A few months ago I made a passing comment on the racial divide around the alternative rock scene and one respondent, quite reasonably, took issue with the idea that Nirvana were in anyway racist. Less reasonably, that wasn’t what I was commenting on; the undeniable reality was that there was a significant colour bar, an unintentional one, that meant the world of alternative rock in the Eighties and Nineties was an almost entirely uniform race phenomenon. Decades of ‘white flight’ leading up to and into the Eighties built upon the segregation arising from class (which substantially mirrors the racial lines in society) to create large numbers of almost all white suburbs and smaller settlements. Music doesn’t float free of society and increasingly came to be a de-facto reflection of what was occuring. This doesn’t mean that audiences were in anyway racist or that musicians were either – they simply played what they wished with the friends around them. What it meant was a minimal representation from the non-white community in punk/alternative rock.
Substantial coverage is always given to the Bad Brains (Fishbone and Living Color have been pointed out to me also) not just because they were superb (they were) but also because they were an exception within the scene. Reasonably enough they emerged from the more mixed environment of New York City. That simply couldn’t be reproduced in State of Washington which, even in 2010, was 77.3% ethnically white, 7.2% Asian, 5.1% ‘other’, 4.7% mixed race, 3.6% African American, 1.5% native American and 0.6% Pacific islander. The result in the Seattle scene is pretty visible – Soundgarden possessed Kim Thayil (Indian extraction) also Hiro Yamamoto (Asian) and…Oh. That’s pretty well it.
The music of the alternative revolution fairly closely reflected the boundaries established with the kind of fusion artists like Jimi Hendrix had attempted more or less erased, Led Zeppelin’s genre experiments forgotten in favour of their pure rock muscle and the more funk-orientated artists of the late Eighties and early Nineties more likely to emerge from LA (Red Hot Chilli Peppers being the prime example) than from the regional punk scenes – the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, a further exception.
This is in no way a criticism of any of the music of the era – there’s no judgment involved. It is, however, a background to Nirvana and their emergence and observing the bands with whom they played minority-representation is little and far between even while the female presence is higher than the mainstream rock star norm. The band’s music reflected a music culture that also reflected population demographics.
While a common cliche is the adoption of African American music styles by racially white artists all the way back to Elvis (and perhaps tragically best represented today by Miley Cyrus – *shudder*) there are far fewer cases of enthusiasm and respect running in the opposite direction. One exception was a band that crossed paths with Nirvana on two occasions in 1989 and 1990 – 24/7 Spyz. Recently I made contact with Mr. Forrest Thinner of the band who recalls what is an under-discussed aspect of the ‘alternative rock revolution’ and who clearly lived and breathed for that scene and the love of playing – still does. The photo above shows 24/7 Spyz goofing about with RHCP and in the meantime I’ll let Forrest speak about the scene he was a witness to and a part of…
“Alternative rock really came from the college circuit…and yes the scene was super white; Bad Brains/Fishbone & Living Colour stuck out like a light bulb – the white teenage males had a lot to get off there chest socially they needed answers and it seemed the music was a way to be heard! For 24-7 Spyz to exist in those times were an anomly we were ‘Bad Brains’ from da HOOD to see us in those times was like seeing Eminem now like how Em is respected by the black rap community well we were respected by the Skinheads/MetalHeads/SkaKids/Punks/Hip Hop/StreetThugs/etc…Bad Brains is the inventors of Hardcore music period but not PUNK! Brains are not like the Sex Pistols/the Ramones or the Exploited they invented a musical style called ‘HardCore’ also they mixed it with Reggae Music which we all know that you can smoke weed and get high at the same time while playing music like some LSD hippie days shit so H.R. became like Jim Morrison (:-)) Giving the Brains big ups is Tokenism with a sense of honor and respect for being the FIRST of their kind.”
His new band furthers the agenda to the extent of ‘white-ing up’ with the corpse paints more prevalent in Death Metal circuits or Marilyn Manson’s ilk. Again, there’s no novelty intent, it’s a genuine love of the musical form and style plus a musical openness and omnivorousness:
“My first decision to dive into music was when The Jackson 5 came out, Micheal was only two years older than me and i still remember trying to sing all the words to ‘I want you back’…that’s when i became hooked into music. Metal & Hardcore came when i went into the Army and my platoon mates started introducing me to Van Halen/Molly Hachett/38 Special/Iron Maiden etc….I really got into all of it Queen/Led Zepplin everything and everybody. I was already hip to PFUNK and James Brown plus ALL of the 70’s funk bands i played Alto Sax then Guitar then Bass and i write my songs on Bass till this very day….24-7 Spyz wasn’t my first musical endeavor as a teen i was in a couple of local bands (Supreme Funk/Knights and then i started 24-7 Spyz)…We were also friends with Fishbone so Murphy’s Law took us under their wing and brought us to the world of HardCore where we got expose to Bad Brains/Agnostic Front/Raw Deal/Cro-Mags/Dead Kennedy’s/Sick Of It All etc…And when the Hardcore world got a hold of us it was DONE sooo fast.”
This is a truly original path forged through the underground, a brave one given the punk rock circuits were running through states lacking the liberal mindset of the North-West. This went hand-in-hand with a respect and love for the music around them. Speaking about playing with Nirvana back in the day Forrest’s exuberant comment was “I never heard of them before that night so i didn’t know they songs or set list but some of the kids did i just remember the rawness and power of them and they were loud as hell. I was very surprised to see them on ‘David Letterman’ i thought to myself DAMN Alternative Music has got a face now…Thank God!” which has an embracement of what occured that is very foreign to the reaction of a lot of musicians in the scene who were more concerned with hiding the scene as if it was a private secret.
I think anyone who has read the ‘New Music, New Discoveries’ category of this blog might have noticed I get a bit awed by people just willing to do what they feel, create something, think of something expressively or spiritually and just make it happen in spite of profit or obstacles. Do for self. In the case of Forrest he’s moved on, moved up and in the form of BlkVampires is expanding into multiple spheres as a true artist not just a musician willing to kick genre boundaries in the same way Meat Puppets, Minutemen, Big Black, Butthole Surfers and (yes) Bad Brains did in the early-to-mid Eighties.
“What I’m doing now in 2014 is a triple threat (Music/Book/Film) with my band ‘blkVampires’ we are a New York City based band that plays ‘Hard Alternative Gothic Soul’ music kinda like Pantera meets Al Green w/a little bit of the Exorcist inside…A soulful version of Marilyn Manson. We’ve been around for 4 years building a following & buzz. I just finished my first supernatural horror fiction novel ‘the HarlequinX’ and there’s a music documentary film coming out called ‘Riot On The Dance Floor’ in 2014 that has 15 of the TOP Hard Alternative Punk Artist EVER!! and i have the honor to BE in this film! If i was to recommend a song that personified us i would ask you to listen to “Blkenstein” from the Devil’s Music EP and there are too many highlights for me to pick just one because we’re ALWAYS asked to do something good but i would say that we are the ONLY all black band that has ever been featured in Fangoria Magazine and they been around since the mid 70’s and in April 2014 our 3rd EP Tutankhanum X will be out along with our Film & Book.”
That’s a lot of action. Forrest and the BlkVampires, I salute you and thank you for allowing me to point to you and your past endeavours as an exceptional journey through the rising alternative rock scene of the Eighties and Nineties and on into the present.