The Rasta Fire Next Time

“The star that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” Dr. Tyrell tells Rutger Hauer's replicant in Blade Runner. And rasta punks Bad Brains have burned twice as bright—playing hardcore punk faster, harder, heavier and with more emotion than any band before or since—even if this time around, with a reunion album and a handful of shows, it seems like it's been for half as long . . . again.

The band that spent much of the past 10 years equally as broken-up as they were together began in the late '70s as fusion-loving jazzheads. Singer (“throat”) Paul “H.R.” Hudson and his brother Earl on drums, guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Miller, and bassist Darryl Jennifer discovered punk and reggae after hearing the Clash and seeing a Stanley Clarke/Bob Marley show. Inspired by Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, a Depression-era precursor to The Secret, they adopted a “PMA” (“positive mental attitude)” that evolved into Rastafarianism's bluesy, militant positivity, spurred by its vision of an African prophet in Haile Selassie. Early Bad Brains took their cues from the Damned, whose “New Rose” inspired their single “Pay to Cum,” as well as other non-Africans' music. “Frampton Comes Alive was a huge influence on me,” Jennifer admits.

Four super-talented black kids from D.C. slumming it in a subgenre of mediocre musicianship and hostile audiences defies reason, but after moving to New York in the early '80s, the Brains were the P-Funk enigmas to everyone else's MC5, and they ran with it. Their debut cassette for the ROIR label is a classic punk album, a beehive fury of hardcore soulfully blurred into fierce, fierce joy, pausing for the occasional reggae jam.

Bad Brains' legacy has been their ability to channel hardcore's aggressiveness without its negativity. H.R.'s chimerical, PMA vocals—whelping howls, Smokey Robinson-like crooning, jaw-gnashing snarls—leapt from the abrupt time changes, jazz flourishes and blinding-but-still-swinging tempos. Where other bands started out as three-chord thrash outfits and outgrew it, Bad Brains excelled in it, making punk their bitch, becoming the Charlie Prides of hardcore.

They peaked with 1986's I Against I, merging punk and reggae (finally!) into thicker grooves such as “Re-Ignition,” which the Offspring bit for “Self Esteem.”

Their records never really captured them (certainly not the two produced by Ric Ocasek), but live, Bad Brains were capable of being Rage, Zeppelin, P.E., Bob Marley, Van Halen and Minor Threat. Dave Grohl called them “the best fucking live band” on VH1's History of Punk Rock. But the combustible sonic combination made them just as volatile internally. The band has imploded and even made records with stand-ins because of H.R.'s mercurial nature. “Like any family, we have our dysfunction,” Jennifer explains. “But you look at my bass after 25 years, or Doc's guitars—they're gonna show some wear and tear. All H.R. has is his body.”

On the new Build a Nation(Megaforce), produced by Adam Yauch to match the beehive rumble of the ROIR cassette, the band is in fine, if overly familiar, riff-tastic form. “We never thought of ourselves as having a 'sound' before; we didn't give a fuck,” Jennifer insists. After years of spouting Rasta invectives, H.R. lets the peace-and-love stuff shine from the inside out, especially on the reggae jams. You can hear it in his serene delivery. In fact, that's all you can hear; his lyrics have evolved into incantations. “Jah Love” is so blissed-out, it sounds like he's singing “Jell-O”—repeatedly. He's not the shrieking id of “I” or “Big Takeover,” but then again, some 25 years on, who could be? “When we were younger, we'd say, 'With every great disadvantage comes greater advantage.' But now, it's like H.R. says: 'Give thanks and praise,'” Jennifer offers.

“H.R. really put himself out in this music,” Jennifer asserts. “There aren't many artists on that level that can still do it. Iggy's one. But H.R., he's like Miles Davis.”

So it's as much about the notes he doesn't play, the singing he doesn't do, as what he does do?

“He's like Johnny Rotten after the Sex Pistols. People wanted him to be, like, 'Gawd saave the Queeeenn.' But he came out with PiL. I saw him in New York, and he did the whole show behind a curtain,” he explains. “We're not like Foreigner—we're not a jukebox.”

They are, however, still fan favorites. At the Virgin Mobile Fest in Baltimore in July, 40-year-olds crowd-surfed—with their kids.

H.R. seemed inspired by the shows. After the Sasquatch Festival in Washington last summer, “He was beaming,” according to a band friend who saw H.R.'s reggae group play soon after. Now, with just a handful of dates (they know better than to push H.R.), Jennifer is optimistic. “We're living this—this is our lifestyle; we're in it.” Again.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *