YES MISS THING, there is an Afrocentric avant-garde brewing in your rock and your soul, your hip-hop and your hardcore thrash ’n’ roll. Black music is the only art form left where the Modernist imperative of stylistic succession and secession is still in effect. Hence it becomes not only proper to speak of a standing avant-garde in that field of cultural operation but undeniable as well. A good question to ask might be why there continues to be so much plastic possibility to the prospect of edgy formal innovation in Black music when the very notion is elsewhere considered a cul-de-sac, or at least a post-Modernist faux pas. The apparent inexhaustibility of Black music’s power to take formal leaps every ten years or so suggests subconscious rather than conceptually self-conscious sources of inspiration. But while Black musicians continue to place a premium on improvisation—song production’s answer to automatic writing—as a means to tap into the fecund dynamism of Black oral and physical culture, they have, since the time of Duke Ellington, approached history as something to cannibalize and to revamp.
Better than any other product of America, Black music has always managed a balance between the fashionable and the timeless, the obliquely hip and the forthrightly foursquare. If the idioms that provided maximum proof of these maxims in the ’80s were hip-hop and house music, the one that looms to do so in the ’90s is Black rock. Understand that I make this pronouncement with all the due charge of a zealot—I am, after all, a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition, now five years old and more than a little responsible for the ass-kicking ante of the Living Colour band’s breakthrough to Apartheid-Oriented Radio (sometimes identified as AOR). But the Black rock bands that best exemplify the spirit of the age actually happen not to be Black Rock Coalition member bands. So fear not—I’m not about to launch into some sort of cronyistic puff piece.
When I think of an Afrocentric avant-pop the first names I think of are Black Britain’s A. R. Kane, Los Angelo Marc Anthony Thompson, Britain’s Floridian transplant Terence trent D’Arby, and the Rasta hardcore band Bad Brains (born in the working-class suburbs of Washington, D.C., and now bucolically based in Woodstock and Richmond). In reverse order of my cognizance of these worthies, I first stumbled over A. R. Kane as a hubbub in the British music weeklies, where their indie debut single of 1987, “When You’re Sad,” unleashed a gush of romantic prose so shameless as to make Goethe roll over, tell Byron the news. “When You’re Sad” got A. R. Kane tagged a Black Jesus and Mary Chain, a label as patently patronizing as the “BlackElvis” brand that the country’s lampooning tabloids tried to stamp on Jimi Hendrix twenty years ago. Though that first single might have stirred the notion that A. R. Kane’s game was psychocandy bricolage, lite-pop confection sprinkled with plums of white-noise guitar, the Kane gang, Rudi and Alex (first names only please, with no information forthcoming about their stormy adolescences thank you), have proven to be interested in more than simply burying the two-minute pop song in a purple haze of feedback. To be sure, making whoopee with guitar noise fuels a lot of the fire of Rudi and Alex’s muses, but on the evidence of the group’s recorded output to date they’re interested in noise not as a means of turning down their noses at pop-lite but as a gateway to the stars, or at least to an out-of-body experience.
Interrogated about their influences, A. R. Kane give answers that ring as circumspectly nationalist but entirely plausible: Sun Ra, Miles Davis, early Weather Report, and the pastel instrumental jazz fare favored by the ECM label. To which list should also be added heaping helpings of dub—that spectral and atmospheric form of reggae wherein lead vocals are dropped out to draw attention to dreamy instrumental details and to evoke an echoplexed race-memory excursion—and George Clinton’s early Funkadelic, certainly the caretakers par excellence of Hendrix’s psychedelic-soul-man legacy. Like those purveyors of Black dada, A. R. Kane are Afronauts, funked-up futurists, song-and-dance space cadets who approach machine language with the passion other brothers and sisters reserve for the Soul Train line. At another end of this extreme, though, A. R. Kane are best described as Ice Station Zebra, the point where all the hot and cool stereotypes of Black and white rock forms are melted down, freeze-dried, and crystallized. Their first album, 1988’s 69 (Rough Trade), tracks as doo-wop that Arnold Schoenberg might have dug, as fatalistic love songs for an Indian summer turned nuclear winter. Lyrics and vocals function as formal elements rather than as emotional beacons in A. R. Kane’s songs; you hear them the way you might see colors on a gray day, as somewhat luminous and underexposed.
What you’re really meant to focus on are the orchestrations, which depending on the song might be as spare as two guitars worth of shimmering arpeggios or as dense as layered dub track overlaid with a jingle-jangle mourning of six-string overtones and sampled but subdued operatic vocal passages. The operative word here is chillymost. Tactics that would scream bombast in artsier hands become in A. R. Kane’s work the sound of one hand clapping, a muted tintinnabulation. Their avowed derivations from Miles and Sun Ra become most evident, however, in their ceaseless quest to peel away at the squelch of feedback until it can be sequenced to sing with the personalized ambience of Miles’ trumpet or breathe multiphonic fire as heartstopping as Sun Ra’s saxophonists.
A. R. Kane’s recent double album, I, 1989, seems both more rudimentary and more calculating by comparison with the organic and uncontrived otherness of 69. Working with various received rock, reggae, and house song-forms, it recalls the representational approach Gerhard Richter took to the Abstract Expressionist vocabulary for a series of paintings that approached that body of reified canvases as if they were subjects for hyperrealist or impressionist portraiture. Rather than an estrangement of pop genres, I find A. R. Kane narrowing rather than widening the gap between their source material and themselves. The results are spotty but, given the range of their previous work, still mind-bending. This is anti-pop of such nonutilitarian integrity as to make one young New York experimentalist I know declaim that A. R. Kane must be independently wealthy to be able to get away with the stuff that they do.
One thing A. R. Kane and Marc Anthony Thompson have in common is artsy and self-effacing album-cover art. In the case of Thompson’s Watts and Paris, 1989, his second record for Warner’s, the closest you come to an artist’s photo is a nude shot, from behind, of him skinny-dipping and a guarded portrait over his lyric-sheet/production credits. This is obviously not a man who wants to get by on his pretty face. There are 13 songs on this record and not one of them sounds like another. Thompson writes ballads as if he were scoring movie soundtracks for sophisticated French and Italian romances, mysteries, and political melodramas. His best lyrics read and track like knotty metafiction. The same experimentalist of my acquaintance who thought A. R. Kane sounded like they couldn’t give a damn who buys their music thinks Thompson is basically too intelligent to be making pop records—or at least those with a snowball’s chance of selling. Judging from the disinterest his label’s respective marketing divisions (Black music, alternative, and pop) have displayed for his opus, my friend just may have a valid point.
From song to song Thompson’s record is impossible to pigeonhole, though it’s certainly no more antipop than the records of David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, or Sting. The problem the record company seems to have getting behind this Black artist is that like Bowie and the others he makes pop with a highbrow’s sense of intellectual autonomy. The only market out there for Thompson is those people who listen to music, go to galleries, see films, and read books in order to listen in on someone else’s mind working overtime for a change. Even when you can hear Thompson trying to make commercial funk or house, it comes out all wrong for the purposes of commerce. He drops a Malcolm X speech breakdown right into the middle of his brashest top-forty move (“Change”), all but swallows the seductive lyrics to his hookiest funk number (“In Time”), and gives uncensored titles like “Kate’s Bush” and “Pussywhipped and Blind” to songs with music readymade for urban contemporary consumption. (If these titles suggest sexist baggage, that reading is overturned by Thompson’s lyrics and delivery, which, on those numbers, are definitely more hangdog than macho. The sound is of the wounded male licking his declawed paws; the only thing more melancholy might be the song of the whales.) On top of all these esthetic gestures Thompson decides to get real cheeky with “Monkey Time,” which ridicules and critiques Warner labelmate Paul Simon’s colonialist exploitation of South African township music. This we can be sure has probably not endeared his upstart ass to the powers that be at the house that Bugs built. The original mix of the song, the one that didn’t make the album, ended with the opening lines to Simon’s “Sounds of Silence” (“Hello darkness my old friend”) serving as a prelude to the sound of a needle scraping across virgin vinyl. Takes some nerve your second record out to rank on one of your own record company’s most prestigious and lucrative artists.
Neither Fish nor Flesh, 1989, by Terence Trent D’Arby may be the most unmarketable album any mainstream Black pop artist has delivered to his label since Prince’s 1985 Magical Mystery homage Around the World in a Day. Initially I didn’t derive much sensuous pleasure from it, though I respected it immensely. In true rock-critic form, now that it has died a cruel death of public indifference I’m beginning to find it more and more endearing.
After tricking us all with his deadpan resuscitation of the blue—lipped soul man on his debut, D’Arby returns here with a mishmash of stylistic collisions bent on dragging classic rhythm ’n’ blues vocalese down into the mire of swamp rock, Princely benedictions on sex, biblical lore, and sloppy psychedelia. Like a schlock horror-film director, Darby seems to approach his songwriting as if shocking effects were more on his mind than putting over a tune. As a result, there isn’t much on Neither Fish nor Flesh that has the solidity or fleshed-out firmness of even the most half-baked tracks on the 1987 debut, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. On the first few listens you don’t get the feeling D’Arby’s reach was beyond his grasp so much as you don’t think he was reaching for much of anything in the first place other than upsetting his own apple cart.
But what you find upon reflection is D’Arby’s very lucid intentions of making a soul-music album that flattens and derails our emotional expectations of the genre. Having proven himself as a post-Modern master of the music’s evocative formal conceits, he attempts on the new record to figure out just how many disruptive assaults you can make on the idiom and still have it project the peaking emotional mystique of soul. It works best on the songs where the music itself is the least like classic rhythm ’n’ blues in form. On those songs, particularly “This Side of Love” and “Attracted to You,” D’Arby most reminds of people like Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan, who had to invent song forms to contain the perceptions and attitudes their voices wrapped around enigmatic lyrics.
Technically speaking, Bad Brains are the eldest of the new Black breed of genre-blitzing, race-music-mixing commandos out to storm pop music’s conceptual high ground. They’ve been doing Black rock since way before punk’s Summer of Hate hit these shores, having grown up funkateers in Maryland’s District Heights suburb of D.C. People who define the band’s music as punk, speed metal, or thrash are missing the point: the Bad Brains are really a gospel group. Though they attack the music with a vengeance refined by enviable virtuosity, they’re best described as Rasta evangelists on a mission from Jah. Because so much of the Rasta agenda is about the downtrodden dark and suffering willing themselves toward empowerment, the Brains symbolize a Black proletarian bum-rushing of your average white heavy-metal Übermensch show. Don’t bring the Brains your sympathies for the devil, their motto is P.M.A., “Positive Mental Attitude.” Witchcraft? You can take that mess straight to hell: these brothers are about soulcraft. The spectacle at their concerts of four dreadlocked and poised Black rock virtuosi commanding a stage incessantly set upon by straight-edged, skinheaded, white suburban youth with major stage-diving ambitions remains a total bugout. Lead singer (or simply “Throat” in BB parlance) H. R.’s high-altitude rebel yells conjure up disturbing images of Bob Marley reincarnated as a Valkyrie. Were it not such an atavistic idea, I’d suggest that anyone looking for a modern guitar hero to perform a little hagiography on need look no further than the Brains’ Dr. Know. His playing sounds like one of heaven’s more brutal blessings.
What all these musicians have in common besides African genes is a music industry that doesn’t sit comfortable with the idea of Black people staking out a bastion of supposed white-male artistic and sexual prowess, i.e. rock ’n’ roll. For this reason we find none of the critical or marketing support that goes to their Caucasoid counterparts as a matter of course. Of far more significance than the role these performers’ music plays in the ongoing Black/white manhood contests that have gripped this country like a mania since the days of slavery are the expansive conceptions of Black identity that their work, and that of other Black rock acts, presents before the world. Through their respect for none of the barriers society would erect between their brains and their chosen means of communication, they enrich for all of us the emergent discussions of ethnicity and cultural resistance that no Dudley Do-Righteous critical theorist will be able to ignore in the ever-changing times of the ’90s.