Bad Brains’ H.R.: “Don’t worry about what people might say about you being strange or different… Ain’t none of that true”
In 1987, with punk rock on its knees, Bad Brains came to London, on tour in support of their third album, I Against I, released through the legendary SST Records in November of the previous year. The four young men from Washington – vocalist H.R., guitarist Dr. Know, bassist Darryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson – began their month-long trek with a booking at the Clarendon in Hammersmith, at which a thousand people were left ticketless outside. A little under four weeks later, the penultimate date of the European leg of the tour saw a performance at Camden’s Electric Ballroom that remains one of the most exceptional punk rock shows that London’s punkest neighbourhood has ever played host to.
Why? Because for a time, Bad Brains were by far the most innovative and electrifying punk band the world had ever known. Over the course of two releases – Bad Brains (1982) and Rock For Light (1983) – the quartet reinvented a flagging scene by playing faster, and better, than the rest, and doing so with the kind of energy that powers megacities. Influential and incendiary, songs such as Banned In D.C., I, At The Movies and Destroy Babylon are as good as any in the punk canon.
Such was their influence and reputation that the world should have been theirs for the taking. But Bad Brains could never really keep it together, and many even blamed the group’s failure to capitalise on their occasional momentum on the erratic behaviour of H.R..
Either way, by the 21st century their operation was a shambles. If the band’s appearance at the Electric Ballroom was one of London’s finest punk shows, a night at the Astoria in Soho in 2007 was one of the worst. “The Bad Brains legacy is theirs to do with as they choose,” we wrote in our 1K live review, “and tonight they chose to piss all over it.”
Today H.R. – which stands for Human Rights – is still trucking on, albeit not with Bad Brains. These days he sings under the billing H.R. (of Bad Brains) with much more emphasis on reggae than punk rock. The untamed savagery of youth may have given way to a far more chilled middle age, but the journey to this reflective and peaceful point has been a long, strange and eventful one.
Tell us about your early days, please.
“Well, I bounced around a lot because my dad was in the air force. I went to my first school in Jamaica, but we also lived in Hawaii, where I started first grade school. We were really all over the place.”
But you were born in Liverpool, is that right?
“Yeah. My father had met my mother in London, and he was doing some travelling around Europe, so he took her to Liverpool where I was born. We all lived in Liverpool for about two years, but unfortunately I have no memory of the great city that gave the world The Beatles.”
How did you feel about moving around a lot as a child?
“My mother came from Kingston, Jamaica, but she had travelled and my dad travelled a lot because of this job, so that was just my life. As a child I went to about 12 or 13 schools in places as far afield as Texas, Alabama, Georgia, California, New York, Washington DC, Hawaii… all over the place. The most time I ever spent in one place was about four years, and that was in Maryland.”
Did all that travelling make it difficult to make friends, and to feel rooted in any one place?
“Yes sir, it was really hard. I’d make new friends and then soon enough I’d have to leave them and then make a whole other group of new friends. Of course, I didn’t want to leave my old friends behind. And this went on through elementary school, junior high school and then high school itself. It was hard.”
One of the cities with which you’re most closely associated is Washington DC. How did you end up there?
“I was living in Staten Island and then Queens in New York. I was on the swimming team and my coach wanted to take me to the Olympics [in Montreal in 1976] and he was begging my mother, ‘Please let me take him to the Olympics.’ But she said, ‘No, we’re going to have to move.’ So we went down to Southeastern Maryland and I went to South DC District High School because they were close together.”
If you had gone to the Olympics rather than pursue musical interests, how do you imagine your life would have worked out?
“I’m sure that I would have gotten a gold medal. I think probably what would have happened was that I would have been on TV and made quite a lot of – how do you say it? – quite a lot of interest for myself. I would have done well commercially, let’s put it that way. But we went to Montreal as the Bad Brains in the ’80s, and then we went back in the ’90s, around that time, and I thought it was cool because everybody in the group was looking forward to going there, and we met some nice people when we were there.”
Tell us about playing with Bad Brains in the earliest days.
“Earl and Darryl were in junior high school together when I was in high school, because I was a little bit older. The three of us would jam once in a while, but Darryl was always in a band and they once put out a song called The Booty. But I was driving one day, I had a Camaro, and I saw Darryl walking so I pulled over and asked if he needed a ride. And he said, ‘Yeah, sure man.’ We got to talking and we said, ‘Okay, let’s start a band together.’ Darryl was the youngest of us. A friend of ours asked us if we’d ever heard any punk rock before, and we said, ‘What do you mean, punk rock?’ because we were into [progressive jazz band] Return To Forever and stuff like that. So one day this guy invited us over to his house where we heard all these records by bands like the Dead Boys, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones; all of these punk rock groups. So we started listening to the singles, but by mistake we played them at 78 [rpm] so they were way too fast! Later, we got a house down in the DC area, where we used to have parties in the back yard and the basement, which is when it all started for us. That was when we decided we were going to be a punk rock band, ‘cause we had liked what we had heard. But I thought that the lyrics could be a little more positive. So that’s why the Bad Brains were a little more positive than the other punk rock groups. We actually changed our name to the Bad Brains. Originally we were called The Thunderbirds.”
Where did you play your first gig?
“We actually played our first gig in New York, at [legendary, now closed punk club] CBGBs. Every Monday they would have an alternative night for bands so we asked if it was okay to do a gig, and they said, ‘Sure man, you can play.’ People were expecting us to be a white band, but we were all black guys. People were like, ‘Woah, wait a minute, what is going on?!’ So at first it was kind of hard for us to get gigs elsewhere, but at CBGBs we were okay. And then we decided to go on tour to different places – California and so on – and right from the beginning the kids really liked what we were doing. It was all these teenage kids that supported us really. Then we heard that our music was getting on the charts in Europe, so we decided to go on tour there as well. Well, eventually. There was a group called The Damned who were first to say that they’d like to invite us to Europe. So we tried to hop on a plane – we were young boys, we didn’t know what was going on – and when we were asked for our passports at the airport we didn’t have any! So we had to turn back.”
It all sounds rather chaotic.
“Well, we met this guy called Mo Sussman, who told us that he wanted to be our manager. He decided to take us to a music store and he bought us all brand-new equipment, as well as a brand-new van. We had to move houses because people were complaining about us being too loud, so we moved out to the boondocks in the woods. And we would jam there at a fast and intense level while making the music as intricate and as accurate as possible. We tried to add jazz techniques to punk rock. We had heard about [LA punk band] The Dickies and what they were doing, so we tried to incorporate some of their sound as well. So we went ahead and tried to do that and everything sort of worked out.”
In 1982 you released your self-titled album, sometimes called The Yellow Tape and Attitude: The ROIR Sessions, which is now considered a punk classic. What was it like making that?
“This man called Neil Cooper had heard about the group and he came to us and said, ‘Would you all be interested in putting out a cassette?’ We told him that we’d like to, but that we didn’t really know what to call it. So we just named it Bad Brains. And when kids heard it, they caught on quick. And we certainly liked it. Neil Cooper came to see the group to see if we were as good as people said we were, and he found out that we really were. That’s how it all started.”
The following year you recorded Rock For Light with Ric Ocasek, a pop star with The Cars, overseeing production. What was it like working with someone like that?
“Somehow, he had heard about us in Arizona. At first he kind of caught us off guard, because he was this tall white guy in a pop band wanting to produce us. But he and Darryl got together and talked and he had convinced him that he really wanted to work with us. And it was actually really interesting and exciting to work with someone like that; from outside the punk scene. He got us into a studio and just said, ‘You go ahead and play what you play.’ And we can play any kind of sound. So we said, ‘Free up, free up, be free!’ and that’s how it started with Ric.”
Do you think it’s fair when people say that Bad Brains were a revolutionary band?
“Yes, I think that’s fair.”
Was there much racism in the punk scene when you emerged?
“To the extent that when we played people would be like, ‘Hold on, what’s going on here?’ The fact that we weren’t white did catch people off guard. But they didn’t mind that we were black ‘cause they liked the music so much. All the bands that came before us who played punk were white, so we were different, that’s for sure.”
What were those early shows like?
“Well, we wrote the song Banned In DC after we’d played a place in Washington where the kids went completely crazy. When we started playing they went wild and some things got broken and there was a mess. And the owner of the club said, ‘You guys can’t play here anymore.’ That inspired the song. But after a while he said, ‘Actually, you’re good guys, you can come back and play here if you like.’”
You were an enormous influence on the young Ian MacKaye, from Minor Threat, and then Fugazi, who also lived in Washington DC. What are your memories of him?
“He would come down to see us with his first band, Teen Idles. But they were the opposite of us. We went one way and they went another. We played reggae as well as punk, and we read the bible. But the Teen Idles liked to drink Coca-Cola. Then they changed their name to Minor Threat, and started their own record label, Dischord. After that came Fugazi. They really had their own thing going on. They also charged people only four dollars to see them, which was cool. But they were so enthusiastic about what we were doing, which was great.”
You were also gods to the Beastie Boys. Their 1982 debut EP, Polly Wog Stew, owed a huge debt of influence to Bad Brains.
“Those guys were so wild and unpredictable. One day they came to us and said that we were a crucial band and they were going to produce us [the result was the Build A Nation album from 2007]. This was Mr Adam Yauch, who was still alive at the time. I had never met him personally, so I had no idea and he caught me off guard. But he came in and he produced us. We later went on tour with the Beastie Boys for a little while [in 1989], and they were acting all crazy. One night I saw a member of the audience pull a gun on a girl, and I said, ‘No, no, you can’t be doing that,’ so I hit him over the head with the microphone. That proved to be a little too wild for some people, so I got into some trouble for that.”
On the 1986 album I Against I, you sang one song, Sacred Love, from prison. What was that all about?
“We sure did. That was [producer] Ron Saint Germain’s idea. We had done the music for [the album] I Against I, but me and Earl had gotten busted [on a marijuana distribution charge] in DC so Ron said, ‘That’s okay man, let’s try recording the vocal over the telephone!’ So I had to let him know what time I could use this telephone and he hooked it up to the machines in the studio. So we gave it a try. When I called them they played the song for me for the first time – I’d never actually heard it before – and I could hardly hear it, man. So I went, ‘Well, let me go ahead and sing this song to the best of my ability.’ And I gave it a real good try, man; I belted out them vocals with a melodic soothing groove, but also with a hard edge. And when I’d finished they said, ‘Yeah, man, we did it! We recorded your vocals, and they came out perfect!’ All in that first try.”
Do you think you will ever play with Bad Brains again?
“Well, I’ll tell you this, we’ve been broken up about three or four times over the years. We have talked about it. Earl thinks that we’re getting too old to play. Earl wants to make movies, man, so he’s in Atlanta, Georgia, now trying to make that happen. There is a different version of the Bad Brains with Darryl on bass and Dr. Know on guitar – they’re playing with a jazz singer – but they decided to call themselves the Defiant Ones. They went ahead and gave it a try, but I don’t know what’s going on with that. Darryl actually asked me, ‘What should I do, H.R.? Should I continue to play rock’n’roll or should I play reggae?’ And I said, ‘Listen, you’re one of the baddest dudes around. You’re excellent – keep on playing rock’n’roll.’ But he’s decided to be a painter and an artist.”
What does the future hold for H.R.?
“Oh man, from me, you can look forward to hearing some of the sweetest reggae music that you’ve ever heard in your life. I’ve got this new band together called Human Rights, and the boys I’m working with now, if you think the Bad Brains were hard, wait ‘til you see this! This group is so fantastic. And I want to tell the people something: ‘Don’t give up. Keep on listening to my music. Don’t worry about what people might say about you being strange or different, or that you’ve been hypnotised by reggae… ain’t none of that true.’ What we do is true to the core of reggae; in your heart, you can feel it. We make great music, true music, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.”
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