It's only rock 'n' roll with knobs on

From Living Colour to 'Mistaken Identity', Vernon Reid just wants to rock. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
The mighty machine of rock music is not renowned for its love of black artists, nor of them for it. Yes, there was Jimi Hendrix, and Prince before he swapped his Purple Rain motorbike and axe-man solos in favour of a gradual retrenchment back into the R&B fold, and - if you insist - Tina Turner, but African-American rock, as opposed to pop or R&B, stars are about as numerous as British Wimbledon finalists.

The guitarist Vernon Reid is one of the few black men to take on the rock machine at its own game. As leader of the band Living Colour and a major mover in the Black Rock Coalition pressure group, he has dared to be as riff-tastic, and as loud, as any white heavy-metal crew. His new album, Mistaken Identity (Epic), begins with a chugging guitar boogie as deep in the roots of Southern-tried rock as the Allman Brothers or ZZ Top. When the voice of a rapper enters though, you know that Reid is hedging his bets. Indeed, Reid emphasises his black-man-plays-white-music dilemma right from the album's cover, a close-up photograph of a Robinson's- style golliwog playing a guitar. The irony, of course, is that the music of heavy rock is mostly the blues anyway, though it has managed to disguise its antecedents to the point where a black man playing it is apt to appear, like Reid, somewhat eccentric.

"The reason I went into rock 'n' roll in the first place," Reid says, "was about freedom. But even Hendrix got to a point where he wanted to be free of his own iconography. I made this album just after I had just broken up Living Colour, my marriage had ended and I was involved in trench- warfare with my wife. The record is about wanting to have fun and then leave. In the past I've been accused of earnest seriousness, but with this album I laughed every day, especially at my own foibles."

On the album, Reid plays those trademark fuzzed-out metal licks and rhythmic turnarounds as brilliantly as anyone. The non-rock elements have also been increased, the sound replete with hip-hop scratches and spoken word samples, and the result is so dense, so overloaded with disparate reference points, that it nearly eludes comprehension altogether. Hedging his bets even further, Reid had the album co-produced by not only Prince Paul, the man behind De La Soul, but also Teo Macero, the producer of much of Miles Davis's best work. Echoes of Miles's electric jazz, from In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew through to Tutu, more or less define the thick textures of the album's sound, though it's still a guitar album most of all, with knobs on.

What Reid is really into at the moment though is jungle. When I mention that the trumpeter Graham Haynes (who appears on the album) is to play in a jazz-jungle concert at the South Bank, Reid gets feisty.

"I turned Haynes on to jungle," he says indignantly. "I love it because the beat is so hectic, with the kind of unrestrained hysteria that I like. Also, it's a mood music that has two split personalities, the 160bpm thing and the half-speed bass-line. LTJ Bukem is the Brian Eno of jungle. It's like In a Silent Way again, which is where ambient begins. I predict the day an American rapper takes up the challenge and drum and bass and rap collide. It's just waiting for someone who's got the flavour to connect with it. And when that happens, it will be some shit!"

n Vernon Reid's 'Mistaken Identity' is out on Epic. He supports Me'Shell NdegeOcello at London's Subterania on Thursday