Living Colour’s multiplatinum debut Vivid cut through in the epochal year of 1988. As the Reagan years gave way to George H.W. Bush’s administration, hard rock was at it’s slickest and most vacuous courtesy of hair metal hits by Bon Jovi and Def Leppard, and hip-hop was bum-rushing the national conversation on the heels of landmark releases by Public Enemy and N.W.A.
A four-piece out of New York City, Living Colour wielded a powerful blend of riffs and righteous anger, sterling musicality and a uniquely Black perspective on everything from gentrification to materialism. Frontman Corey Glover, guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun came together as Living Colour following Reid’s tenure with the Decoding Society and the electric-jazz outfit Defunkt, with Reid meeting Glover after he heard him sing “Happy Birthday” for a friend at a party.
Glover has always been possessed of one of the most versatile and emotive voices in hard rock, and he remembers the band’s early days as born of a morphing NYC music scene and the band’s own cockiness. The creatively-fertile climate of their hometown, the co-sign of Mick Jagger producing their demo and jockeying for them at Epic Records, and most importantly, the rectitude of their musical mission—it all combined to make Living Colour uber-confident in their belief that they were gonna shake shit up.
“We were in the middle of all this: the downtown scene had its own sort of vibe—this post-new wave kind of thing and the post-punk thing,” Glover remembers. “And in the neighborhoods, the hip-hop thing was going strong, but it was just beginning to go above ground. It was a bunch of that stuff that went on. It was youthful hubris, I like to say, because we thought we were going to be something different and everybody was going to applaud you for doing something different. Everybody was trying to figure out what to do to set themselves apart from everybody else.”
He continues, “It was a time that was great in that things were always new, something was always new. When we would play CBGBs, the band that went on before and after us was always incredible and very interesting and very, very different from what we were doing. What we were doing was our own particular thing and there was no sameness about it—no cookie-cutter thing. You were out to make your own mark. I’m not saying that’s changed, but there was no formula then. There was no A-plus-B-equals-Z—sometimes it [was] really good and sometimes it [was] really stupid. But it’s pure expression. I see that now. I didn’t see that then.”
That Living Colour held true to an ethos of individuality shouldn’t be shocking given both the scene that birthed the band, and the traditional resistance Black rock artists felt within the industry in the decades since Jimi Hendrix transfixed a generation at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Hardcore legends Bad Brains wouldn’t see much mainstream exposure until MTV began playing their music in 1989 and they landed on a major label in 1993. Similarly, SoCal ska-punk-reggae rockers Fishbone flirted with mainstream visibility in the early 1990s that never truly came to fruition. The success of Vivid happened in spite of an industry that had shown indifference and outright resistance to Black rockers.
“There’s a part of this that’s very true across the board about the acceptance that there is a problem,” says Glover. “[They’d act like] there is no problem. You are the exception that proves the rule. ‘We got Living Colour. We got Rage Against the Machine. We got Lenny Kravitz. What racism? What segregation are you talking about?’”
Living Colour has never just been a rock band that happens to be Black—the subject matter and worldview of the band brought a boldly Black perspective into mainstream rock at a time when the libido of white males was hard rock’s most defining characteristic. Even as hard acts like Guns ‘N Roses and Metallica began to move the spotlight away from the glossiness of hair bands, Living Colour stood in a unique space. The band’s socio-political slant was laid bare on tracks like “Open Letter To A Landlord” and “Funny Vibe,” expressing the urban experiences of young Black men with the clarity of a Chuck D or KRS-One.
“We were doing us,” Glover explains.
Living Colour’s scope was set on something bigger than hair metal—they were challenging all musical gatekeepers who’d decided that Black folks with guitars weren’t fashionable. “What we were ‘anti’ was the idea—the institutional racism—that said people who look like me couldn’t do this. It was like, ‘Fuck you—yes we can.’ We were more on that tip. What constitutes ‘rock & roll,’ really? What constitutes music, period? There might have been all of these hair bands and these bands of people who were about whatever they were about, but what we were trying to say was, ‘A seat at the table was ours—by right.’ We come from a lineage of music that was fast and deep and whatever is out there now that influenced those folks has influenced us as well. We’re fighting against that system that was relatively oppressive. You’re relegated simply because you…happen to be Black. All of your choices—at least in North America—were R&B, gospel, jazz and hip-hop. Or you were some vocal group a la The Temptations.”
“I had a friend of mine who actually recently just passed away—and I hate telling this story because he did pass away—but I was getting on the subway and I saw him and he said, ‘Man, you’re still doing that rock thing? When are you going to grow up and start doing some real music,’” recalls Glover. “His assumption was no one is going to give [us] any kind of burn because, to him, I was just doing ‘that white boy shit.’ And it was as far from white as you can get.”
Living Colour proving the doubters wrong with the success of Vivid was bittersweet: as the early ‘90s grunge explosion re-centered rock’s focus to Seattle, this now-platinum-selling and Grammy-winning band was once again viewed as an anomaly and non-priority as labels rushed to sign the next Nirvana.
“Their bottom line was, ‘Is this making money? Is this putting extra zeroes on the end of their ledger?’” Glover remembers. “This was a time when they really learned how to commodify music. This is when the formula was created. ‘OK, you need to have a flannel shirt on, you have to be looking down at the floor, you need to really be completely angst-ridden.’ It was palatable punk rock music. It still had all that ‘angry young man’ energy but it was safe enough for your 13-year-old daughter to have a poster on the wall. Let’s face it: Chris Cornell was a beautiful man.” [Laughs]
When Corey Glover examines the songs on Vivid, he can hear how prescient the album’s focus remains today. There are undeniably personal moments (Glover gets especially introspective on “Middle Man”) but he recognizes how universally relevant the songs are: from “Glamour Boys” (“It’s about hipsters…now you have blogs telling you about all that stuff”) to “Open Letter To A Landlord” (“I can’t live in the neighborhood I grew up in because I’m priced out”), and he believes that is the essence of Living Colour’s ongoing legacy.
“That’s where we sort of fit. It’s not that we are above it, looking down on it. We’re in it, looking at it—observing it firsthand,” explains Glover. “My perspective and my opinion on these things has not changed. When we do ‘Open Letter to A Landlord,’ I was talking about Harlem being gentrified. Where my parents grew up. Where my grandmother still lived at the time. It was a place that held so much history and so much stuff but because of profit and greed, you just want to make as much money as you can and not think about the people who actually live there. I understand that better than most. Nothing has really changed. It’s what it is. It’s what it has been.”
“It speaks to North America,” he adds. “Wherever you are in the world. I feel that way about that P.E. record—It Takes A Nation…—it’s still happening now. “
Thirty years after Vivid, Living Colour is as strong collectively as ever. They’re crisscrossing North and South America on tour and they released their sixth album, Shade, in fall 2017. The band remains one of the best-loved acts of its generation, and Glover sees how much Living Colour has continued to resonate with fans around the world who are fighting through all of the things the band has given voice to in its music.
“I think we’re much stronger,” says Glover, just before heading off to take the stage at Sunfest in Florida. “Much more intuitive. I think we have a perspective that’s a little broader than our neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Downtown Manhattan or wherever the hell we were. We see the similarities in Oakland. We see the similarities in Sao Paolo. We see that you can go into any neighborhood around the world and find people that are us.”