By Lauren Wise
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By Troy Farah
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By Derek Askey
Who says blacks can't play rock 'n' roll? After a couple of listens to Living Colour, nobody in his right mind would say that.
Living Colour, an all-black rock foursome from New York City, is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that loud, in yo' face, ball-busting rock 'n' roll is no longer the private domain of white, long- haired gearheads bent on spindling as many waterbed debutantes as possible and scaring parents silly.
The group's debut album (now almost a year old), Vivid, is roaring up the charts, and the video of the hit single "Cult of Personality" is enjoying heavy rotation from deejays.
In town recently for a show at the Celebrity Theatre, the band members went to great lengths to put across their vision of rock. It seems that the members of Living Colour are extremely conscious of the racial thing.
Lead guitarist Vernon Reid defines their mission as "trying to break certain things down, change certain perceptions about what black is or what white is."
"I think it's very unhealthy for rock 'n' roll to be the province of one race of people," he says. "In the history of rock, it's always been black influencing white, white influencing black. For the past ten years, though, it's been y'all are in this camp and we're in this camp, and we'll never look at each other." The other members (Corey Glover, vocals; Muzz Skillings, bass; William Calhoun, drums) heartily agree with Reid.
"That's part of the reason music has become very sterile, single-minded and narrow," Reid contends. "There's been very little freedom to influence one another, which I feel is very important, not just for black musicians to have freedom but also white musicians. We're just trying to make that turnaround happen."
Concerning the initial incongruity of a black band pumping out full-on rock, Glover (who played the part of Francis in Platoon) chuckles. "Sure," he says, "we tend to joke about the whole thing, blacks playing rock 'n' roll, because we know it's a ridiculous concept. For us, it makes no sense to have a line of distinction when it comes to music and then apply it to race, because it really doesn't make any difference--music is a sensory thing."
One strange problem the band has encountered is with black radio stations. "We have problems with radio in general," Calhoun says, "but in terms of getting it across on black radio, songs like `Broken Hearts' or `[What's Your Favorite Color?] (Theme Song)' making it right off the bat? No, but those things will change as the band's notoriety increases."
Calhoun adds that Living Colour "is not just about `cult of personality' or just politics. If people can take it for what it's worth, the whole product, then hopefully black [radio] will follow along."
At the Celebrity show, the largely white audience bellowed its approval on a sonic level worthy of jet afterburners, and Living Colour responded in kind. With a collective musical prowess that can handily blow the pickups off a half dozen Led Halens, the band roared its way through material from the album. Backed by the rhythmic crack of Skillings and Calhoun, Reid set up a devastating onslaught of guitar shamanism while Glover belted out the tunes and worked the crowd, leaping and dancing around like a Tasmanian devil. After a two-song encore that included a cover of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" the band called it a night. Whew!
That Living Colour has chosen to fly in the face of accepted rock dogma is no accident. It's the flagship group for the New York-based Black Rock Coalition, a consortium of musicians and artists involved with combating racial stereotypes in the industry and serving as a clearinghouse for undiscovered, cutting-edge black talent. Reid and the band are acutely aware that bringing about parity of any kind in the music industry will require some basic changes. That, says Reid, "will no doubt make some people freak out when they learn we are as equally into a singer like Bobby Brown as we are into digging, and I mean really digging, a band like Metallica."
Glover interjects: "We represent a change that is uncharacteristic of who and what four black men from N.Y.C. should be doing. Some might perceive this as a threat, but it's a minor threat.