Bad Brains: Power Of The Spirit

Listen to Bad Brains on Rhapsody...

By Martin Halo

Bad Brains by Frank Ockenfels
Under the guidance of a higher power and exalting the swagger of genre forging tunesmiths, the legacy and influential power of Bad Brains is undeniable. They were the apex, the standard of punk mixed with dub resulting in a following that reflected their scene domination and huge influence on their peers.

Formed in Washington DC in 1979, the Brains' original core lineup, consisting of Doctor Know (guitar), H.R. (vox), Darryl Aaron Jenifer (bass) and Earl Hudson (drums), released a string of mystic recordings littered with white punk, funk, soul, metal and reggae – all accented with Ethiopian religious overtones.

Constant internal creative struggles within the band forced the original members to split and pursue different musical directions in 1989. But, their legend endured. Reuniting for a brief time in 1995 with H.R. and Earl Hudson, Bad Brains recorded the reggae infused God of Love. The reunion didn't last and they soon disbanded again. A decade later, following the power of "The Spirit," the core fellowship is back together for Build A Nation (out June 26 on Megaforce Records). The album is a return to the bombastic rawness of Bad Brains' revered '80s recordings Attitude: The ROIR Sessions and Rock For Light.

Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys oversaw the sessions as acting producer. Within the confines of his home studio, Yauch harvested the Brains' creative energies in an act of artistic transcendence through the limbs of physical essence.

Founder Dr. Know provides commentary from his home in Woodstock, New York, and Adam Yauch took a few minutes to discuss the clandestine narrative of the new record's fabrication.

They were the first band to really push the tempo that far... The chord progressions they put together came a lot from jazz-fusion and from hearing funk records.

-Adam Yauch on the Bad Brains' ground-breaking sound



JamBase: Bad Brains is back together. How the hell did this happen?

Adam Yauch
Adam Yauch: You know over the years, they keep splitting up and reuniting. It is really par for the course. There is a lot of tension in that band and I guess that is what adds to it.

JamBase: What was going on for you personally and creatively leading up to the time that Bad Brains approached you about the sessions?

Adam Yauch: Well it wasn't too long after 9/11, and I had just kind of finished building a studio with Adam [Horovitz] and Mike D. I had started working a little bit on the To the 5 Boroughs album. We then decided to take a long break. I guess Mike wanted to go to the West Coast. So, I talked to Darryl [Aaron Jenifer] and he was saying that Bad Brains were thinking about recording. I had some free time, so I just said, "Hey, you guys should just come record in my studio and we can work on it together."

What were the sessions like as far as the atmosphere and the connectivity between you guys?

It was pretty intense. Those guys definitely have a specific energy when they play together that you can feel in the room right away. There is something about the way those guys play music together that is amazing. Words don't really do it justice. There is something unique being made outside of the realm of words.

Was there anything specific that you tried to bring to the sessions?

I think a big part of what I was trying to do was to get the sounds the way I remember them sounding when I was a kid. I felt like a lot of the later recordings seemed too clean, like there used to be certain rawness. Maybe it was because they had crappy amplifiers and the amps were distorting. I remember the bass being particularly distorted and there was a certain type of compression because they were using cheaper PAs. I can remember the whole band blaring out of the PA at CBGB's. Sometimes through the recording process you can end up getting the sound almost too clean. Getting a direct bass recording or how the drums were mic'd was a big part of what I was trying to get at, back to that sound that I remember.

You guys played out at the Gorge Festival a couple weeks ago. From your perspective how was the Bad Brains project received?

People seemed really into it. It was a good crowd. It was actually pretty funny though to see a bunch of hippies dancing around and stuff, which is really not the way I remember Bad Brains. It wasn't seeing them at CBGB's in 1980 [laughs].

What effect has Bad Brains had on American music?

Adam Yauch by Christina Radish
I may be wrong on this, but from my perspective, I think they were really the first band to really push the tempo that far. I think there was punk music and hardcore was born out of the firing Phoenix kind of burning up. Hardcore emerged from that. I think that Bad Brains were very influential in pushing the tempo up as far as they did. They were much more intense musicians with the level of their musicianship, and their influences were much more diverse. So, what they brought to it in terms of their chord progressions was very different. The chord progressions they put together came a lot from jazz-fusion and from hearing funk records - forms of music that a lot of other kids were not growing up on.

A lot of the other people that were playing punk probably just listened to punk before, or they were listening to the Beatles, the Stones and Jimi Hendrix when they were younger. The influences the Brains were bringing were crazy, just the syncopation of the changes and the technical aspect of what they were doing. Even lyrically, they were on a whole different level. On a lot of levels they are a completely unique and innovative band. On top of that, they got so into their Rasta religion and the way that affects the music. The fact that they went back and forth from playing straight dub to hardcore shows a certain pacing that other bands didn't have.

Continue reading for our conversation with Dr. Know...

This isn't about success. It's about "each one, teach one." The Father uses us as a tool to inspire other positive-ness and consciousness. He inspires us and we influence and the trickle down effect happens. That is what it is ultimately about.

-Dr. Know

Photo by Frank Ockenfels


JamBase: Is the Doctor there please?

Dr. Know: This is the Doctor.

JamBase: What originally made you fall in love with music?

Bad Brains
Dr. Know: That is a good one. To answer that question, it is the spirit. I know who I am - I am a blessed person, and I don't take that for granted. Everybody is a blessed person, you just have to find your niche. It just so happens that I found my niche. It is good that you asked me that question because I am a musician but I am more of a people person. Some people think I play great guitar but I think I suck. But I have my niche. Do you hear me? You are getting the real shit because you asked the right question.

I hope I continue to ask the right questions.

This is how I feel about myself. I feel I am blessed. I can speak through music, I can speak through words, but my words are my music.

Did you grow up in a musical household?

No, nothing like that.

Then where did the music thing come from?

Bad Brains by Justina :: 1982
It just came. I used to play the bass and it just came when I was fifteen years old. That is what I am saying - I know I have been blessed, that is a gift. I am not the best, but who is the best? That is something you have to take totally with a grain of salt. Listen, you don't have to be a musician. You could be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever it is you are. Everybody has their gift, and my gift isn't to be able to play guitar.

Then what would you consider your gift to be?

My gift is being able to voice myself via the guitar but it really is being able to talk to people who are inspiring. There are a lot of guitar players who come up to me and ask me how I figured stuff out. And the thing is I don't figure things out. I never try to. I opened up my spirit and my soul. I am being receptive to let it just come in. You could go into the preconceived thing, which we all kind of do anyway, but there is this other side where you just let the vibes flow.

Do you think something like passion is important?

Okay, if you want to use the word passion, but I am going to the next level of that. I don't practice. I should but it is not my thing. I am very motivated from spontaneity. What we do with the band is we sit down and write songs while we are looking at each other. Somebody will do something, I will play something or Darryl or Earl or H.R. will sing, however it goes and then we just go with that vibe.

How did the social climate in DC affect your music when you were starting out?

We were kids, and we were just trying to figure it all out. We didn't know. This is the key point. We didn't know nothing and "The Spirit" guided us. We were able to follow what "The Spirit" was telling us to do. Do you know what I am saying?

That is heavy man.

Bad Brains
Yeah, that is right! That is how we function and we have always functioned like that.

When you reunited with the original lineup was it "The Spirit" that brought you guys together?

Man, everything is "The Spirit." Everything is The Father. As far as getting back together, we never broke up. We just chill. We have been doing this a long time. Everybody has to pursue different things and what "The Spirit" does is say, "Okay, all you brothers need to get together right now and do this," whether it is one gig, 10 gigs or 40 gigs.

Describe the sessions for this new record?

It was with our brother Yauch man. Yauch is a very, very good friend of ours, all of the Beasties [too]. He is a very good friend. So, that's how "The Spirit" works. That is how the sessions came together and Yauch was an influence. Adam was great. He has been a friend for many years. I think we have known him since he was 18 years old, and that is the same with the band. We have known each other from when we were sixteen.

Well that is cool you guys grew up together.

Yeah we did, that is right, we did.

You guys got roots in each other and shit.

That is right.

We have all seen American music change over the past couple generations, and I was wondering if you ever had any doubts about the validity of American music?

Bad Brains
Doubts, which were viable in terms of musical forms? What do you mean doubts?

We kind of have this gray area now in music where artists have never been more disconnected to the social expectations of what people expect from their music.

You know, I don't know anything about that because I purposely don't pay attention to that stuff. That is just me personally. I remember when Paula Abdul got busted out and Milli Vanilli.

I personally find that very inspiring for an artist to not really follow the trends of what is going on around them and to just do what they do. I think people crave and need believability in art. I just wanted to ask you with all of this music that is corporately influenced in modern culture, I was wondering if you still feel that American music is valid.

Well, it is not just American music. For me I listen to country and western, jazz, rock and funk, any form of music when it comes from the heart. I think in these times that we live in people are looking for conviction with music because music carries a torch. The scriptures talk about that. Music is a positive thing, and the world that we live in is a very precarious place. Everybody is worried about what is the next step. Hopefully a lot of the musicians in these times will get some consciousness. It is not [just] American music. This is a very important thing to me because here we are now. The Brains have lived through that whole separatism, racism and all of the isms. Bob [Marley] talked about that way back when because music is the unification of the world.

The people.

Bad Brains by Glen E. Friedman :: 1981
The people, right. We just need to break down the barriers. Here I am 20 years later and people are still concerned about the world with Global Warming and all of these things prophets like Bob spoke about. It wasn't about what job you have or what color you are. It is about... [pauses]. Look, the water ain't good no more. The air ain't good no more. People are more aware today because we live in the information age and it's these times.

You talk about bringing the music to the people. What perspective do you think the Bad Brains project stood for and meant to people?

First and foremost, this is not a project - this is our lives. This is very important. This is not a project. This is what we do. A lot of times when I do interviews people ask me what I think about the success of the Beasties. How am I supposed to answer that? This isn't about success. It's about "each one, teach one." The Father uses us as a tool to inspire other positive-ness and consciousness. He inspires us and we influence and the trickle down effect happens. That is what it is ultimately about. Here we are, 20 years later and we are working with Yauch. We got a new record coming out and we are going to be doing some shows. You can't plan something like this and that is what is about. This is our works, and everybody has their gift.

When you are standing onstage what does it feel like when music is flowing through you?

I am a different person. I am in another space. If I have to use a word, I don't want to say "euphoria" but I am a different person. We just do what we do. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is hard. We have to factor in the musicianship, but we try hard to work within the moment. It is about the intimacy of the music. When I am on the road I am one with the music. Would you rather see us at Madison Square Garden or CBGB's? When we played CB's you could see our faces and it wasn't on a fucking screen. Our best gigs happen, we find most success, in 1,000 seat venues. They work really well for us.

JamBase | NYC
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All Loving Liberal White Guy starstarstarstarstar Tue 6/26/2007 01:19PM
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All Loving Liberal White Guy

FRIGGIN SWEET!!! I'm feeling defiantly ire reading this. Awesome job Martin. Be sure to catch H.R. on any of his solo shows too with DUBB AGENTS if they come through your town. Be warned though, he'll cuss out anybody in the crowd if they're talking during his set and tell them to show some respect. Good tunes though. Can't wait to hear thier new album.

HoodooVoodoo Tue 6/26/2007 04:31PM
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jcolb16 Tue 6/26/2007 07:46PM
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Kayceman Wed 6/27/2007 11:37AM
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Lots of Rastas (and other men of faith) often talk about "The Spirit" - it's really nothing new... some think we are all led by "The Spirit.

PCPrabbit Wed 6/27/2007 12:24PM
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AHAHA. thanks kayceman for putting his words in percpetive. This guy has been on the scene since '79 and is 100% rasta. Everyone, every musician, and people of all religions have different ways of being inspired to create music. This is just this guys. Not agreeing with it is one thing, but calling someone an idiot for being spiritual about their music and lifestyle is pretty ignorant.

HOPEFULPHAN starstarstar Wed 6/27/2007 12:43PM
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nobody knows what im talkin about, yeah thats right my names yauch.

All Loving Liberal White Guy Wed 6/27/2007 12:53PM
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All Loving Liberal White Guy

Whether you agree with their faith or not, Bad Brains has always been mad righttious. Although, their worhsip of the dead dictator Halie Saliese (who even Marcus Garvy said was a complete fraud) kind of seems outlandish to most old school punk rockers who shy away from religious dogma, Bad Brains rock mad hard and infuse a spirit of utter craziness that captures everyone at their shows. You may not agree with what they say or what they worship but if thats what it takes for them to make good music than it cant be all that bad. No matter what you think of Dr. Know, go see a Bad Brains show and you won't be dissappointed. Did anybody happen to catch them on that Rocks off boat show in NYC?

roberto767 Wed 6/27/2007 01:03PM
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PCPrabbit Wed 6/27/2007 01:08PM
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a lot of bands do punk and reggae now. these guys were the first.

DeliriousD420 starstarstarstar Wed 6/27/2007 03:34PM
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One thing I've learned living in a world of so many religions and faiths is not to judge what someone actually believes in, but respect them for how they choose to live their life. I myself don't believe in any faith but I agree with many believes that religions teach, or how they choose to view life. Like the "each one, teach one" mentioned in the interview is a great example of how religion can help inspire and be a benchmark on how to live ones life.

21mmer Thu 6/28/2007 03:58PM
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i'll def. check this out. old school bad brains is sweetness. "how low can a punk get" may be my favorite punk tune. word to the bad brains.

sussio Thu 6/28/2007 08:28PM
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Best band in the world, enough said

HoodooVoodoo Thu 6/28/2007 09:36PM
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nuke_ticketbastard starstarstarstarstar Fri 6/29/2007 09:26AM
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nobody can or will do what they were doing when they were hitting on all cylinders , very few bands are punk anymore , punk died , but the bad brains are back (again )

snappy Sat 6/30/2007 04:50AM
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As someone who hit his teenage years just as Bad Brains started putting out records I can assure you they came across like wonderful punk-reggae aliens then and I think they retain their strange magnificence today. Bad Brains ties togther Rasta and punk concepts, bridging a gap most assume can't be bridged. They helped teach a bunch of us that there's lots of ways to kneel and praise God including shouts, feedback and raw energy.

djseraphim starstarstarstarstar Mon 7/2/2007 01:37PM
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One of my favorite articles on JamBase so far! I didn't know BadBrains were back together, and being a huge Beastie fan this is really cool...

MiWi La Lupa starstarstarstarstar Thu 7/5/2007 12:27PM
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MiWi La Lupa

Bad Brains! The Rocks Off boat was Slammin'! Wasn't sure if the crowd would mosh, but they did. Jumping of the railings into the pit was the best to watch. Even on the Dub tunes. Thanks for writing this article. More people should know about the Brains. The new Album sounds incredible! Check it, check them and Check yourself, haters. Bad Brains brings it! Peace

Ned8 starstarstarstar Tue 7/10/2007 02:01PM
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Hey... This band is as good s it gets when meshing dub with the harder edge. The Dr is an innovative guitaist and I hope HR stays right with his health to make it last with no drama. Lrd knows the rest of the guys have put up with a lot. Mental illness is sad but some of the most talented people in this world have some issues. People be sensativeto that

projectobject starstarstarstar Fri 7/20/2007 05:23PM
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They kick ass!! So happy they are back with both barrels blastin'. They broke the mold and influenced 100s of bands!! Fill your collection with BAD BRAINS!! And get some veggies and Fruit at Dr. Know's produce stand in Woodstock..