In 1985, the same year Chuck Berry stole the music for “Johnny B. Goode” from Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Ronald Reagan began his second-term in office and crack cocaine was destroying parts of the country daily, The Black Rock Coalition (BRC) was formed in New York City. Conceived as an outlet to secure more exposure for Black bands while also educating the public about the contributions of musicians of color to the rock canon, the BRC was co-founded by cultural critic Greg Tate, artist manager Konda Mason, music producer Craig Street, trumpeter Flip Barnes and guitarist Vernon Reid. Within a matter of months, the BRC became a creative hub for all types of artists in desperate need of like-minded folks.
“In the beginning we had fewer musicians involved than other types of artists,” recalls Greg Tate. “But it didn’t take long for that to change.” Laying the foundation for rockers “of color” to be taken seriously in an era when most commercial Black artists were making R&B or rap, the BRC was a catalyst of sonic change in the city and later across the world. In addition to helping artists book shows at venues that might’ve otherwise passed them by, BRC meetings became the perfect place to vent frustrations as well as celebrate the culture.
As a rock fan since growing up in Harlem (I’m sure you can imagine how well that went over with family and friends), I felt as though I’d finally found my true tribe when I joined the electric collective in 1986. Back then, a regular BRC meeting could be a discussion about educating people on the legacies of rock pioneers, including Little Richard and Elvis songwriter Otis Blackwell, the politics of Black music, a tutorial from a visiting entertainment lawyer who explored contracts or a field trip to go see Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987).
In addition to attending meetings, I also journeyed to various downtown venues including the Ritz, Lone Star Café, the original Knitting Factory, the Kitchen, Tramps, Wetlands and especially CBGB. Famous for being the punk-rock shrine for the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads and Blondie the decade before, by 1987, CBGB became the home of many classic BRC showcases featuring groups like J.J. Jumpers, PBR Streetgang, 24/7 Spyz, Faith, Eye & I and Living Colour. “The price of real estate makes it impossible to repeat that kind of scene in Manhattan now, especially on the Lower East Side,” says Living Colour leader Vernon Reid.
“Nobody can afford just to open some little hole in the wall where bands can develop. When real estate became blood sport, culture became contested ground.” Producer Craig Street adds, “I read an interview with Mark Ronson once where he talked about sneaking out of his house when he was a teenager so he could go see BRC shows.” Felice Rosser of the band Faith, who recently released the EP Soul Secrets, says, “There were also more than a few women working behind the scenes as well as lead singers like Kelli Sae in J.J. Jumpers, Amafujo Innis in PBR Streetgang and DK Dyson in Eye & I, who I always liked doing shows with. I learned so much from both her and Melvin.” Thirty years after its first meeting, the BRC is still active and organizing events across the country. Much like its younger sibling AfroPunk, the mission of the BRC has always been about inspiring and educating those folks, regardless of race, whose natural temperament and artistic leanings don’t conform to what society says is correct.
Below is a list of some of my favorite Black rockers, groups and solo artists that also serves as an introduction to the genre. As Black rock rebel George Clinton once proclaimed, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”
While no one person invented rock and roll, Chuck Berry was one of the premier sonic architects of the sound that changed the world. In the mid-1950s, pouring a little country into his blues, the St. Louis native went to Chicago, strapped on an electric guitar and began composing blaring songs that became anthems for a new breed of young folks calling themselves teenagers. Signed to Chess Records at the urging of Muddy Waters, he started his number-one record streak with “Maybellene” in 1955 and watched as the world lost its collective mind. In the midst of the Cold War, Berry was the hottest entertainer in America, and soon delivered more hits including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry influenced a legion of aspiring young musicians including The Beach Boys and The Beatles, prompting genius child John Lennon to once remark, “If you gave rock and roll a new name, it would be Chuck Berry.”
Rocker Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame has never kept mum about how much he stole from Tina Turner’s wild girl stage persona and raging vocals. Discovered by guitarist and rock pioneer Ike Turner, he transformed the former country gospel gal Annie May Bullock in more ways than one. Whether Turner was rolling on the river with “Proud Mary,” travelling distances on the great Phil Spector produced single “River Deep, Mountain High” or appearing as the acid queen in the rock opera movie Tommy, she always dipped her rock in soulful chocolate and looked as though she might explode.
Of course, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t the first Black rock star, but he was the man that set me onto the road toward electric guitar ruin when I saw a clip of him playing “The National Anthem” at the famed Woodstock Festival. A former sideman for Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, his first album Are You Experienced is a sonic attack that inspired everyone from Carlos Santana to Miles Davis to Prince. Featuring the cosmic acid of “Purple Haze” and the lush ballad “The Wind Cries Mary,” the album remains in heavy rock rotation almost forty years after its release. Although only 27 years old when he died in 1970, Hendrix’s legacy is as electric as his music.
Love leader Arthur Lee was a walking contradiction who was part acid dropping hippie, part wild boy gangster. Living in a Los Angeles castle in the ‘60s, Love was the first rock group signed to Elektra Records. They recorded three albums for the former folk music label including their masterpiece Forever Changes, which was their sophomore project. Their biggest hit single was a cover of “My Little Red Book,” which was on their eponymous debut album released in 1966. Unlike their friends Jim Morrison and The Doors, whom they encouraged Elektra to sign, Love never became a household name.
Although I spent much of my latter teenage years loudly singing Thin Lizzy’s jukebox jams “The Boys are Back in Town” and “Whiskey in a Jar” whenever they blared on the rock station, I had no idea that Irish lead singer Phil Lynott was a Black man. But after watching VH1’s Behind the Music about the band, an episode I swear was one of the series’ best, I felt I learned so much about the biggest rock bands to emerge from Ireland. Years before U2, Thin Lizzy was doing the damn thing.
If Funkadelic only made their 1971 classic album Maggot Brain, featuring the mind blowing Eddie Hazel soloing title track, they would still be Black rock legends based entirely on that song. Led by Black rock conceptualist George Clinton, who came from the cosmos to bring music to the masses, the group would conquer the world with their later hits “Cosmic Slop” and “One Nation Under a Groove.” Still, it is their beautiful and brutal, dreamy and dire “Maggot Brain” that remains the perfect free funk/rebel rock instrumental that launched a million air-guitar fantasies.
Back in 1980, when the Brain boys were just four Chocolate City jazz fusionists more into Return to Forever than the Sex Pistols, group members H.R. (singer), Darryl Jenifer (bassist), Dr. Know (guitarist) and Earl Hudson (drummer) were turned out by the audio angst of Brit-punk culture and never looked back. Performing regularly at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., Bad Brains merged hardcore, dub and metal, and started a rhythmic revolution on their self-titled 1979 album. As the late writer/Washington D.C. DJ Tom Terrell told me one snowy night, “Before Bad Brains, no other band had been able to combine white noise with black spiritualism and make music sound so powerful.”
Inspired equally by ska, punk and drunken Richard Pryor styled humor, Fishbone was making music for “another forward state of mind,” as they sang on “Another Generation,” that was open to musical experimentation and bugged-out boogie down live shows. In thirty years, front-man Angelo Moore and his motley crew of band brothers have released a few wonderful albums including In Your Face and The Reality of My Surroundings, but their cover of “Freddie’s Dead” was one of their biggest hits. Seeing these cats perform is to experience true boned-out ecstasy. For a proper introduction, check out the Fishbone documentary Everyday Sunshine.
Living Colour were, as New York Times writer John Lelend once wrote, “The last great band to come out of CBGB.” While guitarist Vernon Reid was the focus for many, vocalist Corey Glover, whom I’ve always considered underrated, was the perfect lead singer who obviously listened to both Robert Plant and Al Green and became a soulful screamer because of it. In their more than three decades together, the group has had their ups and downs, with Glover releasing the slept-on solo album Hymns (LaFace) in 1998. The Brooklyn-bred partnership has since been repaired and this past summer, Living Colour toured with Aerosmith.
Eye & I
Back in the late ‘80s, Eye & I was supposed to be the next big thing after Living Colour signed with Epic Records, but something happened to alter their pre-destined path. Led by then-married couple bassist Melvin Gibbs (pictured above) and powerhouse lead singer D.K. Dyson, they played with a mad energy that walked a fine line between free jazz and punk funk that few could dispute. Catching one of their shows at CBGB, New York Times critic Peter Watrous wrote: “The band played with power that seemed to be emanating not from the stage, but from the room itself.” Their self-titled album was released in 1991, and the group broke up shortly afterwards.
When BRC co-founder Flip Barnes introduced 24/7 Spyz co-leaders Jimi Hazel and vocalist Peter Fluid to the music of Bad Brains, he had no idea he was contributing to the construction of a rock-n-roll Frankenstein. On stage during BRC shows, they perfected their hardcore guerrilla playing style until they were as sharp as broken glass. A few years later, when the Spyz released their debut Harder than You (1989) they proved to the world that South Bronx boys could rebel yell and play guitars as well as they could rap and spin turntables. Harder includes the autobiographical “Grandma Mama Dynamite,” a blazing cover of Kool & the Gang’s funk classic “Jungle Boogie” and Hazel’s roaring instrumental “Jimi’s Jam.”
For more information about the BRC, visit blackrockcoalition.org.