Lily White Noise: The Seattle Sound

Seattle's rock clubs feature a monotony of tattoos, blue hair, nose rings, and white faces. However subtle the reasons, the Seattle grunge scene can be an inhospitable place for people of color. The overwhelmingly white rock scene, combined with a misplaced romanticization of "white-trash" culture, leads to an environment of racial exclusion. Some Seattle clubs are the dives you might expect: walls graffitied, tables initial-carved; where everyone knows your name, and grunge is something you can scrape off the bathroom floor. Now, Seattle is a sound, grunge is a fashion, and the screeching feedback you hear is the world's thrashing echo. But in the clubs, a hometown network of long-time friendships remains: They're gathered around pitchers of the worst beer available, comparing tour stories, record collections, and royalty checks. Weaving through the maze of booths or squeezing past a bottlenecked corner on my way to a beer (or the bathroom), and elbowing for position at the bar in many of Seattle's trendier clubs, I easily recognize faces I've excused my way past on nights before. I suppose the claustrophobic crowds simulate an insider scene. Although Seattle's popular "underground" rock scene features a monotony of tattoos, blue hair, and nose rings, it wasn't until one night over beers that a friend observed offhandedly, "Isn't it all very white?" I hadn't thought about it before. But looking around, I was struck by the homogeneity, not only in the posed eccentricity, but also in the color of skin. You might be wondering why it even matters whether the music scene is well-integrated or not. After all, the rock industry does not have a good track record here. Rock has historically been more segregated than not, with the black bands generating it and the white bands ripping it off. It matters because a lot of these scenes make their way under a banner of inclusion and progressive liberalism. In fact, the grunge scene is an inhospitable place, however subtle, for people of color, and paves a slippery slope to a more overt exclusion based on race. Cedric Ross is a member of the now-defunct black punk band, Imij. Born and raised in Tacoma, Washington he feels estranged in the Seattle music scene. "When I go to [local clubs]....I look for a black guy or a black woman, and you don't see that like-image very often," Ross says, "It's a very strange isolating situation... and it's probably the reason why I don't go to clubs that often." Maybe it's not surprising that, like most American consumer trends, the Seattle-inspired gen-X sensation is disproportionately white. Across the board -- from bands, to labels, to audiences -- and across the country, " the Seattle sound" is a lily white noise. According to SoundScan, a company that tracks listener demographics, over 91 percent of active music consumers (people who have bought more than two albums in the past six months) nationwide who say they like "alternative" music are white. Insiders cringe at demographic studies and other number-driven calculations that take the music out of its club context and lump different bands together under meaningless consumer headlines. "For someone who listens to the music, bands may sound different," explains the man who coined our present understanding of the word "grunge," Sub Pop co-founder, Jonathan Poneman. "But for the vast majority of the country, it sounds like a bunch of white guys and a handful of white girls playing loud guitar music, and that's pretty accurate." Seattle's particular roaring rock 'n' roll wasn't meant for the rest of America. To anti-corporate rockers, the mainstreaming of the Seattle sound was a tragedy, and although many got rich, the spirit of the art -- which is ultimately what is at stake -- was spoiled, corrupted, and diluted by the feeding frenzy. The g-word was cursed, and labels like "alternative" and "indie," not only contradicted the music's commercial popularity, but they were meant for Rolling Stone, Billboard, and MTV. Being misunderstood is an underground badge of pride, and it meant avoiding the media spotlight and a pop culture definition at all costs. What the world called grunge, insiders called punk, as they embraced the anti-establishment, DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude of their musical forebears the Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, and Velvet Underground. Surely, it is Middle America that exploited Seattle's insular music scene, (mis)interpreted its message, and co-opted it with white suburban attitudes. After all, Seattle's liberal music scene helped elect a black mayor and a disproportionately diverse city council in a town that's 80 percent white. Whatever the negative impact of suburban middle America on Northwest punk, it's where many of the few Seattle rock musicians of color are from. Soundgarden's East Indian guitar player Kim Thayil is from Illinois. Seattle's music scene, is "not open racially," he says. Love Battery's black guitar player Kevin Whitworth is from Massachusetts. He says: "It's hard not to think about being black and being on stage when you're playing... and all of them [the audience] are white." Ken Keeling is the black lead singer of Seattle's Mabry Hood; he was born in Virginia. "To me, it's like a club," he says, "Like a white boys club." Between long-time Northwest labels Sub Pop, K Records, Tim/Kerr, Pop Llama, Kill Rock Stars, Will Records, and C/Z Records, a grand total of four people of color could be identified as employees by their respective PR managers. Dan Trager, a Sub Pop publicist, describes his label's staff as, "all twentysomethings, all white, and all college-educated." With time, Trager could name only two people of color on Sub Pop's 50-member staff. "I don't even think about it," says publicist Julie Butterworth of K's all-white staff. "God, do we even have any black artists on our label?" wondered Tim/Kerr's publicist, Carl Hanni. "We pretty much stand accused." One group that's concerned with the issue is the Black Rock Coalition. The decade-old group was formed by Living Color frontman Vernon Reid and others to support black alternative music, get better opportunities for black rock musicians, and provide a vehicle to discuss racism in the rock music industry. BRC president and co-founder Bruce Mack sees discrimination everywhere in the alternative scene. "I have to wonder if there is a deliberate action going on to keep black people out," says Mack. "Racism is in the lack of black rock artists that get expressed." He's right -- a glance at the record racks and club schedules reveals very few black alternative bands, but the BRC cites mainly anecdotal evidence and lacks the kind of serious statistical study that would support their case. As Martha Bayles makes clear in her critique of American rock music, Hole in Our Soul, Mack's point is oversimplified, but not altogether unfounded. Tracing the history and evolution of popular music, Bayles dissects the creative element of the industry: the music itself. She argues that the gritty affirmation of black jazz and blues has mutated into the trendy nihilism of punk, leaving any conception of musicianship behind. Thus, plenty of black musicians today don't want to invade the halls of white punk music; they adhere to more traditional black music forms, picking up what comes out of and is played in their neighborhoods. Grunge is part of "the legacy of a polarized music scene," more than the result of a racist consumer base, she says. Today, Bayles continues, white alternative rock remains "uninteresting, and [black people] tend to be bored by it." The BRC's West Coast director, Beverly Milner, who is struggling to find black musicians interested in joining her punk band, agrees: "grunge chord progressions are a little too basic for black rock musicians." And as former Rocket contributor Scott Griggs says, "blacks rarely look to white people for musical inspiration." Bayles glosses over the impact of popular styles, aesthetics, and attitudes that come along with pop music. But for this discussion, it is the grunge culture, as much as the chord progressions, that helps polarize the scene. One black musician who has little interest in punk is Seattle's first homegrown MTV darling, Sir Mix-A-Lot. He finds punk's gloomy frustration irritating and whiny. "From a black guy's perspective, when I see Kurt Cobain on heroin and all angry, there's no excuse. . . . I had to go through five times the shit he did, and I'm not going to jump off any bridges." Furthermore, says the BRC's Milner, the anti-ambitious downwardly mobile affectations of punk are simply unappealing to communities of color which don't have a piece of the pie to push away. "T-shirts that say "I'm a loser,'" says Milner, referring to both Sub Pop's T-shirt campaign and Beck's hit single ("Loser" -- complete with Spanish refrain), "is just not appealing to people of color." This summer, hundreds of thousands of white teenagers across the country poured into the Lollapolooza festival and gleefully joined Beck in his natural sing-along that became an alternative music anthem: "Soy un perdidor/ I'm a loser, baby/so why don't you kill me?" Though Milner likes the grunge sound, she understands why other black musicians are turned off by it. "We're too close to the hellish part of that sarcastic wit," she says, "so it's just not funny." No wonder so few musicians of color apply to play in Seattle clubs -- a fact booking agents from the Crocodile, to Moe, to the OK Hotel and RKCNDY are quick point out. Herein lies what author Bayles calls "cultural mutual hostility." People of color don't feel represented in this music, so they abandon it, and as a result, get even less of a voice. Once racially isolated, Bayles told me, alternative music is free to cultivate a radical politics based on a white identity and perspective: "Isn't it a thrill to be nasty to people of color, because it's such a taboo thing to do, [and] the spirit of punk is into breaking all the taboos." Because grunge was in large part inspired by '70s punk, it's useful to note that race has been an issue for the genre since its heyday in New York. Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (the man who Poneman credits for coining the word "grunge" a full decade before Sub Pop's first album) worried about punk's offensive irony in a 1979 article in the Village Voice. In "White Noise Supremacists," Bangs takes on the sarcastic prejudice of figures like Joey Ramone, Legs McNeil, and most prominently himself. "In the Lenny Bruce spirit of let's-defuse-them-epithets-by-slinging-'em-out," Bangs recalls that once at a party he strummed out a song with his own improvised lyrics: "Sho' wish ah wuz a nigger/Then mah dick'd be bigger." He continues: But there's a difference between hate and a little of the old epater gob at authority: swastikas in punk are basically another way for kids to get a rise out of parents and maybe the press, both of whom deserve the irritation. To the extent that most of these spikedomes ever had a clue of what that stuff originally meant, it only went so far as their intent to shock. "It's like a stance," as Ivan [Jullian, of the Voidoids] says. "A real immature way of being dangerous." Maybe. Except that after a while this casual, even ironic embrace of the totems of bigotry cross over into the real poison.The ironic adoption of a taboo symbol like the swastika that Malcolm McLaren made vogue with the Sex Pistols on both sides of the Atlantic has long been a staple of punk music. When the Sex Pistols plastered a swastika over a profile of the queen and the British flag, it was a jab not only at England's upper class, but more importantly, at the country's stifling cobblestoned history. The fad carried over from Kings Road to CBGB's in New York as a protest symbol similar to Woodstock's peace sign. "The hippie culture is what we wanted to replace," said '70s punk star Richard Hell on the recent PBS series The History of Rock. "It was pathetic -- like handing out flowers was going to beat Nixon." Although you may have missed it, liberalism made a brief comeback in the early 1990s when politically correct meant something good and Democrats controlled the federal government. Those were the years punk broke (again) and the attack on groovy liberalism -- marked by a blues-based psychedelic music and a pro-civil-rights political agenda -- renewed. Today, swastika-chic has faded. The Northwest-born punk revival has traded swastikas for a sneering white trash revival, which mocks the hippie legacy of political correctness and trashes the excesses of corporate America to find authenticity in raw working class values instead. It's as if they're saying: look, we've been deconstructing American history for a decade now, and we've gotten carried away with knee-jerk attacks on dead white men. Just as deconstructionists posit an alternative to seventh-grade history lessons, punk searches for an alternative history to the post-modern critique without buying into the ready-for-television history of corporate America. Unlike London, Seattle carries a legacy of the fishing and timber industries that built the Northwest. That traditional Northwest identity has been crushed by baby-booming environmentalists who migrated north from Haight-Ashbury. The culture woven by their children is a backlash -- spawning a trailer-park romance with retro styles and a white pride revival. Portland's Everclear prints T-shirts that read: 'white trash, and proud of it," and a Pioneer Square club hosts a "White Trash-a-Billy Ball." As people idealize white-trash culture, few fully understand or are willing to accept implications regarding race. The insidious part is that inherent in the white-trash caricature picked up by suburban whites lurks an implicit suspicion of blacks and a narrow-minded world view. At best, white trash is something black people have a hard time feeling a part of. At worst, an embrace of white-trash culture becomes an embrace of white pride and a tacit endorsement of racial separatism. White-trash chic is more than jocular irony, says the Oregonian's rock critic, Marty Hughley, "It's a reclamation project -- a guilt response to PC trends." Just as gay groups have reclaimed the former epithet "queer" and blacks have brought the word "nigger" back into usage, punks are trying to undermine the oppression they feel for being white, and primarily male. In other words, by embracing white trash (the aesthetic, values, etc. associated with it) its derogatory power has been defused. What once was a slur becomes a marketing campaign. The idea is not even original. Just as blacks who reclaim "nigger" exaggerate the negative stereotype ("nigger" becomes "nigga" because black people can't speak proper English, and "nigga" becomes "gangsta" because black people are so prone to violence and crime) the white trash revival is bloated, semi-sarcastic, and ironic. After all, most of the purveyors of working-class and white-trash chic are in fact upper- and middle-class college educated whites who are fleeing from other labels like preppie and yuppie. In Aberdeen, Washington, hometown to Nirvana's Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain, people have not only suffered from the logging/fishing recession, but some are "a little ashamed of our roots," says Novoselic in Rolling Stone. The two took advantage of their popularity to mock Aberdeen and the rest of provincial white America, by showing their liberalism -- including a nationally televised smooch on Saturday Night Live. Novoselic and Cobain made a legitimate attempt to escape their history by distancing themselves from the depressed logging town (remember, Cobain preferred cardigans for dress and Hollywood, his original pick, for home). Nirvana's suburban fans, critics, and musical peers embraced the working class and Aberdeen because they wanted to escape their histories as well. So then you have bands coming out of the white suburbs rejecting their pasts and embracing white-trash culture to spite their PC parents. Here's how punk reclamation works today: According to The Rocket, the band Southern Culture On The Skids (SCOTS), took their name to protest an REM review headlined, "New Southern Culture." The Rocket reports that SCOTS frontman, Rick Miller, "Being a good ol' boy. . . . took major offense to this fable of the reconstruction," since the South needn't update its cultural legacy with the sensitivity and introspection that REM represents. According to a SCOTS press release, Miller says his sound comes from the South that "that reeks of swamp gas and watermelon seeds. Of amphetamine-crazed long-haulers and cicadas in heat. Of three dollar thrift store shoes and fresh-outa-the-oven biscuits." Members of SCOTS met in college. The embrace of white trash reveals its ugliest side in that haven of anonymity, the Internet. A quick online search of "Seattle" and "music" will direct you to the news group alt.punk, where among the postings of ticket requests and lists of the world's greatest punk bands, is a section titled "Fuck Affirmative Action." "I'm sick of being fucked for being white," the posting reads, "if there's black power, brown power, blah power, why not white power?" The sentiment is one you might expect on "alt.militia." It also points to the surprising mirrored messages of punk and conservative populism. Jon Pareles, music writer for the New York Times, first observed the connection when he wrote, "the theme of the new Congress and the mid-1990s rock is the same: revenge of the 'burbs." Pareles' observation that the strange bedfellows share the same target audience received a surprising echo, at this fall's North by Northwest Music Festival and conference. Pere Ubu's David Thomas complained about punk's popularity, exclaiming, "Newt Gingrich is a punk!" He's more right than he thought. Gingrich taps the same populism that punk has capitalized on. His brand of DIY not only tells welfare recipients to get off their butts and get a job, it drives the Republican agenda in tax cuts, block grants, and downsizing. Conservative DIY is against gun control ("guns don't kill people, people do,"), federally funded abortions, and most pointedly, affirmative action. Even Nirvana star-turned-political activist Krist Novoselic, can play to the Republican revolution. In the inaugural issue of George, Novoselic shows off the thank-you message he e-mailed to Gingrich for stifling an Internet regulation bill. And in Olympia, "We met with Goldwater Republicans . . . " blazed the pull quote, "they were way cool." (Novoselic was trying to distinguish between arch-conservatives and the more moderate Goldwater-mold Republicans -- a group Speaker Gingrich considers himself part of).The irony of Novoselic's views were unintentional (yes, we're laughing at him, not with him), which goes to show that punk irony, in particular, is often excused as a bad joke. "People can be crude and unwieldy with their sense of irony . . . " says Sub Pop's Poneman, "Homer Simpson is obviously a buffoon and obviously being mocked, but the writers for [The Simpsons] are infinitely more clever than those trying to pull off the same thing." To reiterate, the problem is the point at which irony crosses over into real poison. It's a very hard line to draw, no matter where you stand. In October's Spin, Mark Schone writes that on his way to interview the Southern Poverty Law Center's civil rights guru Morris Dees, he was stopped by security for wearing the "indie-rock cliche" uniform of combat boots, crew cut, and goatee: "You look like a white supremacist," explained SPLC legal director, Richard Cohen. Indeed, the punk aesthetic, says Melanie McFarland, a black A&E writer for the Oregonian, is "frightening to a lot of black youth." Former Rocket critic Scott Griggs, who is also black, says, "Black people won't admit it: They're afraid to go to a rock show." After all, if white people are made nervous by 'gangstas,' doesn't it make sense that black people could be wary of punks?" Laying too much blame for the whiteness of punk on black fear or disinterest is unfair. After all, we seldom blame whites for the racial isolation of rap music; instead, the racial hostility and militancy of black artists are blamed. In fact, punk is whiter than rap is black, and it could be argued, given that rap audiences and lyrics are typically tame while punk shows are not, that punk is more violent as well. "White people are afraid of black people," says Pat Riley, promoter for Loosegroove, a record label owned by Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard. Riley's plain truth is probably more responsible for the racial homogeneity of Seattle's rock scene than misplaced irony and black dismissal of punk music and attitudes. It's worth comparing the plight of people of color in punk with that of another of rock's historically underrepresented and marginalized minorities: women. "People used to ask me why there were no women bands," says Soundgarden's Thayil, "and I'd ask them why there were no Indians." The reason for the more-than-modest success of the Riot Grrrl movement lies in its ability to capitalize on punk's powerful rage with a fierce brand of rock 'n' roll feminism. A Riot Grrrl revolution comes off as tough, sexy, and ready for Details; but if you imagine a Riot Niggrrr movement, you raise every sensitive race issue in the book. A mosh pit of slam-dancing black teenagers is more likely to be cited as a danger to society by Bob Dole before a Senate sub-committee than to be covered by Spin. White visions of minority rage are a nightmare of LA rioters, Middle Eastern terrorists, and Asian war criminals. In the end, the white-trash romance is a trend. And as powerful and dominant as it may be, it may be nearing its end. "I don't mean to be dancing on my own grave," says Poneman, who finds Seattle's "white-bread rock" washed up. "Frankly, I find it exceedingly tedious." And Bayles -- no fan of Nirvana -- even predicted the end as In Utero was being recorded. In Hole in Our Soul, she writes that Seattle's grungy punk will be short lived, in part, because of the absence of a black influence. Adding emphasis to a line of the Times' Pareles, she writes "'[grunge] tries to adopt the perceived sincerity of soul while ignoring its musical standards' . . . [it is] the unfortunate legacy of punk." There are signs that Bayles is right, as audiences, particularly in Seattle, seem ready to listen to more black music. While Sub Pop quietly diversifies its interests, including investments in Seattle's hip-hop music, local rock clubs also struggle to redefine their images: the Crocodile, for one, is now dedicated to a more "diverse platform," says the club's booker, Christine Wood. All-white rock bands appeared almost every night at places like the Crocodile, Moe, and the OK Hotel. Now all have bumped grunge acts in favor of hip-hop, acid jazz, or funk shows at least once a week. Still, grunge is not dead yet, and black punk bands like Keeling's Mabry Hood continue to struggle. "I've always been afraid of holding us back," he says, "[White people] think it's weird: a black man singing grungish music. I'm not sure if they can accept it. . . . [That's why] we like to get our music out there before they see what I look like." Indeed, one Seattle music critic has called Keeling's band "funk-ish," which is unexplainable after listening to their typically Seattle punk-ish music unless they're judged -- by reputation, or otherwise -- by the race of the lead singer. Cedric Ross says Imij, another local black punk band, had similar problems. "We would always be taken for granted as a soul or R&B band. . . . " he says, "just by looking at us [all the members of Imij were black], they'd say 'We've got a funk group or a rap group coming up [that you can open for].'" Not only are Seattle critics and clubs unwilling to accept bands like Imij and even Mabry Hood (Keeling is the only non-white member) as anything other than funk, reggae, or R&B bands, but in casual conversations I had with critics and musicians, more than one disputed punk's lineage in the blues tradition. In fact, closely analyzed, punk is a simplified version of "the blues" -- only played faster. Three-chord songs are an established punk form: almost always based on a 1-4-5 progression -- which means the song is patterned with the first, fourth, and fifth chords on the musical scale (for example: A,b,c,D,E,f,g) as major chords (the others can be minors or diminished), played in various patterns and rhythms. That's a blues invention. The 1-4-5 progression is what "the blues" is. While the rock press is considered by some to be the most liberal of the mainstream media, it has not escaped the criticism of the Black Rock Coalition. Village Voice staff writer Greg Tate, who helped form the BRC, says even network television presents a more diverse picture than the "liberal racism of the music industry. . . . [where] magazines uphold the strict white youth image of what rock is." As valid as sweeping generalizations about the media may be, the argument has become tired and ineffective. News Flash: racism is everywhere. And surprise! It pervades even the corporate music industry and its supporting press. But what about liberal Seattle? Can a town that's reluctant to take credit for grunge in the first place be in part responsible for keeping the lucrative alternative music scene so white? "There's a whole race thing happening out there in the Northwest that's pretty hard to believe," says Dr. Know, whose all-black punk band, Bad Brains, needed a police escort after a Portland concert because a van load of skinheads was circling the club. "I've noticed a separateness, and you think it's more liberal than the South, but it's really not," he says. By coincidence, it was a tour through the South that brought local racism home for Fred Nemo, a performer with the Portland band Hazel. At a stop in Richmond, Virginia, Nemo writes in his tour-diary, which was published in Portland's Snipehunt: "It's either egregious racist incidents, or else bits of racial harmony that pointedly contrast with the covert racism of the North and West. It is shocking and feels dirty to play for 1,000 "white" kids and 2 (if we're lucky) African-Americans in Portland. . . . It has opened my eyes to the reality behind the seeming paranoia of almost every African-American I know or meet." So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that even local rock press, in particular The Rocket, has been criticized for presenting a white image, and for even being sympathetic to the white supremacist movement. In its pages, Chris Nickson was compelled to review an Anti-Defamation League report on the brutality of skinheads as a response to what he read as "an apology for the [skinhead] movement" (a story on skinhead novelist Richard Allen) that the Rocket published six months earlier. "I must have petitioned Charlie [Cross, The Rocket's editor] for two years for a story on Sir Mix-A-Lot," says Rocket contributor Glen Boyd. "Charlie didn't feel that as many papers would get picked up with an angry black man on the cover." Scott Griggs, who quit The Rocket after three years because he "got tired of being a token," as the only black staff member, says flat out: "I'm sure Charlie thinks he's a liberal, but he's quite the opposite and very fearful of black people." Cross replies that he's gone out of his way to cover all musicians. 'If anything," he says, "our coverage has been much more diverse than the [rock] community actually is." Cross says his was the first magazine in the country to put Sir Mix-A-Lot on the cover, and Mix has appeared on The Rocket's cover twice since then (Tacoma's Robert Cray and Imij have also been Rocket cover stories). As for the article on Richard Allen, Cross says he didn't necessarily agree with it, "but I thought it was an interesting piece. . . . sometimes [those] articles turn out to be the most revolutionary." In the end, it's hard to blame Cross for the whiteness of Seattle's rock. Instead he comes off, like most of us, as a product of the scene. Furthermore, Cross can hardly be accused of preventing black acts from performing -- that kind of power belongs to bookers and promoters. For example, Keeling considers his band Mabry Hood blackballed from at least one Seattle club. In a run-in with Crocodile booker Peter English, Keeling says, "he tells me he just doesn't like our band. He says, 'I just don't like you guys,' or 'you're just too loud.'" According to Keeling, English has never seen Mabry Hood in concert. After listening to their tape, Keeling says English was worried about the band's racist lyrics. In "Rush,' a none-too-flattering look at Rush Limbaugh, Keeling (who happens to be both black and gay) uses the words 'faggot" and 'nigger." Keeling says when he met with English to explain, "he [English] seemed very taken back by my being black. I felt like he was saying, "you're not a member, this is our music," which is bullshit because everything in rock came from black people." Mabry Hood eventually played one gig at the Crocodile. And it should be said that booking agents are often unpopular because they must regularly turn down bands looking to play in their clubs. Still, the Crocodile's other booking agent, Christine Wood (the only person from the Crocodile to return my calls) had only this response: "It's just kind of that white people play rock and black people don't." Imij also feels like they missed opportunities based solely on their skin color -- like the time Imij got bumped from the opening slot for Living Color, so the show wouldn't become "a black thing." According to both Imij, and Anthony Rhodes of Monqui Presents, who promoted the concert, the Tacoma band was being considered as an opening act for Living Color's Paramount show in 1993. "Well, they had decided not to bring us on," says Imij's Ross, "because Monqui Presents said the management of Living Color said if a black band accompanied Living Color, it would become 'a black thing.'" In fact, Bad Brains played with Living Color that night, and a local act, Sweetwater (an all-white band) was third in the line up. Monqui's Rhodes confirms Ross' story, "we were told [by Living Color's booking agent] not to have Imij on that show, and those were the reasons given . . . " adding, "You can see why: They didn't want three black acts on the show." According to Rhodes, Living Color's booking agent was solely responsible for choosing the line-up, and he specifically picked Sweetwater. "That's a complete and utter falsehood," says Frank Riley, Living Color's long-time booking agent. "At the time, I didn't even know who Sweetwater was." Riley doesn't buy any of the story, and cites Living Color's long commitment to supporting black rock acts. Conversations with Riley and Rhodes quickly escalated to insults and name calling. So when I asked Riley how to get to the bottom of this mess, he said, "Why don't you look at Imij for being the source of racism there?" The argument inevitably comes full circle. As too many people are quick to point out, rap bands may be even more racially prejudiced than your typical punk act. But judging by record sales, anti-white posturing by black rap acts appeals to white record buyers. In fact, SoundScan estimates that among all active record buyers who say they like rap, 74 percent are white. This statistic should put to rest the "they have theirs, we have ours" argument that smacks of the same logic that bore Plessy v. Ferguson's century-old "separate but equal" ruling that upheld segregation in the South. Furthermore, hip hop is making a strong comeback in Seattle as the local white music industry begins to abandon punk. If hip hop is to become the "next big thing" there's no doubt Seattle's place as the pioneers of American music will wane to places like New York and Los Angeles. As the Time-Warner/Interscope struggle over rap music makes front-page news and fodder for Republican campaign speeches, it will be interesting to watch Warner's Seattle outpost, Sub-Pop, et al. balance a hip hop wave as it crashes over a foundation built by angry white men.

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