Black Rock: An Oral History
In the 1980s, a brotherhood of bands led by Fishbone and Living Colour refused to let their race dictate the style of music they played. Here's how they splashed onto the scene, how they struggled to stay afloat, and what they're doing now.
By David Browne 10.23.08 5:12 PM
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, 1983–1988): 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.