Bad Brains refuse to compromise

Still sailin’
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  April 11, 2012

ROCKING FOR LIGHT "It was all just the energy of youth,", says Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know (third from left, with H.R., Darryl Jenifer, and Earl Hudson). 

Most bands tend to take credit for their successes while chalking up their failures and struggles to a cruel and unforgiving musical environment — but hardcore punk legends Bad Brains aren't most bands. To say that they did things differently than others is an understatement: whereas most bands that can be lumped into the category of early-US hardcore learned to play their instruments in public and stuck to a strict musical orthodoxy of undanceable polka beats, unintelligible screaming, and guitar blurs, Bad Brains incorporated hard-rock riffs, the slow insistence of reggae, and a blindingly pure spiritual directive into their startlingly original music.

They fit into the world of hardcore of the late-'70s and early-'80s only in the sense that when they shared the stages with such luminaries as Minor Threat, they unequivocally mopped the floor with them. But to hear Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know (born Gary Miller), tell it, the band themselves deserve little-to-no credit for their accomplishments; rather, the credit goes to "the spirit" that guided them through the twists and turns of their idiosyncratic career.

"Our music, we didn't create it, the spirit did," Miller explains, in a tone that makes clear that this is an obvious and inevitable truth. In a sense, only an outside force could have guided a band like Bad Brains through their strange metamorphosis: first, as they transitioned from teenage mid-'70s funk band Mind Power into blindingly fast punk band Bad Brains; then as they went on to incorporate straight-up roots reggae into their hardcore bludgeoning; and finally, in the mid-'80s, as they incorporated pure funk-metal into their punk attack.

"Back in the day, we used to play funk," he says. "We all grew up together and it was all just about jamming and playing. We'd listen to Stevie [Wonder], Bob [Marley], Return to Forever, so we had a mixed palette of influences." But transitioning from playing fusion-informed funk to the fury of early Bad Brains singles like "Pay To Cum" took a crucial ratcheting up of speed and intensity. "It was all just the energy of youth," Miller says. "We wanted to be informative, hence the rebel music we played, the hardcore and the reggae. As Bob Marley used to say, it was a 'Punky Reggae Party.' "

It's hard to overstate the shock that hit when Bad Brains detonated onto the punk consciousness in the late-'70s. Fronted by frantic vocalist H.R. (Human Rights), with Dr. Know, bassist Darryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson (H.R.'s younger brother), they were faster and better than the competition by a wide margin, sure, but — on top of that — they fused a revolutionary rage with sheer positivity, resulting in an odd mix of tear-down-the-walls mania and Rastafarian calls for brotherly love.

"It was all about consciousness," Miller says, "and it has to do with where we were from. DC is a funny place. Growing up there we saw a lot of hypocritical things. There was a lot of racism, and it wasn't right. We went through busing and the gentrification of DC, and there was so much negativity around us. But positive thoughts and actions create positive reactions. Everyone knows that!"

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