I went to go see the Canadian punk band Fucked Up a few weeks ago, and the influence of the seminal DC hardcore band Bad Brains was everywhere. Their self-titled 1982 debut was playing in between sets. Several kids were wearing Bad Brains t-shirts, including a kid in a tie-dyed shirt emblazoned with the band’s logo who nearly landed on my head from stage-diving. I was struck by how much Bad Brains resonates with the current crop of hardcore kids, none of whom were born when the band released their debut. Which is only right, given that they helped to invent hardcore. Not bad for a group of African-Americans who started out as a jazz-fusion band.
The Brains got their start in the late seventies in DC playing a mix of rock and jazz. After hearing what was coming out of the burgeoning punk scene, the group quickly got on board. Their first single, 1980s “Pay to Cum,” was seminal in many ways. “Pay to Cum,” along with the early EPs by Black Flag and the Germs, set the template for hardcore, and there are literally thousands of bands who essentially play different versions of that song. It was much faster than the majority of punk that preceded it. Guitarist Dr. Know belts out the riff at a lightening pace, and bassist Daryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson jump right in, laying down a song that is simple, melodic, and powerful. Singer Paul “H.R.” Hudson’s voice is the perfect complement to the music. He has a high voice not unlike reggae singer Horace Andy, and punctuates his words with yelps.
“I came to know with now dismay
That in this world we all must pay
Pay to write, pay to play
Pay to cum, pay to fight
And so it’s now we choose to fight
To stick up for our bloody right
The right to sing, the right to dance
The right is ours… We’ll take the chance
A peace together
A piece apart
A piece of wisdom
From our hearts”
It was the shot heard around the (punk) world, and it inspired generations of kids to pick up instruments and play louder and faster than the Ramones or the Sex Pistols ever dreamed of doing. Unlike fellow hardcore pioneers the Germs or Black Flag, the Bad Brains also kept their music melodic and positive, which is what makes them such a crucial group. Their most obvious successors were Minor Threat, comprised of fellow DC resident and avid Brains fan Ian MacKaye (and whose friend Henry Rollins went on to sing for Black Flag). The straight edge movement in punk, which is against drinking, drugs, and sex, can trace its roots back to Bad Brains – positive hardcore.
That positive bent is most clearly stated on “Attitude,” where the Bad Brains introduce the acronym “PMA,” which stands for “Positive Mental Attitude.” “Don’t care what they may say/We got that attitude!/We got that PMA!” Compare that to a song from the same period by New Jersey punks the Misfits also called “Attitude,” which had lines like “You got some fucking attitude…if you don’t shut your mouth, you’re gonna feel the floor.” The Bad Brains’ uplifting lyrics were a complete 180 from what their disgruntled white peers where singing about.
The Brains also had another unique wrinkle, besides being African-Americans in a primarily white scene. They were Rastas in a scene that largely despised religion. Their religion manifested itself not only in the uplifiting tone of their lyrics, which went against the grain of the nihilism and negativity that characterized much of punk, but in the reggae elements in their music. There are three reggae songs on their debut: the instrumental “Jah Calling,” and “Leaving Babylon” and “I Love Jah.” The mix of punk and reggae wasn’t totally new: the British punks had embraced reggae and dub, with groups like the Clash covering reggae songs and the Slits and Public Image Limited incorporating elements of reggae and dub in their music. However, while other bands had incorporated reggae in their punk, the Bad Brains were the first to put roots reggae songs on a punk album. To be honest, their riddims weren’t stellar and the songs are a jarring contrast to the punk tracks (which is why this album doesn’t get a perfect 10), but the Brains made the mixture of hardcore and reggae work better on subsequent albums.
Their Rasta beliefs led to controversy around the group. Like many Rasta musicians, they were sometimes outspokenly homophobic, which clashed with the values of the punk scene they were participating in. In recent interviews they have acknowledged the error of their overzealous opinions as young men, but it was something punks struggled with in the 80s and 90s. The punk scene was trying to fight against inequality, and these heroes of hardcore were espousing the same negative opinions of gays that the scene was working so hard to counter. If you do a search for “Bad Brains” and “homophobic,” you’ll come across countless articles and forum discussions about what it means and meant that the Bad Brains didn’t like gays. This is symptomatic of their status as outsiders in the genre. As much as they and their white fans promoted the ideals of unity and harmony, at the end of the day they were black men in a white scene, and sometimes their otherness was made very clear.
So what about the music? With the exception of the aforementioned reggae tracks, “Bad Brains” speeds along like a Formula 1 driver on amphetamines. Its fourteen tracks are over in thirty-three minutes, barely giving you enough time to catch your breath. Many of the elements of hardcore punk were set on this album: the chugging breakdowns, the metallic guitar elements and solos, and the extended instrumental intros. Thirty years later, there are still hundreds of bands following the template laid down by the Bad Brains.
So why am I writing about a punk band on a hip-hop site? While Bad Brains are not a hip-hop band, they have left a mark on hip-hop. The Beastie Boys were early fans: it was the Brains who inspired the Beasties to form a band, and Beastie Boys albums always include at least one Brains-inspired burst of hardcore. They also sampled the Bad Brains’ “Big Takeover” on “So What’Cha Want.” The Roots paid homage to the Bad Brains on “!!!!!” off of “Phrenology,” as did Mos Def on “Rock N’ Roll.” P.O.S.’s mix of hardcore and hip-hop clearly owes at least some debt to the Brains, and Rage Against the Machine were inspired by the Brains as well.
Fans of punk have to own this album: it is one of the essential, canonical punk albums. It’s also an amazing album, full of energy and passion. It sounds as relevant today as the day it was released. It was originally a cassette-only release that I never tracked down at the height of my punk days. The first time I heard the album was when I downloaded an electronic copy four years ago, and despite the fact that my punk rock days are largely a thing of a past, I’ve kept this album on steady rotation.
There is nothing hip-hop on “Bad Brains,” and if you aren’t interested in punk, you won’t like Bad Brains. But even if you don’t care about punk music, Bad Brains are an important band to know about. They were highly influential both in the punk scene and in hip-hop, and have left a huge mark on underground music. They added a needed dose of diversity and an alternative perspective to the primarily white genre of punk, and are proof of the positive impacts of multiculturalism. Punk would have been a much more boring and homogeneous genre without the Bad Brains’ sonic and lyrical contributions. Most important, they rocked, and none of their many imitators ever improved upon the near-perfection of their debut.