On January 4th 2012, a bit of heavy rock/black rock history will take place at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. On January 4th the Black Rock Coalition will sponsor a benefit show called The Million Man Mosh. The show will feature two of the BRC’s most celebrated bands, Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz. This will mark the first time the two New York rock bands have shared a stage on the same bill. The show will also feature session guitar hero Ronny Drayton and the dj of the night will be the legendary godfather of hip-hop Afrika Bambaataa. Proceeds will go towards the legal fees for Donovan Drayton, Ronny Drayton’s son. The younger Drayton has been incarcerated for four years in Riker’s island. Although Donovan Drayton admits to being caught up in a marijuana deal that quickly went south, he has not been convicted of any of the major crimes he was accused of. His case however continues to be tied up in the courts and he is due back in court for a second trial. On January 4th the bands/musicians involved in The Million Man Mosh hope to raise money and awareness about Donovan Drayton’s case in particular, the legal system in general and it will also serve as a way to reunite the veteran members of the BRC. As the rock and roll sons of “Jimi and Sly” prepare to rock the roof off the Highline Ballroom, I had the distinct honor of getting a chance to dialogue with Jimi Hazel from 24-7 Spyz, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and guitar virtuoso Ronny Drayton about the upcoming benefit and cause.
Interviews by David Carr
Jimi Hazel Gains His Strength with 24-7 Spyz
It’s been a busy few months for guitarist/song writer Jimi Hazel. Hazel recently reunited with his band 24-7 Spyz (version 2.0). The band played a show at the Highline Ballroom in New York and they are set to start off the New Year with a bunch of shows in Europe to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their disc “Strength in Numbers”. While battling a cold, Jimi was able to chat with me about how this reunion came to be, the future of 24-7 Spyz and the upcoming benefit show for Donovan Drayton.
David Carr: Jimi how did the idea of getting this version of the Spyz back together come to fruition?
Jimi Hazel: Well I have to say, I guess it started with your interview with Jeff Brodnax. After reading the interview I started thinking to myself, that for a bunch of guys who hung together and became tight, there was a strange disconnect between a couple of us. When I read that Jeff was more than open about getting together I immediately reached out to him. We started talking to Rick and then Joel…I originally wanted to do a “Spyz family” thing because Tobias has been with us for so long. We started talking about it and then finally we got a chance to do the show in August with the “Strength in Numbers” lineup.
David Carr: The word on the street is this reunited version of 24-7 Spyz will be doing some shows in Europe next year. Is that the case?
Jimi Hazel: Yes! After the show we got a bunch of offers to keep the band together so we will be doing shows in Europe in February and March. We will be doing club shows and hitting a few festivals in the summer. It’s time to reconnect with the people! HA! I think of the “Strength in Numbers” disc as my baby and now my baby is 20 years old so it’s time to celebrate!
David Carr: How has it been to reconnect with this band of brothers after so many years?
Jimi Hazel: It has been interesting. It really does not feel like we have been apart for 18 years. For us to do this; it really has felt like no time has lapsed at all. I mean, if it felt forced we wouldn’t be doing it! One of the reasons I wanted to do this was because when we broke up, we never really talked about it. I never really gave my brothers a chance to say how they felt about it. I had been so twisted up by the business end of things. I was mad at the music industry but I took it out on my band. We needed to finally have the opportunity for them to say how they felt about the situation.
David Carr: But from what I remember in my talk with Jeff, there really wasn’t any animosity when the band split up correct?
Jimi Hazel: Everyone walked away with no animosity whatsoever. After the fact, I just wish the folks in the industry who were working with us really understood what was going on. I wish they could have told me to just step away for a while, take a break for a month, comeback and then see how you feel. If that had happened maybe things would have gone down differently.
David Carr: Will this reunion yield some new music?
Jimi Hazel: Definitely! Everyone involved wants to do new 24-7 Spyz music next year. I would still like to do a family type thing with some of the other people who have been a part of The Spyz but we have decided that the “Strength in Numbers” lineup will do new music next year.
David Carr: Let’s shift gears and talk about your friend Ronny Drayton. How did he reach out to you about his situation?
Jimi Hazel: Ronny is family. I knew of him as a guitar player when I was six years old. I met him years later and we become good friends. Some years passed and I just hadn’t talked to him in a while. We reconnected at the Gary Shider benefit. That was actually the same show where I reconnected with Vernon Reid. Ronny started telling me about the situation with his son; how he had been incarcerated for so long even though he had not been convicted of anything and how new litigation was about to begin which means more money. Once he asked us if we could help we were all on board.
David Carr: The benefit will raise money for Drayton’s defense but you also see it as raising awareness on the justice system also, right?
Jimi Hazel: This show is about family. It’s about helping family. It’s about being Black or Hispanic and dealing with the justice system. It’s about how at times justice sometimes doesn’t fall in the place where it’s needed the most.
David Carr: This show will also mark the first time that 24-7 Spyz and Living Colour have played together on the same bill. What significance does that have for you?
Jimi Hazel: I said this on the Eddie Trunk radio show when we were interviewed but for me this will truly show the fans of both bands just how beautifully different both bands are. I remember the 80’s rock scene and I know that a lot of the hard rock bands got lumped into the “hair metal’ genre but there was always some sense of, hey let’s keep some of these bands separate from that. That wasn’t the case with the Black rock bands. I don’t think folks were racist about it. They were just lazy. They just saw two Black bands with dreads playing rock and they would just say, “Well if you like this you will LOVE that,” without really realizing these bands were different from each other. Fans of both bands will get a chance to see us and see how different we are, and I say that knowing that 90% of our fans are Living Colour fans and 90% of Living Colour fans are Spyz fans. It’s gonna be great.
David Carr: Much has been made over the years, that there has always been some type of tension between 24-7 Spyz and Living Colour. Has this been the case?
Jimi Hazel: No one in either band has ever said there was a problem between us. When Living Colour broke big I was a cheerleader for them! I was happy for their success. I was excited for them because I was happy with my own band. Things have a way of taking on a life of their own. Our bands having some supposed beef never came from either of us. I am glad that I reconnected with Vernon after 20 plus years. I am glad that folks will get to see the beauty of both our bands on stage. Life has evolved. Besides being guitar players and being in bands, we are both husbands and fathers.
David Carr: With regards to fatherhood, I believe you are both raising daughters. Has that also been a connection?
Jimi Hazel: I really think that is where we reconnected. We were at the Gary Shider benefit and I am not sure how it happened but he and I ended up in a dressing room together just talking about our daughters. As we were talking it just started to bother me that we had not talked for so long.
David Carr: So I have to ask, has there been any hint of a discussion of doing more with this double bill? Has anyone brought up the idea of a tour?
Jimi Hazel: Not yet! HA! Right now we are all focusing on this show and this cause. Everything is about what is happening right now! We all want to make sure this show goes off without a hitch!
Caught in the (Million Man) Mosh with Vernon Reid
Guitarist Vernon Reid loves to keep himself busy. When he is not recording/touring with his band Living Colour he can be found producing other artists, working with one of his several musical side projects or on his podcast with W. Kamau Bell (http://thatfnpod.libsyn.com/) waxing poetic about science fiction and superhero comics. Nowadays Vernon is recovering from a dreadful bike accident that forced Living Colour to cancel a series of shows. He is also preparing for the Million Man Mosh benefit. Reid was able to tell me about how he got involved in the benefit, how his recovery is going and why this NY benefit is so important.
David Carr: Vernon, before we begin I have to ask, how are you doing since the bike mishap?
Vernon Reid: Well I am in recovery and it’s going pretty well. I have been in occupational therapy and I have been playing. There was no break but I did suffer severe trauma to my hand. At this point I am working towards being able to play a full show on January 4th. The therapy however will continue after that.
David Carr: I learned about the accident from the podcast you are on with W. Kamau Bell (The Field Negro’s Guide to Arts and Culture). When will you have another episode up?
Vernon Reid: We just recorded one and it will be up soon. We just did that one last week and we will be doing another one tomorrow. I have become a podcast geek! I listen to everything from the highbrow news and information of NPR to the lowbrow comedy stuff.
David Carr: I recently talked to Jimi Hazel about his involvement in the Million Man Mosh. How did you get involved with this case and benefit?
Vernon Reid: It started with my relationship with Ronny. He has been a mentor to me and a close friend. He is also an incredible guitar player! He played on an Edwin Birdsong album called Supernatural and his playing on that album is remarkable. That record was truly a rock record ahead of its time. He really was the heir apparent to Hendrix back in the day. I have known his son Donovan his whole life. I have known him since he was born. He’s a good kid that got himself mixed up in a funky situation. I’m his uncle. You know when one of your buddies has a kid all of his male friends become de-facto uncles? Well I am a de-facto uncle. I love this kid and in a lot of ways he represents a nation of kids who are awaiting trial and who have been criminalized by this society. To be young and Black means to be criminalized and that’s a problem.
David Carr: What are some other issues that surround this case?
Vernon Reid: You know watching Ronny stand up for his son this way; the way he is doing it…this is something that should be celebrated! So much has been said and written about African American men abandoning their families, abandoning their sons. Well here is an African American father standing by his son and standing up for his son. One of the things that I have heard is that his being there in the courtroom for his son day in and day out and him visiting his son has been an inspiration to the other kids who are in lock up with Donovan. The true antidote for all of this poison going on is love. It’s the outstanding expression of what we all want and what we all need.
David Carr: Let’s talk about the show. This benefit will mark the first time that 24-7 Spyz and Living Colour have played on the same bill. What does that mean to you?
Vernon Reid: It’s gonna be fun! Jimi (Hazel) is a brilliant guy. His band has been through some changes as has Living Colour. We have done shows with Bad Brains. We have done a ton of crazy shows with Fishbone and now we get to do this with 24-7 Spyz. All of the artists on the bill are into this cause but Jimi and I are 100% into it.
David Carr: I asked Jimi this question a few days ago; for whatever reason there has always been this thought that there has been tension between 24-7 Spyz and Living Colour. Is this the case? Why have people felt this way?
Vernon Reid: I feel like there has always been nothing but support between bands who have been involved in this thing called “Black Rock”. I think certain things and dynamics get set up by other people whether they exist or not. I mean we are talking about things that happened 20 years ago? I know that these were two different bands. I also know that we have always been looked at as a Brooklyn band whereas 24-7 Spyz is from the Bronx but again, it has been nothing but support.
David Carr: I heard you on Eddie Trunk’s show a few days ago talking about the benefit and you made it a point to say that this was not an anti-police show. Why was it important for you to stress this point?
Vernon Reid: It was important because that (anti-police sentiment) is like any other “-ism”. I have two police officers in my family and I have been in a police chokehold before so I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to the police. I have good friends on the force. You have good people on the force who are dedicated to the job and you have assholes! There is a certain cliché about what an event like this would be about. The event is not about hating cops. It’s about justice and dealing with injustice.
David Carr: Vernon I know you have to go but your fanbase on the Sacred Ground site would not be happy if I didn’t ask this last question. What’s in store for Living Colour in 2012?
Vernon Reid: We will start writing in the New Year and then we will begin recording later on in the New Year. My recovery will also be a big part of that. We still have a lot to say. We just have to figure out how we are gonna say it.
Ronny Drayton Keeps the Faith
You may not know who Ronny Drayton is but you have probably heard his guitar playing or seen him live. He is a walking history of rock with the number of legends he has had the opportunity to perform with, jam with and record with. Nowadays Ronny Drayton finds himself no longer a sideman but instead center stage in the fight for his son’s freedom. Ronny Drayton has been fighting to get his son out of prison. Donovan Drayton has been in prison at Riker’s Island for four years. The younger Drayton found himself implicated in a drug deal that quickly led to a murder. A jury found Donovan not guilty on the major aspects of his case but he still sits in jail where he is awaiting a second trial.
I was able to talk to Ronny Drayton about his son, about the support he has including the upcoming benefit and about the inner workings of the legal system in Jamaica Queens, New York.
David Carr: Ronny when did you first start playing guitar?
Ronny Drayton: I was an only child and I was raised by my grandmother. I actually started playing drums. We had these 7 day Adventists stay at our house from time to time and they would leave guitars at our house. I started messing with them and I started to try and learn how to play them. Once I learned the “D” chord I was able to teach myself how to play the song “Gloria” and then that was it.
David Carr: Ronny I want to give my readers a little bit of a history lesson about you. Who have you either toured with or recorded with in your years as a musician?
Ronny Drayton: Man David I have been in it for so long I think I may have forgotten a few folks! HA! Over the years I have played with The Chambers Brothers, James Blood Ulmer, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Labelle, Mother’s Finest, Robert Palmer, Joss Stone, Scritti Politti, Bernie Worrell, Nona Hendryx, Edwin Birdsong and Billy Joel. I have always been doing things. I have always been a part of a lot of musical projects.
David Carr: You were also a part of The Family Stand, correct?
Ronny Drayton: Yes I recorded with them and I toured with them. We did three back to back tours with The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Rollins Band in Europe back in the early 90’s. We also did The Pink Pop Festival with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Man Soundgarden were on fire back in the day!
David Carr: Did you ever have your own project or band?
Ronny Drayton: I had put together a few different bands. Whenever it was time to get signed things just fell apart. I decided to stay being a session guitar player because I just got tired of the nonsense and politics that came with being in a band and trying to get signed.
David Carr: Talk to me about what you are doing now.
Ronny Drayton: Well nowadays I have been focused on what is happening with my son.
David Carr: Tell me about your son Donovan. What’s been going on?
Ronny Drayton: My son has been in jail for four years. He is not a gang member. He has had to deal with people trying to beat him, people trying to kill him. It has been a journey these past four years. The D.A. in my opinion is playing a ton of games. We went to trial the first time and we beat them. We beat back all of the major charges but this journey is still going on and we have to go back to trial.
David Carr: Ronny, help me understand something, if Donovan has been found innocent of the major charges then why is he still in jail?
Ronny Drayton: There is a lot going on with my son’s case. There is a vendetta going on here. The judge in the first case tried to cut a deal with my son; take 18 years or I will give you 25 to life. That’s what he said and we said no! I told my son I would support him with whatever he chose but 18 years? I told him he could not choose that. They simply want to bury my son.
David Carr: Has your son been involved in violent crimes before?
Ronny Drayton: Not at all David. My son has no criminal history. The people responsible for the murders have immunity. They are now going after someone with no criminal history to go down for the robbery. This has become personal between my family and the District Attorney, Sean Clark.
David Carr: Ronny let me ask you something. Your son has not had a history with the law. He has no gang affiliation. He does not have a history of violent crimes, yet it seems that he chose to run with a group of people that led him to this point. Would your son be in this situation if he had made better choices regarding the company he kept?
Ronny Drayton: David sometimes you just don’t know what your friends are capable of if you really don’t take the time to know them. What are you supposed to do if I pick you up, take you to a friend’s place and then afterwards tell you this is a guy I robbed a while back? My son was put in the middle of this and now this D.A. is trying to railroad Donovan.
David Carr: Again I have to ask, why do you think the D.A. is doing this? What would he gain by having your son in prison?
Ronny Drayton: David, I don’t want to sound like a bitter Black man but the bottom line is the courts system here in Jamaica Queens New York is racist. They do not like seeing this bi-racial family in their face not backing down and not willing just to take this awful deal.
David Carr: How has Donovan coped with being in jail? Where and how has he found hope?
Ronny Drayton: Donovan is 23 years old now and he is trained in the martial arts so physically he can take care of himself. Spiritually he has turned his life over to God. There is a pastor in the prison and he has been talking to him and working with him every day. He has committed himself to a higher power. He has read literally thousands of books and he has become a student of the law. My son has his faith. That’s what he uses to cope with this situation.
David Carr: When was the last time you saw your son?
Ronny Drayton: I went to the jail and I saw him today actually…it was intense. We talked for a while and then when it was time for me to go I hugged him, he hugged me, I kissed him and then all at once he just started crying. He just looked at me and said I miss you. It really messed me up. You know I was really reckless in my youth. I was running around with women, did drugs, ran around with Hendrix back in the day; it was a different era back then. Nowadays when you are reckless like that, it comes back around to bite you much quicker.
David Carr: The benefit on January 4th is not only about Donovan but it’s about bringing awareness to the fact that there are many more “Donovan’s” in our correctional institutions, correct?
Ronny Drayton: Yes, you are correct! Donovan will be the focal point. His prayer and his faith have brought us all together. There are just too many Black and Brown people in jail right now who are innocent. I am not talking about folks who actually did what they are accused of! I am talking about folks who are in jail who are innocent but who do not have the resources and means to defend themselves. The benefit will give folks a way to vent their frustrations about what is going on with the legal system. I had to sell a stratacastor guitar to help pay for Donovan’s representation. It was a guitar that Jimi Hendrix gave me!
David Carr: That had to have been tough!
Ronny Drayton: Well I was doing it for my son. Besides, the guitar is just a piece of wood. I mean it can sometimes be a nice piece of wood, but the sound is made by, and comes from your hands! HA!
David Carr: How did you get Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz on board for the benefit?
Ronny Drayton: Vernon Reid and I were introduced to each other by a guy named Raymond Jones who used to be in the band Chic. Raymond used to bring Vernon around to see me play. Vernon had known my son for a while. He had come to the courthouse a couple of times and when I needed help Living Colour were the first to step up and write checks, no questions asked. I have known Jimi Hazel for forever but I had not seen Jimi in a minute. We got together at the Gary Shider benefit. It took five months to get Jimi, Vernon and Will Calhoun together to talk about doing the benefit but once that happened the benefit was a go. Africa Bambatta will also be part of the show and I guess I will also be playing on the 4th.
David Carr: Ronny I asked you about how your son has been able to cope with his situation. How have you been able to cope with it? How have you kept your spirits up and remained hopeful?
Ronny Drayton: This has been trying for me…it almost killed me. I am fighting for my baby, David. I am fighting for my son. I have a loving girlfriend and she has been a blessing to me. She is Donovan’s stepmother and she has been amazing. Her family has also been a true source of support. I am constantly praying. I am ok today. Today I am doing alright. I saw my son, I got to talk to him, I got to see him cry and that was ok. I let him do his thing instead of trying to rush in and “fix” him. Today was good for me…my love, hope and faith is in humanity. That’s how I am coping with it.
Any guitarist you talk to will tell you they are always looking for the perfect tone. The tone becomes the backdrop for the guitarist. It sets up the foundation for the guitarist and dictates what the song is going to sound like. As Donovan Drayton gets ready for a new trial and as his father gears up to support him, one can only hope that the tone set for trial number two is one in which a father and son can be reunited, and that this four year journey can finally come to an end. For more information on Donovan Drayton’s case, log onto www.4donovan.com.
‘The Million Man Mosh: A Benefit For Donovan Drayton’ will be at New York’s Highline Ballroom, on Wednesday, January 4, 2012, featuring Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, Afrika Bambaataa, Ronny Drayton and special guests. The Highline is at 431 West 16th Street in New York City. Doors are at 7PM and show time is at 9PM; tickets are $30 in advance and $40 day of show. Info: (212) 414-5994; www.highlineballroom.com. Proceeds for this event will go to benefit Donovan’s Defense.