A conversation with author Kimberly Mack
When Living Colour released their debut LP Vivid 35 years ago, they blew the doors off the hinges of what was construed as rock ‘n’ roll in 1988, setting the table of anticipation for their next move.
With 1990’s Time’s Up, the band not only met expectations, they exceeded them by creating a record that doubled down on the urgency and experimentation on display across Vivid as a means of striking while the iron of their popularity was white hot. And while Time’s Up didn’t surpass the success of its predecessor, from both a critical and fan standpoint Living Colour achieved peak creative brilliance on the album, as chronicled in an excellent new book by author Kimberly Mack as part of the acclaimed 33 ⅓ Series.
“Vivid paved the way for Time’s Up,” declared original bassist Muzz Skillings in the book’s second chapter. “Like in the business sense, and in just a record label dynamic sense and the corporate sense, the success of that record and everything we brought to it paved the way for the second record. It set the tone and made it possible. But knowing that, you know, I wasn’t interested in building off or continuing Vivid in any way. Our audience had grown. It grew exponentially from the time of Vivid’s release to when we were starting to record Time’s Up. The only thing on my mind that I was interested in was resonating with this new expanded audience. That was my goal. It was amazing and a blessing that they were there.”
For Mack, who has been a listener and fan of the band since the early days, she always knew that Time’s Up would be the album she wanted to cover in Bloomsbury’s acclaimed book series.
“When I thought about doing a 33 ⅓ on a Living Colour record, I knew that it would be Time’s Up,” she said. “I loved Vivid, I loved ‘Cult of Personality’–it was everywhere. It meant a lot to me when I discovered they were Black. That was a big deal for me as somebody who grew up loving rock music as a kid, and being a Black girl and just not knowing the Black origins of rock. I didn’t understand that the music was my own, and so I really did grow up feeling like an interloper. So seeing them was really, really great. I remember watching them on Showtime at the Apollo with my mom, who got me into rock.
“But Time’s Up was just this whole other level for me,” she continued. “I thought Vivid was great, but I was absolutely floored by Time’s Up–particularly the first track, the title cut. When I heard that, I was knocked on my ass. I just thought it was the coolest song, and the anger of it and the aggression. I wasn’t into hardcore, and that song was a hardcore song so it was nothing I was super familiar with at that point. So they inspired me, along with this boyfriend at the time, and my musical tastes started to change. But I was really floored by the passion and aggression, and I listened to the album all the way through.”
Stylistically, Time’s Up is a far more diverse album sonically than its predecessor, seeming to bring together all of the elements in their recipe–rock, metal, jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, hardcore, punk–and knotted it all up into something nobody ever heard in 1990.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about this record,” agrees Mack. “Sonically, it’s really impressive because it’s moving between all of these different sounds and different genres and all of the collaborations with folks who are not normatively read as rock like Queen Latifah and Doug E. Fresh, signaling the connections between rock and rap.”
However, for the author, it’s not so much what they were doing on Time’s Up but rather what they were saying, or rather what Corey Glover was singing, that truly encapsulates the magic within its grooves.
“But what’s really cool is the lyrics,” she tells Rock & Roll Globe. “They are of their time in the sense of ‘Undercover of Darkness,’ which is about safe sex–not that we don’t care about it now, but at the time it was even more pointed and urgent because of the AIDS crisis. But then you have songs that are very prescient, songs that were predicting things like the chaos of the Internet and even social media chaos with ‘Information Overload.’ And ‘Pride,’ which was important then and relevant then, this whole idea of people asking [drummer] Will Calhoun why he plays rock. And that hasn’t gone away, because I think people for the most part see rock as white still. But then also the whole thing about school and the way kids are taught history or not taught history. It was very, very forward thinking, and it’s something that happened then and persists today.
“So they were talking about issues that were important right then, and many of those issues persist. And then there were things they were predicting that was to come, like these panics over critical race theory or the ways in which technology can go awry and become dangerous.”
One important song on Time’s Up that does, in fact, testify to the unbearable whiteness of the rock genre and Black folks’ rightful place at that table: “Elvis Is Dead.”
“This band, where one of their missions was the reclamation that rock is Black, to have a song talking about the cultural reaction to Elvis and kind of contesting that,” explains Mack. “And then having Little Richard on there, who was the architect of rock ‘n’ roll, and then to have Mick Jagger do a guest vocal on the song–somebody who absolutely benefited from the work of Black blues folks, I thought was just genius.”
VIDEO: Living Colour “Elvis Is Dead”
The fact we are in 2023 and rock music is still largely considered a white genre remains a problem, one that Mack addresses in the book within the context of the band’s success.
“I gave a talk about this book at Case Western back in February,” she explains. “It was the first one I gave, and I printed off some lyrics to hand out to people just so they could understand how thoughtful their lyrics are. Living Colour emerging at that time and having such pointed things to say about the origins of rock was so important. This is a band whose members grew up middle class and attained a great amount of success with their first record commercially. But at the same time, as [guitarist] Vernon [Reid] said in an interview, he’d be signing autographs after a show and simultaneously trying to hail a cab and he couldn’t hail a cab.
“This is a band who is really, really clear about how wherever they were coming from, whatever success they enjoyed personally, Black people in the late 80s/early 90s were going through a really dark time,” she continued. “I remember it being really scary in real time. Then there was the War on Drugs, which led to mass incarceration, then Reagan’s Trickle Down Economics that didn’t trickle down to everybody. We had a lot of stuff going on, so it was a really low point for Black folks in the United States. And I think this band felt that it was imperative to talk about these things and shine a light because they had a platform.”
One other important takeaway from the book is how, despite Living Colour pioneering the template for an all-Black rock band to the top of the charts, there has yet to be a group to best their success in mainstream rock.
“I think Greg Tate said it better than I could ever say it in the book,” Mack said. “Living Colour rose to a different category in terms of commercial success. It was rarefied air in that sense, and there still hasn’t been an all-Black rock band that’s been as commercially successful as them. Even bands like a TV On The Radio or Body Count, it’s a level of success that has yet to be achieved.”
Time’s Up by Kimberly Mack is available now online or at your local bookshop.
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