Bad Brains

There are some bands that don't always translate on the first listen. You could love a band. They could represent some great time in music, but when playing them for a friend to hear the first time, it won't carry. Maybe that friend needs some kind of context or narrative to explain why Lifetime was such an important band. Then maybe after a few listens, and a mixtape or two, they'll get it.

That is not the case with Bad Brains. Nobody is going to argue whether or not The Bad Brains are important. It's pretty much accepted that they were the first band to play the style that would become known as, "hardcore." Their first album is unquestionably a perfect record. Their records are peppered with reggae tracks that provide an often much needed respite from the hardcore blitzkrieg of songs like, "Supertouch," and they did a great deal to break down the color barriers of a music scene that was predominantly white.

Punknews interviewer Jon Reiss recently spoke with member Daryl Jenifer shedding some light on went into the making of this band that engendered a genre, gave rise to a whole new style of mosh and introduced a slew of people to the word, "Jah."

Listening to Bad Brains, it feels like the guitar, the bass, the drums and vocals are all this one vicious instrument, this force that came out of nowhere. Many bands have done their damnedest to re-create that sound, but nobody had ever really come close. What would you say is the one secret ingredient behind the Bad Brains?

First, the style we have is punk rock, right? So, we grew up musicians in our various neighborhoods, and in any hood you’ve got your athletes, your musicians, etc. You know what I mean? So in our hood we were the cats that played the guitar and the drums and stuff, you know? So, what I’m trying to say is, firstly we were the cats that played the guitar and the drums and we opened our minds to various styles of music. When we discovered punk, most punk bands were cats that had a political stance or they sung about drugs, but most cats that played punk rock couldn’t really play. But, that was the beauty of it, you know? Like, "I’ll be the bass player, you can play drums…." With the Bad Brains, we already knew how to play a little bit. We’d been playing music since becoming teenagers. So now bringing that to a genre of music where most folks really don’t know how to play and you got a style being born of cats that can play but they want to play punk. So we started to create our own style based on the bands we loved from the punk era like The Ramones and The Damned. When you listen to those bands you can hear similarities between their style and our style. So now we’re going to play our style, being black and from the hood and loving punk rock, playing it our own way. Eventually we create our own style which I like to call "progressive punk," like we’re thinking about this shit, were not just bashing out the chords, we’re thinking about the type of chords. We’re thinking about this punk rock style. So our sound and style was thought-out. We cared a lot about it. Before shows we’d figure out what our plan was. We always had a plan, like a struggle. Like a football team. We’d be rehearsing and go, "Okay, we’re gonna come out and kick it like this and then kick it like that…" So all that too was coming into this punk rock music.

So, here’s what happened. We used to play very…what people thought was fast, but if you look back, it was kind of slow. So when our style started to pop off, the kids that started to create bands around our style, which was like the Ramones and The Dammed type of style, they tried to kick it like us but they couldn’t really do because they actually played much faster, thinking that we were playing really fast. So it was like this juxtaposition where you know, you try to be something, and you might not necessarily end up being that, but you end up creating your own shit. Hardcore is something that I don’t know. Hardcore is something that kids made trying to play punk rock like the Bad Brains. The Bad Brains is not a hardcore band. When we came out playing this fast technical style, kids tried to emulate it and created their own little beats and their own way of playing. That’s hardcore. I don’t know which bands, I guess like Madball, or something. Even Fugazi and Teen Idles are more punk rock. I read some magazine recently where they had it flipped. Hardcore is the baby of punk rock. D.C style punk rock grew into hardcore. We rolled with it. Every time someone refers to the work I’ve done as hardcore, I’m a little perplexed because honestly I don’t really know shit about it. I just know punk rock. The Bad Brains had already obtained some recognition by the time people had started using it. You know what it reminds me of? Vegan. All of the sudden there was this word Vegan, back when we were vegetarian or I-tal in the early 80’s. I remember like 85, hearing the word, "vegan" for the first time. I think I was in Europe. Hardcore to me is a word like that, a style. So when people started to create punk bands, making it more technical with breaks and stops and shit, there you go… hardcore. The reason why we were playing fast with breaks and stops was because were just trying to play more interesting punk rock.

So let me ask you this. During the early days of the Bad Brains, did you identify as a punk? Was that a considerable part of your life outside of The Bad Brains?

Absolutely, for every style of music that I’ve loved, I’ve lived. I was a punk, with two-tone hair. I was a hippy with the jeans and fringe jacket and shit. I was all that, I was living it. When I played reggae, I was Rasta. That’s why it comes through in the music, because I live it. I don’t emulate it, because I have the pedigree. I could play bass for Metallica or the Wailers. I could do it because I’ve lived these things. Some cats if you don’t live it, your style isn’t going to be bona-fide enough to play with them. Like if you don’t know shit about rock you won’t be able to play bass with a good hard rock band. If you haven’t lived with the culture, you’re not going to be able to play real (Jamaican accent) Rub-a-dub bass.

So you guys are playing the Afro-Punk fest. I’d like to get some perspective, so I’m just going to ask you outright, what’s it like to be a black punk, particularly back then? What did your family think? What was it like having this thing that maybe a lot of people around you couldn’t relate to?

That goes back to that thing we were first talking about. Where I come from, everyone had their thing, and I was the musician. Say were going to play basketball they’d say, "gimme pee-wee, gimme this guy, gimme Jenifer." So, I played, but that all came second. Then when someone wanted to act up they’d be like, "Don’t mess with that dude, have you seen him play guitar?" That’s in any hood, what I’m telling you, white hoods black hoods.

My mother knew I was progressive with my music. She knew it was going to be a little wild down in the basement. I’d be playing Frampton Comes Alive or some shit. That’s in the hood where you’re supposed to be listening to Soul or Funk, but that music was a part of me too. I was exploring. Cats used to try call me a white boy because I was wearing leather pants or some shit. But all I had to do was be me. Once I caught onto to punk it was so fresh, and I knew the shit was real. When I started listening to The Damned and the Sex pistols and the Buzzcocks, I liked that they were trying to kick it and they cared more about the passion and expression than how well they could play their instruments. They were going to rock that shit no matter what.

We were already trying to do a fusion type group. We were called, "Mind Power." We were going to be thoughtful jazz-fusion. Then we discovered punk rock and we were like, "Yo, this is going to be Bad Brains. It’s going to be this shit, but it’s going to be this punk shit also." During this time, Teen Idles and Minor Threat weren’t around yet. None of it was contrived. The first poster we had said, "The Greatest Punk Rock Band in the World." It was because we had this book and it was all about PMA (positive mental attitude) and the book was telling us we had to project that positivity. So before we even played it was like, "We got that PMA Ahhhh! We’re the best!"

PMA was a big thing. One of my favorite local bands growing up was called The Degenerics, and the Bad Brains was one of their big influences and they sung about PMA all the time. A lot of people that I know sort took that on. So to what extent is PMA still an important thing to you.

What that is, is a spiritual connection. It’s about staying positive and always looking to the bright side. Mostly it’s just simple things, stay positive, don’t be a downer. Don’t be afraid of obstacles. There’s always going to be trials, you know? When I first started talking about PMA, when I was a teenager, my father asked me about it. He said, "Boy what’s that PMA you’ve been talking about?"

I said, "If something goes wrong, I’m not going to start freaking out and running, around. I’m going to start thinking positive and making the right moves." It’s about composure in life and staying positive and knowing that, and this is where the faith comes in, but knowing that the Great Spirit’s got you. A lot of people reach an obstacle and they put their head down and turn back. They don’t have the fighting spirit. Like they say, when one door closes, two open. Because it’s so easy to say, "fuck it." PMA is all about having a positive mental attitude, and it came from this book called, Think and Grow Rich. But the more I look at it, being a spiritual cat, the more I realize that Bad Brains was a tool for god to help certain youths. Like you said about your friends. It wasn’t us. It was the Great Spirit using this band to let people know that it’s okay to keep that PMA. Like with Beastie Boys rapping, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing funk, the Bad Brains playing punk, it’s like god mixing up his little stew to show the world, to spread it out and have more versatility.

One time I saw this dude and he’s following me. So I go into the bathroom and when I get out he’s waiting for me and he says, "Mr. Jenifer," and I’m like, "Whoa, nobody calls me that." He goes, "I just wanted to thank you and your band because I used to be a racist and an asshole and your music changed my outlook and now I have a family and a kid, and I want to thank you for making positive music, positive punk rock." Now, my mother would’ve said, "How you going to help someone with something that sounds like this? How do you inspire someone with this fast erratic music?" But for some people, that’s their flavor. Eventually I learned that this PMA thing was The Great Spirit, and that I needed to be into that, to find this.

You’ve been mentioning spirituality a lot. Where are you at now with your spiritual life? What truths do you feel you’ve discovered?

Be patient. That’s what you’ll learn from the OG’s, patience. Being a spiritual cat, I think about like this oil spill thing, and what came to mind was, god runs things, things don’t run god. Jah runs things, things don’t run Jah. I’m just here on earth. It’s just something beyond man. We just have to live it, and if you’re spiritual, give thanks and praise daily, if you’re an artist, be creative. Be positive and progressive and kind, in whatever you do. You just have to wait on The Great Spirit and have faith. I’m not saying nothing like, just don’t help, don’t do anything. There’s always a positive bright future. That might sound too idealistic and dreamy but what do you want me to say? The world is coming to an end? The oil’s going to fill up everything and the world is going to end in 2012?

I got to ask you this because I think it’s important. You’ll be playing this weekend and at the same time the Gay Pride Parade will be going on in the city. A lot of people have written about and speculated on the whether the Bad Brains are homophobic or anti-gay. I was hoping you could address that and tell me exactly why the controversy exists, maybe put it to rest.

Check it out. All the things I’ve been telling you about the road and path of The Bad Brains, there was an era that lead into us discovering Rasta and Jah, and these things that were part of us being black and recognizing this part of our culture. Like with anything, say you’re a young Krishna, there’s a tendency to be over-zealous. We were over-zealous in our views about homosexuality, due to our ignorance, and the fact that we hadn’t matured to a certain level. Just like anyone getting into anything. Every member of The Bad Brains are loving and we have nothing against any of god’s creatures. In our growth and in trying to become wise and see life for what it is, without judgment, we went through a time where we did judge. Anyone can remember a time and say, "oh you remember when I was like that." A doctor can say, "Remember when I first worked the ER and was all nervous and people were looking at me when I was crazy." So when you’re coming in as a young Rasta and discovering it, just like in Christianity, homosexuality isn’t accepted. So being young Rasta and studying the religion that’s what you see. But if you still continue to study and mature you’ll find other texts that say, "love all god’s creatures." So you can’t just make your own thing and say, "This guys black, or this guys homosexual, I don’t like him." The Bad Brains had a period of time where we might have said some things. Meanwhile, we were in a band and were popular, so it got out there. But someone took that and ran with it. People that hated us for various reasons, people that were trying to be like us. I don’t want to call any names, but like the band MDC were the first to go out of their way to find something wrong with the Bad Brains. Everybody loved The Bad Brains, so they want to find something wrong with us. It happens with everyone like Tiger Woods, you get popular and people are going to try and hate on you.

So now, Rasta was born in Jamaica and the Jamaicans take the homosexuality stuff literally. But it’s about loving all Jah’s children, accepting them and letting them live. I love all Jah’s children. No one in the Bad Brains hates any of god’s children. So people need to stop hating on us with the homophobia stuff and think about it in a more mature, realistic way, like, "Yo, who are these dudes?"

I’ve seen on your, a whole bunch of people hating like, "Fuck them, they hate gays." And I’m like, "Wow, that aint’ really so." In short, no one in The Bad Brains hates gays, we love all god’s children. To someone who wants to hate and continue the rumor and put their energy into it, fine, if that’s what they want to do. What were going to do is keep a PMA, stay positive and do what we do, till the wheels fall off.

Soon after getting into the Bad Brains, I started to listen to a lot more reggae. Out of all the newer artists that I heard, I thought Buju Bantan was the best. He was passionate and had an amazing voice. All the reggae acts that got big in the US like, Beanie Man or Sean Paul, I didn’t think were anywhere near as talented as Buju, but the homophobia in his lyrics kept him down.

He had a lot of energy behind the music, but what people have to realize is, there’s different levels of radical-ness. Whether you read the bible or the Koran or whatever it might say one thing, but if it also says to love god’s children, that’s what I choose to follow. To me, it’s a higher way of being. I can’t vouch for it personally, it’s not my thing but hey, god bless. Some dude may look at me and say he doesn’t like something that I do. To each his own. It kind of bothers me a little bit sometimes that people run with it.

I thought you gave a pretty good answer.

The answer that I gave, I could be like that Salman Rushdie of Rasta for saying something like that. I’m saying live and let live, but some Rasta might not accept that. The thing is that there are mixed up translations of all ancient religions. But there is always The Great Spirit, there’s always that we should love all of god’s children. If you take the spiritual route in life, you don’t have to be judgmental. So that’s what I’m saying to the world. Those dudes on the blogs saying, "Fuck them," they need to go chill. We’re not even saying, "Fuck you" back. We’re just saying, "We love you too." Mostly, we’re sorry that we confused things back then, but we’re human too. We’ve experienced our share of prejudice, being the only black people in the club or whatever, but we put up blinders to that. You know, we might be touring and trying to figure out the next place to crash and HR runs up phone bill at someone’s house and they’ll be like, "Those N-words are acting up." If we go to hotel and smoke some weed, it’s like, "You see what they do." Then some rock band comes through and smashes TV’s. It’s a double standard.

I would think that you’d have an interesting perspective on punk rock. Since you’re partly responsible for this album that’s a staple of the genre, I’d think that if punk is doing well, you’re doing well. In recent years, punk’s been a big deal. So, what do you feel has been the best time for punk rock?

Well, punk is youth based music, so it’s always in motion. It may not have the same sound, the same clothes, the same tempo. But someone is always going to be young somewhere trying to do something different that’s radical and with a message. There will always be underground music, it might be different, electronic or whatever, but there will always big some kid in the basement going against something. So, it’s always in motion. Whether it’s a fuzz guitar or a clean guitar, or it’s fast or slow. I started to go really fast because that was the young people of my time saying, "Fuck disco! Disco sucks!" So maybe people will be like, "Fuck this hardcore, lets play really slow." At one point the metal image with the Van Halen T-shirt was the corniest thing ever. Then the skate punk image will be considered corny. What’s cool now? The Jetsons or some shit? The corniest thing used to be the 80’s, then the sound came back. For rappers, the worst possible thing was tight pants, so they’d wear the baggy pants all low. All the sudden they started to tighten up and tighten up. Now I see rappers with the tight pants hanging off they ass.

What’s your favorite Bad Brains song to play?

"I Against I".

What did you think of tribute that came out?

I just appreciate that they did it. I enjoyed it. All I can say is that I’m thankful people would even want to do it.

You guys are playing now. What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t?

The Bad Brains have accomplished what they set out to do. I’m a success. The band is success. When the band started off we, would have considered it a success if we set one person off on a path toward a more positive way of life. If we set off more than one, it’s even better.

It must be a good feeling to still be able to play shows, and to have your family see you out there.

It’s a twisted feeling. There’s always stress behind what we do, it’s part of the energy, there’s ying, and there’s yang. Like, I’ve got to play tomorrow. I haven’t played since April, but I’ve learned that I can always do what The Great Spirit sends me to do. They say, "You wan to go out there?" I say, "sure." I make a set list, practice with my brethren, then we go out and be who we are. But there’s still stress. We’re all different people. We have our reunion.

The Bad Brains is like a mission. It’s like a SWAT team. Those dudes may love that shit but when they go out those missions, it’s like, "What?"