On A Mission...<b>Bad Brains</b> Stops and Starts

BY Liz WorthPublished Jun 25, 2007

After getting in on the ground floor of hardcore punk, Washington, DC’s Bad Brains have forged a career that has been plagued by stops and starts, though their long-term influence is nothing less than seminal. Since they first appeared in the late ’70s, Bad Brains have broken sound barriers with their spastic, lightning quick aggressive tendencies. Despite several opportunities to break out of the underground, Bad Brains never were able to make a substantial transition into the mainstream. Their influence has taken hold nonetheless, spawning a gamut of other bands, such as the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, and Agnostic Front. With a history tempered by erratic behaviour, religious fervour, and frequent divisions, Bad Brains may be more known for their break-ups than their reunions. But bassist Darryl Jenifer assures that the Bad Brains are never truly over, and to prove it they’re back with the new studio album Build A Nation, produced by the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch.

1956 to 1976
Paul D. Hudson is born on February 11, 1956 in London, England. A year later his brother, drummer Earl Hudson, is born on December 17 in Alabama. Sons of a military family, they make frequent long distance moves until their father retires in the early `70s, settling in a Maryland suburb not far from DC. Gary Miller is born in Washington, DC on September 15, 1958. Darryl Jenifer is born on October 22, 1960, in Washington, DC. "When I was a teenager, I loved music,” Jenifer says. "I always loved music, ever since I was a little kid. So when I was young, like in my school years, teenage years, 16 and 17, that’s all I did was play the bass all day and my father would be mad at me. But I wanted to learn music and I’d go down to the library and take out these books on how to read music and the language of music.”

1977 to 1978
Punk rock in Washington, DC first takes hold in the city’s west (mostly white) side, but soon spreads into Washington’s east end, as two black teenagers, Jenifer and Sid McCray, who share a fondness for Black Sabbath, Kiss, and Led Zeppelin, are about to pick up on it. In late 1977, McCray sees a news report on TV about the British punk explosion, prompting him to buy debut albums by the Sex Pistols and the Damned. He shares his new discovery with Jenifer, and although Jenifer is intrigued, his sights are set on joining a jazz-fusion band being formed by the Hudson brothers and guitarist Gary Miller. After flunking out of medical school, dipping into heroin and other hard drugs, and becoming a father, Paul Hudson’s home life is strained. One day, after his father yells at him to read a book, Paul grabs one at random from his father’s bookshelf. It is Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. A blend of positive mottos, Christianity, and new age approaches, Hill’s ideas centre around the concept of PMA — Positive Mental Attitude — touted as the "master key of success.” The idea has a huge impact on Paul, who decides to start a band with his younger brother Earl and guitarist Gary Miller. Playing jazz-fusion inspired by Chick Corea’s Return To Forever and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, they call themselves Mindpower and take their name straight from Hill’s writings, which Paul turns his friends on to. In June Mindpower go to see Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea; Bob Marley is also on the bill, and his performance has a profound impact on the band. After a few weeks of practice, Paul invites friends and high school students to Mindpower’s debut in the basement of his parents’ house, but the audience is noticeably unimpressed with their shaky set and start booing. Mindpower are daunted, but not defeated. The band’s course is forever altered when Jenifer introduces the rest of them to Sid McCray, who turns them on to the Dead Boys, Sex Pistols, Clash, and Damned. Mindpower decide to become a punk band instead.

In renaming the band, Paul feels the name should still have something to do with the mind. Jenifer suggests Bad Brains, after a song on the Ramones fourth album, Road to Ruin. The band also take on new names for themselves, with the exception of Earl Hudson. Paul returns as H.R. (short for Hunting Rod); guitarist Gary Miller is Dr. Know; and Jenifer is Darryl Cyanide. The Bad Brains introduce themselves to the DC scene at a demonstration to protest the loss of a punk- and queer-friendly campus radio station. As radio listeners voice their concerns over the loss of this media outlet, the Bad Brains hand out fliers to promote themselves. Now living together in a rented house in a Maryland suburb, the band begin holding shows in the basement. "I don’t see Bad Brains like a band out there, like a rock band — we always had a movement, like a motion; it was cosmic,” Jenifer says. "When we played our first show, and struggling with the riffs to try to remember and try to make our performance memorable, ever since that time it’s just been a mission, a lifestyle, not so much a band.” In March, only weeks after the band’s first basement show, a local record store owner arranges a recording session, enlisting Kim Kane of the Slickee Boys as producer. On June 24, Bad Brains open for the Damned, and the headliners are so impressed that Damned drummer Rat Scabies offers to help Bad Brains land some UK gigs. "For us that was like, ‘Oh wow,’ because we’d always looked at England as a mecca for punk rock.” Before taking off to England, Bad Brains head to Inner Ear studios, a home-based studio run by Dan Zientara in Arlington, Virginia, the results of which will not be released until 1996. After police shut down a free gig near the U.S. Capitol, inspiring the Brains to write "Banned in DC,” the band take up Scabies on his offer. Despite warnings by semi-manager and unofficial punk guru Nick English that they should get work permits, the Bad Brains quickly gear up for the trip. They gig in New York City at CBGB and Pier One to raise money for plane tickets. After touching down on the other side of the ocean, however, Bad Brains don’t get further than the airport. Detained at customs, they are eventually deported, and in the process their equipment is lost and never recovered. "Now see, usually a band might break up or freak out. The powers of our Positive Mental Attitude just showed us that hey, we’re gonna keep on truckin’. In every disadvantage, there’s a seed to a greater advantage. You’ve just got to seek it out. So we knew we weren’t grounded, that giving up all we had to go to England wasn’t grounding us.” The Bad Brains return to New York, where they are quickly given a gig so they can make money for food; other shows come together and borrowed equipment is made available. The Dots’ Jimi Quidd helps them record "Pay To Cum,” intended as their first single. But without a record deal or the money to press a 45, songs don’t get further than the studio.

As DC punk cohorts the Teen Idles are revving up the straightedge movement and pushing for sobriety in the scene, H.R. is going in the opposite direction with a heroin addiction, having first started using at age 16. As the D.C. scene begins to uphold clean living, Bad Brains’ association with drugs (aside from H.R.’s heroin use, the band were known for all night acid trips) distances them from their peers. It’s also taking its toll on H.R., who comes down with pneumonia. Sick and resting in the attic of Madam’s Organ, a Yippie co-op that hosts punk shows, H.R. finds a copy of Gideon’s New Testament. Like Think And Grow Rich, the book instantly affects him, and H.R. begins praying. While recovering, he meets a West Indian Rastafarian who teaches H.R. about reggae and spirituality, two subjects that immediately fascinate him. DC restaurateur Mo Sussman, known for catering to affluent business clients, is shown some footage by one of his waiters who was part of a film collective called I Am Eye. It contains shots of Bad Brains live in New York and Washington. Sussman’s interest is piqued and he arranges a meeting with the band. Sussman gets to work setting up new rehearsal space on a farm in rural Virginia, and a gig at the 9:30 Club at which Bad Brains perform in suits, which Sussman, seeing them as his Beatles and he their Brian Epstein, told them to wear. With Sussman financing the band, "Pay To Cum” is released as a single on Bad Brains Records, but it’s not long before the band’s Rastafarianism has them perceiving Sussman as a capitalist; H.R. is especially adamant that music should be free. Without Sussman’s knowledge, the band convert their rehearsal space into a Rasta commune. The studio is raided by police after surveillance for suspicion of drugs and guns. Police find a pot plant on a windowsill and no guns. On grounds that there was excessive force used in the raid, Sussman states he will fight the charges. The case is settled out of court.

Their Rasta ethics have Bad Brains curbing the drinking and drug use, but further fractures appear between Bad Brains and the DC hardcore scene. Their speed and fury was a catalyst for the scene’s sound, influencing stalwards like Ian Mackaye and Henry Rollins, but their ties to Sussman draw criticism for being too commercial. H.R. increasingly favours reggae over punk. Sussman books sessions at the 24-track Omega Studios, where Bad Brains cut a five-song demo that includes, "At the Movies,” "I Luv I Jah,” and "I Against I.” Sussman is poised to shop the demos around to major labels, but his increasingly tense relationship with the band comes to a head at a show in Chapel Hill, NC that is to be simulcast on radio and television. The airtime 9 p.m. and H.R. doesn’t show until 8:59, appearing incoherent and unkempt. His reason is that he’s been helping a friend move. Sussman quits. Bad Brains return to New York where they are undertaken by quasi-manager David Hahn and they sleep, practice, and record in the Lower East Side at the four-track studio 171-A. H.R. joins the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a Rastafarian sect that Bob Marley was also been a member of. Marley continues to be a heavy influence on H.R., especially when he discovers that they were both born in February, making them both members of the Tribe of Joseph; H.R. begins calling himself Joseph I. Burgeoning cassette-only label Reach Out International Records (ROIR), started by Neil Cooper, approaches Bad Brains about releasing some 171-A recordings, but they’re wary of signing a contract. Cooper, a one-time employee of the Ethiopian government in the ’60s who had worked with Rastafari’s God incarnate Haile Selassie, wins them over.

Bad Brains’ self-titled debut unleashes the band’s aggressively pounding style balanced with their reggae influences, although the sounds are kept separate. Bad Brains tour and take tapes from their 171-A sessions with the intention of readying them in California for a second album. Convinced of being a prophet, H.R. begins looking for disciples and 12 wives (like the Biblical King Solomon), tries to cure his drug-addicted friends, and calls himself Ras Hailu Gabriel Joseph I. In San Francisco, Bad Brains play to over 1,000 people, but at the end of the night, heading to gay neighbourhood the Castro to stay at a friend of a friend’s place, the band’s strong religious beliefs take hold when they see men openly kissing. Bad Brains turn around to find another place to stay. The next day, in an interview for punk fanzine Flipside, H.R. says that San Francisco has, "too many faggots.” Continuing their California tour, Bad Brains connect with Texas band MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) who have just moved to San Francisco. The two bands share a commonality, vegetarianism, and hit it off, making plans to hit the East coast together. Bad Brains are not yet away that MDC’s politically charged lyrics include criticisms of homophobia, nor that MDC singer Dave Dictor is a cross-dresser. These facts come to light, leading to a tense confrontation between Dictor and H.R., who starts preaching to the MDC front-man. Despite the growing, unresolved rift, both bands head to Texas where Bad Brains are to crash at Tim Kerr’s place, guitarist for the gay-friendly Big Boys, with whom they are playing the next night. The show goes off, but when Big Boys vocalist Randy "Biscuit” Turner and H.R. hug each other, trouble ensues. Although it’s unclear what really happened, H.R., who supposedly didn’t know of Biscuit’s sexual orientation until then, claims that Biscuit made sexual advances on him. Kerr allows them to stay at his house, but the next day a fight erupts between MDC and Bad Brains. Bad Brains pass an envelope to Biscuit that contains ashes and a note that reads, "Burn in hell bloodclot faggot!” The incident mars Bad Brains’ reputation in the hardcore scene; the band’s message of peace, love, and PMA is fast losing credibility. "If I could go back and change one thing in the history of Bad Brains, it would be that in the early days of us discovering our roots as sons of slaves, when you’re growing as a young male, there are different stages of understanding in one’s life,” Jenifer says. "Going from a young man to an old man, there are different trials, and that one trial was not cool, because people started to call us homophobes. All of our PMA work started to turn into, like, we were misogynistic, we were known for all this homophobic stuff, and it’s not true. We are loving dudes. It’s just that in our growth in Rasta we may have hit some bumps in some roads, like any young man or any young woman trying to get into anything. One thing in the Christian belief and strongly in the Caribbean and Rastafarian belief, was the disagreement with homosexuality. When you’re a young Rasta, a homosexual is something you’re supposed to view with pestilence. So there was a time when we were, god bless us not to be fully into this belief, but there was pressure on us because we wanted to believe in our culture as Rastas and to also understand that this is pestilence. But I wish that as young men we could have been exposed to the blessings that God loves all people, he loves all of God’s children, everybody. How you roll out here with your sexuality is your business and your life and what a human being chooses in those respects should have nothing to do with being accepted at Jah children. This is something you have to grow to learn.” Divisions continue in the band; H.R. pushes for Bad brains to become an all-reggae band called Zion Train. Based on the MDC incident, H.R. is convinced that homosexuality is permeating the hardcore scene and believes that reggae music will show audiences the truth. In the midst of the tour, he decides his friend Ras Freba should be the new band’s vocalist and tells interviewers that Bad Brains’ future will be dedicated exclusively to reggae. While on tour, Bad Brains are supposed to be paying rent on 171-A, which they don’t do. When they return to New York, owner Jerry Williams takes back all the tapes earmarked for their second album. The band’s van is also broken into and their equipment is stolen. Playing the last couple of scheduled shows with borrowed gear, Cars singer Ric Ocasek attends one in Boston, hooks the band up with new gear and gets them into his studio, Synchro Sound.

The Ocasek-produced EP I and I Survive leads to the full-length Rock For Light, which features some re-recordings of older songs like "How Low Can a Punk Get?” and "We Will Not,” the latter reflecting Bad Brains’ hardline religious beliefs. While H.R. continues to push the Bad Brains’ transformation into Zion Train, the resistance from the hardcore scene continues, as MDC openly attack the Bad Brains in the underground press and on stage. "We were becoming very popular,” Jenifer says, "and when you’re becoming popular and someone says, ‘Oh, let me tell you a little something about these guys — they’re homophobes,’ people, they hear that, but I know all the good and all the positive work that I’ve done supersedes that type of shit, but there’s always someone out there who thinks you’re an asshole. If I told you how much [MDC] wanted to be like us, it was almost embarrassing to me. When I was young, like 24 and 25 years old when all this was going on, when this group from Texas, MDC, wanted to play songs like ours and look like us, they wanted to do everything like the Bad Brains. But once they were given the opportunity to try to feel like they had something negative to say about us… In a nutshell, during that period of time, that sort of tainted our shit. And it bums me out — it doesn’t bum me out, but it’s kind of bummy, because we weren’t about all that.” As Rock For Light garners some critical acclaim Elektra Records makes the band a multi-million dollar offer, but H.R. isn’t interested and the deal dissolves.

1984 to 1986
H.R. starts organising another Rasta-punk band, Human Rights (also known as HR) in the same vein as Bad Brains, as well as the all-reggae Zion Train. He invites Dr. Know to join Zion Train, but Dr. Know wants to keep playing with Jenifer; they are planning a new project of their own. H.R. and Hudson recruit David Byers of the Enzymes and Tony Perkins and the Psychotics; the guitarist’s abilities create a framework for the Human Rights to shift in and out of jazz stylings and hard edges. Bad Brains might have cut down their conspicuous consumption of drugs and alcohol, but H.R. makes ends meet by dealing pot. Arrested before Human Rights’ live debut, he’s released on bail in time to perform, and they embark on a small East coast tour followed by a session at Cue Studio in suburban Virginia. H.R. then has to serve jail time; he does two months in Lorton, Virginia, and the band go on hiatus. A national tour is planned but gets cancelled when H.R. is forbidden from leaving the area due to his parole. He starts his own label, Olive Tree, and prepares to release seven songs from the Cue Studio sessions, titled It’s About Luv. Jenifer and Dr. Know form a band with Billy Banks, singer Michael Enkrumah, and Cro-Mags drummer Mackie Jayson, but the effort goes nowhere. Jenifer and Dr. Know reunite with H.R. and Hudson. "People always ask me, ‘Did you guys break up?’” Jenifer says. "And we never break up. We’re a family. There may be some dysfunction. We may not speak to each other for a little while, but not even in negativity, just letting life do its thing. But we’re always together, as brothers, since the `70s.” Bad Brains return with two shows at New York’s Rock Hotel in July 1985. "Pay To Cum” is heard in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. While Bad Brains plan a tour and new record, H.R. wants to continue with his other bands. In February 1986, H.R. and Earl Hudson, on their way home from a Human Rights rehearsal, are pulled over by police who find marijuana in the car. They’re both sentenced to jail. Bad Brains are working with producer Ron St. Germain, who pushes them to make a straight-ahead rock record and downplay reggae. Most of I Against I is finished; H.R. records vocals on "Sacred Love” over the phone from jail, where he’s serving four months. A year later, H.R. tells Suburban Voice, "I and I record ‘Sacred Love’ through the suggestion of a producer, Ron St. Germain, who produced I Against I. After I man's second month of incarceration, this man asked I and I if I'd be into it, so I and I say yeah. I really didn't have much to lose being in I man's position. So when I heard about it, I was a little odd, a little astounded. However, I love to sing, in jail, out of jail, it don't matter.” I Against I goes on to become the band’s biggest selling release.

1987 to 1988
Despite living in a haze of marijuana smoke and religions/revolutionary fervour, H.R.’s Olive Tree label harvests an inner circle of hard-edged punk acts like Outrage, Press Mob, Scythian and Revelation, and in 1987, releases the D.C. Rox cassette compilation. MTV puts a video from I Against I in rotation, and buzz catches the attention of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell (who signed Bob Marley and the Wailers). The multi-million dollar deal raises H.R.’s suspicion; he tells press that Bad Brains will be recording an all-reggae album, which doesn’t interest Jenifer and Dr. Know. Just before a tour, H.R. and Hudson leave, the band once again falls apart over an unsigned record deal. Jenifer and Dr. Know replace H.R. and Hudson with singer Taj Singleton and Mackie Jayson of the Cro-Mags and carry on as Bad Brains, while H.R. and Hudson work with David Byers and Kenny Dread. Human Rights’ synth-heavy self-titled debut and the reggae collection H.R. Tapes 84-86 are both released on punk label SST. Though Zion Train is never properly recorded, Jamaican reggae singer Ras Michael makes an album called Zion Train, which H.R. produces and co-writes as well as singing on it. SST releases a live Bad Brains album, which highlights the stark contrast between H.R.’s current projects and his thrash beginnings.

1989 to 1991
Human Rights’ sophomore album, Singin’ in The Heart, is more reggae-tinged, but doesn’t stir much attention. Attitude: The ROIR Sessions, consisting of early recordings, is released on Relativity. Although the songs are taken from the band’s debut and Rock For Light it captures a certain gritty energy that stands out. Another live Bad Brains album, The Youth Are Getting Restless, is released on Caroline, and is often considered the band’s best live album. Human Rights release Charge on SST in 1990. H.R. ends up broke during an unsuccessful European tour with Human Rights, while Bad Brains singer Taj Singleton isn’t gelling with the band in the studio back home. H.R. and his brother both return to the band, and H.R. is given a week to spit out some lyrics and get the vocal tracks down for Quickness. Again working with producer Ron St. Germain, the album is an accessible follow-up to I Against I, channelling the band’s hardcore history while straddling funk, dub, and metal. The album is greeted with critical acclaim at first, but their homophobic history comes back to haunt them. "Don’t Blow Bubbles” is interpreted as anti-gay sentiment, although Bad Brains try to explain that the song’s message is anti-heroin. While on tour in Europe, H.R. tells the press that he’s a member of Human Rights, not Bad Brains. When they return home, H.R. and his brother again leave Bad Brains. "I think people think in the back of their minds that we have problems with H.R. personally, and I just want people to know that H.R. is a creative, progressive artist, and the world should be happy and embrace him being here, trying to keep being himself, you know what I mean?” Jenifer says. "H.R., ask anyone who knows us, is the type of guy who will literally put his coat down over a puddle for you to walk over. Literally.” Bad Brains reform with Faith No More’s Chuck Mosley and Mackie Jayson again on drums. Ric Ocasek and Jenifer remix Rock For Light for its 1991 reissue, adding three outtakes from the original sessions, and in the same year they release their third live album, Spirit Electricity, on SST. H.R. returns to Human Rights, and gets a band together with ex-Wailer Al Anderson, but he has a tendency to quickly fire new members. I Luv is released on Railroad Records. Although H.R. has a manager in place and a history of suspicion towards capitalists, he takes to signing new management contracts when short on cash. Hudson wants to join up with Bad Brains again, but H.R. isn’t interested, and Jenifer and Dr. Know won’t take one brother back without the other.

1992 to 1993
Railroad Records releases Human Rights’ Our Faith, but the band is barely going. H.R. is homeless for a period of time and drifts between staying with family and friends. He approaches Dischord Records with a recording called Peace and Justice, but the label doesn’t bite. A friend of H.R.’s organises a Human Rights show, which draws such a sparse crowd that the band doesn’t even play. They break up not long after. Epic Records approaches Dr. Know with a record deal for Bad Brains; H.R. and Hudson are uninterested in reuniting with Dr. Know and Jenifer, wanting to focus strictly on reggae, and so Cro-Mags drummer Mackie Jayson is brought back in, along with vocalist Israel Joseph I. Rise, an infusion of jazz, funk, punk, reggae, and hard rock, proves to be Bad Brains’ most diverse album to date, but sales do not meet Epic’s expectations.

1994 to 1995
Faced with personnel changes and floundering album sales, the new Bad Brains struggle through losing drummer Jayson and vocalist Israel before Epic drops them altogether. H.R. returns to Bad Brains in fall ’94 and they sign to Madonna’s label, Maverick. Ric Ocasek gets on board as producer, and the band start work on God of Love. "It was kind of cool to be signed by Freddy DeMann and Madonna and Michael Jackson’s people,” Jenifer says. "For a little band from DC to be recognised in the realms of high pop or Hollywood or whatever, that they had some feel that the Bad Brains was a talent to be sought after, that definitely gave us a merit, because that’s like Hollywood. That’s like pop. We never were nothing like that. And I never could have imagined in our life and times that something like Freddy DeMann — he managed Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie — like, you actually see something in Bad Brains? Bad Brains is underground; that’s not our deal. But it showed me that we had some work and some recognition in American music, so that’s not bad, right?” It wouldn’t last. At a show in Kansas, H.R. becomes enraged when he believes someone in the audience is spitting on him. He attacks the crowd with a microphone stand, sending two fans to hospital, and getting himself arrested. As he awaits trial, Maverick drops the band.

1996 to 1997
The four-track basement demos recorded with engineer Don Zientara in 1979 are released on Caroline as Black Dots, a barebones document of their early rawness. In 1997, 1980 studio recordings are released as The Omega Sessions on Victory Records. The original line-up continue to tour as Soul Brains; although some believe that the change is due to rights issues with Maverick, Jenifer later clarifies it was due to H.R.’s belief that having Bad in the name creates negative connotations.

1999 to 2002
Live album, A Bad Brains Reunion Live From Maritime Hall, is recorded in San Francisco in 1999 and released in 2001. A new single, "On Like Popcorn,” indicates work on a new album, but the band don’t stay together long enough to follow through.

2003 to 2005
Bad Brains release the dub and reggae album I And I Survived on Reggae Lounge. This seventh studio album lacks the band’s trademark punk and all of H.R.’s vocals are sampled from past albums. Their influence carries on to a new generation; rapper Lil’ Jon invites Dr. Know, Jenifer and Hudson to back him on "Real Nigga Roll Call,” which draws from I Against I’s "Re-ignition.” When Jenifer tells long-time fan and friend Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys that Bad Brains have new songs, Yauch offers up his studio.

Working together for the first time in a decade, a new, metal-infused album Build A NAtion is released on Megaforce Records. Produced by Yauch, it hearkens back to the ROIR style of separating reggae and rock. Jenifer works on a dub-based solo record and produces Canadian reggae-punks Bedouin Soundclash. "I think that the opportunity to still be around, to be a band that’s current and still in motion is something I’m grateful for,” Jenifer says. "I’m not saying when I step on stage I feel nostalgia. I don’t feel like I’m coming in from the past. I feel like I’m just coming to do it for you one more time and I’m going to keep on moving. I’m not on no shit like oh, here’s some old dudes coming. This is not Vegas or no shit like that, or Bad Brains 2007. It’s not even like we even blew up to be coming back, we’re just still coming.”

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