Definition of Style
Blacks have composed and performed rock music since its emergence in the 1950s, but the term “black rock” came to be recognized around 1985. At that time, guitarist Vernon Reid and music journalist Greg Tate joined with a small group of black musicians and music industry professionals in New York City to found the Black Rock Coalition (BRC). Reid was a young but accomplished musician whose work with avant-garde jazz artists such as Ronald Shannon Jackson had drawn critical attention. More significantly, he had recently formed the ground-breaking rock band, Living Colour, an all-black heavy rock band that would eventually score a string of minor hits on rock radio. BRC co-founder Greg Tate was beginning to establish himself as a journalist through his writing on black music in the Village Voice and to build a reputation as one of the major theoretical voices of the burgeoning hip-hop movement. Reid and Tate rightly recognized that the structure of the American popular music industry limited the growth of many black artists. musical intentions, since throughout the era of rock ’n’ roll, the American music industry engaged in a kind of commercial segregation, placing black performers in tightly regulated categories designed to appeal to perceived demographics of the music audience, and it was rare to find a black musician given official sanction to perform the same with white rock.
The founders of the BRC hoped to draw attention to the wide range of non-traditional styles employed by contemporary black musicians. Well-known groups and musicians such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, and LaBelle all created works considered essential to the notion of black rock. But there were many others whose work fell outside the boundaries of the traditionally accepted roles of black musicians; for example, Canadian singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading built a strong international audience in the seventies and eighties for her highly personal folk-rock.
In 1989, Vernon Reid’s Living Colour proved to the industry that a black rock band could find a large audience. But perhaps the definitive musical statement of Black Rock was the groundbreaking 1982 record titled, appropriately enough, Blackrock, by guitarist James Blood Ulmer. With Blackrock, Ulmer created a set of tunes whose stylistic uniqueness, powerful musicianship, and frenetic sense of forward motion made it an immediate critical favorite and underground hit. The music on Blackrock cannot be classified as funk, rock, jazz, R&B, blues, pop, or even avant-garde, yet it contains elements of each of those styles. Ulmer forged a sound and an approach that tied together the wide-ranging universe of black music from straight jazz to the avant-garde and from blues to rock ’n’ roll. Thus, black rock imagines a future in which black composers, performers, and producers may be free of rigid stylistic boundaries.
- History of Our Future (RCD 10211/RACS)
- Fishbone. Truth and Soul (Columbia CK-40891)
- Living Colour. Vivid (Epic 44099)
- Bad Brains. Bad Brains (Roir 8223)