JIMI HAZEL got hooked on the guitar when he was 6 years old and his brother took him to see Jimi Hendrix at the 1970 New York Pop Festival. Years later, he teamed with some musicians who were into jazz and fusion, reggae and heavy metal. Their accelerated hard-rock drew an audience of slam-dancing, punk-rockers, and they got an album deal.
Happens every day in the U.S.A., right? The big difference in the case of the Bronx-based 24-7 Spyz is that Hazel, singer Peter Fluid, bassist Rick Skatore and drummer Anthony Johnson are black, still an anomaly in the racially categorized music business where black groups are expected to play rap or R&B.
The group Living Colour has loosened the shackles, reaching a mainstream audience with its music and spearheading the Black Rock Coalition, an organization out to combat musical apartheid. But Hazel resists the notion that 24-7 Spyz’s splash — their debut album Harder Than You is raising a critical stir, and appearing on assorted hard-rock sales charts — is due to Living Colour’s trailblazing. “I’m glad Living Colour did what they did because it’s been quite a long time since there’s been any black band that’s stepped out of the R&B mode and established something,” Hazel said during a recent interview at a Hollywood publicist’s office.
“The only reason I get a little bit strange about it is because I don’t see the similarities between us, beyond being four black guys not playing R&B. Living Colour to me isn’t a rock band. Living Colour is a pop band with an edge. Very catchy, hooky, very politically motivated. We come in on more of a street-wise, hard-core thrash or metallic edge, a rougher edge.
“People have a really bad habit: If something’s new, they try to find something to familiarize themselves with it. They hate to admit that this is something totally different, so they go, ‘Oh yeah, they’re like Living Colour, Fishbone, Bad Brains. Boy, Living Colour really opened up the door for you guys.’
“I say, ‘You got the wrong band.’ When we started, we didn’t know who Living Colour was. We didn’t say, ‘Let’s do this to prove a point, that black people can play other forms of music’ We just wanted to play what we wanted to play.”
Hazel’s antipathy toward the Vernon Reid-led band is also tied to the Spyz’s scuffle with the Black Rock Coalition. Hazel says the organization was uncomfortable with the Spyz’ unpredictable stage antics and its fast rise in New York, and the Spyz left the Coalition after a brief membership. After that, he said, the band was unable to get an anticipated booking with Living Colour.
Still, the jovial guitarist with the dancing-worms hairdo played down the conflict, saying that relations are fine now and the Spyz are focused on carving a niche with an album that jumps from metal to hard-core to reggae to hip-hop to acid rock, released by a small company (Relativity) more familiar with alternative rock bands like Los Angeles’ Thelonious Monster.
“I think the best way to sum up what we do is, we want to turn the ’90s into the ’60s all over again. Think about it. After 1962, that whole decade was an age when music was free-form, experimental, people fed off each other. The ’70s turned into a formula, the ’80s turned into a fax machine in terms of music.
“People are tired of the same old thing. We want to tell people that you can put this, that and the other on one piece of wax. Don’t limit yourself, and don’t be narrow-minded about what color you are, what music you listen to. Music is either good or bad, not black or white.”
But Hazel and company have also had their first brush with compromise, and he doesn’t seem so sure about that.
“A couple of stations in New York who wanted to play ‘Jungle Boogie’ felt it was a little hard, so we did a remix, added a drum machine. We didn’t add a drum machine. Somebody remixed it. That goes against things we’ve been saying about using no drum machines. But I don’t care how many mixes they do, as long as the ‘A’ side is the album version so people won’t get the wrong impression.
“It’s OK. I’m always curious to see what somebody else would do with our music to make it more accessible. The radio remix is the same as it was, but it’s soft now. But if that’s what it takes, let them do their business, because our live shows are always going to be go-for-the-throat.”
© Richard Cromelin, Los Angeles Times, 5 July 1989