Back In Black: 50 of Music’s Most Influential Black Rockers, Part 1
In observance of Black History Month, I have compiled a list of some of music’s true pioneers: the black men and women who helped create, shape and innovate rock music’s ever-changing landscape.
Although I've chosen 50 artists in all, I'll start off with the first 25. Be sure to check out the photo gallery below.
So -- here they are, 50 of music’s most influential black rockers -- numbers 50 through 26. Be on the lookout for part two early next week.
Music writer Ebony March contributes often to GuitarWorld.com.
38. Living Colour. Some bands come along at just the right time and fulfill a need in those who hear them. Living Colour’s explosion onto the music scene in the 1980s showed the world that people were ready for a commercially successful all-black band that could rock as hard as its white peers. You can hear it in "Cult of Personality": Living Colour’s music is in your face but the message goes straight to your head.
39. Carter Beauford, Boyd Tinsley, LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band. For some, a violin player and a saxophonist may not spring to mind as influential members of a rock band. But Tinsley and the late Moore (who died in 2008) are members of one of the biggest musical groups to build a grassroots following since the Grateful Dead.
40. Cody Chesnutt. Although he reportedly abandoned music to move to Florida and raise his daughter, L.A. soul-rocker Cody Chesnutt left an imprint on the music industry. He garnered a dedicated fan base (including Thom Yorke) through his touring and appearances in films like Charlotte Sometimes. He also was the guy who crashed the Strokes’ video for “Last Nite." Chesnutt blended the cool funk of Curtis Mayfield with the gritty rock edge of the Black Keys and Kings of Leon.
41. Skin (Skunk Anansie). Born Deborah Dyer in Brixton, England, Skin amazed crowds who had only been exposed to white female rockers. She sported a bald head, was almost always leather-clad and looked like the second coming of Grace Jones. But her talents didn’t stop at her looks; Skin, as a vocalist, is timeless. She can screech and yell with the best of them. A new generation of music fans has discovered Skunk Anansie through inclusion on soundtracks for films like Sucker Punch.
42. Jean Beauvoir. He’s a founding member of the Plasmatics and later became a platinum-selling solo artist and respected music executive. But fans will remember Beauvoir for his blond mohawk and collaborations with KISS, the Pretenders and the Eurythmics.
43. Follow For Now. Although this Atlanta band put out only one feature-length album, that was enough to garner it a huge following to rival that of contemporaries like Fishbone and Living Colour.
44. Ice T. Before “Ice Loves CoCo,” before “Law and Order: SVU,” Ice T was the controversial gangsta rapper turned lead singer of Body Count. The band’s 1992 release, “Cop Killer” landed Ice in a terrific shit-storm of bad press from the conservative right, which ultimately led to the exclusion of the track from Body Count’s self-titled LP. But hey, the fallout was fun while it lasted.
37. Wesley Willis. Few know about this clever chap who spent a great deal of his life battling mental illness (He was a diagnosed schizophrenic). But for those who were fans, he is one of the more unsung talents experimental rock has ever produced. Willis was his genre’s Biz Markie; a big, sort of dopey guy who wrote simple but amazing tunes like “Alanis Morrisette” and “Suck a Camel’s Poody Hole." His work earned him the respect of Beck and the Beastie Boys, to name a few. Willis died in 2003.
36. Neville Staple. He’s the vocalist of ska music’s breakthrough band, the Specials. His unique vocal stylings would later be seen as a predecessor to rap music. Staple also influenced Ivy League rockers Harlem Shakes and Jonathan Fire*Eater.
35. Randy Jackson. People often forget about Randy Jackson’s contributions to rock music. Thankfully, we have the man himself to remind us each week as a judge on “American Idol.” He was a session musician for the '80s supergroup Journey. He is a respected bassist who has graced stages alongside Carlos Santana and Whitesnake. Jackson has expanded his brand as the creator of "America’s Best Dance Crew," a show that allows him to discover and foster talent within a completely new creative field.
49. Santigold. Santi White is among the new style of black kids who have embraced indie rock culture, but turned it on its ear. Known professionally as Santigold, she divines her musical style from influences ranging from the Pixies to Fela Kuti. As well, this dynamic artist has partnered creatively with Julian Casablancas (the Strokes) and mega-producer Mark Ronson.
48. Murray Lightburn. He’s often been referred to as “the black Morrissey,” but Murray Lightburn is so much more. He’s the lead vocalist and guitarist of the Montreal indie rock band the Dears. Lightburn’s brooding voice has made him a standout among the influx of shoegaze groups like the Killers, Editors and the Antlers.
47. Seu Jorge. The afro-Brazilian folk rock singer and guitarist who belts out tunes in his native Portuguese tongue is not only a brilliant talent but an amazing cover artist. Remember his ode to David Bowie from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Outstanding!
46. Lisa Kekaula from The BellRays. Want a little excitement in your life? Then check out a performance by the BellRays. Lead singer Lisa Kekaula is a firestorm blazing across the stage in a way that is sure to make critics 50 years from now look back on her in amazement.
45. Kele Okereke. Ah, the Brits: Bloc Party’s enigmatic singer was a breath of fresh air amid the skinny tie-and white belt-wearing hipsters of 2002-2004's indie band boom. Okereke’s no-nonsense style on the mic is both cool and ferocious. Off the stage, he’s been just as bold: Okereke is an outspoken advocate for human rights. Fans may also remember his widely reported feud with Oasis brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher.
29. Bob Marley. He's the reason kids in the suburbs even know what reggae music is. Bob Marley’s immense popularity led to rock stars such as Eric Clapton covering his music. His voice had a constant and soothing tone to it accompanied by his steady-handed guitar playing. Never before and never since has reggae been so accessible.
34. Clarence Clemons. Bruce Springsteen’s right-hand man was a well-respected dynamo on the saxophone. But it was his audacious crossover to big-screen success in films such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure that paved the way for other musicians to do the same. Clemons died of complications from a stroke in 2011.
33. Ike Turner. He’s not short on controversy. Mastermind Ike Turner had a vision that he'd be great and made that vision come true -- with a little help from his wife, Tina. After discovering his lady and remaking her image, Turner conquered the world, one Billboard chart at a time. Of course, the embattled singer-guitarist’s personal life and drug addiction would ultimately tarnish his public persona. Thankfully, the music stands on its own.
32. Bootsy Collins. He’s the bassist whose moniker has become synonymous with cool, brash style and humor. Collins’ bass playing has been heard on recordings by James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic and on collaborations with Fatboy Slim and Dee-Lite. His bass playing gives off a truly nasty stank (and I mean that in the BEST way possible), making him a commercially viable and deeply relevant member of music’s elite.
31. Curtis Mayfield. His influence has been felt by everyone from gangsta rappers to singer-guitarist Alan Wolstrup of the LA-based alternative band, Acid 7. That’s a wonderful legacy for Mayfield. The soul-funk pioneer was an impresario on the guitar. He also possessed an uncanny knack for being able to tell the stories of his people to a world that would have never known them otherwise. His genius looms large on songs like “Pusher Man” and “Freddie’s Dead.”
30. Tom Morello. Known not only for his stellar guitar playing but also his politics, Morello is a true Renaissance man. He helped shape a decade as the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine. His work extended into stints with Audioslave and the Street Sweeper Social Club. But his attack didn’t stop there; he’s put his stamp on the film industry with a role in 2001’s Made and later with contributions to the Iron Man soundtrack.
26. The Roots. This eclectic group of musicians have surpassed every parameter music has to offer. They’ve collaborated with the likes of Joss Stone, Erykah Badu and fellow influential black rocker, Cody Chesnutt. Hollywood has even come calling: The Roots’ music has appeared in blockbusters such as Superbad and on Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show.” Lately, the Roots is making waves (and headlines) as the irreverent house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
27. Tracey Chapman. She was one of the most talked-about folk-rock musicians since Bob Dylan. People marveled at her dreadlocks and uncharacteristically androgynous appearance. But it was her voice -- that willowy singing style -- that won over her fans and make her a hot topic of discussion, even to this day.
28. Toshi Reagon. Toshi Reagon’s got size, and no, that’s not a dig. This female music phenom is an accomplished guitarist and clever vocalist who can turn a phrase like nobody’s business. She pens her lyrics with the same humor and biting wit that made the Riot Grrrls of the 1990s so popular. However, Reagon is still going strong. One of her best efforts? The campy but sensual track, “Scorpio.”
50. Lynval Golding. He’s one of the guitarists behind The Specials’ signature sound. Golding’s influence on the ska genre is still felt today, inspiring bands ranging from No Doubt to the Walkmen.