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Music 101

Black Rock Coalition Turns 30

by Jason Gubbels

Black Rock Coalition Turns 30

About this playlist

September 1985, New York City. London-born jazz/funk guitarist Vernon Reid and journalist Greg Tate were surveying a heady downtown scene that for all its generosity and artistic daring couldn’t seem to find much space for what the the duo referred to as “black alternative music.” As hip-hop moved far beyond the five boroughs and black pop (embodied by Michael Jackson) assumed worldwide cultural dominance, African American rock was in a hard place. Not that it had ever been easy: Jimi Hendrix, for all the mythical stature his classic rock legacy enjoys today, knew he stood a better chance of busting out if he shifted his home base to England. And little changed as black rock acts — from Washington, D.C.’s fiery Bad Brains to Detroit’s obscure proto-punk trio Death — continued to swim against the (white) tide.

But something coalesced that fall of 1985, coaxed to life over the course of many intellectual jam sessions and brainstorming battles. Reid, Tate and producer Konda Mason put forward the mighty Black Rock Coalition and announced its official manifesto as a “united front of musically and politically progressive Black artists and supporters.” Against the swelling tide of general market indifference and institutional racism, the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) would offer spiritual and material support. Whether carving out performance space, expanding recording opportunities, documenting and archiving black art, or experimenting with creative funding, the BRC quickly became an essential New York institution, offering African American artists a safe space in which to explore the “expressive freedom and economic rewards that our Caucasian counterparts enjoy as a matter of course.”

Three decades later, the BRC is still here, and they’re throwing a monthlong party. “30 Years In 30 Days” is how it’s being billed (or “In It for the Love Since 1985”). Alongside the free rehearsal space and jam sessions offered to BRC members, supporters can enjoy a BRC Happy Hour at South Brooklyn’s terrific horror/metal bar Duff’s Brooklyn, keep an eye out for Black Rock Milestones shared every Wednesday via social media, and attend a cluster of concerts on 9/11 spanning the N.Y.C. area (24/7 Spyz at The Living Room) and Chicago (where the holy trifecta of Living Colour/Fishbone/Death will take the Riot Fest stage). You can find more details at the official BRC website, which also offers “This Week in Black Rock” and a helpful “Artists A to Z” list of the dizzyingly varied acts associated over the decades with the coalition. But if you want a musical taste of the BRC’s 30-year legacy, you can start right here with our celebratory playlist.

Jumping across genres, years and record labels, think of this collection as “30 Years in 30 Tracks,” with founding members Vernon Reid and Greg Tate awarded suitably prominent positions. Reid, of course, remains best known for that other outfit he helped form in the mid-1980s, funk-metal pioneers Living Colour, in which mind-melting guitar and monster riffs found common cause with the soaring powerhouse vocals of Corey Glover and the funky/hard rhythm mastery of drummer Will Calhoun. For more on Living Colour’s legacy, check out Napster Metal Editor Chuck Eddy’s peerless guide to the band’s 1988 debut, Vivid. But there’s obviously more to the guitarist than Living Colour, and you’ll find plenty of cuts here that show off Reid’s wide-ranging musical philosophy, from skronky pre-Living Colour work with avant-garde jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society (1983’s Barbecue Dog) to his format-smashing Yohimbe Brothers project with DJ Logic (try 2002’s Front End Lifter).

While Tate’s primary legacy remains print-based (seek out the essential collection of essays Flyboy in the Buttermilk or Everything But the Burden, or just get down with his always thought-provoking public Facebook account). In the late ‘90s, Tate made a pointed shift toward performance with the formation of N.Y.C.-based improvisation collective Burnt Sugar. Designed to wreak havoc on genre categories, Burnt Sugar applied the conduction method of jazz spearheaded by composer Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris to the black rock sound apotheosized on Miles Davis’ breakthrough fusion album, Bitches Brew. Start with Burnt Sugar’s heavy medley of Max Roach’s “Driva Man” and “Freedom Day,” originally found on Roach’s searing 1960 We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (with Tamar Kali assuming Abbey Lincoln’s role), or the 16-minute sprawl of “Sky Porch,” the concluding cut from the collective’s album-length exploration of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, which features guitarist Pete Cosey (responsible for some of the wildest sounds on the mid-’70s fusion peak of Miles Davis) conducted by Butch Morris himself. It simply doesn’t get more Cosmic Slop than that.

But this isn’t a two-man show. The talents of Reid and Tate account for only a handful of these cuts, which run the gamut from such spiritual godfathers as P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell to the intellectual trip-hop of producer DJ Spooky (heard on the Matthew Shipp-curated Optometry and featuring the vocals of N.Y.C. poet/performer Carl Hancock Rux). Metalheads will dig the pummel of South Bronx black metal legends 24-7 Spyz, while hip-hop fans will nod with approval to the grooves of Sacramento duo Blackalicious. Noise geeks, rest assured Death Grips are present and accounted for, while indie types should note the inclusion of well-known black alternative acts (TV on the Radio) as well as upcoming artists (Gordon Voidwell). And we conclude our celebration with a cut bearing symbolic weight: Philly hip-hop act The Roots offering electric support to Newark, N.J., poet laureate and black art visionary Amiri Baraka on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” Baraka may be gone, but The Roots are still holding down their prime time slot. And that’s as fitting a way to celebrate the Black Rock Coalition legacy as any. So raise a glass to 30 years of the mighty BRC -- and here’s to 30 more!

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