Dear Guitar Hero: Vernon Reid
His band was discovered by Mick Jagger, he wrote one of the biggest rock songs in history, and he even founded the Black Rock Coalition. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…
What led to the writing and recording of “Cult of Personality,” and how do you feel about the fact that the song continues to be a radio staple and is a big part of the Guitar Hero video game franchise? —Moko Nishihara
The writing of “Cult of Personality” was one of the very best days in the life of Living Colour. That might seem obvious, but what I mean to say is, we started the day without “Cult of Personality,” and when that one session was over, we had the song. That day, we didn’t get in our own way. It was a really special day.
I had met the Guitar Hero guys very early on at a NAMM show, and barely anyone was paying attention to them. They showed me how the controller worked. I tried it, I sucked. But I thought, Wow, this is interesting. The next thing you know, Guitar Hero blew up. By the time Guitar Hero III came around, they told me they wanted to include “Cult.” I’m just proud that we are on the same edition of Guitar Hero as the Sex Pistols.
What led to the formation of the Black Rock Coalition in 1985, and what has it become over the past 24 years? —Layne Glover
Back in 1985, I was thinking about what a struggle it was to get any attention in the scene that was going on. At the time, I had formed a band called Eye and I with DK Dyson, wife of Melvin Gibbs, who was my compatriot in a band called the Decoding Society. I was at a gig of a friend of mine and the club was totally empty, and I decided to make a call out to people I knew that had the same taste as me. We all started talking about culture, and about black people in rock music, but it wasn’t limited to that. Part of it was, what does it mean to be black, who decides what “blackness” is, and what does “identity” mean?
For many people, rock music is completely the music of white males. Part of that problem was a matter of classification, because many of the bands that I classify as rock bands are usually classified as funk bands. The Isley Brothers in the Seventies were a rock and roll band that had hit records with prominent lead guitar played by Ernie Isley, like “That Lady” and “Fight the Power,” and to me, that qualifies them as a rock band. In fact, before they did those records, they’d done CSN&Y’s “Ohio” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” on Isley Brothers Live. War is a band that came into the mix backing up [The Animals’] Eric Burdon, but what they brought to the table was absolutely rock and roll. Another great example is Funkadelic and Parliament; you talk about “Maggot Brain” and guitarist Eddie Hazel—this is rock music. But at that time these bands weren’t regarded as rock bands, and there needed to be an expansion of that definition. I’ve never had a musical identity crisis being a rock musician, because I go from the Isley Brothers to Prince to the Bad Brains without a hitch in my mind.
So the Black Rock Coalition started as a conversation, and it remains a community of like-minded characters, and the idea has spread to another generation, vis-à-vis Afro-punk and other new movements in rock. I think of it as an ongoing thing: what should the role of ethnicity be in rock music? At the end of the day, you have to have songs that are worth a damn, and let’s let all comers have an equal opportunity to win or lose.