If ever anyone deserves an episode of Unsung, TV One's outstanding music documentary series about underappreciated artists, it would be Bad Brains. Bad Brains are living legends; pioneers who helped create what is now known as American hardcore and established Washington, DC as one of the first and most influential hardcore punk scenes in the United States during the late 1970's and early 1980's. Combining their jazz fusion roots with soul, rock, punk rock and reggae, Bad Brains created a hard charging, fast paced sound that has influenced everyone from local products Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag) to the Beastie Boys to Jane's Addiction and many more. Another local product, Ian MacKaye, of the groundbreaking band Minor Threat and co-founder of famous independent label Dischord Records, says that "The Bad Brains were the first band that made us realize that truly transcendent music could be made locally". The band became known for their talent and high-energy performances as well as the fact they were a group of four African-Americans, from Washington, DC, that played punk rock music. Although not as celebrated as many of their contemporaries, Bad Brains remains one of the most powerful, charismatic and original bands around today.
Recently, The Washington Informer sat down with the infamous/legendary front man . . .
H.R. (Human Rights) and bassist Darryl Jenifer to discuss the evolution of the bands' sound, their upcoming sold out shows at the Howard Theatre and what's kept the band
together and making music for the past thirty years.
Washington Informer: How did the group go from the jazz fusion of Mind Power to the hardcore punk of Bad Brains?
H.R.: We did some touring in France and Germany and England. We really, began rehearsing and really enjoyed jamming out with the new sounds of the (Bad) Brains. So we changed our names from Power, Mind Power, to Bad Brains. Then Darryl (Jenifer), Gary (Miller – p/k/a Dr. Know), Earl (Hudson) and myself began doing shows in New York, DC and a few shows in Maryland.
Darryl Jenifer: It's just a blessing of versatility. You know, being individuals that were able to be versatile with their styles and enjoy all forms of music. So, you know, we like soul, jazz, rock, and metal, hardcore. I love all styles of music.
Washington Informer: Can you describe the early hardcore scene in DC?
H.R.: Yes, I can. The early days were so much more improvisational and spontaneous, people didn't really know what really to expect. What was going on with this wild man on the stage? Is he losing his mind? He's jumping all around doing back flips and cartwheels. We just wanted to deliver the music to the people.
Darryl Jenifer: From what I can remember it was more of a community type youth movement. Not so much like a punk scene but actually before that there was like a punk, kind of seedy, little scene that was in the 9:30 Club when it was on F street. But that's like in the early, early days. The scene, it was no "scene"; it was just a few people and a few bands. That was like 1978 and '79.
Washington Informer: What was it like growing up in DC back then?
Darryl Jennifer: [Laughs] DC always, you know...That's a good question. I was always proud of being from Washington [Laughs]. It had a family feel to it; I felt a certain sense of sophistication somehow being in DC. DC seemed to be a special place as far as black people you know, as far as the music. I used to go down to Fort DuPont Park and see jazz shows and see and how the DC people would receive these concerts. Something special about the people from DC, I'm proud to be from Washington.
Washington Informer: Although regarded as one of the pioneers of hardcore, you have incorporated elements of reggae, funk, heavy metal, hip hop and soul into your music. How has the band's sound changed over the years?
H.R.: I suggested that perhaps we do a little bit more mainstream. Although we compromised, we didn't really give up on the essence of giving the audience, you know that fun and love and pleasure.
Darryl Jenifer: It's just like anything when you first start out, you're a child so you have a childlike quality to what you do and then you mature. The same thing with the style of our musicianship and our growth, as men. As we grow, our styles and musical needs and wants also grow. It's natural; it's no mystery to any of this. It's just about being creative, living in a creative world and space and just living. It's not going to remain the same, it's gonna always change. Some people might get stuck in ruts but we tend to keep it moving.
Washington Informer: What roles do religion and politics play in your music?
H.R.: Time grew (and) we would become a little more secure about what we were doing. We took time out to study the Bible and we began to learn and be in tune with religion and being in tune with the spirit world.
Darryl Jenifer: We have faith, you know we have faith. We're spiritual beings not religious, our faith and who we are is a spiritual based faith not a religion. Politics that's when you say Babylon just as Mr. Marley would say "Destroy Babylon". Politics is a set up, so you know we don't put our trust in politics. And we don't put our trust in no type of church or nothing like that neither; we just live in the spiritual embodiment of an omnipresent, great spirit. People have said our music is like Christian music [Laughs]. It moves fast paced like the church, because the church be in our music.
Washington Informer: You both speak a lot about positivity and love. Can you explain the concept of Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)?
H.R.: One day my father suggests I read a book, "Think and Grow Rich". It was a collection of thoughts that were written down on a very nice, positive book written by Napoleon Hill. He did a very good job, it was properly produced. I began to learn about digging my ideas and forming them into formulas that would get me the information that I needed, to help me to understand the responsibilities of a young man; because I was still kind of going from adolescence to adulthood and I didn't really wanna go to school. All the while I knew the golden rule, you know; do unto others as they do unto you. I didn't know going to school was a big part of it.
Darryl Jenifer: In our early days we were definitely on some PMA. Like, we figured, you know we wanted to have our music stand for something. We did not want our music to just be about partying and all of that. So for some reason the Great Spirit put us onto PMA, with something positive, living a positive life and thinking about positive things.
Washington Informer: Was Bad Brains really banned in DC?
H.R.: Well, it was a pun in words. It's actually a band from DC.
Washington Informer: Ok, was the band "banned" in DC or was it a "band" in DC?
Darryl Jenifer: It's both. So this is real talk, what I'm tellin' you. When we started kickin' it, we was very serious with this power, you know? We wasn't like a band, we was like a gang - but we had our music, we was really puttin' it down in the early days. We got a little popular and the places we would go, no one seen nothing like it. The kids was coming out and we would play up in a bar somewhere, the bar would get messed up you know - kids jumping around, knocking stuff over. The early days of slamming and that type of dance expression. The kids broke a lot of tables and stuff, so what happened was, after a while, our popularity outgrew the clubs. So there was a club owner at one point that said 'I'm not having no black bands playing in here', especially no black punk bands. And that's just the way it was, so now with our PMA reasoning we said you know what, we got it 'we're banned, they don't want us here'. We got to leave, it was almost like we was saying we gonna leave this party, like we leaving DC. The concept of PMA was telling us we already conquered this place already so we left.
Washington Informer: Okay, you just spoke about race, four black guys, from DC, playing punk rock. Has race ever been an issue?
H.R.: At first it was a little sensitive. It did hurt sometimes, being reminded of our background but little by little we grew and learned not to take things personal. When somebody said something, we would say something. No sweat, you know, just communicating.
Darryl Jenifer: You know maybe once in my whole career I heard somebody try to say something negative or whatever. You know, as far as being a black man. I think the Great Spirit protected us from that and wanted us to be the torch bearers, being black and doing rock. I (have) never dealt with racism. You know, I'm sure it's there. Even if we played to an all white crowd, they're all loving us, nobody in the crowd saying nothing about no racist [Expletive]. The last time I heard something like that was at Towson University, the second show we played ever, in the late 70s, and some heavy metal dudes couldn't understand where we was coming from they (were) just ignorant and confused. First place they go is to the racism. We don't have time for that in this youth movement, in the movement of PMA, in the movement of Rasta. It's about all the youth, not about the color of the youth.
Washington Informer: Your documentary, Bad Brains: A Band in DC, recently premiered at SXSW. How do you feel about it?
H.R.: The documentary served as a media of advertising the group's message. What Mandy and Ben (Co-directors Mandy Stein and Benjamin Logan) were trying to do was, explain to people, through a film, what the group was about and what we're into, what was going on at that time period. Because people didn't really know the group, they knew the men, but that was about it. (People) didn't really know what was going on and who were on the stage. Well, that's what Ben and Mandy wanted the people to know and then people began to understand, and they began to learn and hear (the) music, that's what they wanted and that's what we delivered.
Darryl Jenifer: I thought that you know, that the people that made the documentary, at the end of the day, felt that it would be better to have some sort of negative sensationalisms to go on and attract people. As far as, you know the little spats and what not and little stuff that is negative. Like I would have wanted, personally, it to be around our PMA and our positive impact more than having like, you know, band fights or whatever.
Washington Informer: Not to be negative, but the band has broken up and reunited several times over the years. How do you guys put aside your differences and continue to make music together?
H.R.: We do that through reasoning sessions and coming together and making conscious efforts to not take it personal and comforting each other. Although it's a trial, we keep trying. That keeps us going.
Darryl Jenifer: You see the press is the ones who said that we broke up. We worked and did other things but you got to understand, the Bad Brains are family. We've known each other all our lives we're like brothers, we never broke up. You can't break up with your brother or sister, can you? You can't do it, I can't either, (and) we don't do that. We might get mad at each other, as you saw in the documentary, we have our little "things" (but) it's a family. That's the beauty of it. (H.R.) He's the oldest, it goes all the way down to me and we all respect each other accordingly. We're in this together, we are Bad Brains, this is what we do. Like LL (Cool J) said don't call it comeback, we've been here for years, we never left. When we kicking our music it's not entertainment, we still fighting. Like our music to us is like a spearhead, like a battle against the negativity of the world. And our music is sending out positive pluses, just licking out minuses. H.R. is a true artist, one of the (few) true artists that are still left, like Lauryn Hill. I've been working with Miss Hill, who is a genius. She's not necessarily interested in playing her album (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), which is a great album, the way that it is. She wants to make it different. She wants to make it more energetic and more to where she is today, she doesn't care about people booing her. They're trying to create and move forward, they got a mission with their music. H.R., he'd rather have all new songs and everything.
Washington Informer: You guys have a sold out show in DC coming up, they just added a second show. How does it feel to be back in DC and be a part of the re-opening of the Howard Theatre?
H.R.: Well, it's not only rewarding but a bit more responsible. (There's) also a little more work involved with it. We're working hard, it's paying off, but I still have to make sure that I keep in tune with the group.
Darryl Jenifer: When I'm working in Bad Brains, I do a lot of other different things, but when I'm in Bad Brains, it's a mission. No disrespect to my hometown, or any of that, but when I, when I'm going to do that, I don't differentiate where I'm at. I'm coming up on the stage to fight this mission, to execute these riffs, to execute this legacy. See what I'm saying? As far as being in DC, I'm going to be in Philly the night before, I'm going be in Boston, I'm going to be all up and down the east coast. And it's going to be cool to be in DC, you know, family, old friends. Lot of times it could be a little unnerving. My main thing is to stay focused when I step up on that stage. When I start dropping what I'm dropping, I'm representing this battle I'm telling you about, with the PMA, and the great spirit, to try and spread positive vibrations. That's why the Bad Brains are allegedly so influential and powerful because we, our energy, is like thunder and lightning. And people look at the thunder and the lightning; people say that's a glorious, gloriful thing.
For more information on Bad Brains, visit www.badbrains.com,
Bad Brains, Friday, April 20 & Saturday, April 21
The Howard Theatre, 620 T Street NW, D.C.
For more information visit www.thehowardtheatre.com