The Hellbound Interview: Earl Douglas, Author of Black Rock Volume 1

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By Laina Dawes

Let’s be honest: For the average rock, metal, hardcore and punk listener, especially those who are more interested in the music than physical aesthetics, the lack of black folks in the scene is not even an afterthought. After all, the lack of diversity in the scene can be easily dismissed by reluctance to the music and the culture. But for the black rock, punk and metal concert-goer that has to be concerned about racist idiots for their physical protection; for the talented female musician who is told by record execs that it’s going to be hard to market her skin tone and her curves, how they look takes precedence over the quality and quantity of the music they produce. If music is an art, accessible to everyone who wants to pursue it, shouldn’t it be a level playing field?

Photographer Earl Douglas is clearly aware of this, and for almost 20 years, has worked with the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) to not only nurture up-and-coming black artists, but to publicly support the legends that made rock n’ roll what it is. Now the executive director of the non-profit organization, (who celebrates their 25th anniversary this year) the popular radio producer (formerly at New York’s XM Radio, now Sirius XM) and writer has just released his first book of photography, Black Rock Volume 1. Hellbound recently caught up with Douglas just prior to the BRC’s anniversary concert in New York City’s Central Park in early June to talk about his book and it is informative and extremely relevant for today’s rock and metal fans.

Black Rock Volume 1 is a collection of photographs and accompanying captions of some of the most important – and to some, unknown – black rock artists. When asked how important the live performance images are in terms of signifying their relevance in popular culture, Douglas believes that while important, “I thought for this first book was to use images that capture the essence of an artist doing what they love to do the most, which is performing” made the images more real to the viewer. “The first image in the book is Living Colour during the Vivid era backstage at a concert, just goofing around, and I wanted to capture that these were really fun guys, above everything else,” he says. “Not only are these people rock stars, but it’s something they are passionate about, and it clearly shows. Capturing them in their most vulnerable, joyous and with the most rawest emotions they have in their performance, was important. In those pictures, they were young, vibrant musicians, but in this current era, musicianship and the artistic side of performing is downplayed. In the end, it’s about the music and the performance and I wanted to capture that.”

When Douglas was starting off in radio, one of his first jobs was as a receptionist at rock station WNEW. “We had all these really cool people coming in, some of the biggest names in rock. Occasionally I would take pictures of the bands posing with a co-worker friend who had a more senior position. I eventually decided to buy a 35 mm camera and just left it in the drawer of the office desk, so whenever someone would roll through, I was the first and the last person they saw,” he explains. “If the opportunity would present itself, I would take a picture, and eventually I started getting those photos published in the trade newspapers.”

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As a young black rock fan growing up in New York who was also influenced by legendary soul, funk, blues and R&B singers, Douglas also saw the correlation between some of the more well-known rock artists and where they got their inspirations from. Unfortunately, many times the contributions of those artists who had inspired the greats were relatively ignored in music history books. “You can make the argument that people like David Bowie took his look and his style from Labelle,” he says about the legendary all female rock / funk trio of Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. “When Bowie was doing his glam thing in England, Labelle had already done it in New York. Same with The Who on the Quadrophenia tour. Labelle opened for many of the top rock bands of their era. A lot of people were surprised when they read some of the notes in the book, not knowing how influential these artists had been in the musical industry. What I wanted to put in the book was their essential records so people could discover them – albums that are now easily available on iTunes and Amazon.”

He initially joined the BRC (Living Colour’s Vernon Reid was one of the founders) as a young volunteer and through various discussions with the black musicians who sought refuge (and performance opportunities) at the several BRC showcases around New York, learned that there was not only a struggle to make it in the music industry because they didn’t look like a marketable rock artist to record execs, but that many of their non-black friends and young black kids growing up in the Rap era still struggled with the legitimate image of a black man or woman playing guitar in something other than an R&B or funk band.

Black Rock Volume 1 not only contains live performance photography, but the captions serves as a pseudo-history lesson for those who do not know of rock n’ roll’s origins. “I am a firm believer that there is a running thread through time of everything artistic. There is a direct connection between what Living Colour was and is currently doing and what Jimi Hendrix was doing in the sixties,” he explains, saying that tracing the history of rock’s musical history will encourage more young black musicians that they have other options other than playing what society dictates they must perform in order to make a living.

Douglas’s book has come out at the right time, as while black alternative artists are currently trendy, there are companies who have capitalized on the fashion aspect, but not necessarily the music. Afropunk.com, initially an online social networking site inspired from the 2003 documentary, Afropunk: The Rock n’ Roll Nigger Experience hosted their 5th music festival this summer and despite the “punk” in Afropunk, and the surprise, last minute additions of one metal band (God Forbid) and one hardcore (Bad Brains) the lineup predominately consisted of alternative Hip-Hop, pop, R&B artists (Mos Def was one of the headliners). The UrbAlt Music Festival, which also veers towards more of a stereotypical ‘urban’ collection of artists, just completed a series of weekend concerts around New York City.

Despite this Hellbound writer’s cynicism that such festivals are more concerned with creating a fashion trend and generating revenue than creating a musical and cultural revolution and breaking the cultural barriers between race and music, Douglas believes that any exposure to the plethora of alternative artists is not only great, but a sign that the masses are being exposed to real talent. “I can’t put my finger on why it is so provocative and so sexy right now, but to me, the most innovative and charismatic and frankly, the only music that is coming out right now is from black rockers.

blackrock3“There are just so many black female artists who are making such incredibly off-the-hook music right now,” he continues. “Tamar-Kali, Sophia Ramos, Honeychild Coleman, White Noise Supremacists, Ebony Bones, the Noisettes – maybe it’s because they don’t have the visual thing down, but there is such integrity to it. Maybe because it’s so pure and free of hype – not “ how outrageous do I have to be to get attention.” The attention span is so short with the public and unless the image is so captivating, it doesn’t really capture the mainstream populace.”

After organizing more anniversary concerts for BRC this year, Douglas plans to produce another book of photography, delving a bit more into rock n’ roll history to feature artists that had an even greater influence of the sound of rock n’ roll. “Someone that I would love to photograph for the next book is Hubert Sumlin. Do you know who Hubert Sumlin is? He was Hendrix’s favourite guitarist and worked with Howlin’ Wolf for years. He is someone that everyone should know about. All those great riffs that you heard from Hendrix were from Sumlin.”

Similar to the great documentary, Electric Purgatory: The Fate of the Black Rocker, Douglas believes that the invisibility of the contributions of legendary African-American blues and rock musicians in popular culture is a hindrance to young black musicians taking an interest in rock, punk and metal music. “Another reason for doing Black Rock Volume 1 and future books is that no one has really centered in and created a ‘guide book’ to say, “this is what it is.”

You can preview and purchase Black Rock Volume 1 on Blurb.com. Please check the Black Rock Coalition’s website or their Facebook page for event information on their 25th anniversary celebrations this year.

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Adam has been a photographer for Hellbound since day 1 and also has a hand in the technical aspects of running the site.