Adventures in Black-Rock with Jimi Hazel of 24-7 Spyz: part 1

By Oscar Jordan

To truly appreciate this interview you have to put it into historical perspective. Actually my own historical perspective. Use your imagination. It’s the mid to late 1980s. You’re an artsy-fartsy black guy guitar player in your twenties living in Chicago. You’ve created a delusional, drama filled, time consuming mind fk for yourself. You believe that “The Man” has artistically handcuffed you to prevent you from being free to express the music you hear in your head. You’re trapped in a world where you can’t rock properly because Jimmy Page stole all your music, and anytime a black guy picks up a guitar it becomes all about Jimi Hendrix.

Jimi Hazel lead guitarist of the eclectic rock band 24-7 Spyz

You’re trapped in a world you never created betwixt the New Wave skinny tie types and the old fuddy-duddy Chicago blues scene. Yeah, I know. I said it was delusional. But you’re still a black guy and when you walk into Guitar Center, they think you’re either a bass player or a little too much into Hendrix. It gets old. There’s no way you could possibly be hip to Van Halen’s Women And Children First or Queensryche’s Operation Mind Crime.

As a reader you say, “What’s the big deal?! Enjoy whatever you like! Why do you care what people say!?” You caucasoids don’t know my pain. Black guys who showed up to Judas Priest or Whitensake shows equated to “oddball,” or worse, “trying to be white.” You’re a black dot in the audience amidst a sea of white, dope smoking, mullet wearers. It’s a lonely existence but we couldn’t help it. We dig the kind of heavy guitars you didn’t hear in blues, funk, and R&B. People think we’re genetically challenged. And forget about finding a black girlfriend who’s into Rush. Just forget it.

It becomes a silly battle in your mind to dismiss the kind of musician everybody assumes you are (Blues, funk or R&B), and being an annoying smarty-pants by telling everyone you were influenced by Yngwie J. Malmsteen. The reality is we had it made in the 80’s and didn’t even know it. Despite the self-created drama, the 80’s was a special time in music history and I was lucky enough to grow up conscious and in the middle of it.

Eclectic black rocker types of a certain age (like myself) got a brainful of the wide diversity of 80’s music and everything that came before. James Brown, The Jackson 5, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Chaka Kahn, Django Reinhardt, Rush, The Carpenters, Louis Armstrong, Kiss and Terrible Teddy Nugent were all part of our listening experience. Just because Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo changed my life doesn’t mean I hate Johnny Cash and Earth Wind & Fire. For me and many other black rockers, it all fit on the same plate.

When 24-7 Spies came to The Metro in Chicago in the late 80’s, I realized I wasn’t alone in the universe. There were other black weirdo guys just like me. Not only was I not alone, they had actually by-passed the whinery and just went out there and did it! Their first record Harder Than You was out by then. Oh, it was hard! They were an animated group of upstart Negroes who dared to mix thrash metal, ska, pop, jazz and funk. They occasionally put it all into one song. Oh yeah, and they were soulful too. Guitarist and visionary Jimi Hazel was a bad mother fker on guitar and wrote some great tunes. There was plenty of band conflicts, personnel changes and inept record company decisions over the years, but Hazel has stayed the course and continues to write, produce and play the sht out of the guitar. Many a band stood on their backs to achieve greater success, but they couldn’t have done it without hearing 24-7 Spyz first. The Spyz showed everyone what was possible. They’re current record Face The Day is bonefide, in your face and delivers the sonic goodies that Spyz fans have come to expect.

So you can imagine the significance this band had for me as whiney twenty-something learning to find himself. I never really quite found myself, but 24-7 Spyz knew who they were from the very beginning and their legacy continues.

24/7 Spyz – taking a quick break from the Metal, Punk, Funk!

Jordan: Your story is a wild ride. It’s a roller coaster of ups and downs. Through it all you’ve always been producing, writing and playing guitar regardless of the thousands of drummers you’ve had. (Laughing)

Jimi Hazel: (Laughing) We had the Spinal Tap thing where they implode. Smoke and a pair of sticks is all you see left.

Jordan: In terms of the guitar where does it all begin for you?

Hazel: It’s starts early on when I was a little kid. We use to go to The Apollo every weekend. For years I saw the cream of the crop of the R&B stuff. Even if they weren’t headliners I saw so much good music and just got interested in wanting to play. My brother had a guitar and a keyboard, but I couldn’t touch that stuff. He was the one who was playing Are You Experienced? and Disraeli Gears. He played the really good rock stuff. In my house it was a constant mixed up bombardment. My father was the Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock cat. My mom would be playing Richie Havens and Miriam Makeba. My sister would be playing all the bubble gum stuff. My brother would be playing all the good R&B.

Jimi Hendrix was due to play at the New York Pop Festival, which was right across the bridge from where we were living at. I asked somebody who was about ten years older than me if he remembers Jimi Hendrix coming to our neighborhood. He dropped the phone, “Thank you! Somebody remembers!” I kinda remember that, but Jimi showed up in the neighborhood in a limo because he knew somebody in our projects. All these kids were standing around saying, “Oh my God it’s Jimi Hendrix!”

Jimi was saying, “We’re playing at Randall’s Island and you should come on down. It’s going to be a beautiful day.” My brother was like, “We’re going to the concert!” For me it was no big deal. My parents had plans so he had to watch his brother. He was like, “Don’t tell mom and dad. We’re going out!” I’m six! Who am I gonna tell? (Laughing) “Whatever you say big brother!”

We wound up at Randall’s Island. Went across the bridge and went over to the concert. The concert wound up becoming a free concert because of some crazy gang trying to rob the box office. I saw Hendrix when I was six years old!

Jordan: I have that show.

Hazel: I do too.

Jordan: It’s a good show.

Hazel: It’s funny because I don’t remember much about it as a kid but I think I turned it into a better show. When I heard it years later I felt bad because he was having such a hard time. He was picking up all the radio signals. There were people hassling people in the audience, “Ya’ll stop fking with my friends!” It was just not a good show. He played but he had a lot of problems.

Jordan: He did a good “Red House.”

Hazel: Yes he did! (Laughing)

Jordan: He could always pull that off.

Hazel: I think that was his band-aid. ”Foxy Lady” is going side ways, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is going sideways. He’s trying to pull off “Ezy Rider” but it’s still so raw he just can’t get it right. Then he plays something where he can stop, regroup and just breathe. “Red House” and “Hear My Train a’ Comin’.”

To be continued…

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