An important history lesson in diversity.
Here’s quick history lesson: Black rock and roll was there since the beginning — before, even. Alongside Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, there was Ike Turner’s frantic “Rocket 88,” cited by many as first the genuine rock ‘n’ roll tune, Little Richard’s riotous “Tutti Fruitti,” Big Mama Thornton’s lascivious “Hound Dog,” Chuck Berry’s guitar-driven “Maybellene,” to name just a few classic songs by pioneering “colored” artists who cemented rock’s foundation. White artists quickly covered many of these songs, and the watered-down versions often outsold the originals.
The following decade, across the Atlantic, young British musicians like John Lennon and Paul McCartney (The Beatles), Mick Jigger and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Eric Clapton (Cream), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), and many others, would dig into American blackness, explore the essence as they listened to the scratchy recordings of blues-men like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, appropriating and amplifying the dusty-groove findings into their own music. The loudness of these second-hand “blues” spread a cultural amnesia, and rock metamorphosed into the dreaded “white-boy” music.
As the bands got bigger, and serious magazines (Rolling Stone, Creem) were launched to document the musical culture, rock’s historical black roots were buried in books and documentaries. (Thank God for the footage of Jimi Hendrix playing at Monterey and Woodstock; watching it on PBS changed my life). Then, in the early 1980s, a few men of color began stepping forward to reclaim their stake in the sound.
First, there were the Bus Boys, fronted by brothers Brian (keyboards, vocals) and Kevin O’Neal (bass, vocals), who found some critical success by playing a mixture of Devo/B52s-style new wave and straight-up rock and roll. Their witty songs were sometimes inappropriate but always bitingly funny, tackling familiar topics such as the “KKK” and “Minimum Wage”. “I like to challenge the American conscience a bit,” Brian told Jet magazine in 1981. They made it to Saturday Night Live and appeared in Eddie Murphy’s debut film, 48 Hours, singing their signature song, “The Boys are Back in Town”. Yet, for all the Bus Boys talent and bravado, their act was safe and polished. I craved rawness.
And at that moment, a Washington, D.C. crew calling themselves Bad Brains was dreaming up this very punk I needed. They were former jazz-fusion players who switched musical gears after overdosing on the Sex Pistols, and renaming themselves after a Ramones song. The late writer/DJ Tom Terrell, who’d seen them many times in the early days, once told me that, “Before the Bad Brains no other band had been able to combine white noise with black spiritualism and make music sound so powerful.”