By Ira Robbins
For the past 35 years or so, guitarist (and sometimes singer) Jimi Hazel has been leading 24-7 Spyz, a New York band that plays a fluid mixture of metal, funk, R&B, reggae and rock with both confidence and skill. Successfully marketed by an indie label at the end of the ’80s, Spyz hit a commercial peak with their second album, the hippie-vibing Gumbo Millennium, in 1990, but then got a royal screwing from the major, EastWest Records, that signed them on the strength of it. (Ironically, they made a great, and great-sounding, album, Strength in Numbers, co-produced by metal master Terry Date, for the label.)
Undeterred, Spyz continued touring and releasing music through other channels. Musicians came and went; the band broke up and reformed a couple of times. In 2019, after a recording pause of more than a decade, the “heavy metal soul pioneers from the Boogie Down Bronx” returned with their eighth (ninth?) album, The Soundtrack to the Innermost Galaxy, an eclectic style-jumper of instrumental virtuosity, heavy power, upbeat positivity and stirring commentary about racism in America. The summer of ’22 brought a knockout single, “Angels & Demons,” which floats a jazzy breeze guest-sung by Corinne Drewery of the English pop group Swing Out Sister headlong into a growly blast of rock venom. I was intrigued.
Spyz played a free show in Tompkins Square Park in September, and I finally got to see and meet Hazel, who I only knew from Facebook, in person. I don’t know shit about metal, but I do know from guitar players, and this gearhead — who assumed the names of the first two players who knocked him sideways, Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Hazel — can do it all in a wide variety of voices, from shred to sensitive soul, and deftly throw blazing solos into places where they don’t generally find a berth.
Two months later, we met in a vegan restaurant in the West Village, a cozy joint where he was well-known. I sensed that we’d get along personally, but I was unsure how to approach the interview. The questions I had prepared walked a zig-zag line from asking about the experience of being a Black man playing rock (read: white) music to attempting to be color-blind: the shamefully obvious (but racial) tack versus the make-believe oblivious (but still racial) approach. Neither felt good. I didn’t want to be the patronizing white guy reducing a far-ranging musician to the very pigeonhole he’s had to fight his way out of, but pretending it isn’t a significant element in his story was not a viable alternative.
I didn’t actually have to ask a lot of questions. Jimi was an absolute blast, an interviewer’s dream. We talked and laughed for hours, swapping stories and memories, music biz history and gossip and New York nostalgia until the restaurant had just about cleared out. Beyond his instrumental chops, he’s a natural-born raconteur, a broadly knowledgeable, enthusiastic and opinionated music fan with an effusive spirit and a big heart. (I promised myself I wouldn’t mention his penchant for adding rampant numbers of emojis to his social media posts.)
So how did Wayne Richardson, coming up in the South Bronx in the late ’60s, get his ears opened to such a wide variety of music?
“I give my parents and my brother credit. They would stack five or six albums on the Garrard turntable and it would be Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane. Then would come Richie Havens, then the Temptations, a constant mix of everything all the time. My mom” — who he described as “a hippie” earlier in the conversation — “used to play Somethin’ Else Again by Richie Havens all the time. My brother was the rock guy, but he was also the guy who listened to the Black stuff, that was Black Rock when it had no title. My sister listened to bubblegum. I soaked up whatever I heard.”
As he told interviewer Oscar Jordan in 2010, “Summertime was all about the blues and the rest of the year was all about R&B and jazz. The rock stuff was always there, too. Between Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, that was all I needed. The next thing that hit me hard was Grand Funk Railroad and Nazz. As much as all the good Black stuff there was, there was so much great white stuff. That was the beautiful thing about radio stations when I was a kid. You turned on your radio and it didn’t matter. You heard anything and everything across the board. I heard good music by everybody. I was a Todd Rundgren freak for years, from Nazz on. Grand Funk to me was like the white Band of Gypsys.” (I can’t agree with that assessment, but I didn’t argue the point.)
His radio dial regularly stopped on WABC (Top 40), WBLS (R&B) and “Super Soul 16” WWRL. “There wasn’t any place I didn’t go to listen to what I wanted to hear, even though the stations didn’t play what I wish they would play. I dealt what they played, but nobody played what the other would play. So, I had to go to each place to get what I wanted.”
His introduction to Rundgren was pure kismet. “When I was in public school, on Fridays we were able to bring in a favorite 45. And we used to have these hats called DCs. They had a cardboard rim, and we used to stick a 45 in the top to keep the top up. I forgot what song I brought in, but one of my friends brought in the blue label Ampex 45 by Todd Rundgren. It had ‘We Gotta Get You a Woman’ on one side, and the other side was a trilogy that included ‘Baby Let’s Swing.’ I traded him and took that home and didn’t give it back. I became a complete Todd Rundgren fanatic from that point forward.”
“Are You Experienced, my brother has the import version, the Barclays record, which has a really nice cover. I was freaked out by that album, ‘Manic Depression,’ the whole album, but ‘Third Stone From the Sun’ in particular scared the shit out of me. I just didn’t understand what was coming out of the speakers. And then, when he got the American pressing with the fish eye lens, [I thought] this is a weird-looking cover with weird-sounding music. I like it, but it scares me. Then Axis [Bold as Love] comes up with the softer cover, and the songs are just so R&B-rooted that I was like, ‘Wow, this sounds like something my parents might have actually played.’ You get through Electric Ladyland, it’s like, ‘Wow, how do you do this over a three-year period?’ At that point, I didn’t understand that all bands mature. If you spend half your year or a year on the road, but you still have ideas, you’re going to come back, and your next thing is going to be all that you picked up over the year on the road.
“Summer of ’70, my brother and his friends come out Mitchell Gym one hot day and there’s a limo parked across the street. Limos don’t show up in the hood unless it’s graduation or death. It wasn’t graduation, it was July. But they looking, looking, looking and it’s Jimi [Hendrix] in the limousine. So, the kids walk over, they know who he is, and they’re talking to him. I think Jimi might have been amused at the fact that it was a bunch of Black kids, but he talks to them for maybe 15 minutes or whatever and asked them if they’re coming to the show [New York Pop, a three-day rock festival on Randall’s Island featuring a handful of the previous year’s Woodstock stars].
“Luckily for me, my brother had to watch me the night of the show, and he tells me I can’t tell mom and dad where we’re going. I’m six, I go where you tell me to go. We meet up with the other kids, and we walk across the bridge to Randall’s Island. The show had already been taken over by some militant group who took the cash box: Free festival for everybody! Fuck the man!
“We make our way back to the trailers, I don’t know how that happened. We’re standing there, [and] after about 20 minutes Jimi comes out. They call him, ‘We’re the kids you met from the other night, the other day.’
“So Jimi comes out and he zeros in on me because I’m the littlest one. He’s like, ‘Who’s the little guy?’ I look up. He seemed like a giant. I’m like, ‘Wow, Mr. Hendrix.’ He sticks his hand out to shake my hand. Six-year-old hand against that hand: it would’ve been huge anyway, but it was even huger. That pretty much cemented everything.”
Little Wayne turned inspiration into action: “I asked my parents for a guitar. I got it for my seventh birthday, September 3rd, 1970. And I’m like, ‘This is going to be it. I’m going to play guitar and Jimi’s going to teach me.’”
But two weeks later, Hendrix was dead. “It felt like I lost a family member. I didn’t understand death, ’cause I never had anybody pass away. It really messed me up for a long while — in a good way, though. It made me jump even deeper into wanting to play. I’ve always said, ‘Every time I play, I honor my guys.’”
“Hendrix wasn’t embraced by the R&B world, but he impacted everybody, because in the wake of his passing, every R&B band had a guitar with a fuzz box and a wah-wah pedal. Everybody, all of a sudden, was rocking out. They got turned on.”
The next player to rock Wayne’s world was Eddie Hazel, the guitar titan of George Clinton’s P-Funk. “Eddie filled the void of losing Jimi, and ‘Maggot Brain’ was the turning point.”
Jimi views a set of guitar players as the great men of his life, what he calls his Mt. Rushmore. “I had Jimi, then came Eddie Hazel, then came Eddie Martinez with Mother Night [a soul-funk band of the early ‘70s he was in before becoming a session star, famously playing lead on Run-DMC’s “Rock Box”]. I’d heard ‘Scuffle,’ which was their hit, for lack of a better term. But everybody knew the song ‘Julie Nixon.’ The group was just killer.
“When I saw the picture of him, I was like, ‘Wow!’ They looked like dudes in my neighborhood. And it was that other thing again, same thing with Funkadelic. It was like, it’s beautiful seeing all these Black people doing this.
“The fourth one is Ronny Drayton with Edwin Birdsong. ‘Rising Sign’ and ‘Any Color’ come out and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, who is this guy?’
“The crazy thing about my Mt. Rushmore is that I met all four of them.”
His first encounter with Hazel didn’t go well. It happened at Peabody’s DownUnder in Cleveland, where Spyz had a gig opening for the P-Funk All Stars.
“I’m psyched because I’m finally going to meet Eddie Hazel. We get to the place, and they’re not there. We do soundcheck, and just as we’re finishing somebody goes, ‘They’re here. They just pulled in.’ I got my guys back to play ‘Jimi’s Jam’ [an instrumental guitar showcase on Spyz’ first album]. I want to make sure Eddie hears me. So we’re just kind of standing there, acting like we’re taking a break, and he finally walks in. I’m just trying to peel the fucking lacquer off the neck. I’m like, ‘I want to hit this dude with every note I can possibly play and shit.’
“Eddie and Garry [Shider] are sitting at the bar. I come down, coolly walk over. They’re talking, and I go, ‘Excuse me. It’s an absolute honor and a pleasure to meet you. You have no idea.’ And they’re just looking at me. Eddie goes, ‘Fuck you, man.’ And I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ He goes, ‘You heard me. Fuck you. Fuck you, man.’ And then he turns right back to Garry, and they start talking like I’m not there.
“I’m just standing there like ‘What just happened?’ I’m waiting for somebody to turn around and talk to me, but no, they just keep talking to themselves. I’m not even there. So I slowly slink away.
“I go on our tour bus and sit down and I’m talking to myself. ‘What did I do?’ My bass player comes in and he goes, ‘What did you say to him?’
‘I said, “It’s an honor and a pleasure to meet you.’
‘And he told you fuck you?’
‘He told me fuck you, fuck yourself.’
He goes, ‘You got to go back in.’
‘I’m not going back in.’
‘Dude, everybody’s in there. This is fucking crazy.’
‘I’m not going in.’
‘Come on. I’ll go back in with you.’”
“I finally said, ‘Fuck it, I’ll go in.’ And I go in and I find the darkest corner to hide. Nobody sees me. Garry and Eddie are still sitting in the same spot. I have this moment of devil and angel, and the angel’s going, ‘Let it go. Forgive them.’ Devil was going, ‘Fuck them. Go find out what happened.’
“I walked back over and just stood there, real quiet. I go, ‘Excuse me. If I said anything to upset you, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any harm.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, I’m just fucking with you man.’
“I said, ‘What? You fucking broke my heart, dude. Why would you do that? I’m really upset.’
‘Motherfucker, you want to know why I did that shit? You motherfuckers have been in front of us for a bunch of shows over the last couple of months.’ [Spyz’ tour had coincidentally preceded the All Stars to a number of venues on this tour.]
‘So every club we came into that you guys have been in I got people going, “Man, your son’s band was here. You must be so proud.”’
“He was like, ‘I ain’t got no fucking son.’ Everybody thought he was my father. He was like, ‘How old do you think I am? That motherfucker’ — meaning me — ‘is grown. That motherfucker is old enough to be my brother, not my son.’ So he knew he was going to punk me when we finally met, that was how he was going to get me. So from that point, moving forward, he became my other dad. Beautiful.”
Eddie Hazel supplied the second half of Jimi’s stage name, a selection he made well before he even had need for one.
“I was trying to think of guys named Wayne, and we had Wayne Newton, Wayne County. When I envisioned being a rock star, I just couldn’t hear [people going] “WAYNE! WAYNE! WAYNE!” It didn’t work. When I thought about the two most important guitar players — and I was irritated that it almost seemed like everybody had just forgotten about them — that’s when I thought about Jimi Hazel. I’m gonna take the name of the two guys who impacted me heavily because if I ever got famous, you’ll never forget those two fucking names.
“This was ’84, ’85. A good friend of mine who passed away, William Fleet, was putting together a project for Andre Brown, who was in the movie The Last Dragon. He brings me in to play guitar on the first real session I ever did. We’re sitting down one day after I did the session, and he goes, ‘Dude, you’re just fucking ridiculous.’ And I go, ‘Your father’s ridiculous.’ [His dad was William “Biddy” Fleet, a jazz guitarist who was a direct influence on Charlie Parker]. He said, ‘Jimi Hazel.’ I said, that’s funny, ’cause I said the same thing. He said, ‘Are you serious? That’s gonna be the name you use from now on.’ So, before Spyz, I chose the name Jimi Hazel.”
And the fourth member of the pantheon: “Eddie Martinez was my hero, because I never forgot Eddie from Mother Night. I followed him through everything. But when he showed up with Run-DMC, that literally was a paradigm shifting moment.
“In 1990 we got nominated for a New York Music Award, and we won. We played at the event. The after party was at the China Club. Will Lee, from Letterman’s band, walks up and he goes, ‘Oh 24-7 Spyz.’ We’re tripping because he knows who we are. ‘Man, come on, [Gumbo] Millennium is fucking brilliant, man. You guys know Eddie Martinez?’ I was like, ‘He’s here?’
“He brings Eddie over and I’m just kind of awestruck. This is like the Eddie Hazel moment again. It’s that Jimi Hendrix moment again. I said, ‘Dude, you have no idea how long I’ve loved you.’ He asks me, ‘So what was it that turned you on? The Run-DMC stuff? The Robert Palmer stuff?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ He goes, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Shit man, Mother Night.’ And he almost choked… ‘How the fuck do you know about Mother Night? How old are you?’ I think I was 27. I said, ‘I don’t think you understand what that album did for 10-year-old me. He found that mind blowing, because everything at that point [for him] was about Run-DMC.
“Eddie Martinez and Ronny Drayton were the go-to guys for everything in terms of New York sessions. They played on everybody’s stuff. Eddie was always on point, always on time, always correct. Ronny had demons here and there. And that kind of shifted how people saw him, not sure if he was dependable. But I watched Ronny always being the guy who put something on somebody’s stuff that made the difference. He was never in a band of his own, per se, so when I asked him to join Spyz [in 2012], it wasn’t to come in and be just the other guitar player, it was, ‘You have a home in this band.’”
Drayton appears on The Soundtrack to the Innermost Galaxy as well as on an all-star digital single made in tribute to Hazel’s fifth Rushmore icon: Jef Lee Johnson. The session guitarist (who worked with George Duke, Erykah Badu, Mariah Carey and many others) “was supposed to play with us at the second Million Man Mosh show [in January 2013]. He didn’t make it and passed two weeks later.
“I became family with Ronny, with Jef, with Eddie and Eddie. And the only one who’s still here now is Eddie Martinez. Everybody’s gone. Which is just weird.”
Everybody’s gone. Them and others as well. In response to the pain of so much loss, Hazel suffered what he calls “a crazy depression” in 2013 and put down his guitar. Two years later, he got back in the studio and began finding himself in music again.
“I wrote some stuff and I thought it was horrible. And I said, ‘No, this is not going to work,’ because the worst thing that could happen is we put out these songs and they wind up being the biggest thing we’ve ever done. I said, ‘I’m just going to wait.’ And nothing showed up until maybe a year later, and it was the song ‘Home.’ When ‘Home’ showed up, it scared me to death. Because I knew what it was about, it was about death. And I knew who sent it. Jef Lee Johnson sent it, and I could not touch it. I walked away from it.
“Two weeks later, I demoed up the song and cried like a fucking baby. I sent it to the guys and said, ‘Humor me. I know it’s almost 10 minutes long, but just tell me what you think.’ Everybody went, ‘Whoa, this is what showed up?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, Jef sent it.’ They’re like, ‘You’re back?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what I am, but I’m here.’
“All of a sudden these songs started showing up. At that point we had Ronny [Drayton] in the band. We brought Fish [drummer Philip Fisher] from Fishbone into the band. I wanted to expand the band. I wanted to put a band together so that we could play the records we made on stage.”
Breaking a longstanding habit of not using a lot of guests on their records, Hazel needed outside contributions for this one. “This time around, every time I heard something, I was like, ‘I hear women. I want women. I need background.’ So I would call somebody. ‘You want to come in and sing?’ By the time [Innermost Galaxy] was done, there were more people on the record than had ever been in the band, but it was exactly what it was supposed to be.”
Every rock star has a wild straight-world job story. This is Jimi’s:
“Before we got our record deal, I dyed my hair blue, straight: it stuck up like a porcupine. We used to go shopping at Andy’s Chee-Pees, Trash and Vaudeville. I found what turned out to be a Russian military hat. It was flat, and I had to use stickpins to get it to stay on my head.
“I had a friend who had a city job, and my dad kept urging me to get a city job, but I just wanted to play guitar. One day, this motherfucker comes up and says, ‘Hey man, they got all these tests for transit.’ My father says, ‘Are you going to take the test for transit?’ So I take the test and think nothing about it. Three months later, I come in and my dad is sitting there like the Cheshire cat. He says, ‘You got mail.’ I passed the transit test, so I had to take the job.
“So I’m working for transit, I’m on probation so I had no uniform, you just had to wear dark pants, dark clothes. They send me to Mosholu Parkway [in the Northwest Bronx]. I’ve got a trench coat on, black jeans, black and blue creepers [shoes] and my Russian military hat. Nobody can see my blue hair because I’ve got the hat on.
“So I run in the booth, it’s morning rush hour, I open up my window. About ten minutes in, selling tokens and whatnot, I hear [in a high wailing woman’s voice]: ‘There’s a Nazi in the booth! There’s a Nazi in the booth!’ I didn’t know what she was talking about. This little old lady went down to the end of the station where there was a service phone and she called station command. ‘There’s a Nazi in the booth!’ Fifteen minutes later, here come the big guys, the upper uppers, and they bang on the door. They come straight in and say, ‘Who are you?’
“I said, ‘Wayne Richardson.’
‘What are you wearing?’
‘I’m on probation. I don’t have a uniform yet.’
‘What is that hat?’
‘It’s a hat.’ I didn’t know the hat had some significance that triggered this woman. So my superior says, ‘Take off the hat.’
I said, ‘Sir, no offense, but you really don’t want me to do that.’
‘Are you disobeying your supervisor?’
‘No, I’m just trying to tell you you don’t want me to take my hat off.’
‘I’m gonna ask you one more time: take your hat off.’
“I take the bobby pins off, my hair goes boing — blue, as blue as the sky is blue. He goes, ‘Put your hat back on.’ So I fold my hair down, I get the hat back on, and he goes, ‘You’re done for the day. You can go home.’
‘But I just started my shift.’
‘No, you’re done for the day.’
‘I’m gonna get paid for the day, right?’
‘Oh no, you’re not. You’re getting docked for the day. You upset the community with this trench coat. You look like an SS man.’
‘You have to be fucking with me — there were no black Nazis!’”
Toward the end of the evening, aided by a few beers, I acknowledged my reluctance and then plunged ahead and asked about the band’s experiences with racism. I might have seen a brief flash of disappointment cross Hazel’s face, but he sure had stories to tell.
“The first year on tour was the most mind-blowing tour of our lives because we’d never been outside of New York. Our booking agent, Jonathan Levine from William Morris, decided to build our reputation the old-fashioned way: grassroots, a headlining tour. So we went to places where there was 20 people some nights, 250 people some nights, 500 people some nights. Our audiences at that point were 80 percent, 90 percent white. Our road crew was white, so in the South we dubbed them the “cracker crew.” What was really deep was we all understood who we were, we were all people, and we were all good people. There was no racism in our bus, or in our camp or with our crew. So we would do things that would freak other people out, because they just weren’t ready for how free we were.
“We stayed at a place in South Carolina called Masters Inn [perhaps it’s come down in the world, but I looked it up and the Trip Advisor reviews are horrifying]. Rick Skatore, our bass player, tied a bandana [on his head] Aunt Jemima style, and walked into the hotel with our bus driver, who was like six-six, 300 pounds, white. The bus driver is like [gruff, imperious voice], ‘Put the bag down over theah, boy.’ [Stepin Fetchit voice] ‘Yassah, boss. I got yore bag. Gonna put the bag right over theah.’ White people in the hotel are freaking out.”
Understandably. But wait, it gets crazier.
“The bus had to be parked in back of the motel. There’s all these balconies off the rooms. Our driver goes up to the room, takes a sheet off the bed, ties the sheet around him, takes a pillowcase and makes it a cone, and comes out on the terrace and yells, ‘Shut up that noise down there, we’re trying to have a meeting up here!’ And we’re watching all these people completely going [nuts].”
“We’d never been called [plural n-word] before until we got to Boston. Go figure.
“We check into the hotel, nice hotel, our road manager goes in. We’re standing outside, and this couple comes towards us, holding hands. Because we’re all good kids and gentlemen, we planned to spread apart so they could stay together. Before they get to us, she breaks off from him and walks out into the street, around us. He walks through us. She comes back up on the sidewalk, and he says to her, ‘Don’t you ever break away from me for a bunch of [plural n-word] ever again in your life.’ For like ten seconds, we were like, ‘Where the [plural n-word] at?’ And then it was, ‘Oh, shit — us?’ We were about to break that ass in two. Luckily, our road manager came out of the hotel just before we got ready to go. We spoke about it at the gig that night. The audience, which was like 85 percent white, was ‘Fuck those racist motherfuckers!’ I’m like, ‘Kumbaya, white people. We’re good.’”
And then out west…
“In Portland, Oregon, we’re driving around looking for a parking spot, and I noticed flyers on cars around the venue. They were flyers for the local KKK, telling people ‘Don’t let your kids come to this [n-word] show.’ Really? This is 1989? We thought things were correct, and we found out things were not correct.”
And this last one:
“Every night our road manager, who looked like Robert Plant, would collect the money. We were in Minneapolis, I think, and the promoter is talking to him. We’re all just hanging around, and he’s watching us. We’re not paying him any mind, we’re just doing what we do, standing around talking, and he goes, ‘You guys are just really nice guys.’ We’re like, ‘Oh, wow, thank you.’ And he goes, ‘No, I mean it. You guys are genuinely good people.’ We’re like, ‘What the fuck are we supposed to be?’ And he goes, ‘Everybody thinks you’re actually a gang from the South Bronx.’ We turned to our road manager and said, ‘Is that why we get our money every night? Don’t tell anyone we’re nice guys!’”