Welcome back to RIFF Rewind’s ongoing Black History Month, scheduled to continue until someone in a position of authority takes meaningful steps to addressing racial inequality in America! Which means eventually we’re just going to have to rename the column because, as I went over last week, that hasn’t really happened in about 50 years.
One criticism I’ve received from readers and friends is that I’ve focused too heavily on early rock and roll and blues guitar. It’s a fair point because I totally have, but there’s a good reason for that: I love early rock and roll and I love blues guitar. I never pass up a chance to talk about either one at length. A valid excuse to write a thousand or so words every week about them is too good an opportunity to pass up.
But it is true that Black musicians are not limited to those genres, just like they’re not limited to hip-hop and R&B, the latter of which is an artificial construct that will probably get its own column-length rant sooner or later. So let’s shift gears to some of my other musical loves: punk, hard rock and heavy metal.
There are, in fact, Black punk and metal musicians! Good ones! Who influenced generations of musicians who followed them! Here are five of them.
Death — “Politicians In My Eyes”
RockFire Funk Express was a Detroit funk band in the early ’70s. One day they saw an Alice Cooper show and decided to change their name to Death and become a hard rock band instead. It turns out combining funk and Alice Cooper sounds a lot like early punk music, so that fateful decision made them one of the first modern punk bands in the world.
This song you’re listening to, assuming you clicked play on that YouTube video before reading these words? It’s from 1975. That’s two years earlier than the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks and Television’s Marquee Moon, both of which came out in 1977. The Ramones’ debut album came in 1976. The Dead Kennedys didn’t even form until 1978. Death came before all that, and if it’s not obvious to you that all those bands I mention heard this before writing their music you need to get your hearing checked.
Bad Brains — “Banned In D.C.”
Bad Brains, the band itself, don’t like being pigeonholed as a hardcore punk band. I’ll respect that and not call them a hardcore punk band. But I will say that their fusion of proto-punk, jazz fusion and reggae sure does sound a lot like hardcore punk.
It’s actually more impressive that they didn’t set out to be one of the pioneers of their sound. Lots of bands make a concerted effort to innovate in the hopes that generations of future musicians look to them for inspiration. They’re mostly awful. But a band that just combines a couple things it likes and accidentally inspires millions to sound more like it? Amazing. That only happens once or twice per generation.
Of course they didn’t stand still at hardcore punk. They went on to incorporate heavy metal, funk and lean pretty hard into fairly straight-up reggae over the years—around breaking up and reforming multiple times, of course. They may not like being called a punk band but they do have that aspect on lock.
Living Colour — “Cult Of Personality”
It was recently brought to my attention that Living Colour is not as well-known as I thought they were. Well I’m here to show you poor, poor people the light.
I really, really wanted to put Living Colour’s founder, guitarist Vernon Reid, onto my list of the best Black guitarists a couple weeks ago, but decided to stick to the blues guitar theme. But be aware that Vernon Reid is an impossibly great guitarist, and Living Colour is one of the greatest hard rock bands in history. Reid’s solo on this song is legendary. You should definitely drop everything and listen to Living Colour for a while. Don’t worry, I’ll wait here.
And that’s not even touching on how apt this song specifically is to our era. Well… to most eras, but to ours to a greater degree. Every time I see a group of red-hatted people line up to pack into a room and risk the plague to see Evil Grandpa Simpson ramble for a while, the lyrics to “Cult of Personality” run through my head.
Black Death — “Night of the Living Dead”
About now you’re shouting at your monitor. “But Danny,” you’re imploring, “You promised me metal!”
I will bring you metal.
Black Death is widely acknowledged as the first all-Black metal band. They released one album in 1984, then they broke up and more or less dropped off the world’s collective radar, which is a shame since that one album is really pretty great. Fortunately, founding bassist Greg Hicks re-formed in 2009 with a new lineup and that album was re-released in 2017, bringing them the recognition they absolutely deserve. Though at this point a second album seems decreasingly likely.
Also, yes, this is the second band out of five with “Death” in the name. It’s about metal and punk, what do you expect?
Unlocking the Truth — “Monster”
Yes, all the bands so far are old. I like old music because I’m old, that’s why my column is called “RIFF Rewind” and not “RIFF New Hip Music Popular With Youths.”
That said, yes, I should add a modern band. So I’m going with the recently disbanded Unlocking the Truth, because that counts as current for me.
Unlocking the Truth shot to prominence in 2014 when videos of them busking in Times Square hit social media. They got noticed because the band members were only 13 years old at the time, but also because they were 13 with serious chops. They opened for everyone from Motorhead to Marilyn Manson to Living Colour and signed a record deal with Sony for $1.8 million.
But the music industry is still the music industry, so it did not go well from there. Their relationship with Sony immediately fell apart and they got out of the deal before ever releasing an album, and their sole LP as a band was released independently. Whatever Sony wanted them to do was clearly not the right move because the album they left to make, 2016’s Chaos, is fantastic. They went on to release a few singles, all of which are good—even if they get a bit nu-metal.
The good news is even though the band has broken up, its creative force, guitar virtuoso and metal prodigy Malcolm Brickhouse, has gone solo as Malxolm Brixkhouse. Like and subscribe, as they say.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.