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Band in D.C.:
Out of the nation’s capital,
Bad Brains came with extraordinary positivity

by

by Jon Kirby
with interview by Idris Robinson
photos by Frank White © 1987

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“What we discovered was PMA was really the Great Spirit,” says bassist and Bad Brains founding member Darryl Jenifer. “The [ideas in the] book Think and Grow Rich worked for Andrew Carnegie back in the Industrial Age, helped him make money out of these concepts of positive thinking.” Napoleon Hill championed the merits of Positive Mental Attitude in his 1937 book, which outlined Carnegie’s moneymaking formula in an effort to inspire greatness in ordinary people. Coming from Washington D.C.’s inner city, a band rose above the ordinary by latching onto that PMA, which led them down the spiritual path of Rastafarianism. As a result, Bad Brains propelled to greatness, though not quantifiable in dollar figures or record sales.

 

Originally published in Wax Poetics Issue 30

 

Bad Brains formed in southeastern D.C. in the late ’70s. The members of the Black ensemble, originally called Mind Power, first bonded over a mutual admiration for the aggressive jazz of Billy Cobham and Mahavishnu Orchestra. The group was comprised of bassist H.R., who would become Bad Brains’ unpredictable lead singer, younger brother and drummer Earl Hudson, vocalist Sid McCray, and, later, Darryl Jenifer, who would appropriate bass duties after H.R.’s promotion and Sid’s departure. Guitarist Dr. Know, whose blinding guitar leads would help define Bad Brains’ sound, joined the group by way of a local funk outfit, Stress. Despite their rich soul backgrounds, Bad Brains immersed themselves in punk music and culture, abandoning, for the most part, the more definitive D.C. genres.

Jenifer explains, “It’s the Great Spirit making us go, ‘You could play go-go or funk, but then you could play whatever the hell you want!’”1 It was as a result of this spiritual realization that Bad Brains began playing punk music and not the jazz fusion that they are often wrongly acknowledged for crafting in their early career. “We were into electric jazz, but it was all for the riffs,” insists Jenifer. “People get it all twisted. It’s an interesting story to say to your kids, ‘fusionists turned punkers.’ Really, it was a concept. [Mind Power] never played a show, and we only had one song, called ‘How Many Years of Love.’ We adopted these Black hippie names; I was called Sun Light. It was sort of like Mandrill but with a PMA concept.”

Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer. Photo by Frank White.

Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer. Photo by Frank White.

 

It was the group’s original singer, Sid McCray, who would introduce the inner-city combo to the brash, yet inviting, sounds of punk rock. “I used to listen to rock before punk,” recalls Jenifer. “Sid was a wild dude. He came through the crib [wearing] safety pins, and he had these records with him. He put on some Ramones, and I thought it was kind of funny. He had the No New York compilation. It was a noise thing with James Chance, Lydia Lunch, and DNA. I liked that because I liked Sun Ra, and I liked music that pushed the threshold of people’s sensibilities. I was like, ‘If the Ramones think they are playing fast, I’ll play it like this and put some Stevie at the end of it!’

“It was what the Great Spirit had in the wind for us to do,” continues Jenifer. “We didn’t sit around and conceive it. We just had the essential albums of punk: the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Dead Boys, and we took it from there. H.R. really liked it, and we jumped into being punks—leather pants and all that. I really liked punk because I was shy, but once I saw people who couldn’t play were playing it, I was like, ‘Fuck that! If these dudes sound like this, I’m going to sound like a monster!’”

From the get-go, Bad Brains was never your average punk-rock ensemble. The dreaded quartet stood out from their contemporaries, not just because of their race or the reggae tracks that peppered their albums and live shows, but also because of the virtuosity of their playing. “To this day, I have never seen anything that was better than the Bad Brains at peak performance,” recalled D.C. native and former Black Flag front man Henry Rollins. “We saw them open for the Damned, summer of ’79, right before they recorded their demo. People didn’t know what to do, and only a few people would come up to the front of the stage. Ian [MacKaye] and I walked right on up and felt like our ship had come in! As far as impact, it was incredibly motivational. Ian and I are still in awe of those guys.”2

Bad Brains (vocalist H.R. and guitarist Dr. Know) at the Roxy, July 1987. Photo by Frank White.

Bad Brains (vocalist H.R. and guitarist Dr. Know) at the Roxy, July 1987. Photo by Frank White.

 

Ian MacKaye, front man for fellow hardcore pioneers Minor Threat and, later, Fugazi, has concurred, praising the group for giving his own influential ensembles early musical momentum: “They were charismatic, they were incredible, they wrote great songs, they were nice to us, they had good ideas, they had good energy, and they made things happen. They made us feel like anything was possible.”

Along with MacKaye’s Minor Threat, Bad Brains is largely responsible for punk rock’s evolution into hardcore, a genre that today is almost unrecognizable by ’80s standards. Still, as MacKaye explained, it was crucial to the movement for positive visionaries like Bad Brains to separate music’s fashion from function: “Punk rock, mostly in the media, was portrayed by Sid Vicious and was nihilism and self-destructiveness. New wave was like the B-52’s and ‘Rock Lobster.’ So we wanted to distinguish ourselves from those two worlds. So we said we were ‘hard-core punk rock,’ meaning we didn’t need to look tough. We were more committed. It wasn’t a dress up thing; we were going to actually live it.”3

For Bad Brains, their twofold musical mission was coming to fruition. Not only was their music making waves up and down the East Coast, but their PMA was also infiltrating the local punk scene, which up until that point, had been one of violence and intolerance.

“When we first came out, [punk] was kind of on some vulgar shit,” recalls Jenifer. “We started kicking PMA in our music, and the message was different than the regular punk rock. You know, a punk rocker can write a song about hate—I hate my mom or some shit, you know? We wasn’t on no shit like that. Some kids who wanted to see some regular shit saw us, and every kid’s heart and mind was opened. It’s like you’re just going to see some regular reggae music, and Bob Marley is playing. You might walk away from that and go, ‘Damn, that’s some consciousness in this music.’ When we would play, you’d see, [sings] ‘I got that PMA,’ and there was a whole mode of consciousness that was coming through it.”

Bad Brains’ live show is perhaps still one of the most definitive characteristics of their musical identity. The lightning-fast riffs and machine-gun percussion that Bad Brains was able to harness on record ran wild onstage. Lead singer H.R., often donning a cape and motorcycle helmet, both alienated and engaged audiences, encouraging unified sing-alongs one minute and horizontally catapulting himself into the crowd the next. John Joseph, of the seminal New York hardcore band the Cro-Mags, first encountered Bad Brains en route to a D.C.-area tavern. “Doug, the owner, comes running out, and he was like, ‘Dude, you got to fuckin’ see this band.’ I was like, ‘Cool, all right, I’ll go check it out.’ He was like, ‘No, no—you don’t understand.’ He looked like he’d just seen twenty people get gunned down by a fuckin’ terrorist or something. He was blown the fuck away. So I went upstairs, and the motherfuckers clicked off a song, and I was just like—get the fuck out of here.”4

Bad Brains (Dr. Know solos), August 1989. Photo by Frank White.

Dr. Know solos, August 1989. Photo by Frank White.

 

But the capital city was becoming, in increasing capacity, inhospitable to the incendiary quartet. “We played at this club in Logan Circle with yuppies, jocks, and people having their beer,” Jenifer says. “It was the Bad Brains, Teen Idles, and SOA. We went up in there, and people are getting uptight because the punkers are coming in with their boots on. To make a long story short, we slammed the place up, jumping up and down on the floor, knocking [things] over, and the [owner] wasn’t having that. But we really blew the dude’s mind because we were Black. So my man said, ‘I ain’t having no more punk shows. All y’all get the fuck out of here!’ So we were leaving, and he says, ‘You be sure I ain’t having no more punk shows, and definitely no Black punk shows!’” In 1979, the band would pack up and move to New York City, where they self-released a 45, “Pay to Cum” b/w “Stay Close to Me,” the former track being picked up by Alternative Tentacles’ infamous 1981 compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans.

In 1982, Bad Brains released their eponymous demo tape on ROIR Records. The cover art, a lightning bolt crashing through the Capitol building, echoed the band’s collective sentiment regarding their hometown, yet it still became an instant classic in D.C., as well as their newly adopted New York City. The cassette included tunes that would be canonized in hardcore punk’s songbook. “Pay to Cum,” “Sailin’ On,” and the aptly named “Banned in D.C.” were complemented by irie reggae offerings like “I Love I Jah” and “Leaving Babylon.” In addition to their long-standing relationship with PMA, Bad Brains would soon synthesize lessons from Hill’s book with the tenets of Rastafarianism, accounting for the band’s increasingly dense spiritual identities. “PMA—that was big on us,” says Jenifer. “That would keep us cool in the hood. And then, guess what PMA was? It was Rasta. It’s like an advancement of a concept about making money being pushed into, ‘Okay, now there’s a Black Jesus,’ so to speak—something I can identify with in terms of spirituality.”5 Through Rastafarianism, Bob Marley, and reggae-punk offerings by the Clash, the Bad Brains would form a lifelong fascination with reggae, dedicating entire tracks on subsequent albums to the Caribbean art form.

“I always felt rather guilty,” said Bad Brains’ former manager and reggae mentor, Nick English, who introduced the group to reggae after moving to D.C. from the U.K. in the ’70s. “I was able to introduce these guys to reggae music. They had open ears—it was wonderful. When I came, I had probably one hundred 45s and twenty albums, and nobody here knew a single thing about [reggae]. But these guys, they just ate it up. They wanted to know, they wanted to learn, and H.R. was right at the forefront.” Although reggae music, and the individual member’s varying propensity to play it, would become a divisive factor within the band, much of the mentality of Jamaican music stuck with the group and bolstered their do-it-yourself ethos. “Reggae informed a lot of early punk in London,” continued English. “They taught punk musicians that, just like Dischord [Records], you go out, you make your own records. That was all from Jamaican music; they are the godfathers of all of that.”6

Despite its unorthodox speed-meets-weed compositions, the self-titled cassette was essentially a sonic pamphlet for the group’s increasingly extensive PMA philosophy. “We’re the thinking man’s punk,” declares Jenifer. “So we know our message is that of peace and love and Positive Mental Attitude. That’s what we really stood and stand for. In music, we have a background of progression. When I imagine a riff, it’s like a big wall falling down. If I pick up my guitar and I say to myself, ‘You sellout,’ then I say, ‘All right, watch this—this is a song about sellouts.’ And from there, my imagination will let me create, from my musical experiences, what a sellout introduction riff is going to be. I guess that’s a blessing that I have, and me and Doc and Earl and all of us together, that we’re able to do this. The next key is keeping at it. That’s when you advance. That’s when you progress in anything.”

Bad Brains at the Roxy, July 1987. Photo by Frank White.

Bad Brains at the Roxy, July 1987. Photo by Frank White.

 

Marking their progression was 1983’s Rock for Light, the band’s second album, produced by Cars front man Rick Ocasek. “He used to listen to the ROIR cassette on tour to hype himself up to go out and play,” muses Jenifer. “You would never think that this cat would listen to the ROIR cassette to get energy going so he could go out and play some pop!” Nevertheless, Ocasek took a shine to the group, buying them gear, giving them amps, and taking them into the studio to record the follow-up to their explosive debut. The polished product, Rock for Light, featured new material and revisited renditions of earlier songs, including “Attitude,” “Sailin’ On,” and “I.” The big-budget sheen afforded by Ocasek was somewhat double-edged. While it removed an element of grit and grime from the furiously unbridled sound that longtime fans relished, it made the group more accessible to wider audiences, a by-product that Jenifer applauded. “Some people say that’s when the Brains started becoming not so much about what the Brains stood for in the earlier days. But that didn’t have anything to do with the grander picture. If you’re talking about what the Great Spirit has in store for us, [Rock for Light] was just one more step to universal appeal!”

The group’s third album, 1986’s I Against I, managed to take the band in an increasingly commercial direction, sacrificing minimal punk points with fans, still sore from the previous Ocasek effort. “We are progressive-minded people,” explains Jenifer. “We’re always thinking and trying to make something different. It’s all about creative expansion. People called it metal, but I was trying to make some funky kind of rock.” Despite being released by West Coast hardcore powerhouse SST Records, the sound captured herein was indeed more progressive, H.R.’s lyrics more introspective, rendering a musical ore that abandoned the rapid-fire punk motifs of albums past.

“When we made I Against I,” Jenifer says, “it’s our progressive fusion background coming out with a punk-rock edge, because we weren’t exactly virtuoso jazz musicians. That’s cats trying to play Al Di Meola so bad that it’s punk Al Di Meola. After we made the riffs, H.R. would come in as the singer, integrate the lyrics, and we’d build from there.”

As the band prepared for Quickness, the reggae wedge further divided the band, with brothers H.R. and Earl favoring island vibrations to Jenifer and Doc’s increasingly metallic aspirations. “The bands that influenced me at the time,” Jenifer says, “you wouldn’t think would. It was groups like Winger, because I always liked their riffs. I wasn’t paying attention to anything any punk band was doing at the time. If you look past the face value of Winger, and listen to their riffs, then listen to Quickness, you’ll see what I mean.”

With H.R. and Earl placed on involuntary sabbatical, Jenifer and Doc enlisted the help of Cro-Mags drummer Mackie Jayson and singer Taj Singleton to assist with the band’s fourth studio record. “We worked on Quickness for a really long time during the winter in a tiny rehearsal space in the Wall Street area,” remembers Jenifer, who, due to obvious obstacles and personnel changes, refers to this album as “a miracle record.” Although the new ensemble was in accord regarding the heavy compositions, the chemistry just wasn’t right. Producer Ron Saint Germain, who would go on to work with Living Colour, confided in Jenifer, fearing that the would-be record was falling short of the band’s potential. “He said, ‘Yo, D, you guys are literally running this dude’s vocals right off the track.’ So we call up H.R., we give him the tape, and he checks into a hotel for a weekend. He comes out on Sunday and says, ‘Let’s go.’ He wrote all the lyrics in two days. Those are the sickest vocals he’s done since! He doesn’t write like that anymore. That’s why he’s a miracle man.”

Bad Brains drummer Earl Hudson, July 1987. Photo by Frank White.

Bad Brains drummer Earl Hudson, July 1987. Photo by Frank White.

 

H.R., despite being Bad Brains’ wobbly wheel, was indispensable when creating musical magic within the group. His dynamic vocal range, evocative lyrics, and enigmatic stage presence made him hard to replace during his frequent hiatuses and exiles. His behavior seemed metaphorical with the band’s music: at one moment aggressive and violent, and in the next, peaceful and serene. Although H.R.’s erratic personality has been as detrimental to the band’s success as it has been integral, H.R.’s role in the band is just like that of any family, musical or otherwise.

“We’re all brothers, and we argue,” explains Jenifer. “There’s no big mystery behind this; it’s like a dysfunctional family, but we’re still together. We were a family before Bad Brains. We didn’t form through an ad on a wall. People say, ‘This guy is crazy and this guy’s that.’ It’s like my big brother is a wild motherfucker. Well, if you knew him growing up, you’d understand why. And living with him in a one-bedroom apartment isn’t easy. But as much as someone gets on your nerves, you get on someone else’s nerves. And this still happens with Bad Brains.”

Over the years, Bad Brains has been able to grow, and with their maturity came greater understanding of their role in music and a better understanding of each other. Each of the members of this influential unit have made a life playing music and been afforded the artistic liberty of following their hearts. The brothers Hudson have been able to praise Jah freely via their reggae vehicles, Human Rights (for which the moniker H.R. is an acronym) and the Dub Agents. Dr. Know performs infrequently, but did help Mos Def fulfill his own rock fantasies in 2004 when he joined the ranks of studio supergroup Black Jack Johnson. In addition to Doc, the group’s roster included both Parliament and Living Colour alums and produced much of the music for Mos Def’s sophomore album, The New Danger. Darryl Jenifer is putting the finishing touches on his own solo record, tentatively entitled Soldier Styles. But perhaps the most notable of any of the Bad Brains’ individual pursuits would be their most recent and collective effort, Build a Nation, the group’s first studio album in over ten years. Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys was brought on to produce the record. Despite the musical progress the group had made over the years, Yauch sought to ensure that Build a Nation recaptured the early punk ruckus that made the group legendary.

“This record goes back to the ROIR cassette style,” explained Yauch, “where the dub is very separate from the hardcore tracks. There are tracks that are more straight-up hardcore and then tracks that are straight-up dub.” Although the group’s median age hovers around fifty, the group still possessed the youthful exuberance necessary to rival their rock uprising. “If anything,” Yauch expounded, “they play more accurately than ever. They’re pretty incredible musicians. It was pretty amazing hearing those guys play together and lay it down. The way that they move together, the drums and bass and guitar, is almost like one complex instrument. I guess they’ve just been playing together so long that there’s a certain flow to the way the band plays that’s pretty unique. They have a lot of jazz influences in the way they go through changes. Like, the chord changes that they choose and the rhythms that they do are pretty amazing.”7

Star-studded accolades aside, the Bad Brains’ mission is perpetual, albums purchased and tickets sold being relatively inconsequential to the band’s spiritual destiny as PMA missionaries. “I’m not trying to be evangelistic,” concludes Jenifer. “I say that this is the Great Spirit at work. I only realized that when I got older, and that’s why I know it’s the Great Spirit at work. Because being part of it as a youth, I look back and I can’t even imagine how I created some of the riffs that we did and went through the things we went through. I say, ‘Wow, man!’ It’s almost like we were put to sleep and went through all these things and woke up.”

 

Notes

  1. Darryl Jenifer, Sid McCray, Ian MacKaye, Nick English. Interview by Mike Paarlberg, Dissonance, Radio CPR, 97.5, Washington, D.C., June 6, 2008.
  2. Henry Rollins, interview by Saul Williams. The Tripwire, June 21, 2006. http://www.thetripwire.com/features/2006/6/21/saul-williams-vs-henry-rollins-the-exclusive-interview
  3. See note 1.
  4. John Joseph, interview by Trevor Silmser, Vice Magazine, 2008, Vol. 15, issue 5: p. 145.
  5. See note 1.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Adam Yauch, interview by Dave Maher. “Beastie’s Yauch Talks New Album, Bad Brains,” Pitchfork Media, March 9, 2007. http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/news/41634-beasties-yauch-talks-new-album-bad-brains
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5 Responses

  1. I love this band so much. I just wish they didn’t do their anti-gay song, “Don’t Blow No Bubbles”. Aside from that one song they have one of the greatest hardcore discographies of all time! Their reggae tunes are great too!

    – Jenny L
  2. I too love the music of the Bad Brains but remember a darker time in their history. The Bad Brains came to Houston first and then Austin back in the mid-eighties. They started in Houston they played the gig, no incidents that I heard of. After that they readied for the drive to Austin for the next gig. A local punk kid asked them for a ride to Austin to see the show. They obliged but later dumped the kid at a gas station. When they got to Austin they played a gig with the Big Boys. After the show was over they stole several large pieces of equipment from the Big Boys including amplifiers. They did not return to Texas until well into the 2000’s. Many of my old punk friends from Austin and Houston still refuse to listen to their albums. For me as a very young 15 year old punk kid. I, well we all were so excited about the positive message in their music. To find out the reality behind the message was a let down. They owe Texas an apology. Don’t believe me? Many of the Big Boys are still alive and I know that David Yow of Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid will be happy to corroborate the story.

    Staci Davis

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