Some words with Vernon Reid's multiple identities

The most prominent feature on the cover of Vernon Reid's first-ever solo CD, Mistaken Identity, is a guitar-playing blackface figurine, a ceramic Sambo akin to the lawn jockeys who light the driveways and announce the addresses of assholes across the nation. For Reid, who conceived and designed the cover himself, it is a classic gesture: Both before and after he cofounded the Black Rock Coalition over a decade ago to protest the pigeonholing of black musicians away from the commercial rock mainstream, the guitarist has effectively rebutted racial stereotypes on both sides of the fence with a mixture of provocative good nature (you could call it black humor) and marvelous music. Whether he was spooling out kaleidoscopic jazz with Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society; roiling the dance floor with sharp, stuttering funk with Defunkt; or melting the distinctions between grunge, metal, blues, and R&B with his breakthrough band Living Colour, Reid's monster guitar passages and biting lyrics have almost always been heavy and jagged in just the right ways.

As good as he's been, however, Mistaken Identity represents a significant step forward in Reid's evolution. Easily the most stylistically ambitious record thus far this year, it brings together players from across the musical spectrum for a dense montage of collisions, synergies, samples, and solos that crackle and morph like a sci-fi street party. Members of the core band include the agile, highly respected jazz clarinetist Don Byron; turntable wizard DJ Logic; keyboard innovator Leon Gruenbaum (playing something called the Samchillian Tip Tip Tip CheeePeee), and a tight alternarock rhythm section of bassist Hank Schroy and drummer Curtis Watts, with Reid on guitars. On the guest list are rappers Chubb Rock and Lady Apache, jazz luminaries like bassist Fred Hopkins and cornetist Graham Haynes, actor Larry Fishburne, and flavor additives like Eddie Hall on Nigerian clay pots, Jaron Lanier on siljeflote (a wind instrument from the Netherlands), and Irish trad new jack Seamus Eagen on illin pipes. Tracks range from the island vibe of "Fresh Water Coconut," to the sinuous, Middle Eastern raga of "Uptown Drifter," to the grunge-tinged resonance of "Saint Cobain," and the ethereality of "Unborne Embrace." There are also skits like "Who Invited You?" which features a TV ad for Glock Malt Liquor. The CD was coproduced by Teo Macero, Miles Davis's alter ego on almost all of the trumpet master's great records, and Prince Paul, the man responsible for hip-hop gems by De La Soul and the Gravediggaz.

Obviously there was a lot to talk about as Reid phoned in from his native New York a couple of weeks ago. The guitarist didn't disappoint, expounding on everything from racial orthodoxy to the breakup of Living Colour, the making of his new CD, and the cognitive dissonance of OJ and Hootie.

CITY PAGES: Let's talk about the title of the CD, because the idea of a mistaken identity, and the theme of identity in general, runs pretty strong throughout the record.

Vernon Reid: Well, the title song "Mistaken Identity" was one of the last ones I composed for the record. But it occurred to me looking at all the songs that I was recording that there was this thing I had grappled with maybe all my life, because I was born in London of West Indian parents from a small island, Monserrat. Most people think West Indians all come from Jamaica or Trinidad, so my parents' identity thing was coming from this small island. But I was raised in New York, brought here when I was 2 years old, and my identification is with the African American experience; I didn't go to the West Indies until I was 30 years old. But when I go back to London, I think, "Wow, who would I have been if I had grown up here?" because I have English cousins and they are completely, very English.

So for me it plays out it in the idea of what it means to be an American with all the various dynamics that exist here. The song "Fresh Water Coconut" was about that. I was playing in a reggae band and a guy asked me where I was from and I said to him exactly what I told you and he said, "Oh, you're just a fresh water coconut." He meant it as a dis and I was really hurt by it at the time, but now I'm actually prouder of it. It's this thing, like the [Mistaken Identity] song "What's My Name?" comes from Muhammad Ali when he was fighting Sonny Liston and Liston refused to call him that and during the fight Ali kept asking him, "what's my name?" as he hit him. It's the idea of self-definition; at what point do we define ourselves, away from parents or peer groups, patriotism, nationalism.

CP: Or even an old band.

Reid: Exactly. I wasn't thinking about that but that was such a weird and painful thing; it took me such a long time to break up [Living Colour] and I really damaged friendships with the guys 'cause I was in denial, I was terrified of what it would mean. I had made my name in the world before Living Colour took off, but it becomes this false overlay on who you really are. Looking back, I think we fell victim to the Jackie Robinson syndrome; it was like we were not just the little band that could, we were that black band that could and did and that haunted us. I've reasoned this out: In dealing with popular music, the public is random and chaotic in a way, but it becomes more predictable after an audience emerges for something. But you see it even with movie superstars--fame is no guarantee of your success and obscurity is no guarantee of failure. So with that in mind, I might as well do what I feel and what I want and that is to embrace popular culture in a manner that commingles high art and low art. It's about reconnecting to the joy of music, doing the thing for its own sake. This record was the most fun I've had making a record since the first Living Colour record.

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