Photo by Frank Okenfels III
When it comes to bands who’ve
altered the course of musical
history with mind-blowing
creativity and yet somehow never really gotten
their due, Bad Brains is right up there
with Spirit, the Velvet Underground, Moby
Grape, and the Stooges. Despite these
bands’ stylistic differences, each shares the
distinction of dragging modern music kicking
and screaming in a fresh new direction
and heavily influencing countless bands
that went on to greater fame and fortune.
To be fair, in the case of Bad Brains, the
fault wasn’t entirely that of fate or a fickle
music industry. The band’s lack of mainstream
success has had at least as much
to do with their two-edged eclecticism
and the unpredictability and substance-abuse
issues of lead singer Paul “H.R.”
Hudson—a savant who, in his heyday,
could seamlessly channel the most alluring
elements of Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley,
Johnny Rotten, and a rabid old-school hip-hop
Formed in Washington, D.C., in 1977,
the Brains began as a Return to Forever and
jazz-fusion outfit called Mind Power.
But then the four—H.R., drummer
brother Earl Hudson, guitarist Gary “Dr.
Know” Miller (aka “Doc”), and bassist
Darryl Jenifer—got turned on to Black
Sabbath, the Damned, Bob Marley, and
the Ramones (a song by the latter inspired
their name change). Just as importantly,
they all joined the Rastafari spiritual
movement, which would henceforth
imbue their work with a message of peace,
positivity, and perseverance.
Even so, within two years of their newfound
fascination with raging volume,
seemingly incongruous genres, and “the
Great Spirit,” Bad Brains had been banned
from most D.C. clubs because of their
raucous stage performances. And though
Jenifer, Doc, and Co. went into the studio
soon after relocating to New York City in
1980, the reverb-drenched reggae-punk
tunes from those dates inexplicably laid
dormant until the 1997 release of The
Omega Sessions EP. Consequently, Bad
Brains’ first official album was 1982’s eponymous
ROIR Records release—a debut
chock-full of breakneck beats, raging power
chords, raw-toned shredding, and bass lines
so thrash-tastic they make your hands hurt
just listening to them.
Bad Brains Must-Hear Moments
You can’t call a band legendary and then leave people hanging around with no proof.
Check out these tunes on Spotify, YouTube, iTunes, Rhapsody, or your MP3 store of choice.
“Stay Close to Me”
The Omega Sessions (1980)
Gary “Dr. Know” Miller’s tastefully restrained chukka-chukka reggae
rhythms float atop a warm wave of reverb, alternating with crunchy
power-chord stabs in the choruses, while Darryl Jenifer’s bass lines
bob and slither irresistibly, and H.R.’s vocals paint a picture of a
“Big Take Over”
Bad Brains (1982)
Doc layers Morse code-like pickup-pole tapping over a tapped lick
on the intro to this barnburner before Jenifer and drummer Earl
Hudson jump in with a relentlessly pulsating drive. At 2:14, Miller
augments his feedback-soaked solo with subtle wah.
Rock for Light (1983)
Working with the Cars’ Ric Ocasek in the studio, Bad Brains redid
a few tunes from their previous album, including “Rock for Light.”
The whole album shifts a bit more toward metal, and at 1:30 on this
track Doc rips out a solo with a catchy pull-off lick punctuated by
bent notes that offer a breather before he shreds his way up the
“Return to Heaven”
I Against I (1986)
Doc starts things off with a reverse whammy-bar dive and an
angular progression before the song settles into a midtempo funkmetal
groove of the sort that actually does both genres justice.
H.R.’s vocals vacillate between ethereal and swirling jungle calls,
and at 1:50 Doc’s razor-toned solo begins and ends with hummable,
impeccably timed triplets and climaxes in the middle with a
rapid-fire staccato lick.
H.R. rejoined the Brains after Jenifer and Doc cut the instrumental
tracks with Cro-Mags drummer Mackie Jayson and singer Taj
Singleton, but thankfully they swapped the latter’s tracks with lastminute
H.R. cuts. The result is a powerhouse riff fest with snarling
vocals, raging artificial harmonics, a lyrical, delay-drenched solo,
and a totally moshable groove.
“Let There Be Angels”
Build a Nation (2007)
Whereas so many artists mellow out and settle down as they age,
Doc, Jennifer, and Earl Hudson send that notion to the afterlife on
this number from the Adam Yauch-produced album—it positively
seethes with some of their fastest, tightest, and most ferociously
chugging grooves ever.
Their 1983 follow-up, Rock for Light,
was produced by the Cars’ Ric Ocasek
and featured a more metallic edge, but
it wasn’t until 1986’s I Against I that the
band got any real visibility. Produced by
Ron Saint Germain (Sonic Youth, Living
Colour, 311), it boasted a masterful blend
of dynamics, a more organic-feeling interweaving
of styles, and an overall looser,
funkier vibe—all complemented by just the
right amount of studio polish. It got airplay
on MTV and had an undeniable influence
on bands like Living Colour, Fishbone, and
But from that point onward, H.R.’s
eclectic personality, itinerant tendencies,
and desire to focus more on reggae/dub,
world music, and jazz, pretty much threw a
monkey wrench in Bad Brains’ plans every
time things got going in their favor with
major labels and high-profile advocates
within the industry. He and drummer/brother Earl left and returned to the fold
multiple times over the years, and each
time Jenifer and Dr. Know would soldier
on with various frontmen and drummers,
none of whom could hold a candle to H.R.
H.R. hasn’t changed a whole lot in the
new millennium, either. The 56-year-old is
as unpredictable as ever (at a 2006 CBGB's
show, he showed up wearing a bulletproof
vest, a motorcycle helmet, and a headset
mic that made it difficult to hear anything
he said), but when he’s guided by a steady
hand in the studio—as he was by the late
Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (aka MCA) for
2007’s Build a Nation—he’s stepped up to
the plate and helped Doc (now 54), Jenifer
(52), and brother Paul (55) hit it out of
Last November, the legendary foursome
released their 10th studio album, Into the
Future. While the vitality and seething
energy of H.R.’s youth is understandably
in short supply—he’s now more inclined
than ever toward reggae-flavored paeans to
“PMA” (positive mental attitude)—he still
turns in dynamic performances like only he
could. Meanwhile, Doc, Jenifer, and Paul
Hudson flex their juggernaut chops in all
the ways die-hard Brains fans wanted them
to—and then some.
We recently spoke with Jenifer and Doc
about the sessions for the new album, their
go-to gear, and their long, storied career as
hardcore legends fighting to get their due.
Into the Future is stacked to the gills
with the sorts of inimitable Bad Brains
grooves that no other trio of musicians
on the planet can replicate—even when
the progressions are simple. What do you
attribute that to?
Darryl Jenifer: We started out in our teens
and early 20s, and it’s about building chemistry.
Our chemistry goes way back to, like,
1978. We’ve played together for so many
years that it doesn’t really matter about the
notes—it’s just the combination of our different
sensibilities about what we’re doing.
When we go to break it down to mosh
sections of chunk, the way Doc mutes his
guitar, the way I like to hear chords and
octaves—it’s all about our sensibilities. It
just comes from playing together—and
struggling together, more than anything.
I shouldn’t even say “playing together,”
because a lot of cats can play together but
they never really develop a chemistry. It’s
about struggling together, living together,
and trying to achieve your goals. I think any
combination of musicians can achieve that.
Gary “Doc” Miller: That’s what it’s about.
We went to school together, we’ve known each
other for 40 years or more, and we’re brothers—and H.R. and Earl are siblings. [Laughs.]
It’s personal and spiritual—it’s all connected.
Does that “chemistry” extend beyond just
Jenifer: I’m talking about lifestyle chemistry—growing up with each other, knowing
if a cat’s grumpy or likes to joke all the time
or if one guy’s serious. All these personality
traits come together when we sit down
to make music, because we’re brethren—brothers together. We get angry with each
other, we get joyful with each other, and
all of that comes through in the music.
When we say, “All right, Doc, we’re going
to go from G to G# and then we’re going
to break it down here and do this and then
take off really fast”—once we communicate
that to one another, then our chemistry of
knowing and loving each other and going
through shit with each other takes over and,
thus, you have the Bad Brains sound.
Doc, you were a pretty accomplished
fusion bassist before switching to guitar
in the mid to late ’70s, right?
Jenifer: He was a very proficient bass
player. Like, way better than I was—than
I am. Doc is sick on the bass. He was the
dude that everybody wanted to play like
when we were coming up as teenagers. He
was so good on the bass that I didn’t even
want to go around when he was there. He
could play all that Graham Central Station
stuff—like “Hair”—the way it really sounded
on the record.
Doc: Yeah, I used to play the bass back in
the day, and Darryl used to play the guitar.
We were in garage bands playing funk covers
Did starting out on bass make you
approach guitar differently when you
Doc: Absolutely, absolutely. It made me a
foundation and made me a good rhythm
guitar player. It made me understand music
from the roots. A lot of times I write on the
bass or I think like a bassist—I think about
holding it down. Both of us are like that.
Darryl is like a rhythm guitarist and bass
player in one. Every time I play with other
bass players, I’m, like, “Where’s the oomph?”
That’s why we never took on another guitar
player, and that’s why I do my rhythms and
my leads the way I do—because Darryl just
holds it down.
Which players inspired you guys in the
Doc: I was really influenced by players like
Verdine White [Earth, Wind & Fire] and
Stanley Clarke. It was, like, “Damn—these
dudes are out there.” Verdine is crazy. I
used to dibble and dabble in the fusion of
the early ’70s, too. I’d wear those records
out trying to see what the hell was going
on there. [Laughs.] Return to Forever was
definitely influential on guitar and bass. It
was inspirational for me to start playing the
guitar when Al Di Meola got in [Return
to Forever], because he was so young and
such a badass. I was, like, “Yeah, uh-huh—I
could do this.” [Laughs.] I liked all the
Return to Forever guitarists—Bill Connors,
Johnny Mac [McLaughlin]. I liked Allan
Holdsworth. On bass, it was Larry Graham.
I had the beautiful opportunity to see all
these people over the course of a five-year
span. We saw Earth, Wind & Fire four or
five times, and P-Funk played every month
in their heyday in D.C. Yes, Zappa, Thin
Lizzy, Graham, and all the funk and soul
stuff—Tower of Power. You name it, we
saw it. It was all happening, every week.
Jenifer: As far as rock, it was Sabbath
and “Iron Man” and shit like that—but I
also grew up with a lot of stuff like John
McLaughlin and Return to Forever. That
was out when I was young—15 and 16. I
listened to a lot of music-school cats when I
was coming up, but also a lot of Motown.
You’ll be stoked to hear we’ve got an interview
with Larry Graham in this issue.
Jenifer: That’s my hero! Without him, I
wouldn’t be nobody on the bass. Without
Graham, there’s no DJ, to tell you the truth.
Between him and [James] Jamerson. . . .
Darryl, you started as a guitarist—how
did that come about?
Jenifer: I had a cousin that played the guitar,
and I was really young—about eight years
old—and he had a band, a funkster sort of
band, and I found it fascinating. All the amps
and the chrome and all the sparkling stuff—I
just got attracted to it at a very young age.
My cousin told me if I could learn to play
something then he would let me play in the
band. He wound up selling me his guitar,
and I taught myself how to play stuff like
“Get Ready” by the Temptations—just the
first part, like [hums opening riff]. And then
it grew into a competitive thing, like, going
into the alley—back then it wasn’t about rapping
and all. I’d be out there and I’d say, “I
can play Ohio Players” or whatever. And then
you’d run in the house and get your guitar
and come back out to the alley and show off
that you can play little parts.
How long after that did you start
Jenifer: When I was about 12, the guitar
went in the closet and I started playing with
model cars and riding my bike. Then when
I got to be about 13, I pulled it back out
and got into bands around my neighborhood.
I was in a little band called the Young
Explorers, and we were playing early-’70s
funk. I played rhythm guitar, but every
time the band would take a break, I would
ask the bass guy, “Can I play your bass?” I
used to pay him sometimes—“I’ll give you
three dollars if you let me play your bass for
a little while!” [Laughs.]
Darryl Jenifer with his go-to ’81 Modulus graphite bass at the Virgin Festival in Baltimore, Maryland,
on August 5, 2007. Photo by Eddie Malluk
Do you think it affected your style to start
out on guitar and then switch to bass?
Jenifer: Because I was a rhythm guitarist
and I was tuned in to Sly and the Family
Stone—“Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice
Elf Agin)” and all that—I think it gave me
a certain insight. I really know the inner
workings of the motion between rhythm
and bass. Some people hear me say that
I’m not a musician. I give musicians credit
because they took the time to learn music
[theory] and all that, but I have the knack to
lay it down. To lay it down is different than
knowing music. There are a lot of cats that
know music, but they don’t know how to
lay it down. My whole career has been about
inventing my own style on the fretboard. I
look at the fretboard like Braille, in a way—it never meant notes, like, G and F and B
and C to me. I guess I had ADD or something,
because I never really cared about it in
that way. I only cared about it in the way of
creating these little passages and movements.
When you joined up with Doc and the
rest of the band, the roles were a little different
than now, right?
Jenifer: When we got together, Doc was on
guitar and H.R. was playing bass, and Earl
was playing drums. They had a fusion group
called Mind Power, but we all went to the
same high school and hung out in the same
places. Being brothers and dudes in the hood
and all playing music, we all knew each
other. H.R. wanted to be the singer, so he
said, “Let’s get Darryl to play bass.” Earl was
just developing his fusion sensibilities, Doc
was kind of getting into being an intellectual
kind of guitarist—wanting to bring some
sort of spirituality and thoughtfulness to his
playing. He didn’t want to be a shredder. We
wanted to be musicians, not just dudes playing
some shake-your-rump-type shit.
So when we were on this thinking-man’s
jazz-fusion trip, I was still listening to rock
music, but my buddy Sid McCray came
over to my crib and had the Ramones and
all that stuff, and I thought it was loud
and cool. Having a fusion background and
aspiring to be like Return to Forever, and
then hearing the Ramones, I just said, “Yo,
if cats think this is fast, watch this.” What
punk rock brought was a certain freedom
to riffs. Bad Brains took the freedom and
the raucousness and the roughness of punk
rock, but brought a little thoughtfulness to