November 3rd, 2006

“Rock and roll, like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music and we are its heirs. We, too, claim the right of creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations, irrespective of genre.”

–Black Rock Coalition Manifesto

Who says a rock band can’t play funky?

Who says a funk band can’t play rock?

–George Clinton/Funkadelic

It is a sad irony that African Americans, inventors of rock and roll, are so often perceived as having no place in rock. Though their creativity is unbounded, black rockers find themselves boxed in by prejudice and generic boundaries set up by media industries they don’t control. To make matters worse, most African American radio programmers and magazine writers buy into this musical apartheid as much as their white counterparts.

“Strangely enough, things were better in the ’70s,” wrote music journalist Greg Tate in a 1995 issue of Vibe. “So-called rock radio was broad enough to include Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, and Santana… And on the black stations, it wasn’t unusual to hear Funkadelic and the O’Jays back-to-back with Hall and Oates, David Bowie (“Fame,” anyone?), or even Elton John.”

Tate wrote those words in an article noting the tenth anniversary of the group he co-founded with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid “and a horde of artistic radicals.” The Black Rock Coalition is “a united front” of musician and supporters with a mission of “creating an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music.” The BRC marked its twentieth anniversary last year and has continued the celebration throughout 2006, recently releasing Rock ‘N’ Roll Reparations: Vol. 1, a CD compilation of 21 songs by 21 different artists. The group continues to move forward as a support group for non-mainstream, African American rock bands and has its own New York radio show, archived online.

BRC members such as Burnt Sugar and Vernon Reid continue to put out innovative material (see this month’s reviews), while newer groups such as TV on the Radio are taking the same independent spirit in new directions. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some examples from the rich diversity of alternative African American rock musicians. I’ve included a crucial track from each group mentioned, so open up the online music store of your choice and start sampling. This list isn’t anywhere close to comprehensive— rather, think of it as random highlights from beyond the mainstream:

Eddie Hazel and Michael Hampton, Funkadelic

We begin with a band that we might call godfathers and godmothers to black alternative rock. The funk-rock syncretism of Funkadelic has been subsequently emulated by countless bands, black and white alike. Funk/alternative/nu metal bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Limp Bizkit and Korn have roots in the fearless experimentation of George Clinton and his crew. Clinton has worked with a lot of musicians who rock, but I’ll mention only two, guitarists Eddie Hazel and Michael Hampton.

Crucial track: “Maggot Brain”

If you have not been initiated into the mysteries of “Maggot Brain” you cannot claim to know rock. The title track from Funkadelic’s 1971 album is a one-take, ten-minute psychedelic guitar solo in which Hazel rides the blues deep into the cosmos. Online guitar nerds have named this the fifth-greatest guitar solo of all time—that sounds a little low to me. Michael Hampton’s live 1978 version is every bit as amazing and is included on most CD versions of One Nation Under a Groove.

Bad Brains

Four jazz fusion players who changed styles and took their new name from a Ramones song, the Bad Brains were Washington D.C.-area Rastafarians who helped lead American punk into its “hardcore” era. Considered by some to be the very first hardcore punk band, they were nonetheless more eclectic than that label might suggest. Capable of playing at breakneck speeds, they would also slow things down into a spongy reggae groove. Dr. Know’s angular guitar work inspired Vernon Reid and singer H.R.’s onstage physicality influenced countless punk and alternative bands, but the Bad Brains have never reaped commercial success commensurate with their influence.

Crucial Track: “Sacred Love”

1986’s I Against I is thought by many to be the Bad Brains’ best album. “Sacred Love” is one of their less punk-sounding tunes, but H.R.’s vocals are recorded over a phone line from jail—can it get more punk than that?

Fishbone

L.A.’s Fishbone combined punk energy, funk grooves and Jamaican ska rhythms, putting on unbelievably kinetic live shows and earning them success on the road that far outstripped their record sales.  I haven’t seen them recently, but back in the late 80’s, if there was anything in a venue that could be climbed on and jumped off of, lead singer and saxophonist Angelo Moore would find it. Fishbone has tight horns, a goofy sense of humor and a talent for writing great pop hooks.

Crucial Track: “Party at Ground Zero” 

This is off of Fishbone’s first EP (1985). The ska sound is strong on this one, while the lyrical theme is reminiscent of Prince’s “1999.” A great party track.

Living Colour

In 1987, I went to a benefit show at the Ritz in New York and saw an unsigned band called Living Colour blow the better-know bands off the stage. The next year, their first album Vivid went to number six on the Billboard album charts. Like the Bad Brains, Living Colour channeled jazz-honed skills into heavy guitar music. Vernon Reid could shred at least as well as any metal guy and Corey Glover’s operatic voice put most rock singers to shame. Yet these technical abilities would have been meaningless without the band’s songwriting, which managed to be challenging and catchy at once.

Crucial Track: “Cult of Personality”

This song, which went to number nine on the Billboard rock chart and won a Grammy for “Best Hard Rock Song,” probably did more than anything else to open American minds to the idea of black rock.

TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio is a mostly-African American group that has taken the independent (“indie”) rock scene by storm in recent years. As with all the bands mentioned above, they mix genres and influences at will—post-punk guitar, doo wop vocals, electronic rhythms and avant garde horns all find a place in the music of TVOTR. In 2004, their first full-length album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, won the Shortlist Prize, an indie award given by a panel of musicians, producers and journalists. Their 2006 album, Return to Cookie Mountain, has been a critical success.

Crucial Track: “Staring at the Sun”

This cut from Desperate Youth shows off the soulful, angst-filled voice of Tunde Adebimpe over a wall of guitars and a minimalist electronic beat.

Posted by Mack Hagood

Review Genre(s): African American Culture & History,Popular, Rock, and Misc.


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