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One of the most iconic songs from 1988 was Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” a politically charged, funk metal anthem that hit right as the alternative rock movement began to turn into a pop culture phenomenon. The song begins with the Malcolm X quote, “And during the few moments we have left let’s talk right down to earth in a language that everybody can easily understand.” It’s a striking opening, but if everything went as originally planned, the song would have started with a sample of Martin Luther King saying, “Free at last, free at last/ Thank God almighty we are free at last.”
“We couldn’t get approval from the King foundation to use that,” recalls guitarist Vernon Reid from his Seattle home during a down day from the band’s current Synethesia tour. “After I found that out, I was walking around Harlem on 125th Street and there were these guys selling [cassette] tapes. They had a Malcolm X tape, ‘Speech to the Grassroots.’ I bought the tape and put it on, and one of the first things I heard was, ‘Let’s talk right down to earth in a language that everybody can easily understand.’ And that was it. I was like, “Okay, this is what we’re gonna use!”
With a sample chosen, Living Colour again had to get clearance to use the sound snippet. Fortunately, this time they had an in. “One of Malcolm X’s daughters was a fan of the band,” recalls Reid. “She came to CBGB and heard us play the song and she said, ‘Great, I’m gonna talk to my mom.’ Next thing we knew, we had permission to use it."
The Malcolm X sample wasn’t the only happy accident. Aside from the lyrics, “Cult of Personality” was a happy accident – one that rocketed to number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and launched Vivid towards its double-platinum status. “One night, we were lost in Bushwick at a band rehearsal on 1102 Broadway, above a refrigerator repair place,” Reid says. “At the beginning of that rehearsal there was no ‘Cult of Personality.’ And at the end of the night we had it completely written. That whole rehearsal was dedicated to the writing of that one song and we literally played it a day or two later at CBGB. We said, ‘Hey, we have a brand new song,’ and people flipped out.”
What Reid remembers most fondly about “Cult of Personality” isn’t that the song helped turn the band into rock stars. It’s that the tune was a bolt from the blue that implanted itself into the band’s brains. “It’s like it was out there and it created itself. That’s really rare,” Reid says. “[Vocalist] Corey [Glover] was sitting there singing something and he said, ‘Hey man, play this.’ I was trying to play what he was singing and I stumbled onto the riff that started the song. The guitar part was not what he was singing to me, but I literally picked up my guitar and it just came out of my fingers. And then I went, “Will [Calhoun], put a beat to this.” And the song unfolded. I jaded some notes to it and it just emerged.”
“Cult of Personality” is one of the highlights from Vivid that Living Colour are performing on their current tour. In addition to songs from their debut album, the band are testing the waters with some new material for their next album Shade, including two seemingly unusual covers, “Preaching Blues” from Robert Johnson and “Who Shot Ya?” by Biggie Smalls.”
“We were invited to take part in the centennial celebration of Robert Johnson. It was a great honor and a bunch of luminaries were involved, including Elvis Costello and Taj Mahal. Everybody was doing versions of Robert Johnson songs and we decided to do ‘Preaching Blues.’ Everyone was flying in from different places so we didn’t have time to rehearse it, and Corey said, ‘Put those lyrics on top of that riff.’ So we went out without a safety net and it turned out really well so we decided to put that on the record.”
The Biggie Smalls song came together because of Glover, who used to always rap Notorious B.I.G. songs to himself. “Corey’s a singer, not a rapper, but he just loves Biggie because Biggie is Brooklyn’s finest,” Reid says. “There’s a lot of pride when it comes to people like him and MC Lyte that represent Brooklyn in hip-hop. The one song he knew the lyrics to back and forth was ‘Who Shot Ya?’ That’s his favorite. So I said, ‘We should record that. You do the rhyme from top to bottom all the time.’”
Glover agreed to do the song with the band, but only if he could sing the lyrics instead of rapping them. “It turned into this rocking version of the song,” Reid says. “We recorded it and it’s got this hip-hop rhythm but this great new melody.”
Shade, the band’s first album since 2009’s, The Chair in the Doorway, will also include a cover of MC 5’s powerhouse garage rock song “Kick Out the Jams” as well as originals that range from blustery blues rock to the band’s trademark funk-metal. “One song ‘Freedom of Expression’ has social commentary, but is very much a blues-inspired song,” Reid says. “And so is ‘Who’s That?’ But there are also songs that are totally different. Basically, whatever moves me, moves me. So my own aesthetic goes from Sly Stone and James Brown to King Crimson and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with a little Kool and the Gang and Led Zeppelin thrown in there. So no one ever knows what to expect.”