Bad Brains: Rasta Revolution

While browsing the aisles of your local record store, you may come across Build a Nation, the latest from Washington D.C.’s hometown heroes (or villains, depending on who you ask) Bad Brains. The red, yellow, and green cover art prominently displays a crowned lion. On the back, the band’s photo shows three Dreads backed by […]

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While browsing the aisles of your local record store, you may come across Build a Nation, the latest from Washington D.C.’s hometown heroes (or villains, depending on who you ask) Bad Brains. The red, yellow, and green cover art prominently displays a crowned lion. On the back, the band’s photo shows three Dreads backed by a bearded, afro’ed drummer. Add that to song titles like “Jah People Make the World Go Round” and “Pure Love,” and you’d naturally expect to be in store for laid-back reggae grooves complete with rich bass and soulful, folksy singing. Your assumptions wouldn’t be completely wrong, but what you’ll actually hear will further drive home the point that appearances are not only deceiving, but also downright worthless.Bad Brains are no strangers to those Jamaican grooves, but their true specialty is good ‘ol fashioned punk rock in its purest form. Like all the best bands, they take a wide range of influences and focus them into a sound all their own. Haven’t heard of them? That’s your problem, not theirs. Like all of the best bands, the love and respect they get on stage makes up for any other measures of so-called success in which they lack. After 30 years on stage, Dr. Know, H.R., Earl and Darryl don’t just play punk, they shape it; and like all of the best bands, they’re not doing so for the sake of doing it. They’re just being themselves.As part of our tribute to Black rock, we spoke with Darryl Jenifer (the man behind that aforementioned bass) not only about the state of the band, but of punk rock music as a Alternatives: The members of Bad Brains have been playing together for the better part of thirty years, which very few musicians of any kind get to accomplish. How has the band evolved its sound for Build a Nation given all your experience?Darryl Jenifer: With the way we recorded the album, we discovered that there’s even more potential in the melding of dub with rock, so now we have dub elements within our rock as opposed to having segmented sessions that are different. That’s not something that we contrived; that’s what The Great Spirit set up. I was able to realize that this rock is an even deeper hybrid of the crossover between reggae and rock. That’s true rebel music; it isn’t about what’s popular, pop music isn’t our style anyway.AHHA: Many older bands are reluctant to use many modern studio techniques, because they feel it removes some of the grit from the records. How have changes in recording technology altered your approach to writing and recording?Darryl: Build a Nation is all analog. That’s all me, that’s all H.R., that’s all wires and plugs. This is no Pro-Tools record. The delays that you hear are analog delays used in a dub sense. Tape. Delay. The vocals on this record – H.R. is like Miles Davis. He’s not gonna try to do what you did or what he did, he’s gonna keep it moving forward, y’know? Now, at the age that he’s at and the head level that he’s at, when he hears those riffs coming past him, he’s trying to bring a cross texture. He might go slow on it where in the past, he might’ve gone fast. It’s all about a cat trying to stay progressive.AHHA: Bad Brains has historically drawn most heavily from jazz, reggae and punk – three somewhat disparate genres. There’s talk that balancing these different influences has been a source of conflict through the history of the band. Have things gotten easier with time?Darryl: From way back in 1980, The Great Spirit used us as a vehicle to show versatility to the youth. Before it was like, if you’re Black you play funk, if you’re white you play rock… I mean, I’m from D.C.! I’m not supposed to play rock! I’m born and raised in Chocolate City, but it’s just a blessing that The Great Spirit let me hear Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath at the same time as I’m listening to Kool & The Gang. That’s why I don’t get into this whole “afro punk” sh*t. If you’re Black, it doesn’t matter. Whatever style of music you like or clothes you wear or art you love, that’s on you. You don’t have to put some banner on it like, “Oh, I like rock, people think I’m white.” It ain’t like that. I‘d be listening to Led Zeppelin ironing my pants to go see a chick, then I’d put on Stevie Wonder, take that off and put on The Ramones, take that off put on Kool & The Gang and then put on The Dead Boys. It’s still all in my groove and what I’m enjoying, see what I mean? AHHA: After 30 of hard work, are you ever tempted to take the easy way out, pick up a few acoustic guitars and sing a mid-tempo ballad about having your heart broken?Darryl: That’s not that easy. It seems like it’s that easy, but I pick up an acoustic guitar every day and it’s not so simple. Being in Bad Brains has taught me not to look at it like that. It’s taught me that I’m alive and free and everything’s gonna be alright like The Prophet Bob Marley said. That’s not just a little jingle that you sing; that’s The Great Spirit telling all the open hearts and minds that it’s gonna be alright. That’s The Spirit saying, “Do what I put you here to do.”  We’re not talking about money. We’re talking about that you’re eating every day, that your children are healthy, and that you’re still able to express yourself. We’re talking about all these other “alrights.” This is what I’ve learned growing as a man aside from Bad Brains. There’s reasons why we haven’t been able to “succeed” like in so-called normal groups. Bad Brains is a brotherhood, and the people have to get down with that if they really wanna roll with us. We carry a banner of positive influence but again, its just four cats playing music.AHHA: Spin just did a cover story about the death of the Great American Rock Star. As a band that’s known for drama and wild behavior, what do you think is the difference between the groups who came up in the ‘70s and ‘80s verses those of the ‘90s and later?Darryl: I couldn’t really tell you anything about the new kids that are out right now. The last band that came out that I could see were trying to really do something with punk were maybe Blink 182, but even that was a few years ago. I couldn’t name one song by a Good Charlotte. Now, I look at a lot of these kids, and it seems almost cartoonish, like they’re just going with the image of what they’re supposed to be. At the same time, there was a day when a group like the Sex Pistols might have looked at us that same way, so you have to just let the kids do what they feel. It isn’t for me. That’s like me looking at and reading what a college radio kid has to say; he doesn’t really know. They came to one of our shows and then put in the review that we were out of tune and focused on that instead of what the music’s really about. This same kid might’ve gone to CBGB’s thirty years ago and missed out on history because he was worried about the tuning, but then you also have to wonder if there’s a racial element to it. People get on us about the homophobia thing if they hear us say “f#####.” You have to wonder if they would do that same thing to a white band instead of focusing on the message of positivity that we’re trying to bring. AHHA: There seems to be an underlying message in early punk and noise-rock from acts like The Velvet Underground, The Clash or The Stooges that seemed to drift away in the mid-to-late ‘80s, when bands started being loud just because they could. As one of those early pioneers, do you find that your own messages now have less impact with the rock audience being so overwhelmed with noise?Darryl: There’s positivity in what we do, but it’s not our intent to bring that positivity; it’s just that we’re spiritual cats. We give thanks to The Spirit that’s moving through us and that gives little cues. A lot of the rappers are trying to do that, but they get dissed, and people call them soft for trying to bring peace and love in their music. Peace and love is real. Peace and love is what makes the world go round.AHHA: Do you feel that the audience lost its appetite for that sort of band or has rock just stopped breeding them?Darryl: Peace and love can’t wait for the world. You might say, “People today lost taste for that” or “People aren’t into that,” but peace and love doesn’t care about that. Peace and love gotta keep on moving.AHHA: You were one of the last bands to play CBGB’s before the close of their legendary Manhattan location. What do you think the move to Vegas will mean both for the club itself and the punk genre as a whole?Darryl: You see, it’s not about a building or a location or any of that. CBGB’s was able to have a great run because of what the music was about, and that’s what’s gonna keep happening wherever you put it. I look at the move as a positive thing because now, it gives them an opportunity to take that music to a whole different audience that might not have been exposed to that before. People worry about Vegas changing the club, but you can’t change that. AHHA: You’ve been embraced by Hip-Hop artists from time to time (The Beastie Boys and recently Lil’ Jon). How does your reception vary from one audience to the other, given that the punk audience is sometimes put-off by your color but black audiences would be put-off by a lot of your music?Darryl: We played with [original Wailers guitarist/singer] Peter Tosh to an all Black Jamaican crowd. When we came on stage, they started booing us, but we kept it going and they slowed down. We played one reggae song, and then went back to the rock like we usually do. By the end of the show, they were standing up clapping. To this day, there’s people in Jamaica like, “Yeah man, I know Bad Brains, wicked!” When you see us and realize, “Okay, these dudes are serious about what they do.” Then you open your mind to it. There’s some Black people who don’t listen to any rock but Bad Brains, and they say they like the Rise album, which no one white likes. It’s like the Beastie Boys; Adam Yauch and them came down to see the Bad Brains, and then maybe they would see LL [Cool J] come out with the gold chains or Public Enemy doing their thing. They wanted to be rappers and could say, “If the Bad Brains can play punk rock then f*ck it, we can rap.”The same thing goes when The Red Hot Chili Peppers – try to mix funk in with the frat-boy style. They can look at the Bad Brains and think, “this doesn’t necessarily have to be satire.” All people can do all things. That’s the real reason for Bad Brains, not anything about being “hardcore” and all that sh*t. It’s a blessing of versatility to be able to open doors and break down the barriers to show people that just because you’re Black, you don’t necessarily have to do what they say is “Black,” and if you’re white, you don’t have to do what they say is “white.” All things are for the youth of the world because we are all Jah’s children. Music is for us all, but it takes time and evolution and revolution and revelation to bring that about.