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.

CP: How did it come together?

Reid: I started doing some things before the band officially broke up, things I had always been thinking about, like bringing in more hip-hop music. The record is the culmination of two distinct sessions, the first ones in '94 with Fred Hopkins on upright bass, and James Carter, the great young saxophonist, and Graham Haynes.

CP: So it was pretty much heavy-duty jazz cats?

Reid: DJ Spooky and DJ Blaze were also in on those early sessions. Then I had a show to do and I decided to put together a band and that led to the '95 sessions. It came out of relationships. I met the bass player, Hank Schroy, when I produced a demo for his band No Walls, an alternative band out of Atlanta. Curtis [Watts, the drummer] was in this hip-hop band SSL. DJ Logic was in a friend of mine's band that broke up, called Eye and Eye. The thing I liked about him was that he was very quiet. Hip-hop is all this boisterous "I, me me me," and he wasn't like that. Graham Haynes was out of town so I called up my friend Don Byron, and he became very crucial. The sound of the clarinet and guitar together is unique. The clarinet is such a warm sound but the thing that is great about him is he is an unsentimental player; like the violin, the clarinet can sound very cloying and he has that well under control.

CP: It strikes me that this is a uniquely New York record.

Reid: Very much so. Things collide. There are a lot of odd instruments going through it. Seamus Eagen, this great Celtic musician, came by and played illin pipes. John Sherman, a wonderful accordionist and singer, has this thing called a ClopBox, a percussion instrument made out of piano wire and a banjo head that is really weird. Brian Coleman plays this variation on a dulcimer and a santur, called a marxaphone. There are tablas, and Nigerian clay pots. I love the idea of things colliding, like to have Chubb Rock and Don Byron come to the same point from opposite directions on a song like "You Say He's Just A Psychic Friend."

CP: Having producers from two generations like Teo Macero and Prince Paul seems like an intentional collision. How did that work out?

Reid: Amazingly well. The process was unprecedented. Teo was amazing. There's a song on the album, "Unborne Embrace," which is actually two pieces of music. I met this engineer, Tchad Blake, who works with Los Lobos and Peter Gabriel and he does these recordings with microphones that are set around the width of the human head; when you hear it, it is absolutely directional, you hear it just where it was recorded. And we went into a stone quarry 50 feet underground and I took an amp and a guitar and this e-bow string driver, and just improvised. At the end he gave me the DAT and said to use it for segues or whatever.

So I gave it to Teo and told him to think about it for segues and stuff. He listened to it, and you know, he's kind of Zen-like, he's got the biggest ears in the world. And he says, "You know there is something I composed and recorded in 1950 that I think is in the same key." So he brought out this record that he did eight years before I was born and we started the record and the tape together and we didn't sample or harmonize or do anything to justify them to each other. And when we played it back it came out like one piece of music.  

Teo and DJ Logic are still getting together, eating meals and playing music for each other. I've never seen such a thing where this Gen-X guy and this cat--Teo won't tell you how old he is, but he's got to be at least 70. And the thing is, Teo is not laid back. This is the guy who made the first true acid jazz records with Miles, with the guitar and all that abrasion. When we were doing "Saint Cobain," and this thing was roaring through the speakers, he was into it; saying things like "this is good, but can we make it louder?" The guy should be doing rock records because he was like an animal.

CP: You're probably going to get asked more questions about "Saint Cobain" than anything else on the record. But it seems like the most straightforward, least sonically adventurous track.

Reid: Well, I would say it talks about something in a nonlinear way. There is kind of a three-chord, heavy guitar thing, because rock & roll is something that is a part of me. But it's like in the liner notes, I thank Soundgarden for their song "The Day I Tried To Live," because it actually kept me going one day in my apartment. In the same way, "Saint Cobain" is really about the effect his final act had on me because no one believes that if you have any measure of success that you have a right to be unhappy. I think self-destructive acting-out, whether it is drugs or sexual obsession or whatever, is because of the distance between the personal reality and the perceived reality of your life. It can be a cavern, a deep, dark cavern, and I think it is affecting many of the most popular people working today.

And that is a shame. You can hear the reality of what Kurt Cobain is expressing in his music and it is a shame that he chose a way to liberate himself, but that's what I feel he entered into. The lyric, "A hole in the head where the love won't grow/The hole in the head where the love can't go" is about the fact that he went to a place where it was a literal dead end. Kind words couldn't get to him. And the part I love about ["Saint Cobain"] is where everything drops out but the bass and drums and a sample from the song "Free Nelson Mandela." The point of "Saint Cobain" is that his spirit is free.

CP: Let's talk for awhile about race relations. It is 11 years since you started the Black Rock Coalition. As someone who is an integrationist in philosophy, what do you think of this drift toward a more ethnocentric society?

Reid: Well, I think it is because of the fact that people truly don't want to love one another, probably because our parents have a vested interest in--certainly there are parents that try to raise their children is a nonracist way, but it is still about how you live your life and who your friends are. If your child sees that you don't have black friends then it becomes a question of who [black people] really are for that child. You can be saying, "Don't call people this or that," but if they never experience an actual person for whatever reason; you know, kids learn by example. Children really are the battleground. That's why I did the artwork for Mistaken Identity, with the guitar-playing thing there. It's like "let's have a discussion.

It's like the OJ Simpson thing, which is not as easy or as uncomplicated as people may think. Remember, when people were up in arms about the OJ Simpson verdict, Hootie and the Blowfish were selling 13 million records. So race relations are not as automatic as people believe. The idea that all black people think OJ is innocent is fallacious. There are plenty of black people who are no less down with the folks and down with the cause that think he did it. Do you know what I'm sayin'?

CP: But the pressure to go against that kind of racial orthodoxy is greater.  

Reid: Well, certainly there has been pressure about that all my life. To have a life, to have a self, costs something. What unites us all is that we are born into families where people who are our parents, or whoever is in charge, have a vested interest in what we turn out to be, and it is a struggle; the point when you define yourself, that's when the real fun and games begin. You're not always going to be with your lads or your mates. You're going to step off at some point--or not. For some people--like those in the Japanese culture--it is much more important to be part of a group. To not have a group identity is madness in traditional Japanese culture.

CP: Many people define themselves in relation to other people.

Reid: Absolutely. It's like the "keep it real" movement in hip-hop, which revolves around this whole idea that there is a central identity that we all have to participate in and have to agree that there is an empirical truth. Even having an argument threatens it. Do you ever notice sometimes when you have a disagreement with someone and they fight incredibly hard, that it has transcended something; it's not just disagreeing with the subject at hand, you are disagreeing with the entire family line. You're disagreeing with that person's great grandfather.

CP: I know what you mean. But in terms of attitudes toward "civil rights" the prevailing sentiment on the family line has flipped with the current generation.

Reid: Sure. Because they know there is no teeth in it. The generation saw what happened. But the moral high ground has descended to where, you know, people are embracing OJ Simpson like he's Emmett Till. It's absurd. I've shifted my rage from a kind of stand-on-my-soapbox umbrage to the absurdity of it all. Surrealism in Europe was affected by the brutal circumstances of war. The surrealism here absolutely exists in our racial relationships. CP

Ryan Peck contributed to research for this story.

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