Problem Children

L.A. pop band the Negro Problem makes an art of playful provocation

There's a famous old skit on Saturday Night Live in which a series of cheesy spokespeople vied with each other to prove that their brand of jam was the best, simply because it had the most vile name. The perverse gist of the mock commercial was that only a wonderful product could survive a horrendous moniker. The punch line went something like this: "With a name like 1,000 Dead Orphans, it has to be great jam."

It's hard not to think of that gag when contemplating the Negro Problem, the likably demented pop quartet from Los Angeles. You're tempted to think that any band that can survive, and damn near thrive, with a handle so oddly out of step with premillennial America must have something to offer musically. On the other hand, you could argue that this name, and its ability to unnerve people, is not the band's greatest curse but its greatest hook.

Not since the "Holiday in Cambodia" heyday of the Dead Kennedys has an American band managed to make people squirm so readily at the mere mention of its moniker. Initial reactions generally run the gamut from nervous amusement to puzzlement to outright hostility.

The band's African-American front man, Stew (formerly Mark Stewart), knows the powder keg of emotions that surround the phrase. He knows that it was used by Reconstruction-era whites to label their fears about integration. He knows that it was used by turn-of-the-century civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois to depict America's inability to create a place for blacks in mainstream society. But such heavy historical baggage had little to do with his choice of the name. The idea of naming his band the Negro Problem simply made him laugh.

"I like playing with things that people take seriously," he says. "In America, it's so hard to get irony across. I find it sad when I'm talking to somebody and they really don't get it. I have to explain the whole thing: 'It's just a crazy band name. It's kind of like the Grateful Dead; they're not really dead, and they're not grateful. It's just a phrase.'"

America's difficulty with irony is particularly acute for black artists, who are too often expected to prove their worth by being earnestly sincere. The idiotic implication tends to be that if black artists are too clever, that must make them less soulful. Black artists are also uniquely locked into inane preconceptions about their proper musical roots. For someone like the 37-year-old Stew, who grew up in L.A. and feasted on the kaleidoscope of sounds that was late-'60s AM radio, such limitations simply don't apply.

As a kid, he first heard the Beatles' Abbey Road in L.A.'s predominantly black South Central district, and he says he was introduced to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon by an all-black funk band he once auditioned for. He recalls that for his sister and cousins, new albums by the Beatles and James Brown were treated as equally big events.

So it's hardly surprisingly that his band willfully jumbles a wide array of influences, everything from the Fabs to Jimmy Webb's sophisticated adult pop to the Smile-era Beach Boys, with heavy doses of early Frank Zappa.

On the band's wildly eclectic, 18-song, 70-minute debut CD, 1997's Post Minstrel Syndrome, Stew reveals his stubbornly humorous take on racial politics. He generally looks for the joke in such serious matters, but he gets a bit miffed when people approach him and suggest that he's a black man playing "white music."

"Forget Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee, or Tom Wilson, who was black and produced Dylan and the Mothers of Invention, and people like that," he says. "But who's this guy Mick Jagger and all these other white guys? It's okay for skinny English white guys to try to approximate blues, and it's okay for skinny New York white guys like David Byrne to try to pretend that they're African, but I'm playing so-called 'white music'?

"I grew up with the Western music canon, like everyone else. To me, it's like the colonial days. Paul Simon can find some Brazilian or African music history, but if you're black, you're supposed to do what your neighborhood's doing. Well, my neighborhood wasn't that boring."

Post Minstrel Syndrome can be a bumpy ride, because the band seems determined to weigh it down with as many ideas as they can possibly cram together, as though this was going to be their only chance to grab the ear of the public. At times, you sense that Stew's pop instincts are warring with his penchant for rampant wordiness. But that's also part of the album's charm.

Unlike much contemporary guitar pop, which grabs you on first listen and loses its impact over time, Post Minstrel Syndrome actually grows in stature the more you hear it. You slowly start to admire the humor behind the band's odd musical quotations, like the solo taken from The Andy Griffith Show theme or the snippet from the Moody Blues' "The Story in Your Eyes" which they work into a cover of "MacArthur Park."

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