Prince, Lenny Kravitz and the return of black rock stars
Remember the late 80s? Or have you at least heard about them?
There was a lot of major music was happening: Janet Jackson‘s Rhythm Nation and Madonna‘s Like A Prayer were high watermarks for dance pop; Bobby Brown was still the King of new jack swing, riding high on the success of his Don’t Be Cruel album from a year earlier, the Pixies dropped the college rock masterwork Doolittle — setting the stage for the alt-rock boom of the early 1990s, and De La Soul were rewriting the rules of hip-hop with their quirky alt-rap classic 3 Feet High and Rising.
One facet of late 80’s popular music that gets somewhat glossed over today is the fact that black rock artists were at their most visible period during the MTV era. In 1989, Living Colour was still the hot new hard rock band, thanks to their platinum-selling 1988 debut album Vivid. Tracy Chapman was the darling of coffee houses and colleges across the country with her multiplatinum eponymous album, also released in 1988. In 1989, Lenny Kravitz dropped his first album, Let Love Rule, and pop-rock icon Prince was still one of the most visible rock stars on the planet, having just released Lovesexy in 1988 and the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989.
Heading into the 1990s, all of these artists were commercially viable; with others like Hootie & the Blowfish (fronted by an African American: Darius Rucker) and Rage Against the Machine (fronted by Zach De La Rocha and featuring lead guitarist Tom Morello, both biracial) emerging by mid-decade. Black rock stars were quite successful in the late 80s through the mid 90s.
Then it was all over.
By the early 2000s, black rock stars had gone the way of the wooly mammoth. Prince’s popularity faded as he battled with his record label and changed his name. Chapman became more of an indie favorite than a commercial star, Darius Rucker moved on to a lukewarm solo career before going full-on country singer and Living Colour disbanded for more than a decade. Lenny Kravitz became the sole high-profile black rock superstar; but even his music seemed to slip from pop’s radar.
But all of that may be changing.