Cats with a Knack
The word "seminal" gets tossed around an awful lot when discussing rock bands, which is unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that it's often misapplied — by its very nature, the term seminal can only apply to a very select number of bands.
Every band is not a major, driving influence on everything that comes after. The other reason is that most seminal groups don't actually get to enjoy the benefits of the label, but struggle in relative obscurity, only to be dubbed important after the fact.
Bad Brains knows a thing or two about the second of these ugly truths. Talk to anyone with a fondness for hardcore punk, and a mention of the Washington, D.C., group is guaranteed.
The band certainly warrants the reverential tones with which their early output is discussed. Bad Brains' unique blend of lightning-fast, incredibly aggressive punk, shredding heavy-metal touches and bouncy reggae and dub inflections still stands as one of the defining musical touchstones of the era. Bad Brains didn't invent hardcore, but many agree they perfected it.
When Dr. Know formed Bad Brains in 1979, he was stepping out of the world of jazz-fusion guitar and already had some pretty serious chops. As the group filled in with H.R. on vocals, Darryl Jenifer on bass and H.R.'s younger brother Earl Hudson on drums, it quickly established a reputation for virtuosic skill.
Today, Jenifer tells the story a bit differently: "That's [something] people like to say. None of us knows how to read music," he says. "None of us is virtuosic. We're all pretty standard talents, as far as proficiency on our instruments. All the guys in Bad Brains are just cats with a knack."
Jenifer's perspective begs the question about what people heard in Bad Brains' music that made the band feel so damned inventive. As it turns out, their lack of traditional musicianship served as a vehicle for expression, allowing the band to create music from an entirely different standpoint.
"We did a lot of things in music, now that I look back, that aren't really musical. That's probably what people felt [was] different about us," offers Jenifer. "A lot of our riffs, they're not musical. They're like shapes, forms, movements. Like I might come to the Doc and say we're going to make a riff that's like a brick wall falling over.
"I could say, 'We gotta make a riff that's in F-sharp with an augmented fifth,' but I don't know that shit," he continues. "All I know is it's gotta sound like a brick wall fucking falling over. Once we get to that, make it feel that, now we're rocking and rolling."
That sound, a brick wall falling over, is a pretty apt description of most of the Brains' early material. Blistering and heavy, it sounds and feels a lot like getting smacked in the face by a large slab of masonry.
Of course, there was another side to Bad Brains, and the group's split personality wound up splitting them down the middle shortly after the release of 1986's I Against I, considered by many to be the group's masterwork.
Dr. Know and Jenifer found a strong affinity for the heavier soundscapes the group explored on that album, while H.R. and Hudson wanted to pursue the group's reggae leanings. The original lineup split in 1989, then reconvening and splintering apart again several times over the next 17 years as major-label success continually eluded the foursome.
The band reunited in 2006, and it seems to be holding. Jenifer seemed a bit nonplussed when asked what makes this time different.
"When I look back, I realize, because we were brothers before Bad Brains, it sounds weird to me, because we're a family," he says. "We never broke up, we just had fights, like a family. Of course, HR is what you might call problematic, eccentric, but what family doesn't have that?
"To this day, when we get back together, it feels the same way. We step onstage, look at each other and it's on."
What exactly is on when Bad Brains steps onstage now is a band with a clearer sense of purpose. When before, their sound was a mash of reggae and punk, these days there's a bit more separation. While this alters the dynamic slightly, it also allows the band to hone each of its elements to razor-sharpness.
The group's most recent effort, 2007's Build a Nation, sounds a lot like a rewind to the mid-'80s, back to what a lot of people were likely expecting to come after I Against I, but with a clearer definition between the fast and heavy punk/metal and the loose and groovy reggae/dub. That definition allows both to shine with a clarity somewhat lacking in the Brains' catalogue.
As for the rationale behind that method, Jenifer offers this by way of explanation: "We always wanted to go in the same direction, it's just that some of us started wanting to go more in other directions. The growth of our ability to produce styles, it grew with us, our proficiency with the reggae, and even the rock.
"Our record Build a Nation is just the next building on it. It's a little more focused, for my liking," he adds. "I like our music when it has a little wild-abandon feel to it. Bad Brains just has a life of its own, and it just cruises along. I'm just a member of it. There's no explanation for four black dudes from D.C. doing this shit."
It would be disingenuous to write about Bad Brains without recognizing that part of the band's legacy is that these "four black dudes from D.C." captured the spirit of a very white music. Jenifer struggles a bit with this one, recognizing that this dichotomy is an inherent part of the band, but not wanting to dwell on it.
" When Bad Brains started to roll off, it was a youth movement, not a black and white sort of thing. I spent a lot of time in Bad Brains not even recognizing being black," he says. "If I turned around in 1982 and knew I was black, I'd be fuckin' bugging. I always felt like Darryl Jenifer from the Bad Brains. I never felt like Black Darryl Jenifer from the Bad Brains. Pigment movement is all played out.
"This is a hard question, but what I'm trying to say is that Bad Brains is the way black people do punk rock," adds Jenifer. "We can't get around the fact that we're black. When we decided we're gonna do punk, we can't help but to bring that. That's what's gonna make us a little bit different. I don't want to get it misconstrued on some racial shit.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is that Bad Brains has a little ass in their punk rock. That's our natural fact."
The band's other natural fact is that when it's on, it's on. Few bands can capture the kind of raw energy of which Bad Brains is capable. Thirty years ago, 30 minutes from now, it doesn't matter.
Bad Brains is Bad Brains, and that's a wonderful thing.
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