Bad Brains interview from NY Rocker 50

by Mark Coleman, photos by Laura Levine. 1982.

These Bad Brains mean business. They are four men with a mission: to unite and enlighten “the youth,” black and white, through the grinding drone of speedrock and the spiritual lilt of reggae. Every note they play and word they speak stands on its own, yet each is carefully weighed in light of a higher purpose. They are deadly serious about the music they play, and the “scene” it has engendered.

This motivation pays off in the music. The Bad Brains are like no other punk band: their short, feisty songs surge with the power of total abandon, yet they carefully maintain control over that power without sacrificing any metallic crunch. At present they’ve contributed one single to posterity (“Pay To Cum” on their own label, released in 1979) and the ROIR cassette-only release simply titled Bad Brains, an album-length studio document recorded in the summer of 1981. On song after song on the cassette, the sheer stamina behind the rhythm section of bassist Darryl Jennifer and drummer Earl Hudson pulls listeners in like a riptide; guitarist Dr. Know floods the senses with chortled leads; and vocalist HR rants in a shrieking language of his own invention. And the Bad Brains play reggae too, for my money better than any other American band (which may not be saying much, but these guys are good.) It’s the perfect one-two punch in a live show: just at the point your heart might stop pumping comes a skanking bass line to delight head and feet simultaneously.

The disciplined drive that makes Bad Brains’ music so compelling has much to do with their personal beliefs. Professed Rastafarians, the band members invoke the name of Jah often during our interview and when HR focuses in to make a point in his quietly intense manner, Dr. Know and Darryl voice agreement and nod rapturously at key phrases and words. Earl sits quietly in another room, oblivious to all but HR’s most impassioned flights of Rasta rhetoric.

New York Rocker: I heard you started out as a jazz-rock fusion band.
Dr. Know: We weren’t really playing fusion, though I guess you could call it that because it was a mixture of anything, whatever came up. We never played any concerts or anything like that. We had been together about six months when we switched. We still play for our own satisfaction but we wanted to get records out, to get a message to the people.
NYR: Was there a specific turning point?
Darryl: The extremes, the extremes.
NYR: What drove you to the extremes?
Dr. Know: It was at the time of disco and all the jazz musicians we liked went pfffft. It’s the times, and this music [punk] is a reflection of those times. It’s crucial music for crucial times.
NYR: Was the original music “crucial” or did the band’s outlook change with the times?
Dr. Know: No, it was the same all along–except things are getting worse now. The music that’s out on that tape is two years old.
NYR: What was happening in D.C. in 1978?
HR: There was just this one band playing, the Urban Verbs, so we started having parties…
Dr. Know: There had been one club, but it closed. We had a house at the time so we started having parties. It was great, different bands would play all night. It started to grow after about three parties, first one club, then some others started booking punk bands.
NYR: So why were Bad Brains “Banned In D.C.”?
Dr. Know: After a while we couldn’t play anywhere. The places we had been playing weren’t clubs really, more like lofts, storefronts, that kind of thing where it got too crowded and the owners started coming down on the music. One person was behind most of the places, anyway–you know how that is.
NYR: He was down on the music for political reasons?
Darryl: Racist, racist, racist. [Pause] They wouldn’t even let us into the clubs when we weren’t playing there.
NYR: Is NYC any better on that score?
Darryl: New York, NY is a money thing. The way it is now, if you got some money, some green, they’ll let you through.
NYR: Have you had problems getting gigs anywhere else?
Darryl: Philadelphia. I think we got turned away there because we’re black.
NYR: What happened when you played Florida and North Carolina this year?
Darryl: A lot of the club owners and people there didn’t know we were black. Like in Raleigh, at this place called the Big Bad Wolf, they got really upset when they found out.
NYR: I’ll bet it didn’t faze the audience, though.
Darryl: No, they loved it.
HR: The people there were a little more appreciative. Since not too many bands play down there, it really doesn’t matter what you play; if you’re good at what you do, they appreciate it.
NYR: Not a specifically “punk” audience?
HR: It’s the same, you know? It’s the youth, they know what we play. We played in Raleigh, Th’ Cigaretz are from there so they had already been exposed to punk rock for five years and have a nice healthy scene going. Now in Tampa and West Palm Beach, it’s just starting out.
Dr. Know: We had played North Carolina two or three times, and each time we went down we’d add more gigs. Eventually we had a following, inspired other people to start bands there–in fact three of four of those bands will be on our compilation album. What we’ve been doing the last few months…basically, all the bands you’ve seen playing with us are involved with the album. When we do a gig we try to bring in a band from another area, like the Necros from Ohio or Crucial Truth from North Carolina, to bring the whole thing together. And we pay the supporting bands ourselves, we make sure the club has nothing to do with it.
NYR: Tell me about the compilation.
Dr. Know: A double album with 20-25 bands, two cuts by each band. From New York to Chicago, Miami to Boston–that’s the radius. The album will be on Bad Brains Records, and it’ll come out in England too. Various people, various distributors will handle it, but it’s our own company. In the next two months we will also have an EP out in England, material taken from the tape, and a new 45 out in America and England. The EP will be a co-op between Bad Brains Records and Alternative Tentacles. We don’t know what songs we’ll use.
NYR: How did you get hooked up with ROIR?
David Hahn (manager): No obligation, a one-off deal, full ownership of all songs, full right to re-record all the songs, no sale of publishing rights. And a good advance, plus artistic control of the product.
NYR: You couldn’t ask for much else.
Dr. Know: We’ve heard a lot just about the packaging of it–let alone the music on the tape.
NYR: Reading the printed lyrics was quite a shock. I had no idea what the songs were about. The songs often seem spiritually motivated but the music is such an overwhelmingly physical rush. Is that a contradiction?
HR: It would be a contradiction if we lived hypocritically. But we feel what we do, and we live that way. You think we just come out on the stage and put on these clothes for the gig, then the next day we put on our regular business suits and go back to the office?
NYR: No, but I think that’s what most of your audience does. Is it anything more than a game to them?
HR: Those kids out there slamming around, do you think they’re pretending? It’s WAR!!
Dr. Know: Last night was a different scene, at Irving Plaza. It was our first gig since the cassette has been out and there were a lot of different people there. It was a real energetic crowd; sometimes there’s a lot of violence, sometimes things cool out. It depends on how much room there is.

*               *               *

Like a lot of other people, I had avoided hardcore gigs at first due to rumors of mob violence. But while the floor shook with bounding slam dancers at Bad Brains’ Irving Plaza gig, it seemed to be contained in the immediate vicinity of the stage without posing a threat to the rest of the crowd. While the support bands egged on the mock violence to keep their own momentum going, the Bad Brains seemed to manipulate it, becoming part of the crowd on a “group participation” number, then clearing the stage with a throbbing bass lick.

*               *               *

NYR: Aren’t you ever distracted by guys flinging themselves off the stage while you ‘re playing?
David Hahn: I don’t think Bad Brains present any illusion; the bands that have to kick people off the stage have to show that “we’re up here and you can’t be…”
HR: If somebody came up and started hitting me, yeah, I’d kick him off. But if he doesn’t come at me, I’m not gonna bother him. See, the one thing you have to understand is that this music is very tribalistic, very physical, going back to the original basics. It’s almost uncivilized, but those are the conditions we’re living in.
You see this slam-dancing now, and everybody says it’s really violent. However, if you notice, it’s an art, a real dance, because the people know what extent to go to before it’s fighting. See, nobody out there is hurting anyone else–they’re having fun. Once in a while bruises come up just from the sheer velocity, but that’s like any other exercise. I’ve seen people coming out of country and western places after a fight–that’s different. Check out the dance itself–the youth aren’t trying to hurt anyone, they’re just looking ferocious. It’s like shock treatment; maybe Jah is taking them through this stage before they can go to the next, which is to see Him.
Dr. Know: The hardcore is a way of revealing the revolutionary…
HR: You see, at first we didn’t play that much reggae music, it was revealed to us through the spirit. Right now what you are seeing is pure prophecy: we didn’t plan it. We had no idea things would end up this way.
NYR: How much of the hardcore audience is willing to take that next step?
HR: Some listen and seek. But we can’t save nobody, you have to do it yourself with Jah’s guidance. He’ll save you but you have to make the first step. It’s your decision.
NYR: Most Americans still don’t seem very interested in reggae–especially black Americans.
HR: Conditioning, they’re conditioned to Babylon system.
Darryl: Fashion is what’s conquering black America today: GQ and Vogue. And disco–it’s all Babylon conditioning for blacks, it puts them in a maze where they are led to believe the whiter they are, the easier it’s going to be.

*               *               *

The concept of unity comes up continually when speaking to the Bad Brains. Their planned compilation album is indicative of the support they’ve given other bands, and the effort doesn’t stop on vinyl. They seem committed to bringing people together, even if it’s only warring hardcore factions and their combative followers. Dr. Know takes stoic delight in telling me of the Black Flag gig at Irving Plaza that brought together punks from D.C., L.A. and N.Y. “After all this ‘who rules’ rivalry, they finally just met and talked and found out that they’re all the same.” And for all the charges of nascent racism on the hardcore scene, the Bad Brains have a chant that everyone at Irving Plaza seemed to know:

“Black and white, we come here to unite.” Simple, perhaps, but you don’t hear anything like that reverberating on the upper floors of Danceteria or the Mudd Club.

*               *               *

NYR: Is it possible to exploit the system, to pit Babylon against itself? Can a band like the Clash use the industry to get a certain message across to a larger audience?
Darryl: The Clash were something back in 1977, when they sang about anarchy and all…But now, they’ve been sucked into the system, this record company bit, this world of drugs. They’ve got to have their collars starched up real straight. That’s real false. We don’t have no gimmicks. I ain’t no gimmick, man. I ain’t no joker going up on the stage in make-up with my shoes shined. You see the Clash on stage and they’re all high on some kind of speed. I want some energy, I just drink some orange juice and go out and rock harder than all of them.
NYR: So you have no interest or aspiration towards the major record labels?
Darryl: We never looked at it that way. It’s a oneness, we’re musicians and artists first on this earth, it’s earth runnings. I don’t care about touring with someone else’s band or recording for another man’s company. They’re just middlemen, they don’t do nothing, so avoid them completely.
NYR: Can a band reach as many people working independently?
Darryl: I figure the only advantage of a record company is that they can buy off certain things, just distribute your music really fast, maybe pay a radio station to play your songs every couple minutes. They can “Knack” you, but that’s false. Look at the Knack–they had one song that got played everywhere, but they didn’t have another one.
They tried to do that to us. A record company [no names given] told us that if we could write a ballad, like how Kiss wrote “Beth,” they could make us big stars. That’s what record companies can do for you.
NYR: What about Bad Brains playing to a larger audience than the hardcore crowd, like when you opened for Gang of Four?
Dr. Know: That show was a corporate kind of affair. We didn’t get a sound check because these union people had to leave the stage at a certain time. They were all watching the clock, ready to drop the cord or wrench at the stroke. They don’t care that they are putting on a show. It was strictly a money-making thing.
NYR: So did you get paid for it?
HR: Yeah, we got paid last, right after the janitors. How many people were there, 3 or 4000? 3000 people at $10 a ticket and we got $500. See that’s why I and I don’t deal with Babylon. We got something better than money.

*               *               *

The Bad Brains do have something in tangible going for them. While I can’t buy their Rastafied line of reasoning outright, one certainly can’t question their sincerity or dedication. There’s an almost magical feeling in the air when they play, a crazed sense of democracy where anyone can get up on stage, a rock and roll atmosphere where protest is as palpable as posing. The younger bands may not have the vision or vehemence of their mentors, but they are learning. And for all their grim righteousness off-stage, onstage the Bad Brains are an explosion of joyous emotion, a truly dynamic rock and roll band that hardly seem constricted by the simple forcefulness of their music.

“We don’t know that all the youths are listening, that’s not our job. Even if it’s just one out of 500–one person hears it and that’s it.” HR looks surprised at himself for a minute, then sighs. “Yeah.”

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