by Damon Locks (original interview appeared in Stop Smiling magazine)
“So I say to the youth right now, don’t sway to the unjust, No matter what they say never give in, never give in” – At The Movies, Bad Brains
When I listen to your early stuff I hear a Black Uhuru or Dennis Bovell or Burning Spear kind of influence, but I don’t know what you guys were actually listening to.
HR and Earl, their parents are from Jamaica. Doc and I are Washingtonians, and I didn’t know much about the Caribbean. The reggae I was first listening to was the Ruts, Bob Marley, Augustus Pablo and Black Slate. It was a mixture of what the Clash was doing with reggae and what was around at that time.
Sid McCray (original singer for Bad Brains) was the one that was searching the Yesterday & Today Records, the imports and all of that. Right around the time we were starting Bad Brains we were doing a lot of fusion shit under the name Mind Power. We never really played out or got established, it was just a teenage band. People were tripping on how we were like Mandrill or Chick Corea’s Return to Forever or Mahavishnu Orchestra. We were on some conscious DC shit. It wasn’t like we were going down to Anacostia Park; we weren’t just on some go-go head shit. We just wanted to be different. We didn’t want to be banging on trash cans. I grew up on Sly and the Family Stone and Aretha Franklin. I remember when my mom was looking for a house out in Silver Spring, Maryland, and it was a split-level with a yard, like the Brady Bunch. I was from the hood, and as a young man things that were supposed to be white were interesting to me. I would go and find the one little tiny patch of woods and play in it. My mother would always wonder why I wasn’t at the basketball courts, or the rec center. I would be in the creek, playing with a frog or something. I think I thought that was getting away from what I was supposed to be doing. So with music I started doing the same thing. I remember WPGC used to be a white radio station and I would hear Sweet Home Alabama, and David Bowie’s Golden Years, and even the Steve Miller Band. These were white artists crossing over in to the black music like “Fly Like an Eagle”. You remember how brothers used to dress? I might have been the brother with the leather pants on some black hippy shit. I remember when we were teenagers and Sid came through with the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Dead Boys, and No New York. It was a noise thing. The blessing of it all is that I was a youth that wanted to explore other avenues rather than just rolling with what you’re supposed to.
I can relate, my family lived in Silver Spring and we were one of four black families in our neighborhood. I grew up on groups like Kool and the Gang and songs like Fly Robin Fly (by the Silver Connection). Then a friend of mine started making me tapes of the Jam, the Clash and Joy Division and got me really thinking differently. The DC scene was something that really helped me out. The first show I went to was Minor Threat & Government Issue at Wilson Center.
DJ: That’s real right there.
That first show was electrifying, and to tell the truth some of my favorite shows as a kid were your shows. You guys were ferocious.
DJ: Thanks. Back then…you saw the real deal. Only people from that era really know why people say that we were good. The changes that we started to go through, the other stuff we started to do like I Against I and more metal-esque stuff, but there was a time when all we played was covers…punk covers! That was when we were the Bad Brains, When we crossed over with the rasta and the PMA (positive mental attitude) got stronger in ‘82 and ‘83. That was our heyday. So if you saw us then that was the real deal, the real essence of what we had popping.
It was phenomenal. I remember this one show, at a really big place, watching you guys from up on a balcony somewhere. Everybody was going nuts, I had to get my courage up to go dance because I was only fifteen years old but I just had to go down there.
DJ: To be a part of the energy.
Yeah. I still put Bad Brains up there as some of the best shows I have ever seen. I have seen some shows since then that blew my mind, like Sun Ra and his Arkestra
DJ: Sun Ra is my man, I got to play a show with him. At the Irving Plaza, in ‘84 as a group called “Me and I.” It was a very extreme event.
Were the Clash and the Ruts an influence or contemporaries?
DJ: They were an influence. A lot of these guys are back in 77. I was still a kid playing basketball. I was wearing pins of theirs they were influences of ours. We were not the beginning of this. The last time I was in a pit was at a Ramones concert. I never even did slam dancing, for me it was pogo-ing. This pit stuff that was back when Bad Brains were just a mission. This was before hardcore was invented – we’re not even hardcore. I remember the first time somebody told me we were hardcore. I was like “Really?!”
Well it is interesting because you can hear the speed and ferocity pick up as the times change.
DJ: And its not necessarily the band saying ‘We’re going to do this or that’…
It’s the times.
DJ: Yeah, you know actually it was. It was these kids starting bands thinking that we’re playing fast and trying to play like us, but playing faster. So then their bands open up for us and are playing fast, and we’re like ‘Oh, it’s a build up thing?’ Fast wasn’t even a conscious thing, it was just how the music formed. It may have started as a pogo type music, just jumping up and down. But as times changed and Ian (McKaye) and kids were making bands, figuring they were playing faster than Bad Brains, while we just figured we were playing faster than the Ramones, and they don’t even play that fast. I remember when the riff from “Sweet Home Alabama” was hard [chuckling]. That shit was hard to play. So the times were making things change. That was the glory of the whole thing. It wasn’t a bunch of contrived moves. It was the great spirit at work with the art and the youth and the time and ages. Our riffs weren’t designed to play fast. When we tried to play faster that was what actually fucked us up.
From my perspective the Bad Brains entity was something I had to comprehend. The lyrical information as well as the musical information was not something I had come across previously. When you guys were writing all this stuff, was there a concept that you were going to have this unified front?
DJ: People say ‘Bad Brains has had such a sordid past- you break up and get back together’ but that’s not right. We were a brotherhood long before we ever started Bad Brains. We were friends and picking each other up and playing music on a totally different level. We started out just trying to play music like the records we were listening to. And we had our whole punk thing going on, but it was when the rasta came in that EVERYTHING started to change. We were on the PMA, the positive mental attitude, which was basically saying give thanks and praise on an intellectual level. We started to get more faith oriented listening to the teachings of Marley and all the Rasta stuff in our music and you can hear the talk about Babylon and the bourgeoisie or this and that, but the music was different. The PMA becomes the rasta ideals. The message in the music gets away from PMA and goes to rock, everything starts going to God. If you look at the lyrics, seeing that we’re an entity, like you said, the energy behind the riffs is all the same. We’ve always been together. When the riffs start coming out and we say we’re gonna make a song, we’re all coming through on those lyrics. People say, “Aww you broke up.” We didn’t get together through ads in the newspaper. The Bad Brains has a life of its own.
It all happened before, you know, with Little Richard, Chuck Barry, the main ones that did that duck walk, that’s the beginning of this shit. Some things we call white culture was really African American culture, slave culture, coming out of blues. So sometimes they say, “Darryl why you play that white boy music?” It’s not white boy music or simply black boy music. The juxtaposition of those things is what upsets me about the situation of being black and wanting to be something different other than what you’re supposed to be: just be that. Back then, I didn’t even know I was black, they didn’t even know they were white, all we knew was that we were punk.
At the time in punk/hardcore unity was really important. So if you had your people going through the same thing you were going through, shaving your head or getting a Mohawk, it was those people that were your support system.
DJ: It didn’t matter what their color was. When people put the emphasis there, I’m like why do that. It insults me. I’ve said, if you’re black, that’s a natural fucking fact. Nothing you can do about that. Now if you want to be punk, be punk, if you want to be rock, be rock. All I’m saying is I don’t think you got to be ignorant to be black, and I’m not saying if you trying to act articulate you gotta be white. What I’m trying to say is, if you’re black you’re black if you went to a white school, cool. Just let punk rock be punk rock, its not about your color, its not a white deal…If I had known I was a black punk, it might not have been as fun.
You guys have gone through a lot of changes. Did people play closer attention to what you were doing lyrically and spiritually in the early than after I Against I?
DJ: Yes…but I’m too quick to say that. You can do what you want and be what you want in music, that’s the main message of Bad Brains. All the fast guitars and stuff, that’s cool, but that’s the bells and whistles. And with the rasta and the punk, it’s the same: it’s rebel music. That’s what happened with the Brains. We opened up for Peter Tosh and that was one of the scariest concerts ever played. It was an all Jamaican audience at Stony Brook University in an amphitheater where people sit down, it was packed and we were opening. This was 1985, maybe, early. We get up there and start ripping our punk shit. We finish the first song, nobody says nothing. They just looked at us. We rushed through a couple more, then they start booing us a little bit. But we kept at it, and we played a reggae joint, long story short, by the time we ended they all stood up clapping. Everyone that was there that day saw that music, art, creativity and expression had no boundaries. If we were bullshitting, they would’ve booed us. We were serious. They saw that and felt that. Same thing I’ve seen happen to us recently at the Ashbury Park Concert, right in the middle of the hood. Black people were sitting out on their porch, they kept seeing me, I’m signing autographs, but they see all white people, really, and they see the dreads, and they wonder, Who is this band? Is it reggae? After the set when I came offstage I waved to them, and they all waved like they were happy to see that shit.
Bad Brains has turned into a punk music staple, which is great. The problem right now is that a lot of people are starting to see Bad Brains as an icon separate from what you are and what you did.
DJ: The band is God’s work. We don’t have some big organization to get us concerts or make records. None of us are who we were. I don’t want to play no Vegas shit. We’re playing the House of Blues and this is a way I keep my music and my band alive. We know Bad Brains is something God has given us to be and do, whether we like it or not. I feel like I’ve created some classic musical expression. With that in my pocket, I don’t really care what anyone says about any of my art. I did what I said I could do. I put my heart into every riff I ever wrote, I never wrote one song that wasn’t inspired. So when I hear someone say, “Oh this or that sucks”, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’ve been great at what I said I could do. Right now, the way we’re functioning is different; it has become really a cosmic group. We don’t practice but for the most part we put on some great shows. HR is what he is these days. He’s not doing what he did in ’82. The dude’s 54 years old. HR has got all the charisma in the world, but its not ’82. Its interesting now, this band just seems to live on. We live on because we never blew up. We never had platinum sales, and we’d always go away for a long time and come back. The band will always be here until one of us takes off. All I’m trying to say is, the Bad Brains has got a life of its own, and we don’t ever know what’s popping.
I always felt that there was a tension because I used to go see HR (frontman H.R.’s reggae band) back when they were playing in DC, and I always felt that this was an outlet that he needed to have because the Bad Brains had gone to another place.
DJ: But he doesn’t really get it. He gets it, but…he’s like Sid McCray. To me its something very technical. Its not a joke. There’s no element of Bad Brains that I got any problem with. I’m with the whole concept of the melding of the flavors, the whole thing. I think sometimes HR doesn’t like to be known as this manic-wow-punk-rock motherfucker. I don’t mind. I know all I got was this creative juice. I’m just a dude that wants to be creative. I had yellow hair and earrings and all that shit. I was like the New York Dolls and all that shit, just me being me.
When I Against I came out, tunes like Re-Ignition, Return to Heaven, that sort of thing, from my perspective, that album sent a ripple through what was then the underground. All of a sudden, people starting writing riffs differently, it illuminated a way for a lot of people.
DJ: We were being progressive with our writing, so we came out we tried to be thoughtful: Stevie Wonder influenced Sailin’ On. We wanted to mangle riffs up and the only way to do that is go back to punk. People sometimes mistake it as metal.
I never saw it as metal because it continued to be so raw. You guys took a turn that created a whole new doorway.
DJ: We played the adolescent style of punk rock and we kept it progressive and we came out with the I Against I. Then with the Quickness record, the riffs starting growing more metal-esque. We’ve always stayed inventive with our riffs. But you notice on our latest record, we went back and I created riffs that were reminiscent of the old style. Every record we ever came up with until this newest one (Build A Nation), we were still forging forward. And if you go back and listen to God is Love, Rise, you hear the riffs trying to go somewhere different, be something different, find something different. This is the first we didn’t, not try to copy ourselves, but we put it in neutral and I said, when people listen to the riffs on this record, they’re going to say, that’s them. There’re gonna say that’s the Bad Brains. That was the intention. The Bad Brains sound is the Rock for Light era which was our first set that we played. Not I Against I, not even Quickness, those records are the Bad Brains trying to kick it.
Its like when you said, if someone saw you previous to I against I, that was the real Bad Brains.
DJ: That’s the real Bad Brains. Now we do this shit, we still driving it but we driving it like we know how we drive it. People need to know about the Brains. You know – talking to you, talking to people…it’s real. You didn’t ask me questions like a normal interviewer and I appreciate that.
I’m glad you enjoyed it because the Bad Brains mean a lot to me. I know that you know this already, but you guys affected so many people of my generation and most people that I know that ever came across Bad Brains in any time period. It’s probably part of my creative, genetic make-up. To this day, I listen to the music and am still blown away. Sometimes I say, “How did they write that?”
DJ: A lot of those riffs caused friction amongst us when we used to play together, it was a battle between us. We wanted to have the shit pop off right. We were very serious about the concerts, especially me. I’m still like that today, it’s a responsibility. I pride myself about being ready, but I realized not everyone’s like that. The only thing that has to be pure is your intention. There’s two sides to everything, even my bitching and moaning. We kept our riffs as tight as they could be. What God wanted to show us was that no matter what color you are, no matter where you come from, you can do whatever you want to do with music and art. Its expression so express yourself. I remember when the Beastie Boys used to be punk rock. I honestly believe if it wasn’t for the Bad Brains they would’ve thought twice about getting into rap. The Chili Peppers opened up for us in LA, they were like a frat boy band. A frat boy band that wanted to play funk? That’s what they were. There are all these things happening at the same time. We used to play out there with Bad Religion at the Santa Monica Civic Center. We rolled out to California in a van – from DC going to a stadium gig when the Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, the Circle Jerks when all these groups were jumping off. Its God’s work, this whole thing, it’s the great spirit showing the world. Before, it wasn’t like that. It was white boys played this shit, black people played that shit. I don’t want people to get me wrong, for people to think I’m a racist or a bigot. I’m a realist.