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Colour-izing the Rock Landscape : More than Prince or Michael Jackson, Living Colour has reintroduced rock to its black music heritage

The four members of Living Colour responded to the first question in unison and so emphatically it sounded rehearsed.

The question was, “Should anyone still care that you’re a black hard-rock band?”

The answer: “No!”

For all intents, the response was rehearsed. The issue of race has been with Living Colour since it began in the mid-'80s, and the band would like nothing more than to lose it. After all, Living Colour established itself on grounds that have nothing to do with race.

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Its 1988 debut album, “Vivid,” sold nearly 2 million copies, largely to the standard hard-rock market. The album’s acceptance came very slowly--it was out for nearly a year before it became a hit, despite the patronage of Mick Jagger, who had band member Vernon Reid play on his 1987 solo album “Primitive Cool” and produced a couple of the songs on “Vivid.” Many, including Living Colour, have suggested that initial resistance to the album was due to race, though there’s no question that the novelty of a black hard-rock band also drew critical attention.

But the band did become a hit and more than held its own as the opening act on the Rolling Stones’ 1989 mega-tour. (Remember, a young Prince was booed mercilessly opening for the Stones in the early ‘80s). And there seems to be no resistance to the new album, “Time’s Up"--it leaped into the Billboard magazine pop album chart Top 20 after just two weeks in release.

The album beats the sophomore jinx with some intense metal thrash (the title track), matured songwriting (the South African-flavored “Solace of You”) and a funny attack on Presley exploiters (“Elvis Is Dead”).

Still, the uncomfortable and distracting race issue will not die.

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“Part of it’s just wearying, because you deal with it so much,” said Reid, the New York group’s founder and guitarist. “We’ve done interviews where not a tune has been talked about. I saw a review (of ‘Time’s Up’) from England that was totally from a point of view . . . dealing with race.”

Yet for the better part of the next hour at Epic Records’ Century City offices, the band addressed the issue readily, presenting articulate arguments supporting the notion that their race should be ignored, but also well-considered reasons why it cannot. And it’s not as if the band has shied away from it. The fact is there just aren’t many black hard rockers, and none that draw the attention that Living Colour has. Even if the band doesn’t go to the issue, it seems to go to them.

Reid, who started Living Colour after schooling in the free-jazz Harmolodics of Ornette Coleman, insisted that the band’s name is not meant as a reference to skin color--he said it came from the old Walt Disney television program presented “in living color.” But Reid, who has written criticism and essays for the Village Voice, is also the outspoken founder of the Black Rock Coalition, an organization that promotes awareness of rock’s black roots and serves as a base for social and political activity, including the anti-censorship movement.

“It’s a black-originated art form and a lot of black people don’t realize that, and they don’t associate themselves with rock ‘n’ roll,” said drummer Will Calhoun. “I think it’s something that should be reiterated into the culture. So in that sense, yes, I think the issue should be made.”

Singer Corey Glover, a dynamic performer who has also done some acting (“Platoon”), continued: “The education has to be there to let people know we are not doing something alien to our culture, not doing something alien to our socio-economic background either. We happen to be black folks, but if you’re brought up in a society with the range of music and types of music you listen to, that’s going to be reflected in the music you play. No one asks M. C. Hammer why he plays the music he plays. It’s expected of him.”

Bassist Muzz Skillings added, “We don’t think about it, because Vernon grew up playing this music, I grew up playing this music, Corey’s always wanted to be in this kind of band and Will’s been doing the same kind of things. In our neighborhoods, bands that played rock ‘n’ roll played the stuff from the ‘Woodstock’ album, playing everything on it. So it’s no strange thing.”

Said Reid, “You go back and forth between thinking it doesn’t matter and we’re just a rock band, and the fact that it’s the kind of society that has racism. . . . Some people have looked at us and said, ‘So what? These guys are black and they rock.’ They missed the point. We’re trying to tell a segment of the African-American story, our perspective. That by and of itself makes a difference.”

If Living Colour ever thinks it can ignore the race issue, all it has to do is recall last October when it shared the bill with the Stones and Guns N’ Roses for four nights at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Guns N’ Roses was at the height of controversy over the use of racial and gay epithets in its song “One in a Million.” As the shows approached, Reid was quoted in the news media about the matter, and Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose was perturbed.

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“After we played on that first show I wanted to check out Guns N’ Roses to see if they were good live,” Skillings recalled. “I was standing backstage. I saw Axl coming down the stairs and he walks by. But then five minutes later somebody taps me on the shoulder. I look up and it’s him.

“First thing out of his mouth: ‘You got a problem with me, man?’ I said, ‘What you talking about?’ So then he goes on, ‘It’s in the media that I’m some sort of racist, man . . . I ain’t no damn racist.’ He went down this long list: ‘I don’t think you’re a (racial epithet). Anyone can be a (epithet). If you’re a bad person you’re a (epithet). I don’t think black people are (epithet). I don’t think black bands are (epithet).’

“And he just went on and on. So then he sticks out his hand and I say we should talk about it, just talk about it.”

But moments later on stage, Rose attempted to defend the song and managed to dig himself in deeper with a string of profanities and slurs that only served to further inflame the matter.

On the second night, Reid used the stage to make a brief attack on anti-black and anti-gay language before the band launched into a furious version of its hit “Cult of Personality.”

“We all played a little harder,” Calhoun said. “I broke a few more sticks that night.”

Said Skillings, “Something like that does remind you, it does smack you in the face in case you might have dozed off a little bit, that it’s reality that certain attitudes don’t change.”

“Type” is the title of one of the new album’s key tracks and its first single. The song isn’t so much about racial stereotypes as the tendency to use labels indiscriminately, be they “type O” blood or Abstract Expressionism .

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“It’s like people don’t take the time or don’t have the time to know what post-structuralism is or post-modernism,” Reid said. “They just say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s modern,’ or, ‘That’s Cubist.’ You know what I mean?”

Now Living Colour is confronting its own typing--apart from the racial identification. The first album came with some mystery and intrigue. What does a black rock band sound like? How will it be marketed? What kind of audience will accept it? Now there’s no novelty, and certain expectations--both in terms of sounds and sales--have been established.

“We’re no longer the X-factor,” Skillings said.

“When a band does a first album and it does well they have nothing to lose,” Glover said. “The question becomes how much do you believe in your concept? How much do you let people’s expectations and the thought of losing your success affect your work? And the main thing is it’s important to keep your work away from that.”

“We do this for ourselves first,” Skillings said. “But it’s not like we do it totally for ourselves and (ignore) the audience. It’s good to get feedback and figure out how you affect people on one level. That’s good and healthy. But when it gets to the point where people put their own head trips or baggage or their own value systems on your music and say, ‘I think you guys should be doing this or that,’ that really has no place.”

But if on the tour they learned through the Guns N’ Roses episode that the racial issue can’t be ignored, they learned from the Stones that a band can survive on its own terms.

“They could have gone out and done a tour of their hits,” Reid said. “But they actually had to support a new album. Their whole thing was the Stones are still a viable, vital thing, not a nostalgia band and not trying to cash in on the old hits. They went out there trying to pump out the new songs, even with all the machinery going on around them.”


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