It all began late one Friday evening at KTSU, during a broadcast of the popular rap show Kidz Jamm. Stevie C. and his crew were in the booth spinning choice cuts. A couple of ladies were in the lobby having a conversation.
The evening was approaching midnight, and the music of many a Dirty South rapper had ridden the airwaves during the past two hours. Then, suddenly, a rock song found its way onto this show's playlist.
"What is that?" one girl asked the other as the tune blasted out of the overhead speakers. And she didn't sound intrigued -- nope, she sounded pissed that a hard-rock tune was taking up radio time that another crunk Lil' Jon joint could've easily filled.
A guy who was also in the lobby, let's call him, um, me, went into the booth to ask who and what the hell was playing.
"Rush," said the DJ working the turntables. " 'Tom Sawyer.' "
"Tom Sawyer"? Rush? On a rap show?
"I usually start off my mixes with that," the DJ said.
And that is how my search for black people who like Rush began. Since then, I've heard quite a few people of color go off about what would seem an anomalous love for the band.
Although it's been widely documented that rock and roll originally came from the blues and soul of the early and middle 20th century, black folks have long disowned rock and roll as a result of white artists flooding the genre. But there are some African-Americans who have a thing for rock music, no matter who performs it. And in an age where we seem to have to like what we're supposed to like, it's refreshing to find black people who have chosen free will and picked up a copy of Hemispheres or Permanent Waves.
But why Rush, of all bands? With its technical, funkless playing, Tolkienian mysticism, Ayn Rand fixation and attendant right-wing bent, and birthplace in the Great White North, Rush is quite possibly the whitest band on earth. But nevertheless these black folks have much love for front man Geddy Lee and his combo of steady bass-playing and powerful vocals, Alex Lifeson and his soul-rattling guitar licks, and Neil Peart and his masterful drum solos. Members of Living Colour have said Rush was a big influence on their music.
"A large part of the problem are these artificial divisions between music styles, races and classes of fans, and bogus expectations that certain types of people are only interested in certain types of music," says Darrell McNeill, director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition, a 19-year-old rock-band-of-color association that was co-founded by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. "As a result, people are conditioned to believe that certain music is 'not of their tribe.' "
"Subdivisions in the concert halls," anyone?
I'm not a Rush fan. It's not because I dislike the music, it's just that I don't know that much about it. I know they are a power trio from Canada. I know they've been together for about 30 years now. The only material I have owned by the band is Rush in Rio, last year's concert DVD. After viewing the DVD, it's not hard to see what would make even black people dig the band. The undivided attention they get from a soccer stadium full of Brazilian spectators, as they satisfy fans with such extravagant faves as "Red Sector A," "The Trees" and "2112," is undeniably fascinating.
For more info on these guys, I sought people who knew their Rush. One is Ameenifu Raheem, a former member of the reggae/funk/world band D.R.U.M. Raheem, still in-the-house at 50, first caught Rush live in the early '70s, at the long-gone Sam Houston Coliseum, where the Canadians opened for fellow mystical arena rockers Jethro Tull. "I think the first song they opened up with was 'Trees,' " recalls Raheem, who further remembers that the set was brief.
Short show or not, Raheem was sprung over the band from then on. He calls their sound "invigorating" and has a surprising comparison in store. "It kinda reminds me, in a certain way, of when I first saw Hendrix, three-piece. Even though you [only] got three pieces there, there's so many dynamics. And when you're not too familiar with their material, you kinda tend to hone in on the things that kinda catch your ear or catch your fancy."
McNeill says he's not a Rush freak, but adds, "Yes, I do get my Rush on from time to time."
He caught the Rush bug back in high school when he and other young musicians would hang out at each other's houses and listen to new, hip records. He loved the music but couldn't get down with the fan base. "I did think that hard-core Rush fans were a little weird," says McNeill. "Scary weird."
"Well, no disrespect, but most of the Rush fans I knew were/are type-A hard-core intellectualists and anal retentivists -- 13-, 14-year-old kids reading heavy stuff like Atlas Shrugged and Catcher in the Rye. When you have guys who've never played an instrument in their lives break down note for note and inflection for inflection every Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart or Geddy Lee solo ever played -- well, that's a tad scary, dude. I'm probably generalizing."
Nevertheless, he dug what he heard from the trio. "The newer stuff is okay, but it's too much 'been here, done this,' " he says. " 'Trees,' 'Tom Sawyer,' 'Living in the Twilight,' 'Fly By Night' -- that's how I'm living."
Both McNeill and Raheem live by the rule that as long as the music is good, there should be no impediments about who should listen to it. And people shouldn't turn into music Nazis when somebody they know listens to something that is "not of their tribe."
" 'Trees' was very interesting," says Raheem. "All of their stuff is interesting, even some things that I don't like by them -- and that's very far and in between. I think I like 98, 99 percent of everything they've put out."
"There's always been massive disrespect for other people's music tastes," says McNeill. "There's always been false hegemonies created for music. Old people not liking young people's music. Young people not liking old people's music. White people not liking black people's music. Black people not liking white people's music. White people not liking other white people's music -- we can go on forever with this. I think there's been a growing disrespect by all peoples of all music, period.
"The bottom line is, folks can disagree all they like. It's meaningless until you start playing the records one after the other and use your ears instead of what you've been told to like or not like."
Spoken like a true "By-Tor & the Snow Dog" fan.
Rush appears Saturday, June 26, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. For more information, call 713-629-3700.