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A New Book Explores How Living Colour was Able to See the Future on 'Time’s Up'
We spoke with Dr. Kimberly Mack about her expansive new book exploring the Black rock legends Living Colour and their classic 1990 album Time’s Up.
In the Spring of 1988, Living Colour (the quartet of guitarist Vernon Reid, vocalist Corey Glover, drummer Will Calhoun and Muzz Skillings on bass) released their debut album, Vivid. The album arrived at a time when the pop cultural landscape was hostile to Black rock musicians. With hip-hop ascending to the mainstream and an exciting but white-dominated alternative rock revolution brewing, Living Colour was a curiosity. A band that the record industry and music fans couldn’t easily categorize. Surprisngly, Living Colour and Vivid defied the odds and broke through, largely due to the popularity of the single “Cult Of Personality,” a riff-heavy anthem warning against the insidious nature of political celebrity. Today, Living Colour — who replaced Skillings with bassist Doug Wimbish in 1992 — are still remembered as pioneers, and their signature song still dominates the playlists of classic rock stations throughout the country.
For their second album, 1990’s Time’s Up, the band expanded their sound, recruiting rock legends like Little Richard and Mick Jagger as well as hip-hop stars Queen Latifah and Doug E. Fresh. To complement their musical ambitions, Living Colour turned their attention toward the most pressing issues of the day on Time’s Up, speaking on media saturation, environmental collapse, and racism with a clarity and timelessness that almost feels prophetic.
For University of Toledo Associate Professor Kimberly Mack, Living Colour and Time’s Up are formative influences that have shaped her own relationship to Blackness and rock music. Mack’s recently released book,Time’s Up is the latest in Bloomsbury’s celebrated 33 ⅓ series of short books about landmark pop music albums. Mack digs deep into Living Colour’s history as a band while fleshing out their story with some crucial historical and personal context. We spoke with Mack about her book and why Time’s Up is such an important album.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You open the book by taking us back to December 1990 and you are in the pit at a Living Colour show. You paint the scene so well and vividly. Take us back to that day and explain why you wanted to open the book there.
Kimberly Mack: So, the reason why I wanted to open that way is because in some ways that was my introduction to Living Colour. I mean, I knew about the band, I heard their music, I liked their music. I saw them on TV, I had Time’s Up and already loved the record, but it wasn't until I was in that crowd and felt that energy. It was just this really different experience for me. I was somebody who grew up loving rock and went to a lot of rock shows, but I think I was pretty much going to arena shows with bigger bands. I hadn't gone to very many shows that were club shows and that were that exciting and buzzing with that kind of energy.
And I'd never been to a hardcore show or a punk show. And Living Colour, their music falls within a lot of categories and subcategories of rock. But that energy and just like the violence and the fear, but also the excitement. So, I wanted to start there because that was such a visceral experience for me, and an awakening also. I think, [it] helped to shift some of my musical tastes too. In the '90s, I became more of a harder rock fan and started to like more punk, a little more hardcore, and just edgier rock music.
Living Colour - Cult Of Personality (Official Video)www.youtube.com
Now, I'm curious, what bands were you into around that time that your tastes were changing, and you’re getting into harder stuff? Who were you listening to?
I can't take all the credit. I think I mentioned at the beginning of the book that I went to this show with my boyfriend at the time, Matt. And I was with him in very formative years, from 21 to 27. He rubbed off on me, and he was the one who had suggested going to the Living Colour Show. I also liked stuff like Suicidal Tendencies and then I eventually got into Metallica. I liked some metal, but it was probably more on the radio-friendly side. Nine Inch Nails, like before [their 1994 album] The Downward Spiral, Nirvana and Sound Garden and Alice In Chains and all of those bands too. I think Living Colour made me realize how much I liked a little bit more edge in my rock and opened the door to my embracing all these other bands as well.
Yeah. It was an interesting time in American pop culture, like the alternative rock explosion that happened in the ‘90s. I was a teenager at the time. I turned 13 when Nirvana’s In Utero came out and even though demographically most of those bands and, and their fan bases were very white, it also felt like a shared cultural experience, you know? Obviously, there were race and class divisions and all that, but it felt like there were two big major tent poles in pop culture. It was rap over here and then all these underground guitar bands over there, but we still listened to all of it.
I grew up in the ‘70s and came of age in the ‘80s. So, I'm a little bit older than you and I grew up liking hip-hop and, of course, being there at the very beginning of hip-hop or, I should say, the very beginning of mainstream hip-hop, like when Run-D.M.C. started to become popular. When I heard “Rock Box” — which I talk about in the book — that made a big impact on me. I liked hip-hop before that, but I hadn't heard any hip-hop acts bringing in rock music to such a prominent degree. And then it was interesting because it felt like in the early ‘90s, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam and all these other bands were really, really, really at the top of the charts, you had the emergence of hip-hop artists that were also creating a big buzz. And of course, I'm talking about like all the stuff on the West Coast. So yeah, there were these tents, but it felt like it was all popular and all on MTV.
Yeah, and I know this happens and has happened in other eras and it happens today, but it felt like a pretty fluid cultural exchange.
Yeah. They really did seem that way. I remember going to Lollapalooza. The one that Rage Against The Machine was at before they were big, I was at that one. I remember seeing Rage Against Machine for the first time, and also having this sense of there being this melding in that band.
Living Colour - Time's Up (Official Video)www.youtube.com
So, it’s the early ‘90s, you've heard Living Colour, they’re all over the radio and you've seen them live and you had a copy of Time’s Up. What were your first impressions of that record and what eventually made you wanna write a book about this album in particular?
So, just the opening track “Time's Up” blew me away. It was just heavy and Will Calhoun’s drums were just an attack and it felt angry. And the track itself was just wild and the changes... I was just immediately grabbed by that track. I loved it. I probably stopped there and played it a few times. At that period of my life, I was pretty much a rockist, I think I remained a rockist for a while and I would pretty much fast forward through the tracks that weren't as heavy and weren't as hard and weren't kicking my ass in the same way. But that first track really grabbed me. I loved “Type.” I loved “Pride.” “Pride” personally spoke to me because I grew up loving rock, but I really just felt so self-conscious about it growing up. I had a mom who loved it and she influenced me, so I didn't feel self-conscious in my house. But when I went to shows, I never saw any black people at shows. If I saw any, it'd be like a few that I could count on one hand or it would be folks working the concession stand or ushers and security. And I just really felt like an outsider and I felt really alienated and I didn't know the history.
I knew there were Black people in rock. I knew about Jimi Hendrix. My mom was a big Thin Lizzy fan, so I certainly knew about Phil Lynott but I just didn't realize that rock 'n' roll was the same as rock. It just evolved and was called something else and became conflated with whiteness. The music I loved was this music that was started by Black people and I just didn't know that. So, when I heard Living Colour’s song “Pride” “Don't ask me why I play this music 'cause it's my culture, so naturally I use it.” That was so powerful for me personally. I can't overstate how much that meant for me to hear that and to feel less like an interloper in the music. Living Colour was very important in that way.
But I I love the record. I think my favorite song on the record was “This is the Life.” Just the philosophies behind it. This whole idea of embracing life and the path you're on really spoke to me then [and] it still speaks to me now. Then I decided that I wanted to write about it because I really like (Living Colour’s 1988 album) Vivid and (1992’s) Stain. I liked Vivid even more than I did before when I listened this time around for writing the book.
But I think Time's Up was just bolder, more confident, more experimental. They always kind of moved between different styles of music, but I feel like Time's Up you had all these movements between these styles, sometimes in one song. I also really appreciate the unexpected collaborations with artists who are not normatively viewed as rock. Like Doug E. Fresh and Queen Latifah and Maceo Parker. The boldness, just the sassiness of the record with a song like “Elvis is Dead” and having Little Richard rapping on it, which was not the original plan, which I talk about in the book. They thought he was just gonna sing, perhaps sing the chorus. But no, he wanted to rap, so he did. Then having Mick Jagger on there too. Having Little Richard, a Black architect of rock 'n' roll. Right. And then having Jagger, somebody who really benefited from Black blues people, and also early Blackrock 'n' rollers, somebody who owes a debt, like his career to these people. Having him on the track. I thought that was brilliant.
Could you talk a little bit about their relationship with Mick Jagger?
So, Living Colour were really buzzing in the mid-'80s. They were playing in clubs like CBGB and other clubs in New York City and New Jersey and they had a buzz. They were great. They were always a really great live band and an exciting live band. So people were talking about them and (bassist) Doug Wimbish, who's now in Living Colour was working on Jagger's solo record (1987’s Primitive Cool). And he suggested that Jagger check them out. He went to check 'em out, liked them, and then ended up really putting his weight behind them. It still took a while for them to get signed, I think that's important to note. It's not like he flipped a switch and then suddenly they were signed the next day. There was so much resistance to an all-Black rock band at that time. So much resistance. It wasn't just white industry folks who were resistant. There were Black folks who were skeptical too. So, a lot of people were just like, “what are you all doing?” So yeah, they had resistance from all different corners. But Mick Jagger went and saw them and liked them and ended up getting Ron St. Germain, who produced Bad Brains to record their demo. And then eventually they were signed to Epic and then of course they opened for the Stones on their Steel Wheels tour, which was really helpful to them.
How did that alignment with Jagger and the Stones shape how Living Colour was perceived?
So, you know, the Black Rock coalition existed at that time and there were some folks in the BRC and probably other Black folks who felt some discomfort at it being Jagger as a figure who's associated with a certain amount of cultural appropriation. From my perspective, cultural appropriation is about erasure and about power differentials. I think that it's important to note that the Rolling Stones were always very, very clear and upfront about their influences and about who they were re-recording, who they were covering, and trying to amplify and shine a light on some of those figures who influenced them. So, I'm a little hesitant to label them as straight-up appropriators. There are other bands who are well-documented who flat-out stole stuff and never gave any credit at all and passed them off as their own songs.
So I think it's important to be nuanced. I think that the Rolling Stones tried to do what they could in terms of having bands like Living Colour and Prince open for them. In both cases, unfortunately, the audiences didn’t always appreciate the bands.
Since you mentioned the Black Rock Coalition. Can you explain what it is and what the purpose was behind it?
The Black Rock Coalition was an organization that started out with Konda Mason and Vernon Reid and the late Greg Tate having thoughts, ideas, interests about rock music and about the segregation in the industry around who gets to play it and what Black music is. It started out as just people who had a shared interest in the topic. And then it was a kind of community that was not named yet, and then it became named. And the Black Rock Coalition was really meant to be a group that advocated for Black musicians and artists to be able to make music within the full constellation of black expression. So not just hip-hop and not just R&B, but everything, rock, and jazz, everything else. That was the goal and then there were a lot of Black Rock acts who were in the Black Rock Coalition but Living Colour ended up being the one band that had the most commercial and critical success and the highest profile.
Living Colour being the one band that blew up out of all of these BRC bands and this whole Black rock scene, it is kind of like a cruel irony that played out. Vernon Reid co-founds the BRC as a means of strengthening Black folk’s connection to rock music; a few years later, Living Colour blows up and in turn, are almost perceived as sellouts. How does something like that happen?
So, one of the important things to note here is this culture around rock music-and particularly at that time-around authenticity, right? And how authenticity is just this really important value for folks who listened to rock. Any kind of massive commercial success always runs the risk of putting an artist into the category of sellout. If you can attract that many people and the mainstream loves you, then you must not be that good, you know?
You did something wrong.
Yeah. There's something inauthentic there if that many people could think that you're good, right? And then of course, here is a band that was coming up in the club scene in New York, the punk and hardcore scene. They were not strictly a punk or hardcore band at all, but they had songs like that in their repertoire. They liked those bands. They were part of a small but vital scene in New York City. So for them to blow up like that, I think it was easy for some people to say, “OK, well, you know, they got poppy and they sold out.” But then at the same time, they were dealing with the racial politics and the realities of the music industry and this notion [of] there really being only room for one.
So, thinking about Time's Up, this album was the follow-up to Vivid, the song “Cult Of Personality” blows up. This is a major band with a lot of white fans, given the demographics and racial dynamics of rock music at the time. So then they turn around and put out this record where they have songs like “History Lesson,” “Elvis is Dead,” “Pride” where they're leaning into all of these different themes of racism and Blackness. Why do you think they did that?
I think it was a natural progression. They had a platform and I think they took that platform seriously. As much as it was probably annoying and repetitive to have to be the Black rock band who's gonna talk to you about politics, I think they also were very, very good at it, like extremely thoughtful, serious young men who at the time, who just had stuff to say. Vernon referred to it as the Blackest record they made which may have hurt them in some ways, commercially. But Time’s Up was expansive. It allowed them to talk about other things and not just politics, or race or class. They also talked a lot about love on the song “Love Rears it’s Ugly Head.” “Solace of You” was really about Corey's dad and his dad passing away and figuring out how to cope and reimagine his sense of self after that. This is the Life” which was really this universal message of embracing your own life. These are young folks but had opened up the door to thinking about the future and how people are gonna die and people you love are gonna die. So it was a very deep record and they were talking about all the important things of the time and now, the environmental crisis, police brutality, racism, classism, gentrification but also love, sex, death. I think it was just a much more expansive record lyrically and a much more daring record musically and sonically.
Time’s Up came out 33 years ago. Why is this record significant?
Well, it's significant for a lot of reasons. It's very experimental but this is a rock record, a hard rock record but it's fantastic in the way that it pushes against these different boundaries and brings in all these different genres, but all of them in the service to rock. It's like expanding the idea of what rock music [is]. Sadly, so many things that they were talking about on this record are still relevant. “Time's up” is this wake-up call to take care of our environment, because we're not gonna get another chance. We're dangerously close to it being completely out of our hands, and we can't do anything to fix it. This issue of police brutality and unarmed Black people being killed, that hasn't gone away, right? Questions about cultural appropriation and music and popular culture, that hasn't gone away and they talk about that on “Elvis is Dead,” “Information Overload.” I mean, what a prophetic song. It's basically predicting the internet. This is a groundbreaking American rock band comprised of four black men who broke through all of these barriers and made bands like Rage against the Machine and TV on the Radio possible.
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