By K. Tighe
Bad Brains never asked to be icons, but punk rock is a fickle creature. It’s not about adhering to a sound or style. It’s not about skank-dancing in the pit. Hell, it isn’t even about the frenetic energy from the glory days of yore. According to founding member Darryl Jenifer, it’s only about what comes next.
“The whole idea of punk rock is progressiveness—moving forward, going against the grain,” says Jenifer, via telephone from a New York studio, where he is busy recording a solo album. He admits that he’s frustrated with fans who come in expecting the band to faithfully recreate early sets. Notorious for chaotic, marathon flurries of energetic contortionism, stage acrobatics and the theatrical extremes of frontman HR’s vocals—early Bad Brains shows set an outrageous performance standard.
“So what happens thirty years later? I’ve gotta go back and jukebox myself for people because of ways that I was thirty years ago?” With recent live shows markedly dialed down, it’s apparent that this is an issue the Brains have been dealing with. “I read things on the Internet about the way we used to be—the way HR used to be—what they don’t realize is that we’re all moving, living people.”
Growth—there’s the rub. With infamy comes expectation. Indeed, many seminal bands have reunited to resurrect yesterday’s routines, but Bad Brains aren’t interested. “We’re not entertainers. We’re progressive artists; Don’t judge us on some shit we did back in ’82.”
Formed in Washington, D.C. as a jazz-fusion band called Mind Power, it didn’t take long for this talented group of musicians to stumble upon such early punk groups as the Dickies and the Sex Pistols. Immediately falling for this strange new sound, they changed their name to Bad Brains, after the Ramones song, “Bad Brain,” straying from fusion into the abyss of punk rock. In the wake of the 1980s, a punk band that actually knew how to play their instruments was a rarity; a band that could play their instruments at such breakneck speed was unheard of.
Practically the only African-Americans involved in the scene at that time (a social phenomenon brilliantly examined in the James Spooner documentary, “Afro-Punk”), the Bad Brains were (and are) also avid followers of the Rastafari movement. Rasta doctrines focusing on individual growth and freedom, distaste for a corrupt Western society and the categorical rejection of “isms” are all sentiments closely aligned with the punk ethos, and ones that have made their way into the band’s lyrics.
“We’re rebelling against the system,” says Jenifer. “It’s keeping poor people down and making rich people richer. Basically, it’s simple shit.” The band’s raging tempos, incendiary lyrics and agitated live performances are generally regarded as an essential part of hardcore punk’s genesis. Their catalogue is counter-balanced with reggae—a flavor that distinguished them from their American contemporaries. The Brains’ self-titled 1982 debut, which was released only on cassette, and the 1983 follow-up, “Rock for Light” (produced by Ric Ocasek of The Cars) have influenced legions of bands from the Beastie Boys to Nirvana. The Brains went on to ride the requisite ebbs and flows of such a lengthy music career. Hopping between labels, they released albums throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the mid-nineties. Drifting apart and getting back together—although Jenifer has always maintained that the band has never officially “broken up,” and that personnel fluctuations and hiatuses are simply part of the natural life of the band.
In June of this year, the band released their first full-length studio album in twelve years on Megaforce Records. Produced by longtime friend and fan Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, “Build a Nation” shows the band’s age; and that’s not a bad thing. “We’re more focused now, we’re not trying to discover anything,” Jenifer says of the songwriting process on the new release. “Back in the eighties we had to beat the path out, chop it down. Now the path is cut.”
Bad Brains will be playing songs from “Build a Nation” as well as plenty of old favorites during the Riot Fest. “We want people to come down with an open mind—like ‘I can’t wait to see these OGs do whatever the fuck they do.’” Jenifer hastens to add that their headlining slot will be less than an hour long. “I don’t want to hear any shit about that. We’re nearing fifty, and we’re going to come out there and bust some serious shit. We can’t do that all night and day anymore,” he explains with a laugh.
It seems the time is ripe for Bad Brains fans to let go of their heroes—to think not about where they led you yesterday, but where they can lead you tomorrow.
About tomorrow—they aren’t even sure yet. I posed the obligatory “What’s next?” question, but to no avail. “Are you trying to make me into a wizard? The future is not to be told. Bad Brains is an entity that moves on it’s own, under the guidance of the Great Spirit. All I know is that I’m ready to fight the positive fight—the mission that I’ve always fought with my music in the battlefield of good and evil.”
The original line-up of Bad Brains headlines the Riot Fest on November 18 at Congress Theatre, 2135 North Milwaukee, $25.