VERNON REID

In this edition of Progressive Forum, we conclude our celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the Black Rock Coalition with a tribute to the three co-founders of the organization: Guitarist/band leader exemplar Vernon Reid, musician/journalist Greg Tate; manager/video and film producer Konda Mason. In this final installment, we speak with Vernon Reid, the catalyst, visionary and spiritual father of the Black Rock Coalition.

 

We all know about the infamous phone call that you made to Konda and Greg Tate that kind of set this whole thing in motion. Tell us about some of the things that you were experiencing which prompted the phone call.

 

Well, at the time, I had started Living Colour. We had been doing that for close to a year after having left the tutelage and the band of Roland Shannon Jackson, who basically was a giant influence on me and continues to be. And it was time for me to set out on my own. So basically Living Colour started pretty much around ’83-ish and by ’84 it was named Living Colour. And we just were having a really tough time. At that time, the whole thing was to get a record deal. Times have really changed now. Even though a record deal is still considered to be something that’s significant, its significance has changed, because things are really different now, and they’re evolving. But anyway, at that time, being on one of the major labels‹’cause there ere more major labels back then‹that was what one did. It was really tough to get heard and it was also, I noticed, the same situation was all over for people I knew. Just didn’t have any place for them. All of us were really oddball, not in the Black crossover thing. “Cause at that time, the industry was kind of slow to fight for Black artists. It was basically existing day-to-day, by the rules, certain people got shut out. The commercial rules have changed, this is really the thing. And at one time the commercial rules really favored a kind of average interpretation of dance music, the interpretations of the love songs. And by the beginning to the middle ’80s, that was not the case. At that time, one artist who was well-known‹and even he was still kinda underground‹was Prince, that was doing anything really exciting, just on the major scene. It was just on my mind. And it was really seeing an Eye.

SAUL WILLIAMS

Everything the Saul Williams says and does is both poetic and musical. Words flow naturally with an emotion and elegance reserved usually for various temples of worship. His latest prayer book, Amethyst Rock Star (American/Island/Def Jam) opens a stained-glass window onto the divine wellspring that he draws his seemingly endless inspiration from.

 

Let’s talk about the space you’re in right now creatively, in terms of the moves you’re making, the record, the films, the books. Where is Saul Williams in terms of where you see yourself artistically?

 

Well, I guess, artistically, I’m at a place where I feel the words are starting to come alive in me again. What I mean by that is there is a time of reaping and a time of sowing, a time of reading and a time of writing. And I’m entering a new writing phase. What that means is, really, is I’ve been writing a lot of new songs and I’ve been thinking a lot about this next album, that just exists on tapes at my house and in my head. That’s where my head has been, really. I usually try to stay a step ahead. It’s not even a thing I’m trying to do, it’s happened organically.  This album is practically three years old to me. But the music has been coming. So I feel like I’ve had a rekindling of the love of poetry. There are two books of poetry I’m working on right now. It’s all writing, whether it’s writing poetry or writing songs. The only thing that’s changed for me between now and four years ago is that I’m more prayerful now, consciously more prayerful now. I can’t say that I got caught up in anything, but I did get depressed with how things were happening, surrounding this album, with the dates being pushed back the label change [Rick Rubin's American Records, Saul's label, pulled up its stakes from Sony and moved to Island/Def Jam]. It seems it almost felt worse when it was doing really well in Europe, and I didn’t know if it was gonna come out here in the US. Like, “Is it never gonna come out here?” And now it’s been out less than six months and I feel blessed and great. But I realize that I can’t attach myself a project like that again, where I think like “This is my baby.” No, it’s not. I have two actual babies. So the albums or books are not my babies [laughs]. And I can’t make that connection anymore. I feel like I’m an independent artist signed to a major label. And I decided to do this because I felt like I could walk through this stuff and not get burned. And I didn’t want to cower to the powers-that-be, simply because I recognize the powers of being. And I know that the powers of being will make the walls of this building fall like Joshua and Jericho, you know what I’m saying? And I’m actually not talking about Island/Def Jam, because, believe it or not, I’ve had a great time at Island/Def Jam. I haven’t had any negative experiences here. My negative experiences initially go more so when we were at Sony/Columbia. And the process was just harder, just like when I was writing poetry initially, I didn¹t have to confer with anybody before I went onstage or before I put something in a book. I just did what I did. And so, dealing with a producer and all that is just like, a challenge, having to confer with someone, like, “Well, what do you think?” Even as a signed artist, you have to send demos in before you get clearance to go into the studio. It’s an interesting balance, but I think that I’ve found my balance. I’m now pushing through.

 

What has it been like making the transition from taking something that you had been once expressing freely and without restriction to negotiating the machinery of an entity that has ultimately has a different modus operandi?

 

What I’ve been learning mostly is about the power of association, in a sense. I’m learning who to surround myself with. Right now, I’m going through a major shift, business-wise, where I have a new manager, a new lawyer, all this stuff. And its no fault of the other people I was around, I just realized that all the people I was around before had similar energy to me. They were all moving from their heart, diplomatic and what have you. And I said, “You know what? I need someone who moves from their heart, but can bark!” Let them be ugly so I can still feel that freedom to be who I am, and let them do what they do naturally and let what they do naturally not be what I do naturally. So learning various business aspects, that has been a new light that has shone in to help me still keep that sense of balance and freedom and expression for myself. First of all‹this is the other thing‹I don¹t have to have this, you know what I’m saying? I can be comfortable. I was comfortable in Brooklyn writing poems on the walls of my bedroom, reciting for whomever heard. I felt like an amazing artist then. And not because of who was listening or how it was promoted or how it was marketed, but because I felt connected to my spirit and felt as if I was channeling something that was greater than me. And that is all I hope to maintain. And what happened, when we were dealing with all this other shit, was that I was put in a position to have to worry too much and fight too much for all thisŠparaphernalia. And even when you think in those terms, that’s egotistical terms. If someone is gonna say to you, “Well, you deserve this,” let them say it. I don’t wanna be in there, “Well, I deserve this.” Because I don¹t even operate off an “I” principle in that sense. I’m operating off the “blessed vessel” principle. That’s what I’m gonna operate off of. When I say, “I don¹t have to have this,” it’s like, I have found such a great satisfaction in being connected to that creative energy, that that is what feeds me. And all else is just, “Wow.”

 

Let’s take about the album, Amethyst Rock Star. You mentioned the album being about three years old-

 

The album was recorded in January 2000.

 

We’re at 2002 and you’re already talking about the next batch of material you’re trying to put out in the world. How do you maintain a connection to the older work?

 

I maintain a great connection to it, primarily because I believe in it so strongly. I look at my first book, The Seventh Octave, as a collection of prayers that I have to read consistently, in increments, to remind myself of myself. That’s not me writing from a place of achievement, it was me aiming for a place being. So, in the same way someone might turn to a Van Zandt book to remember themselves every morning before they start their day. I turn to those things. Those things speak through me. The idea of, like, “Through meditation I program my heart to beat break-beats hum bass lines in exhalation.” I’ll have that with me the rest of my life. And sometimes I forget and I remember it, like, “Oh, my God, that’s right. I nearly forgot. I need to chant today. I need to pray today.” Because that’s how it’s gonna happen, through meditation.

 

A lot of creative people go through different processes and sometimes distance themselves from older work because they aren’t in the same headspaces anymore.

 

Look at Prince who half the time will not perform old songs, like by the time of Sign O’ The Times albums, he didn’t even wanna talk about Purple Rain. People would be talking about “Hey, perform something from Purple Rain!” But that’s a different type of artist, a different type of process. And, who knows, I may do something like Kurt Vonnegut did. Vonnegut, science fiction writer, up until the age of 50 wrote all of his novels with recurring characters. And the book that he wrote when he was 50‹for his 50th birthday‹he wrote “Breakfast of Champions,” in that he killed off all his old characters because he saw them as crutches. So he had to start new. And who knows, may be I’ll do the same. Right now, everything is connected. I quote a bit of The Seventh Octave in “Slam.” And quote a bit of “Slam” in Amethyst Rock Star and I quote a bit of Sˆhe in Amethyst Rock Star. Keep it all tied and interconnected, because I love that. I love the connections to be made in the same way that I love reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, talking about Celie, and then Possessing The Secrets Of Joy, realizing that there are recurring characters in there. Like, “Wow,” that’s amazing.

 

In other words, it’s all part of the greater whole.

 

Right.

NONA HENDRYX

Last year, when industry weasels trumpeted “The Year of the Woman,” on the strength of the Morrisettes, the Harveys, the Osbournes, the Mitchells, et. al., and praised themselves for making room for women songwriters, musicians and producers, did you find yourself saying, “What’s wrong with this picture? What about the sistuhs? The NdegéOcellos, the Farrises, the St. Victors, the Des’Rees, the Ambersunshowers, the Skunk Anansies?” Like Malcolm X said, “If all of us are sitting at a table, are all of us diners? I’m not a diner until you let me dine.”

 

So this month we chatted with the Godmother of all musical sistuhs, Nona Hendryx. Arguably the musical brains behind Labelle, the prototype woman-funk ensemble, she’s had a distinctive career as a solo artist, songwriter, producer and advocate for things creative, cutting-edge and Black. She’s currently producing the first concert/seminar featuring poetry and music, called “Word: Life,” which will debut at Irving Plaza on February 8th. She’s got her own record label, “free records,” and two artists who’ll be releasing product. Nona’s living proof that the mercurial forces of jus divinum, racial politics and critical acclaim have no bearing on creativity.

 

BRC: What was the impetus for the Word: Life project?

 

Nona Hendryx: I got involved with an artist, Carl Hancock Rux, who is a poet. He’s a spoken word artist, but he was member of the Boys Choir of Harlem, so he has been involved in music. And I really just fell in love his writing, what he had to say, his performance, his presentation. So I started recording it and making an album with him and Mark Batson, who co-produced it with me. And looking at the record industry and at the market and thinking, “Well, I love it. Other people love it. There is this scene that’s emerging in Brooklyn and the Bronx, spoken word and poetry crossing over to hip-hop and R&B. How do you get the media, radio and all those people to allow it to become part of the mainstream, instead of just another sort of fringe genre?” And I was just brainstorming as to how can this to be nourished by the industry and therefore get it to people and then people can make the decision as to whether this is something they want or not. And that’s when I came up with the idea of galvanizing the different factions that are out there by having a seminar and concert a la New Music Seminar, CMJ, Gavin or SxSW.

 

BRC: How did you start putting the project together?

 

NH: We started in end of August, September. The idea was born, then we began looking for sponsors. We started with just the local artists, and we had some difficulty getting sponsorship, because they were not names that were known. So we began looking for people to see if they’d be interested in getting involved in this who had names, and that’s when people like The Last Poets, Branford Marsalis, Vernon Reid, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni. Then we began to get a bit more interest from sponsors, although we don’t have all the sponsors we need, because we’re taking this on the road as a tour. [Performers at the Irving Plaza seminar and concert include BRC members Reid, Greg Tate, Tracie Morris, Bernie Worrell, as well as Chuck D., Amiri Baraka, Jeru Da Damaja, Reg E. Gaines, KRS-One, Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, Dana Bryant, Felipe Luciano and others.]

 

BRC: How familiar were you with this genre of work, prior to this project?

 

NH: Well, [Labelle] were on the album that Nikki Giovanni did, gospel music and poetry. Also we spent some time getting involved with The National Black Theater, a lot of the people who were considered either actor-slash-poet-slash-musicians like Oscar Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, Charlie Mingus, Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Roy Ayers and people like that who did sort of the thing. I’ve known people who’ve been dealing in that for years, so it wasn’t anything foreign or new to me. But this is what has been called a resurgence. It’s emerging again. And naturally, I’ve always had an ear out for or been involved with people who were always pushing the envelope or what other people call the “fringe” of the mainstream of music. Working with people like Vernon Reid, Toshi Reagon, Bill Laswell. So it was nothing new.

 

 

 

BRC: Talk a little about the new label.

 

NH: I started my own label about eight months ago. That came from many years of dealing with record companies and going through some wonderful times and some difficult times in trying to have them understand what it is that I do, why I do it and how I do it. It’s called Free Records. Music equals freedom to me. When people are immersed in music, there’s a freedom that happens. Inhibitions drop. I’m looking to establish a Black alternative, and I don’t mean “alternative” music, I mean, a Black alternative. That’s the type of artist I’m looking for. They don’t have to be all “Black.” If they fit within the feeling of what I call “honest music,” then they’ll fit on Free Records.

 

BRC: Knowing the era that Labelle emerged from, where you had different styles of music interacting and different artistic disciplines interacting creating works that were greater than the sum of the parts, why do you think there’s so much categorizing and dichotomizing of the creative process?

 

NH: I think in every area of life that I’ve seen of like in the past 25-30 years has been this evolution throughout society to specialize. You don’t have the family doctor anymore. You have to go to the podiatrist, or an orthodontist or whatever. So throughout life the same thing happened, people specialized. Radio is one of the main areas that began to categorize. ‘KTU is going to be “dance” or “disco” as it was. Hot-97 was hip-hop and R&B. ‘NEW is rock. Whereas before that time, you heard all this music. MTV when it started, it was showing all kinds of music. Then they started specializing, with the “Yo! MTV Raps” section, the “120 Minutes” section, compartmentalizing people. You cannot do that. Eventually people want something else. Maybe one day a week , you’re into eating spaghetti. You don’t want to eat it forever and ever.

 

BRC: The survival mechanism for African-Americans has been our creativity, since the days of slavery. We have this tradition of self-created culture in order to get us from crisis period to the next. One would think that now during a decidedly difficult period of our modern history, now more than ever our creative survival instinct is needed. But it seems like it’s being stifled.

 

NH: Right now, because the band width of variety and creativity was narrowed over a period of time, that it’s very hard for a unique voice to come through. It’s so filled up with Xerox copies of what is successful. And in our communities, there is a fear of being different. That if we want to be a classical violinist and you’re a genius at it, but you may be bullied for being that or thought of as “not Black.” In ways, you don’t even know you’re being limited by your own community and therefore by yourself. We need to be supportive of each other and our abilities in what we have to present to the world, so that not only does it not get co-opted, but it doesn’t get squashed. I may get flak about this, but I think we’ve become our own oppressors. There’s a statement that Mahatma Ghandi made, “There is no oppression without consent or participation in false beliefs.”

 

BRC: A certain type of Black woman is allowed to succeed in this business. They bring their voice to the table and that’s it, maybe they contribute a few lyrics. They’re like window dressing. But Black women as songwriters, as producers, as musicians almost never seem to get brought into the mix. Why does it seem Black women are so far behind everybody else as far as being part of the creative process and getting props for it?

 

NH: We don’t have a strong enough voice and base for projecting that information. Ownership allows you to be self-directed. If we owned radio stations, if we owned more of the national international media, then we would have a stronger voice. But if you don’t have the vehicle upon which this needs to travel, then whoever owns the media is going to project what’s closest to their hearts. This is what I tell everyone. I cannot really sit and point the finger at someone else for not promoting me, when it is not near and dear to their heart. I have to gain access to the media in order to do this, or create it myself.

MOS DEF (circa 1998)

For all the clamor in hip-hop’s chaotic stratosphere about “keepin’ shit real,” there seem to be only a handful of individuals who genuinely understand its spirit. Mos Def is the heir apparent to the legacy of a soul-salvaging art form and way of life that has long been desecrated by big business. His album Black On Both Sides, is nothing short of a masterpiece and a testament to the fact that the flame can never die out, no matter how much loot you smother it with.

 

You’ve probably been asked a million times about the so-called “hip-hop underground.” From your vantage point, do you see a hip-hop “underground?”

 

For sure. You got guys like Socrates from Canada, Ugly Duckling, Defari, Dilated Peoples, D. August. It’s so many guys, and really doin’ it independently. Some of these guys press up their own records. Rise ‘n Shine, right here in New York, sell their records hand to hand. To me, that’s the underground, the independents. What separates them from the commercial is the lack of resources to get your product out there. It has nothing to do with the quality of the music. You have a diverse field of expression inside that “underground circuit.” Not everything on the underground circuit is good. Some of it is just… some real wack shit! Not everything on Hot 97 is bad. There’s some stuff that’s good. America, and the media in particular, is very attached to any sort of romantic notion about anything. The media’s been tryin’ to create this war between the underground and mainstream. Mainstream is mainstream for a purpose. Because all of those artists are on major labels, they have major distribution, they can make their projects accessible to the general public, and the media hypes it-

 

If anything, the media has more to do with the designation of underground and mainstream.

 

It’s like the “East Coast, West Coast” thing. The media made more of that than it ever really was! What I’ve been discovering among a lot of media people is they don’t care about the reality. They care about what makes a good story. And if those elements of a good story don’t necessarily exist in reality, they don’t feel any way about manufacturing those elements.

 

This leads to one of the things that you’ve kinda caught some flack for-

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, the whole thing with “Rock ‘n Roll.”

 

Historically, the media has always had a hand in designating how things roll as far as how music is categorized, who does what, what kind of people do what. Songs like that and “Mr. Nigga,” both speak to how the media flips things to serve a certain agenda.

 

I’m a very sensitive person. I’m not lookin’ to fuck with nobody. I’m just sayin’ what is really true. Everybody who speaks the truth about something, the media is gonna make an attempt to demonize. People know what I’m sayin’ in these songs is true. I’m not inventing some social condition that doesn’t exist. I’m speakin’ about a social condition that exists and that I didn’t manufacture. This is perpetuated by other people. Race is not important to Black people in America, generally. The only reason it’s an issue is because it’s an issue to someone else! Black people have been gettin’ down with everybody forever! Generally, the culture is very inviting of whatever works. But you start to feel that with Black culture, as it relates to American culture, you ain’t even invited to your own party! You can come, but don’t have too good a time and shit. Everybody is supposed to get the cookie except you, and it’s not fair. You can’t talk about Elvis Presley and give him a fuckin’ stamp and all that crazy shit and not mention Bo Diddley, or John Lee Hooker or Little Richard or Albert King or Muddy Waters! That shit is the bedrock of everything Elvis was doing. People in Elvis’ immediate camp will concede to the fact that Elvis was catapulted to stardom because he was a White man-

 

Singing Black music.

 

Exactly. Who could give a reasonable enough facsimile of that sound to White America where they wouldn’t be threatened. Chuck Berry was a huge, gigantic star, but they couldn’t really take him to the next level because White men did not want their White daughters goin’ to see some Black man on stage!

 

Ike Turner was instrumental in getting Elvis signed.

 

So many stories are untold! They don’t talk about how Little Richard was a patron to the Rolling Stones. They don’t talk about the work Bernard Purdie did with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. My thing is, “Hey, Limp Bizkit, go ahead, make a million dollars, rule the world.” But if you’re gonna blow up Limp Bizkit, you gotta mention Fishbone. You’re gonna blow up Red Hot Chili Peppers, you gotta mention bad brains. You’re gonna blow up Jamiroqui, you gotta mention Omar. Their work is parallel, and in some instances-

 

Derivative-

 

Exactly. You got White groups doin’ derivatives of Black music, yet receive more credit than the people who originated it. And if you bring this up as a Black person…

 

You’re racist.

 

If it’s racist for me to bring up the injustices that I suffer, then who are you? To say that I’m racist to say that Elvis Presley never gave any nod to the music that preceded him… Fuck the whole racial thing, on a historical level, as an artist, he didn’t recognize his history. That’s wrong. It would destroy any artist. We don’t exist fortuitously on our own. We all are here as a result of something else that was here before us. And if you don’t have enough humility or reverence to observe that, and especially if you don’t have enough humility to observe that on the basis of race because what came before you does not look like you, that’s even less cool! The math on it is bad. And, fuck it, somebody had to say somethin’ about it. Not everybody’s gonna like it, or be comfortable with it. And if you’re not comfortable with it, then change the shit. Treat every artist the same. Don’t have a set of rules for me, and have a set of rules for another artist on the basis of their culture or their race. It’s not right. They don’t treat Black artists the way they treat White artists. They don’t have the same reverence for their career. Most Black artists got a 120-day career. You gotta find your whole lifetime audience in 120 days, and if you don’t, then they classify you as a certain type of artist and they treat you that way. Come on, man, Jakob Dylan. It took four albums to break that dude. Sold 40,000 copies on his first album.

 

Sarah McLachlan-

 

Yeah! You be a Black artist and sell 40,000 copies of anything! You can’t do it! They’re not stickin’ around with you for that shit! You know, like, “I really believe in this artist.” That shit is extremely rare. Extremely rare. And it’s the norm for them. And it’s not fair.

 

Black On Both Sides kind of strikes me as a concept album, and I don’t know if you set out to make a concept album or if it just came together naturally.

 

It was a combination of both. It’s a collection of songs designed to relay a theme and a message about Black people in the world. I have to do that. Because there’s so much propaganda that exists about who we are, what’s important to us, our abilities. I did it to dispel a lot of the myths that exist about hip-hop, about Black culture, about Black society, about our sensitivity to politics, our level of awareness. I’m not alone in these viewpoints. I don’t exist as The Clever, Smart Negro. These are ideas and opinions that hold true to so many Black lives, so many poor lives, so many working class lives. People who struggle, and people who come from working class backgrounds and have working class people in their families hopefully can relate to what I’m sayin’.

 

What do you feel in your gut this album represents for you in terms of your development as an artist?

 

As an artist, it represented the value of following, just what you said, your gut. And searching for what that’s saying. In the process of making this album, I heard so many different suggestions. I try to stay open, but it was a fine line between being overly influenced by what the outside was sayin’, adhering to myself, taking the positive critiques, using what was useful and tuning out what was someone else’s perspective and not mine. This album was very helpful to me because now, when I’m makin’ the decisions-and even now, I’m thinkin’ about the next record and I’m makin’ the decisions about what type of record am I gonna do. Every artist is bullshittin’ you if they say, “Oh, I don’t think about the politics.” You think about, “What record can I do that’s gonna have enough impact to help me continue makin’ records? ‘Cause I like makin’ records.”

 

Right.

 

But then after a point, you’ve gotta go through all those variables and then say, “Well, what record do I wanna do? What am I feelin’? What am I excited about?” This record helped me have a compass for what it is that I’m feelin’.  Trustin’ that no matter what anybody says-if nobody gets it right away-that will be successful. Not in terms of selling records, but that will be the thing that I’m most at peace with. I don’t care what nobody had to say about Black On Both Sides. ‘Cause after I was done, I was like, “This is the album I wanted to make.” I was steadfast about it and I believed in it. So it don’t make a difference what nobody got to say about this album, because as long as I respect it and the people who I respect respect it, then I’m fine. Just stick to your guns. Don’t be popular. Be you. Do what you’re feelin’. It’s just been a real good experience for me, man, because I did it out of love and I didn’t do it for nothin’ else but. Because there was nothin’ else I coulda done, man. There was no other album that I wanted to make at that point.

ME’SHELL N’DEGEOCELLO

It is only fitting that in our final edition of the BRC print newsletter, we have FINALLY captured the Holy Grail. From the very beginning, we have pursued the ever-elusive Me’shell Ndegeocello for a rap session, but fate always seemed to conspire against us. Now, as she releases perhaps her greatest work of her brilliant career‹Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape on Maverick‹she was gracious enough to chat with us, helping us close this chapter on a high note while opening a new one for herself.

 

You’ve had a long and very admirable career. You’ve done a lot of incredible music. And you continue to fight the good fight. Given all the years that you’ve put in and the quality of the work, do you ever get bothered or frustrated that the industry tends to overlook you?

 

I think I used to but I think I’ve had an awakening. By their standards, I don’t really expect them to get me, no offense. And I feel alright with that. I just try to do the best that I can do and be a good person. The music is what’s important to me. I was just reading The Souls of Black Folk and I can’t really do anything about how others perceive me. They have their own standard and I’ve gotta create my own. Mine is just to get my ideas out and when I make a record, I feel good. Then I move on to the next thing, and try to grow in that way. But if you sit and wait for people to acknowledge you, you’ll be unhappy (laughs). There has always been and there will always be Black rock music. It’s all Black music. That’s what was lost in what Miles Davis was trying to do in the 70s and 80s. Like when he recorded the Cindy Lauper tunes, a couple of the more pop culture songs-

 

Like that D-Train song, “Something’s On Your Mind”-

 

Right, and I feel like, “Why not?” His statement was, “It’s all Black music.” He kept trying to say, “I can play whatever I want to. It all comes from jazz and the blues and everything.” The fact that it’s become so categorized, you’re thinking more about the categories than you are the quality. And I don¹t want to be, like, a “great Black artist” or a “Black female singer” or I made “great Black music.” I just wanna make music and be all right with that and seen for that.

 

Have you taken any time to assess where you are in terms of your growth as an artist?

 

I can never do that. It’s constantly changing. Every day is different. I’m handling something new every day and I try to be in the “now.” I know it sounds “hippy-dippy,” but I’m constantly gonna be given challenges and chances to grow and when they come I’m gonna try to take advantage of them. To me, I’m always in the playoffs. Like in the NBA, they play all them games and then they wait ’til the end to turn it up. I’m like, everyday is the playoffs. I’m gonna be playing championship NBA ball every day. That’s how I am.

 

In what ways do you feel that you’re different as a person and an artist than from your first record?

 

On each album I’m different. Musically, I have the ability to develop my ideas a lot more. I’m getting a lot more fluid in my bass playing and my programming. I just feel like I’m growing as a musician. The first record just skimmed the surface. The second record, I kind of opened up a lot more of the influences I have. To me, the first record, I wanted it to be like a Headhunters record. Like hip-hop meets Headhunters. The second record was into my Steely Dan rock, little bit more rock thing. And then the third one is more‹I love Ben Harper and Tracy Chapman and Richie Havens and Chris Whitley and Jimi Hendrix. It was just expressing how that music influenced me. This record is just a culmination of all those things. But at the same time it’s also a critique of myself. I’m tired of people saying, “Bitter wasn’t Black radio music.” And I’m like, who the fuck are you to tell me that? White people telling me it’s not a “Black record.” Fuck you! I listen from Master P to Sheryl Crow to Led Zepplin to Living Color to electronica. I listen to everything. It’s all music. That’s the beauty of music. I’m not gonna limit myself to be some cookie cutout artist. This record is to question that and critique that. So if I got some booty beats, it’s all good. Now you’re gonna play my record on the radio! That just fuckin’ blows my mind. Now I got a Redman and Tweet remix, it’s all good now. I fit into the mold. Gimme a fuckin’ break!

 

This last record, you took in-house and worked with Cato, your guitar player. What prompted you to bring it so close to home?

 

Well, everyone was saying, “Do it yourself,” and I don¹t really believe in that. I think there are few artists who can produce themselves, very few. I ain’t one of ‘em. (Laughs) Everyone needs a guru. Everyone needs a guide. Not someone to do it for you, but a guide on the journey. Cato has been in the band for the last four or five years. And he’s seen these songs build from the live stuff. Plus he and I have so many of the same records. We like so much of the same music and he could just see what I was trying to get to. He was able to let me do what I wanted to do and help me bring it all together and hone it into something that made a complete statement. When I’m in the studio, I just like to play. I write. I don¹t wanna be a producer at all. I wanna have amazing ideas. I wanna write stuff and create incredible bass lines and that’s all I wanna do. So it’s great when you have somebody there who’s like, “Okay, cool, but let’s get this all together and see how we can make a different picture.” So that was a great thing. And, I must admit, it was nice to work with somebody Black (laughs). Craig Street, that was great, too. Just the beginning of, “Oh, you get all my references! You know where I’m coming from.” Not that anything’s racial. Like, I love David [Gamson]. It was a phenomenal experience. And Bob Power, they’re like the greatest teachers. But to make a record where I’m critiquing myself in Black society and pop culture and they got all the references I was trying to make and how it feels to live in that? That was great!

 

So basically you needed somebody to help you focus your ideas on where you were at.

 

Yeah. Like after Bitter and people telling me all that nonsense, like, “You forsaked your Black audience.” I was like, “You don¹t know.” If I was Sarah McClachlan, you would have played my record! And that’s what made me sad. But then they have Black people tell me I’m “not Black?” That shit’s crazy! I’m just, like, “Y’all have bought into this crap!” And I just can’t do it! I make music! Like my music because you like the music, not because of what color I am or where you think it fits in your parameter! They’ve turned us all into one huge demographic!

 

It seems to be, in spite of all this going on, that there’s some level of energy going on as far as independent artists, independent voices, particularly on the Black side of things.

 

Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of people. The thing is, if the record company doesn’t see that they can make money off of it, they’re never gonna get signed. That’s how stuff works. And that’s cool, I understand it. That’s their money. But I just feel that we’re missing out on a lot of interesting music, just ’cause we make these cookie cutout records. Just like everything’s gotta sound like everything else. Like there’s a Black Britney Spears. That’s just crazy to me. I can’t even, like, process that. Like, “Huh?”

 

Right-

 

It’s a good thing. I’m excited. I’m hoping to get out and play because I think that’s what’s gonna open up people’s minds, people wanting the live music experience. I’ve moved on to my next record and I just don¹t see as something I’m gonna do through a record company because they don¹t get it. You have to persuade them to get it. There are so many other people who are hungry for some different kind of music. The radio is for people who don¹t buy records. Radio is for people who don¹t like music. I plan to access the people who are in to some different shit and wanna experience different stuff. It all comes down to everybody wants to eat. But lately they’ve been selling us on how to be rich. I may not get rich, but hopefully I’m gonna create some incredible music and I don¹t know if record companies are ready for that, deal with cats who just wanna make music, have a career. Not just like these get-rich-quick schemes with making the flavor of the month tune.

 

Let’s talk about the current project. How long has this one been done?

 

My record was supposed to come out in September, but somebody ran a plane into some buildings, kinda slowed some shit down. (Laughs) But my record’s been done since June of last year. We didn’t have much money. I think we did it in three or four months.

 

Sounds almost like a jazz record.

 

Oh, yeah, that’s how you gotta do, be funky. Be funky and get everybody in, keep it movin’. I don¹t know how folks be, like, “I spent three years makin’ a record and spent 25 million dollars!” That’s crazy! I can’t even imagine. And they wonder why they don¹t make their money back! That’s just crazy!

 

Let’s not go there.

 

(Laughs) Yeah, go ‘head!

 

Cookie sounds like a very observational record. Where Bitter was very internalized, Cookie sounded like you had a lot of things that you had to get off your chest.

 

Yeah, they’re just stories. They’re just talkin’ stories, man. I sit in my basement and I just start writing and then all of a sudden I start to see a picture and I hear the picture. It becomes like a movie in my head and I can see it and I know what I wanna write about, what I’m feeling and experiencing. I kind of knew every song. I had the sequence of this record before it was done and it only went through maybe two changes. It’s a whole picture in my head. I just love concept records. Like those Pink Floyd records, The Wall and the early Funkadelic stuff. And the Prince records were little experiences, a part of his life like chapters in his memoirs. That’s just where I come from.

 

You worked with a bunch of different people who come from the same kind of energy. Talib Kweli, Caron Wheeler, Lalah Hathaway-

 

Yeah, well, the record company wanted me to get like Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Maxwell, D’Angelo, all the popular people who had selling quotas and marketability. I asked all of ‘em and for various reasons and things, it never happened. Spiritually, this worked for the better. I got to work with people who I love and admire and who I think are some of the best fuckin’ singers out there. I don¹t mean to be arrogant, but Lalah Hathaway can sing! Like, for real! And that’s great and I love having that. She may not be selling a million records but there’s no doubt whoever’s gonna hear this record gonna tell me that she can’t sing her ass off.

 

As opposed to be forced to use some quote/unquote “name” artist who may not be anywhere near as talented, but helps the “marketability” of the record.

 

I have names, but I have, like, the original emcees! I got Angela Davis, Countee Cullen, Gil Scott-Heron, you know? I got Michael Hampton from Funkadelic. They’re not “marketable” or people may not know about ‘em, but that’s what I’m trying to tell people. Don¹t worry about what his name his. Did you dig what he was playing? You don¹t have to know who he is, did you dig what he was singin’? You don¹t have to know what they look like, it’s funky, ain’t it? (Laughs) That’s what I’m going for.

 

The other thing is, if you know anything at all about Black music and the history, you know these people.

 

Yeah, I’m trying give up that, too. No one’s gonna get it from a historical point of view. ‘Cause record companies, if you say historicalŠlet me get a quote. I coulda got Stevie Wonder on my record, right? Stevie Wonder. Stevie goddamn fuckin’ Wonder. And he was just like, “I’ll play whatever. Just pay me what you can, it’s all good.” He was gonna play on “Earth,” which is totally inspired by him. When he did, “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and all those different people were singing on it? That’s my ode to him and he’s gonna do it. My record company said, “We don’t pay for geniuses or legends.”

 

(Long, interminable pause)

 

“We don’t pay for geniuses or legends.”

 

“We don’t pay for geniuses or legends.” And that’s where we are. It’s not marketable. But I’m, like, “He can play his ass off!” (Laughs).

 

That’s something I wanted to touch on, this overwhelming disrespect for Black genius.

 

Uh, yeah! Definitely. It’s sad, isn’t it? But it’s also lessons for me. Like I said in the beginning, I love myself. I’m trying to make good music. I don¹t wanna be canonized. But I feel good when I know I respect my elders. I know where I came from and I wanna sleep well at night, you know what I’m saying? I wanna be all right. Because pretty soon, I’ll be, like, 67 years old and all that matters is the people I have in my life who love me and just who I am as a person. And on September 11th, I realized that I just wanna be a good person. And all this stuff is so fleeting. It’s just a fleeting thing, just money and all the pressures in the world and Grammys. It’s crazy. I’m just tryin’ to make music. I’m ready to blow the whole world up in a spiritual sense, a mental sense. Like free your mind and your ass will follow. I’m an untied dog in a dogmatic society. I’m about to let it all just be free.

HERBIE HANCOCK

Herbie Hancock, legendary virtuoso keyboardist, composer and producer, has always had his eyes fixed firmly on what’s next. From his apprenticeships with legends like Miles Davis, to cutting edge work in jazz/funk fusion with his Headhunters band, to his hip-hop experiments when the genre was in its infancy, Hancock has almost always been a step or two ahead of his contemporaries. With his new album, Future 2 Future, on his own independent Transparent Music label, he reunites with longtime cohort Bill Laswell to push popular music into the next century.

 

Let’s start off by talking about your label, Transparent Music. Does this mean that your contract with Verve Records is finished?

 

No. My contract with Verve was modified to allow me to do special projects for Transparent Music, special projects that don¹t fit into the normal direction of Verve Records. And to do the projects that fit more into the normal scheme of things with Verve for Verve. That’s why my new record, Future 2 Future, is an appropriate one for Transparent Music rather than Verve.

 

My assessment would be that being because Verve tends to specialize in more traditional styles of jazz than more expansive and progressive directions.

 

Yeah.

 

Is this a label through which you’ll be putting out other artists or is this really a home for your projects outside of Verve?

 

We have been in existence for more than a year and we already have about six, seven, maybe eight records that are already out by other artists. And we’re continuing to look for new artists and new material and new ways of promoting it.

 

This project paired you up again with Bill Laswell. What attracts you to working with him and what sort of things do you get out of your collaborations with him?

 

Bill is a very aware person, aware not just of music and musicians, but he’s aware of social issues, other art forms, literature, dance, the graphic arts. He’s aware of what’s going on in the world. And he has a very open and colorful palette from which to draw upon for his musical sources and inspiration. This is one of the things that attracts me to Bill, that kind of openness and that kind of awareness. It also means that he is much more up on literature and paintings than I am, and in this particular case, what he brings to the table was his sense of awareness of this area called “electronica.” I wasn’t even aware of its existence. Electronica, drum ‘n bass, he kinda keeps abreast of all those things and electronica is kind of a new cutting edge direction that’s happening in music now. He was able to bring his suggestions as to artists to collaborate with and bring some of their material to me to work on for this project.

 

When you started working on this project did you have any set objectives? Did you have a thumbnail sketch, blueprint or concept or did things just fall together organically?

 

Actually, that was the process. The blueprint, if anything, was that. We wanted to utilize spontaneity and immediate response rather than analytical processes to put this record together. We wanted to work off of the senses, instinct rather than the intellect.

 

There’s a lot of new energy coming from the direction you seem to be headed and from emerging talents featured here.

 

Yeah, like we already mentioned, we utilized the strengths of the different generations that were part of this collaboration. The strengths of the experience of the musicians‹the more seasoned musicians, like Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Chaka Kahn and myself‹was part of what into this collaboration, because this is what the younger musicians who are really carving out this area of electronica don’t have. What they do bring to the table is their fervor of youth, their openness, their sense of adventure, their energy. There’s a freshness to these young people. All in all, I think we have an advantage to getting the best of both worlds. There’s an overview that the older musicians might have that the younger musicians might not have that might put a more balanced perspective on the flow of energy on the project. The older musicians could not have done it without the younger ones, nor could the younger ones have done it without the older ones.

 

A record is made, a record is put out, a record is marketed in hopes that people will check the music out. Did you have any particular thoughts about how to present this music to a general audience or did you just do the work looking to put it out and hope for the best?

 

I created this record because I had to create the work. Listen to what I said and how I said it. That tells you a lot. Of course, I want people to be able make their own choices. In order for people to choose whether they like it or not, they’ve have to hear it. I didn¹t have a blind eye to the reality that we can’t expect a whole lot of airplay for this kind of music. What that requires is for the marketing people to figure out some creative ways to get this kind of music to the people so that they can make their own choices. But that’s what they do. What I do is make the music. I’ve been around for a while and I’ve got a pretty good reputation with the public, so I don¹t feel I have to prove anything to anybody. That puts me in a pretty advantageous position of feeling a certain amount of freedom of choice in what I want to record. I’m more interested in what do I want to promote to the public. What I was more conscious of, more than demographics, was the fact that, here we are in the year 2000, a new millennium, a new century, but where is the new music for the new age. I think it’s time to make some statements that promote a wider vision of possibilities for music. And that’s what I want to promote.

 

You’ve had the opportunity to work with a great number of visionary individuals. In many respects, you’re a visionary in your own right-

 

Oh, thank you-

 

At this particular moment, given the musical landscape, what sort of perspective do you have on it?

 

My perspective on music coming from here, and I think it ties in with the question that Future 2 Futures really asks, is “where is the music for the new millennium?” One thing that seems to be certain at this point in time is that radio as a vehicle for the exposure of music doesn’t live up to the name of being “broadcast.” It’s very, very “narrowcast.” And there really aren’t enough avenues for the exposure of the variety or musical possibilities, some which are capable of being created from here. And as a result, because this is has been going on for so long, I’m finding that a lot of artists are becoming real jaded into those specific areas where they can get airplay. So a lot of the music is being created for radio at the present time, which makes it fit into these narrow confines. Consequently, there isn’t a lot of material of great variety to draw from, because people aren’t writing. People aren’t encouraged to produce a broad variety of music. There’s just some crazy people out there who would just do it anyway. (Laughs).

FISHBONE

When we last left Fishbone, our heroes seemed to be vanquished by their longtime nemesis, the evil pseudo-music empire. Banished to the nether regions while whitewashed copycats were anointed with the keys to the kingdom, several members of the band gave up fighting the good fight. But the core-Angelo Moore, Norwood Fisher and Dirty Walt Kibby-persevered, surrounded themselves with new troops and launched a new musical salvo: The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx. Clones and corny jackfackers, beware! Fishbone is coming for that ass!

 

Q. Let’s bring everybody up to speed with some of the things you guys have been up to since Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge. What have y’all been doing the past few years?

 

A. Shit, man, since Chim Chim, we did a lot of touring. Mostly as a survival tactic, because that’s how the bills get paid. In between time, we have our own recording studio called The Nuttsack, and we cut a bunch of different projects. I cut a record for a side project called Trulio Disgracias. That’s a ten-year old labor of love project based on live performance with massive amounts of people on it. Right now, I’m negotiating a distribution deal ’cause we formed our own record label called Nuttfactor Five. We recorded a solo record for Dirty Walt [Kibby], Dirty Walt and the Columbus Sanitation Department. Angelo recorded Dr. Maddvibe’s Comprehensive Linkology. He put his poetry to a musical background, and played mostly all the instruments. I did an East L.A. all-Mexican band, doing alternative music. It’s balled Barrio Sartistas. I formed a label called “Mixed Nutt,” with a cat named Eddie Ayala, a Latino punk-rock pioneer, from a band called Los Illegals. But mostly, we lost a couple of band members in that period. Fish left the band. John Bingham left the band. We suffered greatly for a while. But now we got a new lineup with John Steward from Super 8. Then there’s John McKnight, keyboardist and trombone player. He was from a reggae band called Upstream. He was down with Ben Harper on his first record, he played a lot of the instruments on that record. He’s just a massive talent. Then we got Spacey T, who was a band called Sound Barrier, all-black heavy metal band. He also played in Mother’s Finest, Ras Michaels, Boom Shaka, and a bunch of other reggae bands. That brings us to about right now.

 

Q. What’s the vibe like with you and the new band members?

 

A. Right now, it feels like a band again. All the original members came together as 13 and 14 year olds. Those were all people I felt I would know forever. Maybe I still feel like there’ll come a time when we’ll all get back together and at least be able to be friends, even if we don’t do the band thing again. But there was a time when things were starting to get splintered and it didn’t feel like a band. Now it feels like we’ve got the right personalities in the band. Everybody’s really different-not a homogenous society-but everybody respects each other and we’re all old enough to know how to give each other space. It’s really exciting, because everybody is a really incredible musician.

 

Q. With all the changes, do you feel that you have to live up to a certain standard that you set, or is this just the next step?

 

A. This is just the next step in the comic book. The episode just keeps unfolding. When we were a lot younger, we never felt we were good enough musically. When I look back, I’m thinkin’, “Wow, we were doin’ some amazing shit.” But at the time we were goin’, “Man, we’ll never be good enough.” Overton Lloyd, who did all the art for all the old P-Funk records pointed it out to me. He said, “You probably don’t think you’re good enough.” And I turned around, like, “Yeah, we’ll never be good enough!” And he was like, “Uh, huh…” And just the way he responded made me think, “Wait a minute… maybe I am good enough.” (Laughs) There’s no obligation to what we do. We feel really comfortable with who we are as people and just human beings, man. As far as I can tell, we’re about the only all-Black rock band that’s still out there. Now I could get caught up in feeling obligated one way or another as that. But I know who I am. I know what I’ve done. I’ve been a part of something that had an influence on everything that has to do with music. It goes from No Doubt to Limp Bizkit. I’m really proud of the fact that Mos Def shouted us out on his record.

 

Q. Fishbone doesn’t get enough credit for all of the things you’ve contributed. There are so many bands that have come after you, blowin’ up all over the place: Chili Peppers, Sugar Ray, Smashmouth, No Doubt. Do you ever wonder what might have happened if you got the same kind of love as these other bands?

 

A. Yeah, somebody probably woulda shot somebody in the band. (Laughs). Let me tell you this. Right after George Clinton produced Freaky Style for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, there was a birthday party at Flea’s house. We all had a little jam, where I was playin’ upright bass, Flea was playin’ guitar, the Pepper’s manager, Lenny Getz was playin’ drums and George Clinton was singing. George took me to the side and he was like, “I know y’all started this shit, but y’all are gonna be the last ones to get paid, because you’re the pioneers. But if you stay together, and stick it out, you’ll get your reward.” And I was like, “Well, he oughta know, ’cause he went the same route.” So that’s always been in the back of my mind as I go on this journey.

 

Q. When did y’all start getting to work on the current project?

 

A. The concept for the album came before Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge. But we needed to make Chim Chim, because of the way the band felt in general about the music industry. We had to exorcise our demons. That’s where the darkness of that album came from. We were addressing a lot of things within ourselves and about the record industry. John Bingham came up with the concept for Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx. “Let’s get all our friends to be on this record.” ‘Cause we had been doin’ the Trulio Disgracias thing which, you know, there’s about 50 mugs that claim Trulio Disgracias at any given time. So we were like, let’s do a record where we bring in different people in a Funkadelic style fashion. We hooked up with Dallas [Austin], made Chim Chim. We’d started writing for an album that would have been called The Nuttcase Scenario, when Rowdy severed ties with Arista and Dallas just put it to bed. Those tapes never saw the light of day.

 

Q. That was a difficult period for you guys. Arista’s blowing up now with some rock stuff. For whatever reasons, they never got behind the Black rock acts, like y’all, Corey Glover and Esperanza. They never gave y’all the same kind of push as, say, Sarah McLachlan and Carlos Santana now. It broke a lot of people’s hearts that they couldn’t get behind those records they way they should have.

 

A. But that was Dallas’ major beef! I always respect Dallas for standing up at that point and going like, “I can’t be down with this,” when he recognized that it wasn’t gonna be happening in Clive Davis’ house.

 

Q. The record sounds really tight. It’s probably one of the cleanest records y’all have ever done. It sounds like a Steely Dan record, to be honest.

 

A. The guy who mixed it had a lot to do with the way it feels. That was Bill Chenet. But it was mostly Steve Lindsey, the producer. When we sat down to pick a producer, we were like, “We’ve gotta pick somebody and listen to them. Do somethin’ different with our style.” Because the classic Fishbone modus operandi is, “Yo, we ain’t listenin’ to nobody!” We were like, “Well, let’s pay attention this time and see how much we learn.”

 

Q. Did you have specific people in mind to do certain things, or were people just kind of hangin’ out? How much of it was organized and how much was, “Fuck it, just go in and do this.”

 

A. A lot of it was organized, about 65 percent organized. We knew who we wanted to be involved. But some people, we just brought in, let ‘em hear a few tracks, and however they felt, we let ‘em go that way. Perry Farrell was one person like that. We knew what we wanted Gwen Stefani from No Doubt to do, but we also let her feel some other things. We put Blow Fly on a couple of different tracks, we only kept him on one. And George Clinton as well. We knew we wanted to put him on “Everybody Is A Star.” But there’s a track that will surface a little later-you might get it on the Internet, you might get it on a b-side, I’m not sure. But we got Fishbone and Primus doin’ the rhythm track, with Buckethead and it’s got the Alkoholiks, Blow Fly, George Clinton and Lonnie Marshall of Weapon of Choice and David Bearwald doin’ all the vocals. So one day that track is gonna surface. I’m looking for it to be loaded to let people get it for free on the Internet. I hope it makes it that way.

 

Q. You made it a point to get a lot of cats on the underground scene out in L.A. There’s a lot of really great shit comin’ out of L.A.’s underground that doesn’t make the light of day. ‘Cause everybody’s listenin’ to Dre, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube records. And no disrespect to them, because I dig them too-

 

A. Right, definitely-

 

Q. But everybody thinks of L.A. as being “gangsta rap central.” Nobody recognizes there’s a whole bunch of cats coming out of the underground. Weapon of Choice, Freak Juice. East L.A.’s got a scene with Ozomatli and Malatov. Ben Harper came out of that scene. Cree Summer’s out of there-

 

A. Man, she’s suffering undeservedly as an artist who should be so huge! When I heard her record I was like, “Women worldwide should love her record! Just ’cause of her stance!” But anybody who’s got an ear can hear that the songs are fuckin’ incredible! I’d like to think that today the world is a little bit different when it comes down to diversity of artists. Fact is, there’s so many different expressions. Right now, we’re in a space to where, if you’re Black, you gotta be a thug, you gotta be a player, somewhere on the underbelly of society. That’s where you belong-

 

Q. If you’re a woman, you gotta be some kind of gold digger lookin’ for a guy to pay their bills.

 

A. Right. Fishbone and Cree and tons of people in the underground in L.A. bring it from a different angle. You can think in a diverse manner. You can love Snoop, but you can also love Fishbone.

 

Q. It’s hard to tell the way the music industry rolls sometimes. Just when you think you’re getting’ a little bit of somethin’, it’s like the old shell game-

 

A. Right. (Laughs)

 

Q. “We’ll give you a little bit of D’Angelo, we’ll give you a little bit of Erykah Badu,” and then everybody starts saying, “Music is changing.” Then they hit you with all the corny shit, and you can’t get any of the stuff you were feenin’ for in the first place. But my gut tells me that people want something else. Like they’re waiting for people to step up and represent.

 

A. Well, I was feelin’ that for a while. Then Dr. Dre did, “Been There, Done That,” I was like, okay, he’s feelin’ it, too. (Laughs). I think the current situation with pop music, like when things go so far to the pop side, there’s no place else to look except the underground. There is something happening that’s different. Shit, the three-year old kid whose parents listen to what’s happening now, where his head is gonna be is where I wanna be.

CHOCOLATE GENIUS

The trickster has been part of the African tradition since recorded history, a velvet-tongued creature who changes form usually for some self-serving purpose. A most recent sighting might be in the form of Marc Anthony Thompson a/k/a Chocolate Genius. Armed with the brilliant V2 CD, Black Music, and an alternately seductive and acerbic live show, Genius has you questioning your comings and goings‹like any half-decent trickster should.

 

What’s the concept behind Chocolate Genius?

 

That snowballed out of a whim. It’s so funny to choose a name for your project or your group or whatever, because, in hindsight, a lot of names that might have seemed kind of silly, all of a sudden become household names. If I was starting a band tomorrow and somebody came to me, and said, “Let’s call it the Beatles or The Red Hot Chili Peppers,” I’d say, “Man, all those stupid-ass names. Forget about it.” But yet, somehow, as the music is accepted, those names seep into your public consciousness and they work. It’s entertainment. I released a couple of records under my own name that were strictly solo projects, where I played all the instruments, produced ‘em and performed ‘em myself. I wanted to distance myself and say this was a new chapter, so I wanted to change the name. The other thing is, my name is nice, I’m glad my parents gave it to me, but it doesn’t have much splash. It’s just “Marc Anthony Thompson.” It wasn’t something I wanted to call this record.

 

So, basically it’s sex appeal‹

 

Exactly. It’s got a little sex appeal to it. Plus, it’s kind of funny. The “genius” thing is funny, but I’m using “genius” as an adjective. I’m not saying, “I’m a genius.” If you see something cool, you say, “Wow, that’s genius.” You can substitute “cool” for that or whatever. And then the ³Chocolate² thing, I just thought the two words sounded really good together. It started out as this side project. I would go onstage with this big Afro wig and I was like a Don Rickles with the guitar. I would insult the audience and pick on tourists for 15 minutes, then we would do a song for three minutes, then I would do this rap for another 20 minutes. The Chocolate Genius character was a joke. He was this guy who was supposed to be from some small town who played in his bedroom, never played live. He always thought he was playing at Madison Square Garden, even if he was playing in front of two people. He was just this cocky guy. But then I kinda dug the name, I just started thinkin’, “Yeah, this’ll work for a minute.” So when the deal came along, I didn’t even question it. It was just ³Chocolate Genius.’³

 

The album is titled Black Music and, stylistically, it brings Black music back to its fundamentals, its roots. Did the title come first or did the music come first, thus bringing about the title?

 

The title came last. The record was done and I was putting the art together when I decided to call it Black Music. That wasn’t the concept. These were just songs that were real close to me and the approach the most natural I could have taken at this point. Previously, I¹d been working with a lot of samplers and stuff I programmed myself. This record was a reaction to that; I was just sick of going that route. I wanted to get back to doing an organic record. I wanted to get back to bashing songs out with three or four people sitting in a room. The title came up because  people kept commenting on how dark the songs were. I also knew from my experience that usually you bring a record in and they’re gonna try to find market or format for it. It’s always this question of‹at least the label I was on previously [Warner Bros.] was‹how is the Black music department gonna handle this record. And I thought this was a real tongue-in-cheek way to make people question what Black music was in the 90s.

 

In talking about what Black music has become‹evolved, devolved into, depending on how you look at it‹how do you bring a record like this, being that you are, in fact, laying out a challenge?

 

I wish I was as competent as I am in the studio in terms of the marketing approach. I’m really competent at making records, I don’t know how we’re gonna get this record across. I know how I would like it to get across. I¹m hopefully raising some questions. I’m not at all being a spokesman for what I think Black music should be because it’s a‹

 

It’s an individual thing‹

 

Yeah, it’s an individual thing. I take pride, special pride, in achievements of Black people. But I take pride in all human achievements I think are good. This record, certainly, I just wanted to push the boundaries of what people think Black music is. And it wasn’t even a conscious decision, it’s just how I live. We’ve done too many things to just be pigeon-holed by Puff Daddy or whoever, and saying, “Well, this is Black music in the 90s.” There’s just too much different stuff. I’m certainly hearing and feeling a lot of different stuff. These were all just the musical soundscapes I thought were the most natural for the words of each particular song, but I certainly wasn’t trying to define anything.

 

What about the overall climate or atmosphere? Because, at least as far as mainstream outlets are concerned, there’s basically one accepted sound or definition of a genre at a given time. People say such and such is what’s happening in terms of Black music right now, but there are so many other expressions by so many other artists. What’s your overall feeling about the climate as far as‹pardon the pun‹Black music?

 

Well, you hit the nail on the head. I was way into Taj Mahal, way into The Staple Singers, way into Al Green, way into David Ruffin, all these people. Yet at the same time, I like Culture Club, I like the Rolling Stones, I like some techno stuff, Roxy Music. And if it wasn’t for me being in marketplace at this time, I probably would avoid current totally, except for things people tell me are good. So I haven’t really been in a position to have to deal with the climate of what’s going on because I don’t really listen to the radio. There’s too much bad music floating around, they’re signing too many folks. There’s too many people jumping on whatever trend is happening at the moment. For me, it’s like the most natural thing in the world to pick up a guitar and be playin’ some shit that a lot people would call way off the wall. I’ve said before, and I could eat my words, but I think‹I hope‹three months to a year from now, the climate might be right for this record. I’m sure there’s gotta be people who are pretty sick of being fed what it’s supposed to be. There is a pretty slim outlet for new Black music. I think there is a fan base now. Things are diversified. You got kids in Minneapolis or Seattle with their pants sagging. I can drive through Hollywood and Los Angeles and listen to blonde girls playing Wu Tang Clan. Hopefully, this stale-ass climate I perceive, ’cause it’s pretty easy to at least hug cynicism, if not embrace it, hopefully all of that will change a little bit over the next few years.

 

How do make that transition between having complete control over everything to taking a leap of faith in trusting other people in the studio with your material?

 

One part is, a bit of maturity. When you gain confidence, the only way you let part of yourself go is to feel absolutely confident in the fact that you know your vision is strong enough that it can stand to be adjusted a little bit. I wasn’t gonna lose my vision; it wasn’t gonna be watered down by collaborating with the right people. The second part is, these were the right people at the right time. Before, I kind of did records by myself by default. I just found myself constantly explaining to musicians what I wanted them to play. And I’d be thinkin’, “Damn, if you just put the guitar down, I could play this part and this would be ten times simpler. I wouldn’t be wasting studio time.” In the end, I just said, “Fuck it, I’ll just do it myself.” In the interim, I started to meet some amazing musicians, who were sympathetic, who I didn’t have to explain things to, because we saw things the same. If not necessarily the same, at least there was a sympathetic language, a synergy that I hadn’t felt before. So I intentionally gave up‹I won’t say control, because I still produced this record with my good friend Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Craig Street. I even gained a certain amount of control by giving up elements. I used to feel like I had to do everything, from the artwork all the way down to print ads. But now I realize you can do brilliant work by surrounding yourself with brilliant people and delineating some of those tasks. You’re not gonna get a watered down project. You might get something that’s even stronger, because you’ve opened yourself up to suggestions. I worked with Abe, a really brilliant drummer who co-produced the record and wrote three or four songs with me. I’ve got John Medeski on organ, Chris Wood on bass, Mark Batson from Nona Hendryx’ band. I’ve got Melvin Gibbs playing bass from the Rollins band. I got Dougie Bound playing drums who¹s played with everyone from Marianne Faithful to Ryuichi Sakamoto and the list just goes on and on. With these musicians I really felt absolutely comfortable. I never for a second felt anyone on this project was there for anything else than working these songs to the way I felt that they should be finished, and everybody was right on board for that. It was really a pleasure. As a matter of fact it’s spoiled me a bit now, because I go down to my studio and I’m trying to start some new songs and I look around and think, “Damn, it sure would be nice if Abe was here with me. Or if I could have John playing keyboards right now.” So it was definitely a very beautiful learning experience and it has opened my eyes immensely to the fact that collaboration can be a really beautiful thing.

CARL HANCOCK RUX

To listen to Carl Hancock Rux’ alternately blistering and blissful commentary is to attest to an artist who picks at his own sores as readily as he salves them, a life borne out of tragedy that painstakingly claws out its own victory-whether or not we perceive it as such. His Sony 550 debut, Rux Revue, is a case study in unconditional honesty-how much a man can gorge himself in flame and still emerge on the other side, how much of him remains and in what ways he’s changed.

 

You’re from Harlem originally?

 

I was born in Harlem, but I wasn’t raised in Harlem. I lived in Harlem until I was about four, with my grandmother, who died. Then I lived in the Bronx, mostly with foster parents.

 

Your upbringing was nothing short of traumatic in many respects. What were some of the feelings you had about this nomadic sort of existence and what helped you stay centered?

 

I was absolutely unsure about everything. I didn’t feel like I had a traditional family structure. For instance, there’s the traumatic death of the reality of my biological mother, who was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalized. I’ve always known who and where she was, but there’s no relationship, so there’s this weird thing going on. Like, “My mother’s there. What does that mean?” No clue whatsoever who my biological father was. Two brothers with different fathers, no clue who their fathers were and then neither of us related to the other, so I had an incredible insecurity. Nobody asks children what their feelings are about their lives and what they mean, or what they may think they mean. If people provide food, clothing and shelter for children, they say, “That’s enough. You’re okay.” But it wasn’t enough for me. The thing that kept me centered, from the age of four, was drawing. I was doing art before I could write. I was writing little short stories. I was always listening to lots of music. I was creating a little fantasy world for myself. My adoptive mother died recently and I went through some of things she kept-things written as a child I didn’t even know I’d done. Inside of all that-this magical world-was some of what was ugly about my life, things that you wouldn’t expect a child to say. But that’s what kept me centered: holding on the reality and making the fantasy at the same time.

 

What kind of formal education did you have?

 

I went to the High School of Music and Art. Got a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University. I attempted to go to grad school, but I stopped. I wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t clear how furthering my formal education was gonna help me do that. So I just stopped and focused. Tried to be sure of my views. Started writing plays, poetry. But when I was in Columbia University, I worked with the International Theater Company as a drama intern and I went to the American University in Paris for a minute to study comparative literature and sort of focus on the things I wanted to write.

 

What sort of positive reinforcement did you get from people around you, or were you cut off from that?

 

My foster mother, who also became my adoptive mother, was really supportive of me as an artist. She was always incredibly encouraging. My foster/adoptive father was like, “Learn a trade.” But that’s the world he came from. He worked in a factory. He worked with his hands. He thought art was a ridiculous escape, especially for a Black man in America, so he wasn’t interested by my interest in art. And then in schools, yeah. People recognized early on that I had all this creative energy and were always pretty supportive of it.

 

How did you start developing your ideology?

 

My ideology developed itself based on my life experience.  There was my own strange personal history and how I saw myself in that. Then there was all the literature, all the movies, all the music I was experiencing. I allowed that to inform my feeling about things. There’s a little bit of decadence and some nationalism. Then there’s some political beliefs that are not as defined. I’m trying real hard not to speak about or to things or have conclusive ideas about things that I don’t know anything about yet. If I don’t really know anything about it and if it hasn’t really affected me personally, I’m trying not to go there ’til I’ve figured that out. My world and my ideology are incredibly personal. It’s personal and political in a global way, because there are other people who feel the same thing. Our politics as people are best when they’re borne out of how we relate to the personal, as opposed to creating some ideology for the sake of creating an ideology because we think we should “have ideas” about everything.

 

What was your formal entry into the literary world?

 

My older brother, who I grew up with, moved back to New York City. We got to know each other and we had this great relationship. Then he died like a year later. He died of AIDS and I became his primary caretaker. Again, it was like the continuation of trauma for me. To never have something that you wanted, to finally get it and then have it snatched away from you. It just, like, flipped me. As he was hauled away, it was like, “There’s my brother, and WHAM! I can’t have that!” So I didn’t know else to do except to write this play. And it was produced-that was the first thing, about 1991. It called, “Song of Seven Men,” about Black men like myself. But it was also about a community that had a great heyday and then had fallen into decline and what do we do with that? What do we do with the people who are here who are just wasting away? That was really the first thing. And writing plays and collaborating. It’s New York and working with a lot of musicians, dancers, artists, writers. I was hangin’ out at the Nuyorican [Poets Cafe] and these poets’ spaces in New York.

 

What does being in the studio and recording yourself do for you that performing live doesn’t? And vice versa?

 

Well, those two things are not in opposition to each other. One is the natural progression of the other. Writing is a very personal thing I do in solitude. Then going to a studio or going to the stage is the next level of that. It’s collaborative. There are musicians and producers and singers. And it’s about figuring out, “How do I land this idea? How do I take these words I have and how do I sing them? How do I phrase them? How do I want them to sound? How do I want my voice to sound? What does the bass and the guitar and the drums bring to this that makes it something else or informs it a whole other way?” It’s about being in a room with other artists and figuring out how your art lives in their art.

 

There have been many poets who’ve recorded their work, but only a few really on a major label. Now that it seems that spoken word is becoming more popular, the majors seem to be trying to stick their toes in the water. What does it represent for you, being on the vanguard as one of the few poets on a major label, especially as huge a label as Sony?

 

Wow, that’s a good question. It’s funny, ’cause, you did have this sort of interest from major labels for a minute in the early ’90s, and then that changed. After ’93, ’94, when major labels saw spoken word as some incredibly viable thing, they were running around trying to sign a whole bunch of poets. Which I don’t think is happening now. And I don’t think Sony signed me with that in mind, either. The way I was signed was, I was gigging around a lot with my band, ’cause I wanted to just work it out. The term “spoken word,” to me, is misleading. Because it doesn’t describe what everybody does. It doesn’t describe to me what I do. I speak some of my poetry, sing some of it, speak and sing some of it. I’ve always done this. Then I relay my poetry in the company of musicians and interpret the work. This is what Polly Anthony, president of 550 and Epic, saw. She came down to one of the shows at Izzy Bar and decided to bring people from Sony down to see me at the Nuyorican, and brought other people to see me at CB’s 313 Gallery. And just kept seeing me consistently. And I think what she responded to. For that reason, to me, there’s something kinda homogenous, kind of honest about it. Polly Anthony, being the president of two labels at a major label, she’s responsible for making sure that those labels are making money. But she didn’t sign me because she thought she was gonna make major money with me as an artist. I don’t think what I did immediately made itself clear to her in the commercial market or the commercial arena of music. People tend to find the carbon copy of something that is actually selling right now as a sure way of making some dollars. So being at Sony doesn’t resonate so much to me. I see it as a great opportunity to do my art and to have my art marketed in a way that is national or international. To have a system of power that a lot people don’t have or may not have in their lifetime. Which is unfortunate, because there are people who are incredible and should be at some major labels right now, poets, singers and musicians and whatever. That’s what it means. I’m real happy to have this opportunity to bring myself to the forefront.

GREG TATE

In this edition of Progressive Forum, we continue our celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the Black Rock Coalition with a tribute to the three co-founders of the organization: Guitarist/band leader exemplar Vernon Reid, musician/journalist Greg Tate; manager/video and film producer Konda Mason. In this second installment, we speak with Greg Tate, author of the BRC Manifesto and conceptual architect of the Black Rock Coalition.

 

How did you end up getting in the mix with Vernon and Konda?

 

I first heard Vernon around 1979 and he came through DC with the band with the band Defunkt. It was really the first time I’d seen a guitar player who was my age that was playing on his level and in that context. It was just like, “Wow, this is really kind of hip. The cat can really play.” And he connected with these pretty impressive characters as well. We formally met after I came from DC to New York, about two years later. And we just started talkin’. Then he was playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson and one of the first pieces I got assigned by Musician magazine when I got here was to do a piece on Ronnie Drayton playing with James Blood Ulmer and Vernon playing with Ronald Shannon Jackson. I went out to their homes and interviewed them and got tight with both of those brothers around the same time. So Vernon and I were always just talkin’, rappin’. And he felt there was a need to have just a discussion about the state of Black rock music and of the Black musician relative to Rock culture. We decided to hold that meeting at this place called Jams, an art gallery down on Broadway, where I had worked at one point. And Vernon and I were tight with the director, Linda Goode-Bryant. Parenthetically, Jam was the place we held the first meetings for the BRC. Konda was one of the people brought in by [Fred] “Flip” Barnes. Konda also turned out to be real close with Craig Street, who was really like a founding member. Craig and Konda knew each other from California, they actually worked together on some festival situations out there. It was kind of like a small Black world coming together. It seemed like we all had known each other for a while anyway. Flip and I go back to Howard, so I’ve known him for a few years. Melvin Gibbs was present at those early meetings. Geri Allen and I had gone to Howard together as well. There were a lot of deep connections that were already in place.

 

I’m sure that there were a lot of people at the time asking why it was necessary for an organization like the Black Rock Coalition to be formed.

 

What’s interesting is that we really started out as a way to air out certain gripes that people had about the “glass ceiling” in music for Black musicians. Particularly instrumentalists who really wanted to stretch out and were being told by, let’s say the “R&B” side of the industry, that “Black folks don’t wanna hear loud guitars” and feeling the response from the rock ‘n roll side was that “Niggers can’t play rock ‘n roll.” What started out as a bitching session, really became more about a proactive and developmental approach to the issue, which was, instead of talking about how we’re locked out of the Master’s house, why don’t we just build our own? And that was when it fundamentally came together as an organization. If it had just been about being mad at the music industry, probably no organization would have been formed. But when we started to think about this whole tradition of people in jazz, like Lester Bowie, Art Ensemble of Chicago, when they started their organization in Chicago, the AACM, they just put on their own concerts. When regular clubs didn’t wanna book ‘em, they just put on their own in different meeting spaces. We said we can certainly do that and start to develop our own audience and our own venues. And we also started to think about other ways that we could make an impact in support of our community of musicians. What happened was, when people heard about the cultural agenda of the Black Rock Coalition, that’s when we noticed more and more started appearing at the meetings, and people from a broad walk of life, people from very different walks of life. Early on, there weren’t really so many musicians involved. There were a lot of professional musicians who kinda gave Vernon the vibe, like, “You’re rockin’ the boat. You’ll never eat lunch in this town again. It’s definitely gonna affect your career to be involved in this militant music organization.” But the people who came in were people like Tracie Morris, Don Eversley, people who were lawyers, there were folks who worked on Wall Street, who definitely had some of the fire and the idealism of the ’60s. They knew Vernon and they really wanted to be part of a Black situation where you talk about the cultural, political and social situation of Black folks in the country. There were times in those early meetings when we talked about music, but we talked about everything else that was going on, too. We talked about Yusuf Hawkins, Michael Stewart and a lot of different things got raked over the coals at those first few meetings. It was definitely, in a lot of ways, more of a political activist musical organization than it is now. People were interested less in the plight of the musicians than they were in the plight of how the music could be applied to improving the situation of Black people or speaking to that in a direct manner. And once Living Colour hit, then we definitely saw more of an influx of musicians.

 

The fact that there was so much of an emphasis on the political aspects in the early days rather than the musical, did this help or hinder the organization in the outset?

 

Well, I think it helped a lot in terms of just broadening the audience base. A lot of people told us they came down because of the BRC Manifesto. They really identified with what the manifesto was talking about. They identified with the militancy of it, the Black identification of it. A lot of these were also music people. Not everybody played, but everybody was a serious listener, serious consumer and listened to a broad range of things. And we had great bands who were part of the organization at the time. Melvin and D.K.’s band, I & Eye, Johnny Edwards’ Uptown Atomics, there was J.J. Jumpers. In that beginning phase there were some serious, serious bands out there. We put on some great shows early on. And a lot of people who came down were saying they thought they didn’t like rock, but once they heard what the BRC was doing, they realized that maybe they had to change their idea of what they thought rock was.

 

I gotta figure that part of the struggle early on-indeed, part of the struggle that continues now-is the definition of what rock ‘n roll is supposed to be or not supposed to be.

 

Right. Definitely because the organization was initiated by a guitar player who was very much concerned about the state and position of the Black electric guitar player in rock music, which is the most progressive forum for a guitar player. There was an emphasis on the guitar definition of it, but we noted in the manifesto that if Sting puts together a band with half of Wynton Marsalis’ band and half of Talking Heads is Black folks, it’s still considered a rock thing. But there’s an association with White artists. Because rock essentially, for White artists, it’s just a definition of musical freedom, musical privilege. It’s a license to do whatever you wanna do and have it be sold to the widest possible audience and promoted that way by the business. At least it was at that point in time, as opposed to the energy of the whole Britney-N’Sync-Spice Girls moment we’re in right now, where the industry could give a damn about rock, period, to certain extent. It was definitely about a definition that allowed for musical freedom and musical diversity. That’s what was represented and I think is still represented. You just go to any of our group shows. You’re gonna hear a range of different aesthetic ideas.

 

Over the course of your over 15-year association with the BRC, have there been any particular watershed moments for you?

 

Oh, definitely. The first public event was this party we had at the Jam space, December 7, 1985. It was called the “Drop The Bomb” party. I remember we had a picture of Little Richard and the Japanese rising sun flag behind it. That was just a beautiful event. It was a great coming together of people. And it really cemented the camaraderie of the organization. Then the first musical event was the apartheid concert, around the time of Martin Luther King’s birthday, January of ’86 at The Kitchen. That was our musical coming out. It was definitely saying, “Yeah, there are some young Black players out there who are a force to be reckoned with.” And then next year we did the first of the Stalking Heads concerts, which was two nights at CBs, about ten bands. There were jam sessions at the end with Ronnie Drayton, Vernon and Dr. Know from bad brains. I remember one of the things they did was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a three-guitar version of that. So that was definitely a major, major salvo of the musical events from the Coalition. One of the things Vernon and I always go back to were the weekly meetings at the Jam space-and it was live. It was all the way live, all the time. It was the conversations and the characters that would come through, the diversity of viewpoints. And then we all used to get together afterwards, go eat lunch at a spot around the corner down in Soho and the conversation would be even more wide ranging. Like, over there. People would just talk about all kinds of stuff. Comic books, films, just life experience, different things that happened to folks growing up. It was just a really great bonding experience in terms of the organization. Everybody was kind of into their mid-to-late twenties at that point. Everybody’s career is not set up-

 

A lot of youthful energy.

 

Yeah, a lot of youthful energy, but then a lot of adult focus, too. Folks focused on really making things happen for themselves. A lot of folks really went on to do very considerable things, considerable names for themselves in whatever it is they’re doing. Tracie Morris is somebody whose decision to become an artist was pretty much nurtured inside of the BRC and encouraged and inspired in a lot of ways. Because Tracie was definitely more political activist-minded in those days. And I think she really started to think about another way of expressing herself, changing her position in life from being in a BRC context. And it’s really great just to see somebody like a Tracie really flower through the auspices of the organization.

 

What kind of an impact do you think the organization has had?

 

I definitely think that Living Colour would not have happened without a BRC. And it doesn’t take anything away from the musicianship of those cats, but in terms of making a noise around the band, there was definitely more noise around Vernon as the head of the BRC than there was around Vernon as the leader of Living Colour. In a lot of ways, until you get that record deal, until you get that first hit single, that hit video, you’re just another cat mouthing off on the mic in a lot of people’s eyes. The early audience for Living Colour was definitely a Black BRC audience. And it really kept that band’s name alive and afloat until things really started to happen for them, really even after the release of the record. The record was out about seven months until “Cult of Personality” really hit, when that video came out. On that basis alone, the organization had considerable impact. But I think if you look at something like the Orchestra and the presence that it has in city now. It has such a prominent reputation as a repertory ensemble for African-American popular music. And it’s also created the opportunity for the kind of events that Vernon’s been involved in at BAM now, or the Prince show with The Roots, or the Joni Mitchell tribute. It’s like the seeds for all of that is definitely Black Rock Coalition.

 

And there were other cats like the M-Base Collective,

 

Yeah, who were really a part of it in the beginning. Geri Allen was one of the founders of M-Base as well. And Steve Coleman, Graham Haynes, Gerg Osby were all part of early BRC events. It allowed for a real dialogue between different schools of the music that evolved in the 80s and 90s as well. ‘Cause a lot of times, cats can just get into their clique vibe. I think the BRC really helped break down some of that competitiveness between different schools of thought in the music. In a way, it allowed a platform for folks to say, “Okay, let’s just deal with being musicians and playing. Let’s deal with the love of the music which got us into this thing in the first place anyway.” It was very instrumental on those few fronts in terms of creating a platform for repertory presentation of historic music and then, as well, just breaking down the competitive barriers between different schools of thought, different schools of submissions as well. And for building a greater sense of camaraderie between the musicians and the community.