It’s been nearly 40 years since Bad Brains shattered stereotypes about punk rock — and black music
“‘Damn, that’s some consciousness in this music.’”
“Understand me when I say: There’s no hope for the USA,” screams Bad Brains frontman H.R. on the band’s anthem “Big Takeover.” “This world is doomed with its own segregation, just another Nazi test.”
When Bad Brains exploded onto Washington, D.C.’s nascent punk scene in late 1979, they were truly breaking ground. The mere fact that the members of the band were all black was a radical departure — punk was still just starting to find itself, but it was already dominated by a particular, snotty strain of white male anger and discontent. Bad Brains, who got their start as a jazz outfit called Mind Control in 1976, were different because they weren’t white, but also because they pioneered an entirely new energy. They weren’t pissed, Sex Pistols style, or affecting a nihilist vapidity like the Ramones . They were brash, loud, and unapologetic, and their musicianship was phenomenal. The band’s formula was anti-genre, and they seamlessly merged funk and punk, metal, hardcore, and reggae, a feat no other band had ever attempted. Able to play at lightning speed, the group was also awe-inspiring live. As Lucian Perkins, a former Washington Post photographer who shot the band in the late 1970s, said of frontman H.R., “It was like watching James Brown doing punk-style acrobatics.”
Playing venues like D.C.’s Hard Art Gallery, Bad Brains was part of a growing wave of bands that differentiated themselves from the dominant strain of punk by emphasizing their message and musicianship over snarling, stylized negativity. They drew on the sound of early punk bands like the Dickies and the Dead Boys, as well as a range of jazz and funk ensembles. They also inspired and were inspired by contemporaries like D.C.-based Minor Threat and the Clash. They played faster than fast, teetering at times on the edge of cacophony, but they also introduced the breakdowns that would come to characterize American hardcore — like the one that happens about 50 seconds into “Banned in D.C.” (Bad Brains really was unofficially banned in D.C. in the late 1970s, after earning a reputation for playing raucous shows. In a testament to the axiom that there’s no such thing as bad PR, it seems only to have cemented their reputation as the city’s essential act.) Occasionally, they played a straight reggae instrumental, like the placid “Jah Calling,” on their self-titled debut album.
But Bad Brains also stood out because they were contagiously positive, countering the depravity and vulgarity the genre was already known for with what they called “P.M.A.” — positive mental attitude. There was a “whole mode of consciousness” running through the music, bassist Darryl Jenifer recalled in a 2015 interview for Wax Poetics.
“We started kicking PMA in our music, and the message was different than the regular punk rock. You know, a punk rocker can write a song about hate─I hate my mom or some shit, you know? We wasn’t on no shit like that. Some kids who wanted to see some regular shit saw us, and every kid’s heart and mind was opened. It’s like you’re just going to see some regular reggae music, and Bob Marley is playing. You might walk away from that and go, ‘Damn, that’s some consciousness in this music.’”
This was inventive and infectious, the same happy, frenetic hardcore energy that paved the way for “youth crew” hardcore bands in the 1980s and politically minded emo bands in the 1990s. It also served as a potent counterpoint to the violence then polluting the punk scene.
The late seventies and early eighties were a dramatic episode in the history of punk rock, a scene still fighting for its right not just to party but to exist. At the time, Nazi skinheads were organized in many U.S. cities, and they showed up to punk and hardcore shows looking to intimidate and terrorize punks. While Nazi skinhead thuggery became its own brand of punk, it ran counter to the antifascist punk ethos and was largely rejected. In fact, a good deal of the spirit of the punk scene was forged in the management of this menace — sick of feeling scared, punks patrolled shows and bloodied neo-Nazis in parking lots. (The jockish hypermasculinity of the hardcore scene can be seen in part as a reaction to this ever-present early threat to punk’s integrity)
Bassist Darryl Jenifer points out that there were also non-racist skinheads, “good skins,” “who would beat [Nazis’] ass as often” as punks. In an oral history of the punk scene published in GQ, Jenifer went on to tell a story about a kid at a Bad Brains show who told him, “‘Mr. Jenifer, I want you to know, I used to be a racist, and a skinhead and an asshole, and ever since I saw your band I’m different. I have a wife and kids.’ That alone was my platinum record.”
Possibly owing to Bad Brains’ blistering riffs, high-octane live shows, or positive attitude, the band found legions of fans and seemed to have fewer encounters with bald racism than might be expected. Elsewhere in the GQ piece, Jenifer says, “Out of my whole 40 years in Bad Brains, I probably faced racism or heard the word ‘n — — -’ maybe a handful of times.”
Still, the lyrics to songs like “Big Takeover” and the band’s commitment to subverting expectations by fusing, and fucking with, numerous genres was itself a comment on the senseless limitations of a stratified world. Bad Brains plowed through these boundaries, creating a sound that would galvanize diverse audiences for decades, inspiring a wave of seminal bands from Black Flag (Henry Rollins got his start as a roadie for Bad Brains) to Operation Ivy, Fishbone to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Perhaps more than any other band of the era, they demonstrated that punk was not just a look but an ethos. It’s not an overstatement to say that punk rock and hardcore music would sound different if they hadn’t.