Black Punk Time: Blacks in Punk, New Wave and Hardcore 1976-1984 (Part 4)
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ELECTRO FUNK - The missing link between electronic New Wave and Hip Hop, Electro showcased technology that invoked the future, yet in many ways was the punkest, rawest phase of recorded Rap music. While many Black radio acts in the late 70s and early 80s used electronic keyboards (it wasn't unusual to see a live band with 5 guys playing stacks of three or four keyboards each) this was usually embracing the instruments as enchanted pianos that produced slick sounds cheaply. The idea of playing up the robotic, tinny limitations of the instrument was left to the white New Wavers. Then Electro emerged, combining Euro robotic music with urban sensibilities and the magic was evident as Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" vibed on the Kraftwerk's aesthetic, Marley Marl explored drum machine synthetic beats and artists like Chuck Chill Out, Z-FORCE, Egyptian Lover and the great Mantronix made robo-magic. In the pre-crossover era of early 80s Hip Hop, these records were released by tiny, one man operation indie labels in small quantities and sold as singles to regional audiences, so even in distribution this genre paralleled hardcore punk. (JA)
FREDDY THE BASTARD - Fred Carter was never in a band for any length of time, but he ran a punk mailorder business/distro, Pogo In Your Face, as Freddy the Bastard. An important figure in the Gainesville, FL scene, his race never proved a obstacle to getting skinhead girls into the sack. (JA)
NONA HENDRYX - No real rock recordings (other than a very straightforward, radio-ready self-titled album for Epic in 1977, and of course her work with the Glam R&B act Labelle), but she was hanging out and performing with New York New Wave musicians in the late 70s and early 80s. She sings backup on the TALKING HEADS Remain In Light LP and toured with them at the time, and she sang with Material. When she returned to making her own records, Hendryx wholly switched over to dance music. However she did recruit JEAN BEAUVOIR to do some of the writing during this period. (JP)
ICE T – Perhaps the best selling song ever done in an 80s hardcore style was "Cop Killer" by rapper Ice T's 90s novelty act, Bodycount, an all Black thrash band. The guitarist for the band, Mooseman, later collaborated with Iggy Pop. He was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2001. (JA)
GARLAND JEFFREYS - It may be debatable to some whether Jeffreys, a singer-songwriter whose first solo album was released in 1973, belongs in a Black punk roundup at all, but if his song "Wild In The Streets" isn't a punk call to arms, what is? During the halcyon days of the New York '70s scene, he was hanging with the likes of Patti Smith and Lou Reed, and any of his albums should be of interest to anyone drawn to punk's intellectual side. Like the BUS BOYS, his strongest shot at commercial fame (in the States) was in the early eighties. Escape Artist, his 1981 album on Epic, produced a near-hit with a remake of "96 Tears" (hard-rock guitar + new-wave keyboards = a dated production, but Garland came through like a champ anyway). After a couple more albums, he truly became an "escape artist," keeping a low profile until Don't Call Me Buckwheat, a 1991 comeback on RCA, before disappearing again. (JP)
GRACE JONES - Though her music was always Disco rather than New Wave, no one played the downtown scene or looked the part better than Jones who took the fashion cues from punk and New Wave to a seductive, intimidating extreme. She also covered bands like Joy Division and the Normal, re-configuring their songs to better fit German gay disco dance floors. (JA)
HERB KENT'S "PUNK OUT" SHOW - In the early 80s Kent, a staple of Chicago Black radio since the 50s, had one of his most popular shows ever. Noticing that Black teenagers were going nuts for Devo's "Whip It" he started playing white New Wave artists on his Black audience show on WXFM. Depeche Mode, B-52's, The Tubes, THE BUS BOYS and others of the same ilk were played, and the show became a huge hit. When Kent did an appearance in Hanover Park, a massive crowd of hundreds of kids, Black and white and Latino, showed up. The show was such a force that WGCI hired Kent away from XFM just to kill the competition. (JA)
PUPPA LESLIE - Though in the early 80s he was more into dub and ragamuffin, Leslie did a record with the French Post Punk band Ausweis later in the decade. (raf)
PHIL LYNOTT – The main man in Thin Lizzy was a mainstream rocker but he was super supportive of punk (he declared himself a "punk rock expert" in Triad, and in a Circus interview he credited house guest Sid Vicious' love of the Ramones first album as something that inspired him when his interest in Rock was waning). He also recorded with the Sex Pistols' Paul Cook and Steve Jones, backing up Johnny Thunders on his first solo album, So Alone (Real, 1978) and recording a Christmas 45, "Merry Jingle," as a Lizzy/Pistols hybrid side project. Thin Lizzy also did a mean cover of "Pretty Vacant." (JA)
BOB MARLEY'S "PUNKY REGGAE PARTY" (On Babylon By Bus, Island 1978) - After Marley got wind of the punk thing going on he wrote this fantasy song where punks and Rastas jam together in unity. Tell that to Bad Brains fans. (JA)
NY PUNK, NY NO WAVE AND THE "N" WORD - Something about NY's punk scene seemed to give some folks the impression that being punk was reason enough to say "nigger" without reproach. Richard Hell (who had a Black guitarist, IVAN JULIAN) explained, "punks are niggers. If I go on the street, I can't get a cab, I can't get nothin' but abuse in restaurants, in New York City or anywhere else in the country. The treatment that you would classify as being prejudicial to minority races is precisely the same accorded to people who go around dressed like me. It's a very rare day that I don't get some kinda shit walking down my own block where I've lived for two years." Most famously Patti Smith Group recorded "Rock n' Roll Nigger." ("Jimi Hendrix was a nigger / Jesus Christ and grandma too / Jackson Pollack was a nigger"). The jazz punk of the No Wave movement featured some Black musicians (especially if you include the amazing ESG in that group) but the movement also involved a lot of subtle and not so subtle racism, with the minstrelsy of some of the performers mimicking Blackness, and comments like James Chance of the Contortions made in an interview, where he dismissed the mythic aura of Black music as "just a bunch of nigger bullshit." (JA)
ROADIE MARLON of YOUTH BRIGADE - Roadie Marlon was one of the "Boys In The Brigade" roadcrew (along with Brian and Dogbite) and when the Stern brothers needed a rap on "Men In Blue" they turned to him (though he is credited on the record not for a rap, but for providing "soul on Men In Blue"). (JA)
DENNIS RODMAN Though this was over a decade after the era we're talking about it's notable that a Black man yielded the power to put the final nail in the underground punk coffin by ultimately removing the visual signifiers between punk rock outsider freaks and jocks. (JA)
SOUL MUSIC & THE FORGOTTEN NEW WAVE ERA - When you think of old-school Soul music in the early eighties, unless you were there, "New Wave," or new ideas in general, don't come to mind. Hip Hop from the Sugarhill label was happening, but it was basically an East Coast phenomenon. Preppy male singers like Luther Vandross were starting to emerge. Funk was limping along on its last legs, with Skyy, the Dazz Band, Con Funk Shun, the SOS Band, and the Gap Band. Thriller? Lionel Ritchie? Teddy Pendergrass prior to his auto accident in 1982? They're remembered today. There was even a small blues segment represented by Z.Z. Hill and J. Blackfoot.
However, the "New Wave" period remains safely tucked in time...
The year was 1980. Although the "Disco sucks" movement didn't really affect Black kids, it was clear that R&B needed to go in new directions. The Disco thing was exhausted, and although African-Americans were wearing western gear (re: that summer's "urban cowboy" craze), it wasn't about to influence the music. However, New Wave was starting to make noise over in the rock sector, so by default, for a few years in the early part of the decade (1980-84), New Wave was a central part of Black music.
In 1979, the signs were there. The P-Funk mob was always flirting with the rock audience. Rick James branded his music "punk-funk." Over on the rock side, M's "Pop Muzik" proved that a New Wave/disco merger could exist. The band Blondie probably explored that dark side more than anybody, with the TALKING HEADS, Ian Dury, the B-52's, Devo and others trailing close behind. By late 1980, the fusion had busted wide open.
It should be noted that New Wave's influence on Soul was very fleeting and in many cases fake. This was probably one of the few times R&B tried to bite from white music and wound up late to the beach. When bands like Funkadelic and the Isley Brothers copped from Psychedelia and hard rock, it was very agitated and over the top and not as fluffy as, say, the Grateful Dead. Only the frenzy of white Detroit bands like the MC5 and the Stooges could compare. Even a glorified lounge act like the Temptations could freak out with conviction (although if it was mostly their producer's idea). New Wave was different, as were the context and times. White kids viewed punk as a weapon of social change. Black musicians saw a bandwagon to be jumped on; you'd dance to it at parties, but it wouldn't alter the social landscape or anything. Yes, Janet Jackson did her best Debbie Harry impersonation on "Come Give Your Love To Me," and Jermaine Jackson somehow enlisted Devo to help him out with "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy." And don't forget, one of the biggest songs from brother Michael Jackson's Thriller album was a New Wave/crossover cash-in, "Beat It." But did that mean the whole Jackson clan had their ear to the ground as far as new trends? More likely, they saw the trend and didn't wish to be left behind. Psyche fans still revere those early Funkadelic albums on Westbound, and Sly Stone is in the same category. But if there's a cult of New Wave fans too young to remember the eighties, they'd probably bust a gut laughing at Shalamar's "Dead Giveaway."
For a time, the cultural crossover actually worked. Nationally, Right On (a Black teen magazine) did a special "New Wave" issue (with Prince on the cover, ca. 1981). Here in Chicago, when kids weren't going to "punk" dances at the local armory hall, they listened to deejay and soul institution HERB KENT on WXFM, who devoted a segment of his nightly show to the phenomenon he called "Punk Out," spinning Devo, Pat Benatar (remember when she was considered "New Wave") the Vapors and others. Before long, most Soul artists had the token "punk-funk" song in their repertoire. Ozone recorded "Li'l Suzy," which unashamedly looked towards Rick James' "Super Freak" for inspiration. Bill Summers and Summer's Heat released "Seventeen." Both of these records had the punk-funk recipe down to a science, uptempo rock beat, gratuitous rock guitar, disembodied David Byrne vocals, plus plenty of bass to keep their core Black audience in the mix. You just knew that this was a one-time experiment for both bands and that they'd probably go back to what they did before; punk didn't change or save their lives. Hell, Summers is best known in jazz-fusion circles, but "Seventeen" wasn't exactly the Lounge Lizards. Crass and commercial, but taken on their own trashy terms, these tunes shine like Klondike gold.
Rick James, in his own way, was a punk-funk innovator as well, but that was more image than actual music. He was one of the first Black performers to refer to "punk" as something other than a homosexual (the old-time prison definition); he'd always rail on in interviews that he'd love to be an out-and-out rock star, but felt the world was too racist to support an African-American in that position; and "Super Freak," with that offhand reference to "girls in New Wave magazines," (whatever that means) was his peace offering to the Mohawk set. However, most of his music, good as it was, sounded like typical funk of the time. Prince took more chances and understood the new music better which is why, when the smoke cleared, the white rock crowd was forced to take him seriously. In 1980 Prince was viewed as a mild diversion in Black music, an androgynous fop in a world of Jheri-curled funk bands in cowboy hats. Then he followed up two smooth, Black radio only LPs with the raw Dirty Mind (Warner Brothers, 1980) that featured him and his band looking like something out of The Warriors. By 1990, he was recognized in white and Black circles as one of the most influential artists of the previous decade.
There were the usual slew of imitators, but Rockwell (Kennedy Gordy, son of Motown owner Berry) was one of the most obvious. Best remembered for "Somebody's Watching Me" (and the soundalike followup "Obscene Telephone Caller"), he recorded three albums for Motown that trailed Prince like the Standells chased the Rolling Stones. While the experiments didn't always work, the fact that he did it at all was half the fun.
Kagney and the Dirty Rats, whose Motown album hit the streets a good year before Rockwell's, didn't fare as well. Led by Rockwell's half-brother Cliff Liles, this was very much a plastic Hollywood affair from the start. It's a product of its' time---the squiggly keyboard riffs scream "early '80s," and while there are elements of straight Soul and REO-ish arena rock, they were obviously targeting the "new music" market. They had various members of the Motown family pitch in here & there---a Junior Walker sax solo here (on the ballad "Emotions"), a cameo from the Temptations' Dennis Edwards there (he's the father telling the son to turn the radio down on "FM"). Even Rick James showed up to lend his talents to "Sundown On Sunset," but the limited promotional efforts were more or less wasted. MTV had their video in light rotation when company politics sunk the project (the fact that Motown boss Berry Gordy didn't want to show favoritism towards a relative - however distant - had something to do with it).
There's no surefire explanation as to why this era ended, any more than why it began. The period came and went, with only the mega-talents surviving the wreckage. But maybe it's time to consider if that wreckage is ripe for scavenging. Just like Soul's occasional flirtations with Latin music, the punk-funk era produced equal amounts trash & treasure (sometimes within the same song). (JP)
TROUBLE FUNK – Go-Go, the DC/Maryland regional brand of Hip Hop era big band brass Funk, reached its peaks of popularity during D.C. hardcore's best days, and several attempts were made to bridge the audiences. Despite large crowds attending these punk/Go-Go fests, the audience would be mostly made up of the 1,000 or so Minor Threat fans that came to see Ian, and bands like Trouble Funk neither expanded their audience nor brought their fans into the punk camp. Trouble Funk was the most likely candidate for this wishful thinking crossover, as punk musicians embraced them (Big Boys even covered one of their songs) but it never really happened. Minor Threat's last show was with Trouble Funk. (JA)
2-TONE - Ska music emerged from Jamaica in the 1960s as a West Indian take on the R&B music their brothers and sisters of the African Diaspora were making in Detroit. By the 1970s, Reggae took the music in more overt righteous/political directions, but the spirit of the original Ska was alive and well in England where many West Indian émigrés and white Brit musicians were teaming up, finding themselves sharing venues, press coverage and ideas with punk and New Wave bands. In 1979 Jerry Dammers formed 2-Tone Records which became home to many of the bands that formed the heart of the punk influenced 2nd Wave of Ska. The Specials, Bad Manners and The English Beat were the most prominent, and like most 2-Tone bands they had both Black and white members (thus the name, 2-Tone). American bands followed suit and the 80s and 90s featured a succession of 2nd and 3rd Wave Ska bands like FISHBONE, the Toasters, Untouchables and the Slackers, providing the punk clubs with more Black faces than usual, and making high school band geek horn players a valuable commodity. (JA)
JAMES "BLOOD" ULMER – The avant-garde Harmolodic jazz guitarist was not "New Wave" per se, but albums like Black Rock and Free Lancing were real big with the New Wave audience. (JP)
VILLAGE PEOPLE – Perhaps the most absurd indicator of New Wave's commercial crossover, it's racial politics and SOUL MUSIC & THE FORGOTTEN NEW WAVE ERA was Village People's Renaissance LP (RCA, 1981). After selling millions as a Disco supergroup, the act featuring six men dressed as different cartoonish Gay icons tried to lengthen their career by embracing the wholesome mainstream. Starting with 1980's Can't Stop The Music movie and soundtrack, the Village People addressed their bubblegum audience (little kids seem to like the same icons as homosexuals) by replacing the soulful leads of Victor Willis (whose drug addiction also hastened his departure) with the less sexually charged vocals of replacement cop Ray Simpson, Valerie Simpson's brother. Also, their subject matter became more Weird Al than Sylvester, as food and fun replaced gay life as subject matter. When this didn't work they threw a curveball, by addressing the New Romantic style of Adam Ant by completely changing the band's image into that of New Wave Victorian super fops. Foregoing the classic individual characters, they donned eclectic get ups that combined bullfighter outfits, puffy sleeves, harlequin couture and the classic no shirt/cummerbund combo to achieve some twisted, unintentional Cirque Du Soleil parody. This is topped off with starched, swoopy New Wave hair and makeup that falls somewhere between Louis The IV, Boy George, the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and unfortunate birthmarks. Speaking of which, the over the top take on New Romanticism includes the lead singers each having multiple beauty marks. I say lead singers because as the album cover makes clear, to be a New Wave act there will be two frontman, both beautiful and both very white. Simpson and fellow brother Alex Briley (the army man) are in the background and David Hodo (the construction worker) and prettyboy Jeff Olson are very prominently in the foreground. Olson was brought in just for this project, his cheekbones and square jaw seemingly the final element of the Disco to New Wave transformation scheme. Alas, though the album is hilarious (the spare electronic take on New Wave in "Food Fight," and the other food songs on the album, "Diet" and "Big Mac" are tasty treats) and though this incarnation did make an American Bandstand appearance, the Renaissance era was shortlived. They attempted to go back to the old shtick, with Olson becoming the cowboy (Randy Jones, the original cowboy left before Renaissance) but they only were able to get solid bookings years later when 70s nostalgia kicked in. (JA)
WHY - An all Black hardcore group from the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood from around 1982. (brian gta) [Added 3/31/03]
BERNIE WORRELL – A musical prodigy from pre-school age, "Woo" surprisingly parlayed a Classical education in music studies into a gig as Architect Of The Funk, when his brilliant keyboards made him a crucial founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic. After making dozens of records with Black acts (mostly with the Rock cognizant P-Funk family, but also with traditional R&B artists like Johnny Taylor, Albert King and the Dramatics) he worked with David Byrne and Jerry Harrison on separate projects in 1981, leading to his recruitment by the TALKING HEADS, along with BUSTA "CHERRY" JONES and NONA HENDRYX, for their expanded funky lineup in 1982. Since then he's worked on solo projects with both Jones and Hendryx, but also tons of rock/alternative/crossover stuff, including Fred Schneider, PIL, The Pretenders, Time Zone, Tom Tom Club, Matthew Sweet, Dee Lite, Material, Cibo Matto and recently Black Jack Johnson, a rap-rock band with Mos Def, members of Living Colour and BAD BRAINS' Dr. Know. (JA)
Z-FACTOR - Around 1982 this resident of Chicago's Cabrini Green housing projects made waves in the New Wave scene by making music that the English press didn't yet have the vocabulary to identify as Electro, Hip Hop or House. Z-Factor achieved the rare double play of coverage in Trouser Press and airplay on Black radio. "I Like To Do It In Fast Cars" (Mitchball, 1983) was popular, but his claim to history is that some designate his single "Fantasy" (Mitchball, 1985) as the first House record (though they credit producer Jessie Saunders with the innovation, not the artist). (JA)
ZOETROPE – Calvin "Willis" Humphrey was the bass player for this awesome 80s "Hardcore Street Metal" band. Their take on Thrash was more influenced by hardcore punk than many of their contemporaries, and while they thank only Metal bands like Slayer, Raven and Lita Ford on the outer sleeve of their debut LP (Amnesty, Combat Records 1985), the "special thanks" on the dust sleeve reveal their true influences; 7 Seconds, AOF, ROTA, Life Sentence, Out Of Order, Die Kruezen and "all open minded Chicago hardcores." Calvin's post Zoetrope band was Sharon Tate's Baby. (JA)
Steve Albini adds: Calvin "Willis" Humphrey: In 1982, I took a job as a salesman at Dean guitars. Calvin used to hang around the shop and play metal licks on all the guitars, especially delighting in playing the fancy showpiece models (Dean made guitars for the Cars and ZZ Topp, including both the fuzzy and spinning models). He had his own Dean guitar, outfitted with fancy Schaller "Imperial" tuning pegs. One day we got into a conversation about music, and he asked if I liked any metal. I said I didn't mind Motorhead, and he said "Oh yeah, they're my boys!" I only saw Zoetrope play a couple of times, and I never introduced myself, so it's doubtful he even remembers me. [Updated 3/31/03]
Note: For takes on the Black presence in contemporary punk seek out the zines Scorpion (POB 7804 Washington, DC 20044) and Bitchcore.
Other online sources for Black punk history (including info on the
contemporary black punk documentary Afropunk):
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4