If someone invited you to an art museum to see a performance of a band made up of West Coast rapper Murs, one of the editors of ego trip magazine and the bassist from Bad Brains, you’d probably wonder if you were being punked. But the White Mandingos are no joke. The trio of Murs, Sacha Jenkins and Darryl Jenifer emerged on the Internet this spring with the “Mandingo Rally” video, which notably sees Murs wearing whiteface under a Klu Klux Klan hood.
Now they’re expanding the project with a full album, The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me, out this week through Fat Beats Records, and concerts at New York’s New Museum tonight, in Boston tomorrow and Washington, D.C. on Sunday. Complex spoke with the band about the politics of black men playing rock in 2013 and how the album is more Tommy than Tommy Boy.
Interview by Daniel Margolis
I was surprised by the lack of information about this band online. No Wikipedia page. Only 2,000 likes on Facebook. How long have the White Mandingos been together?
Sacha Jenkins: First of all, fuck Wikipedia! Nah, Wikipedia is nice. It’s a lot of nice people coming together sharing information – no one’s making money. Shout out to Wikipedia. Essentially, yes, we are a brand new band; working on this record for a year and change.
Murs: The band’s been around. They’ve had the name for a while but we just started releasing ourselves to the public two months ago.
The album itself is the story of Tyrone White from Polo Grounds. I’m speaking through the voice of Tyrone White. - Murs
So what’s the overall concept behind the album?
Murs: The album itself is the story of Tyrone White from Polo Grounds. I’m speaking through the voice of Tyrone White. It describes where he is, from there you get to hear songs about his girlfriend who’s from the hood, then he gets a record deal, meets a white girl and you get to hear about his experiences on a label—the song “Warn a Brotha.” And there are songs I made that aren’t about the story but [that I think] Tyrone White would make on his album.
Darryl: It’s a story of a cat in rap, like [the Who’s classic 1969 "rock opera"] Tommy did with rock. Dude liked to skateboard and all that; liked to rap and had a couple white friends. He liked a little punk rock but liked his hip-hop. It’s the life and times of that sort of cat with the interracial setups. It’s like a movie on record.
You mentioned “Warn a Brotha.” On that track you rap, “They treat black rock bands like unicorns.” I was wondering if there was an intention here of "taking rock back," perhaps furthering what the Black Rock Coalition began in the ‘80s.
Sacha: For some reason that line really has touched a lot of white people. I want to thank you for that Murs. [Ed. Note: White people really love unicorns.]
Murs: I respect Living Colour and Prince. But since then, black people really haven’t evolved their music and whenever anyone tries to do some live rock music it sounds like we stopped listening to rock in the '80s and the only rock we listen to is black rock.
If you saw a unicorn you wouldn’t expect anything from it. It wouldn’t have to run fast or fly; it’s a fucking unicorn, wow. When a black guy picks up a guitar and no one places any expectations on him. They’re like, “Oh wow. Who cares that he plays like Prince? Who cares that he’s not advancing the art of rock or music in general? - Murs
I hooked up with a punk band from Jacksonville, Fla., called Whole Wheat Bread. I went to Warner Bros. and said, "We want to put out a record." And they basically told us, "Either you rap over a white band—if we can get you to collaborate with Rise Against or something like that, that would be great—or you guys need a white producer." That struck me as wrong because I was like, "Fuck, we’re four black kids in a room that know what we’re doing." We did Coachella and killed it.
If you saw a unicorn you wouldn’t expect anything from it. It wouldn’t have to run fast or fly. It’s a fucking unicorn, wow. When a black guy picks up a guitar and no one places any expectations on him. They’re like, Oh wow. Who cares that he plays like Prince? Who cares that he’s not advancing the art of rock or music in general? It’s amazing if you do well. When we played Coachella, I invited all the Warner staff. To be like, Look, we can do this in front of a credible music audience. There are 10,000 people in front of the stage and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. Let us make an album. And they weren’t open to it.
People only remember Bad Brains and Living Color. Those are the only two black rock bands if you ask most people. There’s no mention of Black Merda or Weapon Of Choice. And now it’s TV On the Radio. It’s like we’re allowed one band from every decade. From the '60s, you get Jimi Hendrix. From the '70s, you have Bad Brains. From the '80s, you get Living Color. From the '90s, I don’t know who the fuck you get. And then the '00s, you get TV On the Radio."
“Warn a Brotha” is basically a punk song with rapping over it. But then there’s some reggae tagged at the end, which definitely felt reminiscent of Bad Brains. Would you say White Mandingos is informed by Bad Brains willingness to blend genres or flip back and forth between them?
Darryl: Absolutely. Me and Dr. Know do all of the compositions for Bad Brains. If I’m composing with other people, especially in realms of rock and inventive styles, it’s going to have my touch. It’s going to feel like Bad Brains because it’s Bad Brains doing it.
Murs: I want to challenge you in this way: If it was punk rock music with screaming over it, how come that’s not just punk? Because people scream words that rhyme over rock music.
Every time I hear a punk song that has rapping on it I take note—you don’t hear that too much. There was one song on the last Beastie Boys album where they did that [“Lee Majors Come Again”]. They used to do punk songs and shout over them but then they did one where they deliberately rapped over it.
Sacha: I think that’s what makes us interesting and makes them interesting. They were influenced by punk, hip-hop, reggae, instrumental music and I think because they were fans of all that music, that’s why they were able to pull all that together. Bad Brains influence of being able to play different genres, it definitely played a role.
On this record there was more of a Pete Rock & CL Smooth influence. You listen to records from the ‘90s that have these interludes that bridge moments. - Sacha
On this record there was more of a Pete Rock & CL Smooth influence. You listen to records from the '90s that have these interludes that bridge moments. There are a few of those moments on the record and they’re meant to fill in blanks in terms of what the story is about. You can listen to the lyrics and follow the story track-by-track chronologically but of course there are lots of things that get lost in translation, including a song called “My Weapon,” which is all instrumental. That’s meant to give the listener the opportunity to fill in the blanks of where he or she thinks the story goes at this point.
That’s something that The Who did on Tommy. There would be instrumental passages that were still telling the story.
Sacha: And that was a huge influence. I’m a huge fan of Pete Townshend and The Who and Tommy was definitely a big inspiration for this record coming together, from my perspective.
Murs: I don’t know what the fuck was going on in that movie.
Sacha: I never watched the movie. It looks mad corny. I never fucked with Tommy the movie. That shit looked mad suspect.
What are your expectations for the album?
Sacha: If the record speaks to people—not only who are black but people who are searching for identity and trying to figure out who they are, if I can have an impact on a few people the way Bad Brains and Public Enemy had in my life at a crucial time when I was exploring—to me, that’s a success. Are we gonna go platinum in Bulgaria? That would be awesome.
Murs: I didn’t really expect to sell a million copies. If it does, great. The fact that we’ve gotten calls from a lot of respected artists to open for them, and a lot of journalists have said that they respect it, being a part of that has been great. I expected Sacha to get quite a backlash from being a journalist who makes music. He had the courage to come out of the closet, so to speak, and the audacity to make an album and put it out. To me it’s like a shark feeding itself to the sharks.
I hope people love it and don’t get too tripped out and try to judge it. - Darryl
Darryl: As far as people’s reviews, I’m sure they’ll go back and forth. I hope people love it and don’t get too tripped out and try to judge it. For instance, the other day I saw someone on Facebook try to come out and critique how it should be like the Beastie Boys and Slayer. All of these comparisons—like a rock critic listening to White Mandingos and maybe being a little bit offended by it somehow. The Bad Brains fans, a lot of them hear rap and it’s like, ehhh. They hate because maybe they’re offended. But the dude’s name is Tyrone White and he calls himself White Mandingo. If you’re someone who’s going to sit around and try to say that we’re coming off on some racial shit, then you’re missing the whole point.
Come to the shows if we’re in your town. Come hang out, make it happen. These three shows will probably launch off into something really cool. I have a good feeling about this, because it’s pure and it doesn’t have a lot of pretense behind it. It’s rock and roll with rap, purely, so I think people will like it.
Stream The Ghetto Is Tryna Kill Me over on OkayPlayer.