Heavy Culture is a monthly column from journalist Liz Ramanand, focusing on artists of different cultural backgrounds in heavy music as they offer their perspectives on race, society, and more as it intersects with and affects their music. The latest installment of this column features an interview with the Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun, guitarist Vernon Reid and bassist Doug Wimbish.
Since 1985, Living Colour have blended rock, metal, and blues to form a sound all their own, inspiring many artists along the way. This year, the rock pioneers are celebrating 30 years of their sophomore album, Time’s Up, which yielded such hits as “Type”, “Love Rears Its Ugly Head”, and “Elvis Is Dead”.
This edition of “Heavy Culture” spans several months, as we first caught up with the members of Living Colour back in early February on the high seas during this year’s ShipRocked cruise. There, they each went in-depth about their various cultural and musical backgrounds. While we were able to share our separate interview with singer Corey Glover, our conversation with the rest of the band was tabled as the pandemic hit and George Floyd’s death led to nationwide protests. Instead, we ran a series of time-sensitive “Heavy Culture” columns throughout the summer.
Prior to Living Colour playing a livestream event at Ardmore Music Hall in Pennsylvania on October 24th to get out the vote, we caught up with Calhoun to get his take on the pandemic and the presidential election. Here, we present our recent catch-up with Calhoun, and our pre-pandemic conversation with Living Colour’s Will Calhoun, Vernon Reid and Doug Wimbish in the latest edition of “Heavy Culture” below:
On life since the ShipRocked cruise and living with the pandemic
Will Calhoun: We’re not getting on a damn boat anytime soon — I’ll tell you that much! I’ve been adjusting. I don’t think the industry is going to be the same. It’s restructuring and I’m trying to pay attention to what’s going on and trying to be prepared for the next step we’re going to take in being artists. I lost some people, some great musicians, it’s been very challenging. Everything is happening at once — you can’t see people, you can’t go out, you can’t rehearse, you can’t write.
But it’s also been a fantastic time to think about us, especially as Black artists, reclaiming our stake, having more power over yourself, over your industry, there’s no middle person, how we’re going to do our art, how we are going to get paid on our art is going to change. I’m navigating.
On Living Colour playing a livestream show in Pennsylvania to get out the vote
Will Calhoun: We’ve been checking in with each other and just making sure our families are good, we’ve been talking about new music in this new world. This livestream was about us wanting to do something involving this election, involving our rights, women’s rights indigenous rights and picking a place like Pennsylvania which is a swing state, rather than in New York, inviting organizations like iVote and Black Lives Matter to help us promote and get this vibe out about voting. Voting is 60 percent of it, the other 40 percent is your responsibilities as a human being.
The show is a reminder about what’s important to you in life and how you want to live. We have to look at the reality of where we are. Neither party is going to fix all of the things that need to be fixed in four years but our job is to be steadfast and hold people accountable. As a country, we’re living in a 42-story building but we’re only arguing about what’s wrong in the lobby and we’re not talking about the other floors.
On each member’s cultural background and upbringing, and how it influences Living Colour’s music
Vernon Reid: People involved in Living Colour, we have had backgrounds from the South and also the Caribbean as part of our makeup. We have come to music in various ways. One thing I think is common, is our parents were really into music. Music was an important part of our various households. If a household doesn’t have music in it, where does it begin? Being a second-generation person connected to the Caribbean is interesting because there is a real conversation about music that African-American people have that having a Caribbean-American background is different. I wasn’t told about white music. I wasn’t told this music is white music, that wasn’t a conversation.
When The Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show, my parents were excited because they lived in London and The Beatles were from Liverpool. It changed the conversation. I grew up with James Brown, The Beatles, Kool and the Gang. I was in charge of buying the 45s. At that time, a song would come on and we had never heard anything like it – like Sly and the Family Stone, when “Family Affair” came on, I remember the distinct memory of “What the hell is that?” He was talking about things you didn’t hear about, a kind of poetry that was different. Things would come on that would shake you up. James Brown would come on with “Hot Pants”, and it was like a stream of consciousness.
Doug Wimbish: To start from ground zero, I was born in 1956. My mom was from the Bahamas; my father is African American from Georgia with some American Indian blood in his family. I have an older brother and younger sister. I’m a middle child, following the footsteps of what my brother and sister did. My mom, coming from the Bahamas – the story of her journey was quite interesting. She was in the service industry and came up, got offered to do a job in West Hartford, Connecticut and brought my aunt with her. Long story short, they had no idea what was going on in America in 1948. It was a different world post-war. Nassau in the Bahamas was still under British rule.
That being said, my mom told me the journey of when she came up in 1948. A guy said he was going to bring her [to the US]. “Here is your papers, you will take a boat from Nassau to Miami and take a train up.” When they took the boat over, they landed in Miami, back then segregation was happening and there was a train car that said color only and whites. My mom said, “Oh we have our own car.” That was the reality of how things were happening at that time. Little did she know she was going to get that experience when she married my father settling in Hartford, Connecticut which had the second-largest West Indian population next to Brooklyn. When people came from the islands, they would go to Toronto or Brooklyn, or they would go to Hartford to be farmers.
Having an older brother and sister, listening to music, hearing things in the ‘60s when I could get my audio frequencies on, I was listening to Chubby Checker with my family doing the twist, listening to Mighty Sparrow coming on. It gave me a sense of the reality of how powerful music is.
My first exposure to an instrument came from the garbage — my next door neighbors, once a year they would throw out gear from the basements. We would ride around the block to see what people were throwing out. I got the mandolin and my sister got the banjo, that was my first instrument. That was a way to make a connection with something you could call yours, borrow instruments from other friends because your family couldn’t afford it.
Here I am now and I had an interest in going to where my mother is from which is in the Bahamas. I would spend some summer vacations in Nassau in 1968 and 1969. Having the experience of going to the Bahamas, getting out of America, being in this British system is completely different.
Coming back to the American system was a balancing act. My experience came from listening and being accepted by the elders I was around. As much as I was in a certain class by my friends, I was accepted earlier with the elders. That is a big thing when you are young, getting that green light. When I got accepted I didn’t take it lightly.
One of my first gigs I got, I was 13 or 14 years old playing a night club. My teacher was a pretty popular person in town. He would teach me his songs when I was taking guitar lessons and he said, “You are ready to do this gig with me; we are going to play this club.” He said his bass player was a pimp so during the Saturday matinee shows he won’t be there. One of my biggest sparks was this — I went to the rehearsal and went to the club. If my mother saw that I was there, she would skin my ass. We started the rehearsal for the matinee show and who shows up? The pimp. He says hey to the guitar player and the drummer, and he gives me this pimp stare that says he is going to run my ass over.
You find ways to deal with ways to be intimidated by somebody but to also stand your ground and be able to separate yourself from the pack. I think, what I realized early is to try to stay free and not get tangled up with the musical police officers. Use every experience in life, whether it be the Bahamas or the pimp, or my brother or sister, seeing Miles Davis at a young age or Sly.
When you are a kid you look at all these things and want to do that. I walked down the musical Indian trail roads my elders did and I was fortunate to have them. Without them, I wouldn’t be here right now.
Will Calhoun: I’m from the northeast Bronx and everyone was there. There were Puerto Ricans, Dominicans — all the Caribbean islands. My influence came from my neighborhood. On my block, there were people from Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad on the same street.
My family came up from the South. My friend’s families came up from Guyana and all the uncles and aunts are our uncles and aunts. The parties in back yards bled into each other. Then our moms, somebody made peas and rice and somebody made fried chicken. It was beyond the music. The first time I saw adults dance was at my neighbor’s. They are Guyanese, I never saw a group of parents dance on one song. All of my friends from the Caribbean, their parents would dance with each other. My Latin friends, a Salsa track would come on and they would grab each other to dance.
For us, this is another kind of vibe. It was the music, the language, the culture, the food, it was a great exchange for people of color. It was nice to just come out of my house and stay on my block and get three or four types of food and types of music. Being a youngster into music, there were other things my friends listened to my parents weren’t, that kind of exchange between jazz and bebop and that kind of stuff before getting to Sly. I didn’t understand the different islands because my mother never divided us. I heard others say things but it was just Ms. Johnson or Ms. Smith, not this person is from that island. In our house, people would just come over.
When you are a kid, you just pick up things being general with the different accents and food. As I got older and went to school, I started to see that vibe but growing up on the block, the culture and music were all hand in hand. I heard things in other people’s homes that I didn’t hear in my house with music. Once I started getting into music, I had the same kind of background with not being afraid to check things out.
Also being a drummer, you want to know where the calypso beat is. Harry Belafonte was my first boss and I went into the gig thinking I knew what calypso music until I got with Harry and his orchestra. He had people from Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana in the band. My neighborhood made it viable for me to get into this.
I did have the white and black conversations because we went to Jewish summer camps and went to school in Italian neighborhoods so there were some clashes some times. At camp, everyone listens to music. They had KISS, Van Halen, and I was the black kid that knew that music. My friends knew Kool and the Gang and Sly and the Family Stone. Fortunately, that wall wasn’t there and it enabled me to get into music, into rock and stuff and not have that ambivalence of what is white and what is Black.
Even in Caribbean music, which can be rhythmically volatile, what is Cuban music? What is Puerto Rican music? As drummers, that is religious, but it was good to have the prerequisite and meet people and eat the food and go to school with those young people which helped me to dive into the music without ambivalence of the sound. I am the product of that environment – the parents and grandparents.
All the experiences growing up gave a solid foundation for culture and music. I had a very hands-on, thanks to my neighborhood, a very tangible experience.