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The members of Bad Brains don't record songs. Each track is a mission; every album is a spiritual war fought with axe-shredding, drum-thwacking soul power and a pocketful of joints. Together for more than three decades, their discography is emblematic of a rowdy, Rastafied punk revolution. In that respect, bassist Darryl Jenifer says, his band have never been just a band.
"You might even say we're a gang," he says. "We ain't no band. A band are something else. A band are three steps down from what we are."
On the other end of a raspy phone connection, Jenifer goes through a list of the Brains' Jah-driven objectives. The intensity and wisdom in his gruff, East Coast baritone expresses dedication to a punk-rock struggle that originated in the group's inner-city Washington, D.C., neighborhood in 1977. They're a lot older now, but trust him when he says that any evil spirit hovering within spitting distance of his "band" will still get stomped with the quickness.
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"This is not entertainment," Jenifer says. "It's a good time, it's about positive vibes, but at the same time, Bad Brains music is a cosmic battle. When me, Doc, Earl and H.R. get together to make our brand of music, it's created to help fight back the negative and still keep that PMA."
A quick note to the uninitiated: Make sure to sear the names of Brains guitarist Doctor Know, drummer Earl Hudson and front man Paul "H.R." ("Human Rights") Hudson onto your cerebral cortex. With the release of their anticipated full-length Into the Future, hardcore's first African-American troupe continue promoting their mantra of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) as the most powerful force standing between mankind and extinction.
Even by today's standards of musical cross-pollination, Bad Brains defy classification—a schizophrenic palette of political angst, '80s metal aggression, thrash, dub and roots reggae melded into various combinations. Their admiration for the Dickies and the Ramones lit the spark that would one day result in classic albums such as 1983's Rock for Light and 1986's I Against I, required listening for any devout punk. Into the Future's release reinforces their longtime habit of minting a full-length about every five years (including 2007's Build a Nation, produced by late Beastie Boy Adam "MCA" Yauch). But this time, the band opted to self-produce the project, letting the songs develop in due time.
"When we first started, no one was trying to make music with us when we wrote 'Don't Need It.' We were crafting that out of our own inspiration," Jenifer says. "We just wanted to be back together in the studio and write some tunes." The result is a seasoned interpretation of their signature style with a passion rekindled from their self-titled 1982 debut. You can smell the sweat dripping from the soul-metal power chords of the title track and the pit-swirling tempo of "Yes I." And the meandering, echo-chamber spirituality of the album's closing Yauch tribute "MCA dub" is potent enough to develop a contact high.
Most important, the self-produced album allowed them to keep the integrity of their mission intact. While projects such as Build a Nation worked well under the control of a capable second-party producer, there have been some missteps when the band's vision is entrusted to outsiders. Case in point: the Bad Brains documentary A Band In D.C., which debuted at 2012's South By Southwest Film Festival. Pieced together from rare archival footage, original interviews and comic-book-style animations, it attempts to profile the group's complicated history. Despite H.R.'s support of the film, Jenifer says decisions such as bookending the movie between a nasty band fight between Jenifer and H.R., depicting them in various segments as lighter-skinned cartoon characters, and glossing over their spiritual philosophies were key mistakes.
"It was sort of a Hollywood type of thing, where out of all the footage that they got . . . they don't really know our history of PMA, and they didn't really know how to make the positivity of what we represent stand in a movie," he says. "I personally thought the band was jacked by Hollywood."
But whether or not the documentary did Bad Brains justice is a minor quibble compared to their continued effort to bring their message to stages all over the world. No, H.R. isn't doing back flips into the crowd anymore, but, Jenifer says, battle anthems such as "Attitude" take on different importance in the hands of seasoned, middle-aged musicians.
"Back in the old days, [the music] was like a little ember; every day, we had to blow on the coals and build it up," Jennifer says. "Now when we come out [onstage], it's like keeping that fire burning—it's like the Olympics, carrying the torch."
This article appeared online as "Bad Brains' Cosmic Battle: Their new album, Into the Future, continues their positive message wrapped in old-school aggression."