Bad Brains needs no introduction to anyone who has sat in a high school classroom the past 30 years. Inevitably some young man or woman with tight black jeans and patches on their black denim jacket wandered in with a Bad Brains lightning bolt either scribbled across a notebook or held onto a bicycle bag with two rusty safety pins. For those who discovered them early on, their career it must have been equally as fascinating to see the rise of gangsta rap and other forms of hip hop grow in popularity.
Save for Living Color and other notable African American punk bands -- Detroit's recently rediscovered Death, for example -- punk has for the most part has primarily remained a 'white' thing. It's interesting then that the band not only grew in popularity as the decades progressed -- even being forced to record under the moniker 'Soul Brains' for most of the nineties due to a legal entanglement, but are arguably the godfathers of what is referred to as "Hardcore." And yet, this is one of many styles and directions they explored during their long and continuing career. No matter what others (ahem, journalists) have piled on top of the altar of meaning that is Bad Brains, they maintain they are a spiritual band above all else.
Bassist Darryl Jennifer recently said in an interview with Punknews.org in which he was asked yet again about homophobic statements they made almost two decades before, and have continuously recanted and claimed youthful ignorance over:
I've seen a whole bunch of people hating like, "Fuck them, they hate gays." And I'm like, "Wow, that aint' so." In short, no one in The Bad Brains hates gays, we love all god's children. To someone who wants to hate and continue the rumor and put their energy into it, fine, if that's what they want to do. What were going to do is keep a PMA, stay positive and do what we do, till the wheels fall off.
Bad Brains didn't need to then, but from here on out, musically, they have nothing left to defend.
An interview with Dr. Know of Bad Brains
Nikki Darling: Although Bad Brains is critically lauded, there are always new listeners. Could you give a brief history as to what your lives were like back in DC when you guys first came together as Mind Power, and how that transformed into Bad Brains?
Dr. Know: Well, we were basically a garage band like all other bands out there trying to play some music, and we were in the garage, shredding, wood shredding, and then the spirit of the Father, Padre, ran through us and put us in the stream. We did not know what was around the corner but He set us on our way.
ND: Is it true that you got the name for the band from a Ramones lyric?
DK: No, Bad Brains as in good brains. We were called Mind Power and we flipped it, we said, what's the opposite of Mind Power? Bad Brains. Do you know what I mean about 'bad' being 'good?'
ND: Oh yes, I understand. It's one of the great band names of all time.
DK: Well, thank you. Yeah, we was playing funk and stuff and then we started playing rock n roll. Bad Brains, it sounded better. It made more sense.
ND: Oh yes. How do you guys feel about the term 'hardcore'? Do you identify as hardcore? Because in away you're sort of the godfathers for what is commonly referred to as 'hardcore punk.'
DK: The term got coined and now it's a part of the terminology. But we were just playing music and people said it wasn't per se 'punk rock' so they called it 'hardcore.' Look, punk is a youth movement.
ND: So you don't have a problem with it?
DK: Oh no, it's just music.
ND: So as an African American punk band that was politically charged and socially motivated in the late 1970s early 1980s, what was your reaction to early rap and groups like NWA and what would eventually become gangsta rap? Were you surprised that more African American kids didn't go the punk route? Was it surreal to watch it happen?
DK: Well, it's all about youth rebellion, and the youth is always looking for a way to get to a better place, to go against the status quo, to fight back. Punk, gangsta rap, it doesn't matter, it's all relative. It depends on the neighborhood you grew up, what's going down. It all comes down to self-education, realizing that you can say no to corrupt authorities. That's what it's all about.
ND: Personally, what did you think of it? Did you support it?
DK: Personally? I just saw it as the next wave of sound, you got reggae, trotting out their sound and then there was punk and rap was the same thing, just another way to voice what was going on. It was just the natural process. The next thing comes out and then the next.
ND: As a band that has lived through a lot in the past 30 plus years trying to bring attention to the plight of African Americans in this country, how to do you view the past election? What are your feelings on President Obama?
DK: Well, first off we've always considered ourselves more of a spiritual band than political band, but I know what you mean and actually we played a show the night Obama was elected in DC and you know I came from there so it was really great. But it ain't easy, nobody said it's over. All the 'power boys' are still running it. Don't get fooled by a black president. I don't want to call him a token, that's not right, but it's not over. The Man is still in control, know what I'm saying? The Man will have his day though, his time will come, The Man can't go on forever.
ND: How important do you think a spiritual journey is to punk rock? Do you think punk is empty if it doesn't have something to tether itself in larger context?
DK: I think it just depends on where you are with your life. We all have our lessons to learn and the key is to learn from the lessons and hope that the spirit opens your mind. Lets just put it this way, I hope that when people do things, they do them with meaning. You seek you find.