore tunes about the environment. And we just went with it.”

“I was sitting in my apartment and watching the news,” Glover says. “And they were always talking about the ozone layer. It was also the time there was that garbage barge in New York City that couldn’t find a place to stay. So there was always this background noise as to the environment going under, and if we don’t do something [it was] gonna get worse in the next 20 or 30 years. And then I was weird about the places where they were getting rid of the garbage. Based on whatever it was, it was usually on the other side of the railroad tracks, and in neighborhoods that couldn’t do anything about it. It was always in places other people didn’t care about.”

“I remember reading about that,” adds Skillings. “And the fact that governments and corporations were making deals to the detriment of their own population across the U.S. Even though we are American citizens — and proud ones at that — we still felt strongly about the things we thought were wrong. And one of the cool things that Corey did [was writing] those lyrics that delved into things that weren’t being talked about. But he understood that these were things that moved slowly. And like Vernon and Corey said, with ‘Time’s Up’ we were influenced by Bad Brains and really connected to their freneticism and their energy, and we wanted to marry those messages.”

In our nearly two-hour conversation, Living Colour described how their surroundings in 1990 directly informed the direction of Time’s Up — and how the Black Lives Matter movement could use the album and its themes as a guidepost for a more promising future. This is the highlight reel of the chat.

Corey Glover: I remember when I was in junior high school and people were coming in to talk with us about the environment and the need for things to change. So we did paper drives and all this dumb shit that really didn’t mean anything because 30 years later it is still happening.

Vernon Reid: Speaking of which, one of the most powerful things about the song ‘Pride’ that Will Calhoun wrote was when he hits that line, “History’s a lie that they teach you in school.”

Will Calhoun: I went to private schools growing up in the Bronx. Actually, one of my classmates was the late Scott La Rock of Boogie Down Productions. And Scott was very, very intelligent. He was an incredible athlete and an A student. So when we were both in history class, we would talk about things like Egypt and the Black Panthers and things like that. And our teacher — it was a Lutheran school and very conservative — would get pissed and say we needed to stick with the syllabus. But we would always question why we couldn’t talk about the real history of what was going on. Before doing that song when writing Time’s Up, the most challenging thing for me was going to Los Angeles. We had toured a bunch, and I was really trying to stay in New York.

But before I left for L.A., I grabbed some of my old songwriter journals, and I found my high school journal and grabbed it and threw it in the bag with my other stuff. When we got there to L.A., I was running through my old journals, and that line about history came from my time in high school and being in class with Scott La Rock and calling it out because they were not dealing with the real issues that were going on. It was really just a piece of my life and how we’d all go into this classroom to sit down and be lied to, basically. And that happened throughout our entire educational process with history. Our parents were the ones who made sure we had a black history program every February in our school. That was our parents, not the school. 

VR: It’s not so much about the state of education, but it’s also about the state of education in teachers. This is a multi-tiered thing that goes back to the founding of the country. You can’t avoid it. And it goes back to things like the vagrancy laws. Vagrancy and loitering were invented after the abolition of slavery. How did they populate the chain gangs? They did so by using people who were out of work. It was not based on actual crimes, but they invented a law that made it a crime to just be walking around. You had to be gainfully engaged.

The other thing about how this all ties in with white supremacy is the discretion of the law enforcement officer, which means equal protection under the law is a sham. We still have this today — the discretion of the officer. All we’ve been asking for centuries, really, is “same crime, same time.” We’re not asking for special treatment. If we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar, fair enough. But judicial discretion and law enforcement discretion means that you get more time for the same crime because you are deemed such by a jury of your “peers.”

Will Calhoun: Ava DuVernay, in my opinion, did a fabulous series with How They See Us, which dealt with the realities of the Central Park 5. And although they were exonerated, there was no real apology. People broke the law to put those five young men behind bars. Judicial people, police officers and the district attorney — they all broke the law. You didn’t need DNA evidence to know those people lied. I was there when they were arrested, and I was at the Abyssinian Baptist Church when they were released and had a service for them. I sat next to those fathers, and it was deep. And in connection to what Vernon was saying, although these things are still happening, that was really a modern case where, in my opinion, at least an apology could have been made. 

CG: To a large degree, none of this has really changed, even with the five young men who got arrested. Because authorities still think they had to have been guilty of something. If the reverse were true and it happened to be someone of a lighter hue, like that guy Robert Chambers who killed his girlfriend in the park. When was the last time you heard someone talking about Robert Chambers? That shit happened the same year!

<em><noscript><img decoding=Muzz Skillings: I’ve seen some of the videos the kids are doing on TikTok, and you got all nationalities understanding that Black Lives Matter. They understand that it’s not about the color, but it’s about due process and justice and fairness and just common sense. And they seem really powerful. One thing that I would just like to put out there I would hope that this generation of children would benefit from the council of people from my generation and even earlier ones.

Those of us who understood what happened to the hippie movement of peace and love and how that fizzled out and were undermined. There’s cultural changes around it today that effectively neutralized what they did in the 60s. There are agencies in our culture who are watching this, and they are figuring it out. I’m hoping that this movement learns how the other movements were undermined and neutralized, and if they really go for it and understand the power that they have they could really make a change.

CG: This isn’t the first movement made for active change. We went through this in Ferguson. We went through this after the L.A. riots. We went through this in New York when Eleanor Bumpurs got killed by the police. The point I’m trying to make is that you have to keep the fire stoked. The thing about these movements and why they fizzle out is because there’s fatigue about it. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t want to stop doing what it’s doing, what we are rallying against. Police are still doing what they are doing. The only reason why we have this movement right now is because we are in the middle of a global pandemic and we got people stuck in their houses watching this on YouTube, watching this on TikTok, watching this on Twitter.

We have to put something in place for people to keep their eye on this thing. And I — at one point — thought it was music, but it’s not just music. We had songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s that rally people around certain things. That’s all great. There has to be something that solidifies this idea and crystallizes it in the mind of the body politic. Nothing else will register real change. We can’t change these things with a hashtag. We can’t keep these videos going. We can’t keep these songs. You know, “Pride” and “Someone Like You” are classic examples of talking about where we are. 

MS: The first time I encountered police killing people with impunity it just blew my mind. I read a Village Voice article called “Cops Who Kill” — I still have the paper. And it details what went down in Brooklyn, from witnesses and from one of the guys who the cop literally stepped on his head and proclaimed him to be dead. He survived, and was able to give the account about how he just wanted to go in and murder them all. Then I started to see how it was not an isolated incident. I was seeing how it was a pattern. So at the time we made Time’s Up, we weren’t trying to be political. It’s a weird thing. I could be talking about something that happened to me like I couldn’t get a cab. That’s my story, man. Then someone will turn around and ask why we were being so political when I was only telling a story where I couldn’t catch a cab.

We had that forced upon ourselves. We were also coming to terms with discrepancies we were outraged by and we had to express it. That’s what we did: Will, Vernon, Corey and myself. And so with a song like “Someone Like You,” particularly the police verse, I was like, “OK, this is going on, but I don’t want it to be so ham-fisted about it.” Then we tried to put it in human terms: “Police they chased my brother / Policeman license to kill” — I never say he shot him, I wrote, “Oh how I miss my brother / Good shoes are so hard to fill.” That’s what hits the heart, and that’s what I wanted to have happen.

VR: This is part and parcel to why our lives were as such back then. It’s weird, because people would say how we’re this political band. Well, yeah, because politics is a part of life. But we wrote about all kinds of things. Songs like “Undercover of Darkness” and “Love Rears Up Its Ugly Head” were never any less to us. But we also had to have songs like “Someone Like You.” It’s part of our coming of age. We were forced to grow up with these extra things. Girls and cars, we loved all that, too. But when we get pulled over by the cops, we have to worry about the cops’ next move.

CG: We wanted to also talk about where we want to continue in life, and “This Is the Life” did that, right? That song asks us to move forward from where we are now. We wanna know where our tomorrow is and how our tomorrow will advance change. That was our hope in doing Time’s Up. Because we were dealing with the success in the music business and the question of who we are and where we came from. You must not be those kinds of black folks; you must be different. And we had to tell them, through Time’s Up, we’re still black. We were still living in the time of Crown Heights just as the riots were starting there. We were still in the middle of it. We were still getting pulled over and being harassed by the police who then recognized me.

WC: I think also in this capitalistic society, outside of the pandemic which is horrifying enough, people don’t have money. They’re not working. They’re being furloughed or laid off. Even in terms of the music industry. I’ve reached out to my drum company and my cymbal company, and I’m getting emails back mentioning they had to lay off 140 people. They let go some of the designers, the people who design the gear. These are key people. There’s also the reality that people can’t pay the rent. They’re thinking about food. Those of us who have children, schools are going all virtual in many cases, so you got some of this digital stuff that is on the up and up. Even us as musicians, we are teaching online now. And that makes the situation really more, in my terms, severe on top of the pandemic. In terms of systematic change, we gotta push that vehicle over the cliff.

MS: So it’s an opportunity to catch people and pull them into something that could evoke long-lasting change. People who have had their paradigm shifted enough in a visceral way, to go back to the norm may not even be possible. And in terms of the kinds of change we are talking about, that is actually an opportunity because that’s the mindset to change. That entrenched behavior and entrenched expectations about what you are gonna get out of your life that you thought you were gonna get. Now that’s been shattered, and a lot of people are much more sensitive now and open to like, “OK, maybe we can have a larger systemic change that creates equanimity across the board.”