Bad Brains
Ride the Lightning
by Stephen Slaybaugh

After forming in 1979, Bad Brains quickly developed a reputation for blistering live shows both in their hometown of Washington DC and abroad, most notably in New York, where the band would set up camp for weeks at a time. Comprised of guitarist Dr. Know, vocalist HR (short for Human Rights), drummer (and HR’s brother) Earl Hudson, and bassist Darryl Jenifer, the Bad Brains were an anomaly of skillful chops, lightning quick playing, and manic performances punctuated by HR’s penchant for doing back flips onstage. Fortunately, their full-length debut, a self-titled album on cassette-only label ROIR, was just as impressive, thus immortalizing the band as punk legends for the ages. The record was comprised not only of the kind of innovative hardcore the band helped to create but snatches of reggae, with which the band was becoming increasingly engaged as its interest in Rastafarianism piqued.

In the subsequent years, the band’s energy never wained as it spread its message of positive mental attitude (PMA) while creating records like Rock for Light and I Against I that widened the band’s palette even further. The ’90s, however, were a rough period for Bad Brains, with HR and Hudson leaving the band at various periods, while the former gained a reputation for erratic behavior when performing with the band. After nearly a decade of sporadic activity, Bad Brains emerged in 2007 with Build a Nation, a record produced by Adam Yauch, the since deceased Beastie Boy known better as MCA, that lived up to its predecessors. And while the band—or specifically HR—has now become as infamous for being as hit or miss as they once were for being astounding live, their new album, Into the Future is similarly solid. Drawing from the same well of punk, reggae, dub, and now, hip-hop, the album is adventurous and exciting in all the ways a Bad Brains record should be in 2012.

I recently caught up with Jenifer, who was working on some drum patterns when I called, to discuss the past, present, and future, as well as things like the new documentary on Bad Brains, A Band in DC, and the supposed photograph of HR and Brooke Shields that made the rounds on the internet last month.

Let’s start with the most important question first. Tell me about smoking weed with Brooke Shields.

Daryl Jenifer: Smoking weed with Brooke Shields—I guess, it would be the same as smoking weed with Bo Derek or somebody else hot from back then, like... what’s her name?

Farah Fawcett?

DJ: No, the black lady, Coffy.

Pam Greer?

DJ: Yeah, if they want to put somebody up there, put Pam Greer on that joint!

But is that picture real?

DJ: Who knows, man. The Bad Brains has a vast institution of fans and folks in times and years. To just jump out and say that’s baby girl or whatever, that’s silly. People like to get on that, but I’m not going to come out here and say, “Hell, yeah!” Who knows? I don’t know. Nowadays, everybody smokes weed, the great holy herb of creation, so it’s not that big a deal, but I’m not here to confirm that or not.

More seriously, though, let’s talk about the new record. You’re working on a pattern of five years between albums right now. Is that the timetable you work on or is just a matter of working on a record when the inspiration hits you guys?

DJ: Our band is like a family that lives and exists in the world. On our time, a minute is a thousand years, and a thousand years is a second. It’s just the life we’re living with this music. I don’t really know that the last time was five years. I don’t really pay attention to that, I just live this. We live this, so if an album is in the wind and the great spirit calls on us to pull together, then we’re here to do it, to serve that mission and purpose. This is what we do. It’s our lives.

Once you start working on an album, does it tend to come together pretty quickly or do you labor over it for awhile?

DJ: Nowadays, it’s like riding a bike. We’re pretty accomplished at what we do, so we pick what styles we want to have fun with and we build it from there. It’s all about being inventive with music. When we get together, with our chemistry, we put it together and boom!

You did a solo record for the first time. Did that change your perspective on making music with Bad Brains?

DJ: Nah. Bad Brains is my family and my life. It’s always been the core of my being since I was young, so the perspective never really changes. The solo record is just having a hard drive full of ideas, riffs and dubs that other people should hear besides me.

More specifically, the song “We Belong Together” seems to be about the unity of the band. Am I interpreting that correctly?

DJ: Our message has always been universal, so “We Belong Together” is more about humanity. It could be about the band; it could be about you and your girl; it could be about people who have known each other for a long time. But knowing our past, our mission and our quest, it speaks to recognizing that we belong together.

It’s been 30 years since your first record came out. Are you surprised that the band has had the longevity that it has? I mean, did you think when you were a kid that you’d be doing this 30 years later?

DJ: Yeah, I knew I’d always be doing what I’m doing, because this is what I do! If you watch the movie, you’ll see I said that when I was young. In the movie, on PM Magazine, I said, “This is what I do, and this is what I’m going to do.” It’s been an inspiration to be me, as far as this music. I probably—no probably, I will be doing this until I move on to the next plane.

Mentioning the movie, was it odd to see yourself as the subject of the film?

DJ: Yeah, I wasn’t too happy with it because I feel the people who directed it should have known us a little better. It got mixed up in a Hollywood sort of thing, with the movie based around little negative incidents that Hollywood and television like. I would have wanted the story of Bad Brains to be one that’s exhilarating and positive based on PMA and not little band fights and the struggles we go through. I’m disappointed that it got taken in a reality show direction rather than showing the true essence of Bad Brains. The true essence of Bad Brains is not HR and I bitching at each other in the dressing room. But that’s not how Hollywood sees it. Hollywood thinks that’s what people want to see: fights and negativity.

People seem to say you never know what you’re going to get with Bad Brains as far as going to see you guys play live because of HR’s behavior being unpredictable. Is that overplayed? Do you feel that way?

DJ: No, not at all. In the world today, there aren’t too many real artists, and HR is a real artist who is true to his art. HR doesn’t have a lot of entertainer in him at times, and he has to be himself. It’s not every time that he can be the HR from the ’80s, running around or whatever. And who wants that anyway? People who criticize us in that respect have to know what we do is based on punk rock, where you express how you feel. It’s not heavy metal or some form of entertainment rock. I didn’t see people crying when Johnny Rotten came with PIL and stood behind a curtain and told people to go home. They thought that was punk rock. For some reason, Bad Brains are expected to perform on a level that is entertainment. We were that, but we are a living band so we grow and evolve. When you see HR and he’s not doing what you expect when you come down to the concert hall, you have to open up your mind and realize these guys aren’t bullshitting around and it’s real, true art. This guy is a living being up onstage trying to express himself. He’s allowed to do that because the genre of music he’s in is called punk rock. Get off the guy’s back! Any other guy acts in a way that’s unacceptable, it’s okay. Black Flag could come to your town and throw TVs out a hotel window, and it’s rock & roll. The Bad Brains come to your town and spill Guinness on your carpet or burn a spliff tail, and it’s like... I don’t even want to say what I want to say. There seems to be a different standard with us. But we are a punk rock band like anybody else.

Do you consider what you do now punk rock?

DJ: It’s always been based on a core of punk rock, because the music is based on expressing yourself within your own capabilities. We are punk rock because we still invent riffs and we touch on all our influences in our riffs. The music is punk rock, but our message was never one of bitching about the queen. We were more on PMA, and then once we gained our culture, we went to rastafari.

You were talking about how the band was viewed differently. I grew up in Ohio and had a weird haircut and so there was a lot of hostility directed at me, but I can only imagine what it was like for a black band touring through the States. What kind of difficulties did you run into?

DJ: When we were coming up in the early ’80s, it was like an ordained mission for us to spread our message of PMA. We were riding on the energy of our music, so something as menial as a racial encounter, we didn’t even see that. All we saw when we came to your town was you and your haircut. We didn’t see those kids who used to say shit about you. We saw you and kids like you, then we moved onto the next town. I never really faced any sort of racism. The movement didn’t have time for that. It was a musical motion that didn’t have time to worry about somebody saying, “Go home nigger!” I never heard that. Of all the kids that would have come down to see us when we came to Ohio, all those guys who might have said that, I didn’t even hear that. I’m excited to say that because with love and positivity, you don’t even hear that.

Getting back to the record, I assume “MCA Dub” is a tribute to MCA. I was wondering how you took his passing.

DJ: Sheesh, it’s a sad, sorrowful thing to have to lose a brother like that off the physical world into the spiritual world, but it’s a positive thing. He’s still with us, but I miss him. So yeah, it’s a special dedication to my man MCA.

Did you know the Beastie Boys back in the day or was it later that you met up?

DJ: Yeah, we were all hanging out on the Lower East Side back in the day, at the 9th Street Ratcage.

Does playing the blistering fast stuff necessitate doing the reggae stuff, just to give you a chance to chill out?

DJ: No, not at all. That’s just because I like all styles of music and I’m going to kick them all. To me, it’s just all different styles of music. It’s like listening to records. Yauch used to say how he could go see the Bad Brains and hear some progressive hardcore shit and then hear some dub and cool out. But for us, it wasn’t about that in a contrived way. We just liked hardcore and we liked reggae.

Do you feel like your audience has become more open-minded as the band has gone on? I remember a lot of people used to say that they liked Bad Brains but they couldn’t stand HR’s solo records and the reggae, and I don’t hear that as much anymore.

DJ: If you love our band, at this point, you sift through to what you like. Especially in the computer age, you love what you love and you don’t like what you don’t like. To me there’s no good and bad in music and art, it’s just different. Which brings me to my brother Yauch again. He used to say if he didn’t like something, “Yo D, that’s not my favorite shit.”

As far as making the new record, did you have specific goals going into it? It seems more eclectic that the last one.

DJ: I knew that if the band got back together in a situation where it’s just us with nobody else—like bands do when they first start, with no producer—we’d get up in the studio and kick it. There’s no mystery to any of this stuff. The only mystery is the chemistry amongst the individuals. As far as the process, it’s no big deal. When you have the chemistry, you don’t even have to know what you’re going to play. It’s like cooking. HR is going to bring some potatoes, Earl’s going to bring some wine, and I’m going to bring the fish. You get in the kitchen, and it’s like how you want to make this? Esceviche? You want brown stew? You want rice and peas? And you just do it!

Talking about this chemistry, there’s been times when you’ve worked with other drummers and singers. Is it tangible that the chemistry is stronger when it’s the four original guys?

DJ: Oh, absolutely! Me, Doc, Earl and HR are the Bad Brains. That’s the undeniable truth. Mackie (Jayson), Israel (Joseph I), and the guys who have worked with us, they are soldiers in Bad Brains, like if Bad Brains was Wu Tang. It’s not like HR wasn’t in Bad Brains when Israel was the singer. It’s like a family, and those are soldiers that fit in when the great spirit calls.

I know you have very strong spiritual beliefs and convictions, and it comes through in your music. What are your goals in communicating those ideas? Is it just a matter of spreading your ideas or are you trying to win people over to your way of thinking?

DJ: No, the idea is to metaphorically take the positive energy of the music we create and put it out into the world and have love do what it does in the world. When we get together, the core of our music is peace and love and the spreading of positive energy into the world. There’s negativity in the world. There are plusses and minuses, and we want to put out as many plusses as we can. So when we play music, we aren’t just entertaining. We are putting out positive energy to help ward off negative energy. It’s like a battle of good over evil.

What are your futures plans? Do you feel re-energized or is it going to be another five years before we get a record?

DJ: The concept of Bad Brains is always energized. It’s like nuclear. We aren’t a diesel or gas engine that will putter out. As far as our bodies, we are human like everyone else, but the core of our music and message, that’s like nuclear. It’s not going anywhere.