Bad Brains - Biography
It is not an understatement to say that the Bad Brains is one of the most influential bands in the development of punk rock in the United States. Their early embrace of break-neck tempos matched with technical prowess almost single-handedly invented the sub-genre of hardcore punk, though the band has always distanced itself from that term. The fact that all of the members of Bad Brains are also African-American immediately set them apart from many of their peers, and provided example and inspiration to many African-American musicians who followed in their footsteps in musical genres not typically associated with black musicians.
The group that would become Bad Brains initially came together in 1975 in Washington, DC as a jazz-fusion group called Mind Power. As Mind Power, Guitarist Paul D. Hudson (who would later change his name to HR), his younger brother drummer Earl Hudson, guitarist Gary Miller (who would later be known as Dr. Know), bassist Darryl Jenifer, and vocalist Sid McCray played music very much in the mold of many of the bands that came out of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s Miles Davis ensembles such as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. The band members were extremely close and shared a common house together in Forestville, Maryland. The group always kept their minds and ears open to new music, be it reggae or heavy metal. In 1977, McCray discovered some of the bands that were associated with the new punk movement in the UK and the US, such as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Dickies, and the Dead Boys. He played them for the other members of the band and soon they were obsessed. They began to write their own songs in a similar style and changed their name to Bad Brains, after the Ramones’ song “Bad Brain.” After McCray left the band early on, HR became the band’s vocalist and the group soon built up a reputation for their high-energy performances that emphasized lightning-fast tempos teamed with HR’s wild stage antics.
Immediately, Bad Brains stood out from other punk bands. Where most punk bands were long on attitude but not very skilled musically, Bad Brains had come from a jazz background and knew their instruments very well. Most other punk bands where usually made up of young, disaffected white men; the members of Bad Brains were African-American and became Rastafarians early on, which gave many of their lyrics a more positive spin than most punk rock. Because of their immersion in Rastafarianism, the group also started mixing in reggae songs to their set, furthering the reggae-punk cross-pollination that was started by British bands such as The Clash and The Ruts. The group played regularly in the DC area, and are credited for heavily influencing the hardcore punk scene that developed around the Dischord label. (HR is said to have personally encouraged both Dischord co-founder Ian MacKay and Henry Rollins to become singers). The group also played up and down the East Coast, and built a strong underground reputation as one of punk’s most exciting live bands. As part of their live shows, HR would throw himself off of amplifiers and PA systems, and often into the audience, inciting wild moshing and near-riots. As a result, clubs around DC stopped booking Bad Brains. By 1979, the group found themselves unable to play in their hometown.
The group moved north to New York City, and soon became a vital part of the punk scene centered around the legendary Bowery venue CBGB’s. In 1979, they recorded and issued their debut single, “Pay to Cum,” on their own label, and sold them at shows and through limited distribution. The group continued to gig and finally released their first full-length album, Bad Brains, in 1982 on the cassette-only ROIR (Reach Out International Records) label, which was run by producer Ron St. Germain. (ROIR later issued the album on record and CD). In many ways, this release is considered the holy grail of the American hardcore scene as it is one of the first and best releases to encapsulate the sound of that time. It’s a mix of hardcore classics like “Pay To Cum,” “Banned In D.C.,” and “Right Brigade” butted up against reggae songs like “I Luv I Jah” and “Jah Calling.” The album set the bar for any bands following in Bad Brains’ footsteps. While playing a gig, they caught the attention of Cars guitarist and singer Ric Ocasek, who was blown away by the raw power of the band. Ocasek told them that he was looking to do some production work and wanted to produce their next record. Rock for Light (Caroline) was released in 1983 and Ocasek’s production resulted in a thicker, more visceral sound that was missing from their debut.
Bad Brains toured in support of their album, bringing their message and music to all corners of the US and Europe. However, while many of their songs exhorted peace and love, it was anything but within the band. HR had an explosive personality and problems controlling his temper. Bad Brains and HR also received a lot of bad publicity about several comments he had made against homosexuals. The band members later recanted many of these statements and attributed them to their enthusiastic embrace of Rastafarianism, which discourages homosexuality and brands it as a sin. Bad Brains broke up in 1984. HR went on to form his own band with his brother Earl called Human Rights, which featured a mostly dub-reggae style. Though Bad Brains would break-up and re-form several times, HR continued using the Human Rights name until 2000. Bad Brains remained apart until 1986, when they were given a chance to release an album on the premier American punk label of the time, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s SST Records. I Against I (1986 SST) is a further maturation of the unique Bad Brains style, taking in more melodic elements and heavier grooves. HR’s vocals are also more accomplished, though he had to record the vocals to the song “Sacred Love” over the phone as he was incarcerated on drug charges during the recording of the track. The group again toured heavily in support of I Against I, helped by the SST booking and an underground support system, but tensions within the band flared up again, and the group split for the second time in 1987. SST went on to release a live document of the band in action, Live, in 1988 and would later release another collection of live recordings, Spirit Electricity, in 1991. The band members not only had problems getting along with each other, but there was a musical and stylistic rift in the band as well. HR and his brother Earl wanted the band to devote itself strictly to reggae and the Rastafarian message, while Dr. Know and Jenifer wanted to take the band in a more heavy metal direction. The group got together again in 1989 and recorded Quickness (1989 Caroline), which features a much heavier, more metallic sound on the rockers, but also includes a few reggae songs. Soon after the recording of Quickness, HR left the band again and was replaced by singer Taj Singleton. However, he soon returned after it became clear that Singleton didn’t fit in with the band. It didn’t take long for HR to stir up trouble and he soon left again. The group replaced him with former Faith No More vocalist Chuck Mosely. Not long after Mosely joined the band, Bad Brains broke up.
Bad Brains briefly reconvened (without HR) as the back-up band for long-time friend and admirer Henry Rollins. They recorded a cover of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams,” which was included on the soundtrack to the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume. With the rise of the underground in the early ‘90s, many bands cited Bad Brains as a seminal influence. In 1993, Dr. Know was contacted by representatives from Epic Records about possibly reforming the band. He and Jenifer were on board for a reunion, but HR and Earl Hudson wanted to devote themselves to reggae and declined the invitation. Dr. Know and Jenifer recruited former Cro-Mags drummer Mackie Jayson (who had helped out in a studio capacity on Quickness during an absence by Earl Hudson) and Trinidad-born Rastafarian vocalist Israel Joseph I (a.k.a. Dexter Pinto) to complete the new line-up. Rise (Epic) was released in 1993 and is the band’s most diverse album yet, mixing in flavors of heavy metal, funk, jazz, and pop with their usual hardcore punk and reggae. The album received mixed reviews from critics and failed to catch fire with audiences. Soon Bad Brains were dropped from their contract with Epic.
By 1985, both Jayson and Israel Joseph I were out of the band, and HR and Earl Hudson were back in. The reunited original line-up signed again with a major label, in this case Madonna’s Maverick label that was distributed by Warner Brothers. God of Love was released in 1995 and reunited the band again with producer Ric Ocasek. God of Love is heavier on the reggae songs than most of their previous catalog and was actually selling in better numbers than Rise did, but trouble with HR affected the band’s ability to function. While the band was on tour opening for admirers the Beastie Boys, HR attacked his brother Earl, the band’s manager Anthony Countey (breaking Countey’s nose), and was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia while trying to cross the boarder to Canada. Due to HR’s actions, the band missed an important show in New York City at Madison Square Gardens. The final straw came when HR, reportedly high on psychedelic mushrooms, assaulted an audience member during a show in Lawrence, Kansas. Bad Brains broke up once again after that incident and was dropped by Maverick. In 1999 the group got together again to remaster some early recordings, which were released as the EP The Omega Sessions (Victory) that same year. They decided to tour again, this time using the name Soul Brains because the Bad Brains name was still tied to the Maverick deal. A live album documenting the tour, Soul Brains: A Bad Brains Reunion Live at Maritime Hall SF (2B1), was released in 2001, but by that point the band had disintegrated again. The album received mostly bad reviews because of HR’s lackluster performance.
Bad Brains reconvened in 2002 to work on the album I & I Survived (Reggae Lounge), an album of dub reggae. In 2003, one of the band’s former labels, Caroline, released the compilation Banned in DC: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs, a solid collection of the group’s early material. The members of Bad Brains worked on their solo ventures until 2006, when the original line-up reconvened to play a three-day run at the soon-to-be-closing CBGB’s in New York City. At the shows, HR announced that the band was working on a new album. Soon after, it was revealed that the group was in fact recording and the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch was the producer. Build a Nation (Megaforce) was released in 2007 to positive reviews from both critics and fans, and marked a return to the hardcore/reggae hybrid the band had become known for early in their career. The group toured extensively in support of the album and the original line-up of the band has stayed together, with the exception of a 2008 tour undertaken with Joseph Israel I filling in for HR.
In late 2012, a new studio album, Into The Future, was released. It featured all core members. Earlier in 2012, a documentary film called A Band in DC, was also released. Bad Brains continue to tour and are scheduled to play many festivals thorughout 2013.