Comedian W. Kamau Bell calls Jimi Hendrix the “patron saint of black weirdos,” talks about how John Coltrane inspired his particular brand of comedy, and credits Rollins Band with pumping him up to do standup. Bell currently hosts the United Shades of America series on CNN and has a stand up special on Showtime called Semi-Prominent Negro.
Hosted by Garth Trinidad.
Photo: Dustin Downing
- Liar - Rollins Band
- Pride - Living Colour
- Power of Soul (Live at The Fillmore East) - Jimi Hendrix
- My Favorite Things - John Coltrane
- Mississippi Goddam - Nina Simone
Garth Trinidad: Hey, this is Garth Trinidad from KCRW and I am honored to be here with W. Kamau Bell, who specializes in political comedy and always provides a provocative take on race and the events of the day on a number of platforms. He hosts the United Shades of America series on CNN and has a stand-up special on Showtime called Semi-Prominent Negro.
We’re going to dig into songs that have inspired him throughout his life as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. So, I’m going to let Kamau take over and be the DJ now. Man, what did you bring for us today?
W. Kamau Bell: I don’t know, I don’t think my voice is deep enough to be a DJ. Normally, I’m the deep voiced brother in the room.
So the first song is by Rollins Band. This song is about Henry Rollins’ taking on the character of a jerk guy who basically seduces women and then throws them away.
It’s the only hit song the Rollins band had, it was an MTV staple. and Henry was covered in all red. For me, it was important because at the time that the song came out, which was ’94, I was just starting to want to really try to attempt to do stand-up comedy.
I was like at the beginning of “I want to do it, but I’m afraid to do it,” and the way that I got myself revved up to go onstage was to listen to the song “Liar” over and over again because it’s like an explosive, rant-y, scream-y, high energy, testosterone-filled song. Which doesn’t describe my act or me in any way, but it got my blood pumping enough to get me onstage to do stand-up comedy for the first time.
Song: Rollins Band – “Liar”
GT: That was Henry Rollins, Rollins Band, that track “Liar.” The second song is from one of my favorite bands of all time, Living Colour, “Pride.”
WKB: Yeah, I mean, back in the old days – kids, sit down get ‘round the campfire, grandpa’s gonna talk -- we went to a record store and we did the thing you did back then. You buy the cassette, you take it to your car, and in the parking lot, you put it in and press play.
And from the first notes of that album, I was like, “This is the sound that’s in my head! I didn’t know this really existed in the outside world! This is my new band! What do I have to do next to"—and it was just like this is my religion now. This band is my religion.
And it’s just a song about black pride, but it’s a rock ‘n’ roll loud, raucous guitar solo-y, Corey Glover screaming -- soulful and screaming in a rock ‘n roll way -- about pride. And it was like a bullseye directly to my inner-black person.
As a black person who felt like a misfit, who felt like he didn’t do the right black thing -- this is the era of hip hop when I was supposed to be listening to hip-hop and I really wasn’t -- so this was like, "We’re here for you brother, we’re here for you."
And so that was my jam, that was my cut. When they played it in concert, I would go mosh. I would flip out. My friends would be like, “Calm down, calm down.” I can’t calm down!
And I met Vernon when I was 19 and I was like, "You made me feel like it was okay to be black."
Vernon Reid, the lead guitar player, he just looked at me like, “Okay, sir.” But years later on Twitter, I was in New York doing a comedy show and Vernon was on Twitter and I asked him to come to the comedy show and we became friends. And so it was like this really crazy circle of life thing where I’m really good friends with the guitar player who was my hero when I was in high school. And this song stands up to this day for me. If I put it on, I’m ready to start the revolution.
Song: Living Colour – “Pride”
GT: That was “Pride” by Living Colour. Speaking of black pride in a time that was intriguing to do that, Jimi Hendrix’s story is phenomenal. You’ve got “Power of Soul,” the live version from the Fillmore East, which is a legendary live recording.
WKB: Specifically that, the Live at the Fillmore East album is all the stuff from the band of The Gypsys. Because there’s a Band of Gypsys album and this is the stuff that didn’t make the album.
For me, I really liked the Band of Gypsys-era of Hendrix because it’s super black and super funky while still maintaining that electric church thing he does. And listening to a Jimi Hendrix song from the studio, it’s like a three-minute song because that’s when they kept songs really short -- but this is like a six-minute funky jam.
I remember the time I was like, "This feels like vitamins!" If I listened to this album twice a day I’ll get taller and my vision will clear up and my skin will clear up and I’ll stop having pimples!
This was just a very powerful statement to my soul and it’s also a great political song, but in the very Hendrix-y way where he doesn’t have to talk about politics, he can just write “Machine Gun” and he can play the Star-Spangled Banner, he can do Power of Soul, and with the Power of Soul everything is possible.
Mission accomplished, Jimi, good job sir. Also, the first time I heard the name Jimi Hendrix, I knew he was an electric guitar player, I thought he was a white guy because hashtag racism. Because at the time, we’re talking about the 80s and the early 90s; the electric guitar player was a white guy thing, at least as far as I understood. And so I had no idea. Jimi Hendrix didn’t sound like a black guy. J-I-M-I that’s not how a black guy spelled Jimmy. Hendrix? Jimmy Johnson! And I feel like he’s the patron saint, for me, of black weirdos, because he was doing this at a time where black people were not playing rock guitar and he just sort of let his freak flag fly as high and as far as he wanted to.
GT: That was Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsys with, “Power of Soul” recorded live at the Fillmore East. W. Kamau Bell is our special guest here at the Guest DJ Project today. Going back, back, back into time even more so, you brought along John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” Phenomenal.
WKB: It’s just like beautiful noise. Coltrane is that guy. I remember reading about when my “My Favorite Things” came out -- because it’s the cover of the Sound of Music song. It’s so out there that people didn’t recognize it being the Sound of Music song; they thought it was some sort of eastern hymnal or something that he found from his trip to India or something.
For me, the thing about Coltrane that I love, that I really try to take into my comedy is that just because you know the song, doesn’t mean you have to play it the same way.
And so when I’m on stage doing bits, just sort of have fun with it! See if you can find some new thing, discover some new gem that you didn’t know before. Just keep the beats, know how to open, know how to close. It’s like a roadmap.
So for me I really enjoy that Coltrane is playing for himself. He’s pushing himself and sometimes if the audience gets it, great. And if they don’t, he’s still going to be playing for himself. As a comic you have to be listening for the laugh but the more you sort of play the thing and know that you’re funny, you’ll get the laugh the more you can discover things.
GT: Well, that’s the deep-seated idealism of jazz, right? It’s improvisation.
WKB: Yeah, and the great thing about “My Favorite Things” was that it takes the song that was very established and turns it on its head. And I feel like that’s, you know, if there’s anything I’m trying to do with my career it’s that I’m trying to put out things I haven’t seen before.
It doesn’t mean they’re good, but I’m like ‘I feel like I’ve never seen anyone do this before,’ and I think that’s what Coltrane is: I’m trying to get this sound that’s in my head that I’ve never heard someone else do. That’s a great goal. You might not get there, but that’s a great goal, and it’s fun to get on the ride with people and they do things like that.
GT: That was John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things.” Last, but certainly not least…
WKB: No, not at all!
GT: Miss Nina Simone.
WKB: It’s like “Liar.” It’s straight ahead, like “Pride,” it’s straight ahead. I tend to like art that is a little bit sometimes like a beating in an alley with a baseball bat: where is it coming from? It’s just hitting you over the head.
She was just like, “I am upset about the racism in this country and I have written a song that is not hidden in metaphor. It’s absolutely just me singing about the things I’m upset about.”
But in a bouncy musical way, so if you’re not listening to the words, it sounds like it’d be like “let’s go down to the river” and so she turns her whole idea of a musical on its head. Really she was just making fun of the convention, she knew it sounded like a song from a musical. And also, just to be clear, saying “Goddam” at that point in the song in American history could’ve got her arrested. It was an act of defiance and by saying “goddam” it’s like owning the defiance. Like, yes, it’s not, “Kumbaya.” It’s not, “Can we all just get along.” It’s not, “Swing low, sweet chariot.” It’s, “Mississippi Goddam.”
GT: Do you have any thoughts on the commonality between music and comedy or are there any for you?
WKB: Every comedian wants to be a rock star or a rap star. Everybody wants to come out to a big song. There’s a thing where you want that feeling of a rock show or a hip hop show and every musician kind of wants to be funny. So there’s a real commonality that I think when those worlds come together. Its super cool when there’s natural connections between them.
GT: That was “Mississippi Goddam” from Nina Simone. We appreciate you coming by and congratulations on your success and we are all looking forward to more.
WKB: I appreciate it! I feel like it’s my job to keep it interesting, so I’m going to try to keep it interesting.