Living Colour, Bad Brains, and Fishbone made history fighting against the gentrification of rock
By Nathan Leigh
May 16, 2016
Despite it’s origins as the sound of black (and often queer) youth rebellion, by the time Elvis came around, rock’s gentrification had been merciless and complete.
By the 80’s, the segregation of music was defacto; MTV refused to play videos by black artists during its first 2 years of existence using the familiar “we’re a rock format” defense. (This is still the argument used by broadcast monopoly Clear Channel, despite their rock stations regularly featuring “hip-hop” by The Beastie Boys, Macklemore, and Everlast… le sigh…)
Nevertheless, while MTV was still defending their status as a “rock format,” several collectives were changing the narrative about rock: Fishbone, Bad Brains, The Black Rock Coalition and Living Colour. Members of Bad Brains, Living Colour and Fishbone will be performing in a Powerjam at AFROPUNK Brooklyn Aug. 27-28. More info right here.
“It’s racism. Internalized racism and a culture that doesn’t like it when black guys play guitar so they don’t get promoted to positions of strength, mostly.” – W. Kamau Bell
In a recent interview with The AV Club, the great W. Kamau Bell explained that when he was growing up in the 80’s, he even assumed that Jimi Hendrix was white just because he was a famous guitarist.
I wasn’t really a music guy in high school. I was mostly just a TV and comedy nerd before there was such a thing as a comedy nerd. One day, my friends were talking about Jimi Hendrix and I had this sort of vague knowledge that Jimi Hendrix was the best electric guitar player ever, and, in my mind, white guys played guitar, black guys didn’t play guitar.
This was pre-Lenny Kravitz and just pre- my knowledge of the band Living Colour. I didn’t know about Fishbone.
Even at the time Jimi Hendrix played rock guitar he was only one of the few big time black rock guitar players.
There’s the Isley Brothers and stuff, but as far as rock electric guitar, it was just him. There weren’t a bunch of black guys who followed him that were big stars. Certainly a lot of black guys were actually playing electric guitar, but in my mind, electric guitar players were like Eddie Van Halen and all those bands like Whitesnake and Warrant. I just assumed, “Well, the best guy ever from that has to be a white guy.”
What was amazing about the Holy Trinity of Fishbone, Bad Brains, and Living Colour wasn’t just that they were playing rock in a segregated scene, but that their music highlighted the inherent blackness of rock.
Working reggae (Bad Brains), ska (Fishbone), and soul (Living Colour) into music that was loud, fast, and heavy, the three bands made rock on their own terms. Their music had a socially conscious bent conspicuously absent from Reagan-era radio.
Living Colour kicked off their giant hit “Cult of Personality” with a Malcolm X sample before delving into a conversation about the problematic nature of deifying leaders with one of the most iconic riffs of all time courtesy of Mr. Vernon Reid. It was bold, confrontational, and surprisingly intellectually dense for a song that continues to receive so much radio shine.
Bad Brains meanwhile spent the 80’s earning a reputation as the most ferocious live band hardcore had to offer. They punctuated their sets with reggae jams and Rasta philosophy, challenging white audiences that just wanted to hear “Pay To Cum,” while inspiring a generation of black punks to defy punk homogenization. Their sets veered between blistering hardcore and chilled out reggae, before eventually veering into metal under the masterful guitar of Dr. Know, and one of the tightest rhythm sections punk has ever assembled.
Under the leadership of mad wizard Angelo Moore, Fishbone captured the puckish spirit of punk. The band used a class-clown sensibility to confront social issues.
Poverty and the community-destroying ouroboros of the war on drugs has remained a constant theme of their music; criticizing all sides while wearing a shit-eating grin that makes the band impervious to criticism. Over its 37 year run, Fishbone has been blessed with 2 of the greatest guitarists in history: Rocky George (current) and Kendall Jones (founding), alongside virtuoso bassist Norwood Fisher and a frontman who can play just about any instrument placed in front of him.
Through ups and downs and only periodic (and often temporary) line-up changes, the three acts have continued more-or-less as they began for 30 years. Though all have experimented with new sounds and styles, they never compromised or sold out.
Their continued existence remains as defiant a statement as just about anything they ever put in their music, while the near technical perfection of their collective guitar talent definitively shuts down any conversation about who can or can’t play rock.
The three legendary bands will come together at AFROPUNK Fest 2016 for a once-in-a-lifetime powerjam, a capstone on a 30-plus year history of changing and challenging the narrative.