Even after 33 years, Bad Brains are still one of the most prominent acts in the history of American punk rock. Formed in 1977 by four African-American youths just hanging out in Washington, D.C., the quartet fronted by H.R. (aka Paul Hudson) plied its craft throughout the '80s, creating a fascinating catalog of hardcore punk that remains unrivaled and vastly influential today—probably because it wasn't trying to be anything in particular.
"We never thought of ourselves as black youths," bassist Darryl Jennifer says, speaking from a studio in Woodstock, New York, where he is working on a solo album. "We were kids just like any other kids. We got together to jam and went from there."
Introduced to Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols, Jennifer and the rest of the band found something in the intensity of metal and punk that fit their restless mindset. They began writing furious songs at a furious pace, releasing their then-cassette-only self-titled effort in 1982.
"Pay to Cum," one of the tracks off the debut, remains one of the hardcore punk's most celebrated songs all these years later.
"At first, we didn't play our instruments that well," says Jennifer. "So we played fast and it just felt right."
As the years went on, Bad Brains became notorious for their live shows, where violence would so often erupt that the band was quickly banned from performing in its home town. "Banned in D.C.," another song from their debut release, chronicles this time in the band's history.
"Our music is spiritual-based," says Jennifer who, like the rest of the band, is Rastafarian. "The audiences sometime misinterpret our energy. You would get these thugs—these skinheads—wanting to punch and fight. We never encouraged it."
In 1985, Bad Brains signed with renowned Los Angles punk label SST. A year later they released I Against I, the band's most varied and far-reaching album.
"We were becoming better players," says Jennifer. "And that album had a life of its own."
I Against I showed a band unafraid of moving away from punk by forging a unique and uncompromising metal, funk and rock hybrid that remains a challenging listen some 25 years after its release. Yet even though the band was at its creative zenith, trouble was brewing: Lead singer H.R., a notoriously temperamental sort, wanted the band to go in a reggae direction. He quit the band in 1989, but returned in 1993.
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By that time, though, Bad Brains' moment had passed.
"Playing music is like a war," says Jennifer. "You don't always go to battle with the same general."
Still, through the years, even with only three albums released since 1995, Bad Brains have remained a steady concert draw. But there may be another album on the way, Jennifer says.
"You never know where the spirit will lead you," he says. "We've been together for so long, there's no telling what we might do."