Loud and In Living Colour

The rock band’s latest release, The Chair in the Doorway, stands out as a collection of first-rate songs wrapped in hard rock, metal, funk and blues.

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“As we talk about social things, we also talk about personal things,” says Reid. “’Taught Me’ is ‘Love Rears Its Ugly Head’ 20 years on. It’s ‘Broken Hearts’ 20 years on. It’s really asking the question, ‘What part do I play in the drama I’m in?’”

“They reinvented themselves for the millennium,” says Tate. “Musically, sonically, this is a timeless band, but they’re conscious enough of what the younger cats have done with their influence to take some notes.”

The world was a very different place in 1988 when Living Colour’s Vivid hit stores. We were dancing to Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” and raising our fists in solidarity with Public Enemy, who had just released the seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Hip-hop was on the cusp of gangsta rap with N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. We fell in love with the idea of driving away in Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” or watching Neneh Cherry assume her “Buffalo Stance.” Rock bands such as Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses ruled the arenas.

But then came the video for “Cult of Personality.” Who were these guys? They weren’t rappers, and they certainly weren’t smoothed out on any R&B tip. No, they were loud. But they had a groove that rocked with undeniable energy. The guitar player was on fire. And the dread-locked lead singer stalked about the stage, captivating us with this beautiful growl that lurked just below the surface of his warm voice.

“Post-Hendrix, they’re the Jackie Robinsons or the rock ‘n’ roll Obamas of the late ‘80s,” says Daphne Brooks, an associate professor of English and African-American studies at Princeton University. “What they were able to do on MTV at the end of the ‘80s was groundbreaking in its own right.”Cult of Personality” made it to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earned the band two MTV Video Music Awards, a Grammy the following year for “Best Hard Rock Performance,” and the album Vivid went double platinum. The band was off to the races, headlining Lollapalooza and touring with the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses.

For a moment—two to three years--a black rock band was on a level playing field with white rock bands,” adds Darrell McNeill, director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition.

These days, “Cult of Personality” has achieved iconic status. It was included in the video games Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. But what else accounts for their longevity? Perhaps it’s the fact that they still play live.

“There’s a thing with Living Colour that buttons peoples’ lives,” says Glover. “When they graduated high school, when they met the girl they were going to marry. People can re-experience all of that.”

On top of the musicianship, their performances always serve to remind and inspire by the possibility they represent. “For African-American artists who are drawing outside the lines, we need to see possibility,” says former label executive Lisa Cortes, who is also the executive producer of the upcoming film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. “And we need to see possibility that is successful. Possibility that has both indie cred, commercial success and has been internationally accepted. Their entrée into all of those places is so important. They’ve made a really important contribution by speaking to the realization of imagination and possibility.”

Back at the listening party, the band asks for requests. People begin shouting titles like “Cult of Personality” or “Love Rears Its Ugly Head.” But it’s the request by drummer Will Calhoun’s 11-year-old son that catches everyone’s attention: He asks for The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Glover gives his bandmate Calhoun a good-natured ribbing for his son not asking for a Living Colour song. But they oblige and launch into what Cortes calls “the most raucous, funky, fun, melodic mashup of the song that I’ve ever heard.”

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