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 emcee.
Formed in Washington, D.C., in 1977, the Brains began as a Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra-inspired 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.
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 the Deftones.
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. and Earl.
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 the park.
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 and whatnot.
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 the musicianship.