Mention the name "Bad Brains" to anyone today and you will likely get an eye-opening and overwhelmingly positive response. Considered by some to be the "holy grail" of punk rock, Bad Brains have a pure and quintessential attitude that most artists only aspire to achieve -- they are simply one of the most important and influential American bands still working today. Like all great bands, light bulbs go off and charisma enters a room just by the band merely standing in it. For the Bad Brains, they go one step further and supply the electricity to charisma. Sometimes reactionary, but always volatile, Bad Brains are one of the definitive punk groups who garner the same respect as the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, The Clash and The Ramones. Known for their over-the-top live performances, the band melded punk and reggae into an innovative style that has yet to be copied. Their impact can be felt in many musical circles and the Brains today have impacted virtually every punk band working the airwaves. Although the band released only a handful of records during their lifetime, they are now musical icons that remain humble.
Formed by guitarist Dr. Know, vocalist H.R., bassist Darryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson in the early 1980s, Bad Brains are influenced by reggae and pure punk rage. At the time, these two influences were surfacing in U.K. punk bands, but the Bad Brains took it a step further and were pioneers at crossing the genres and bringing a manic energy never seen before. They managed to maintain an intensity and a sense of fury while switching gears from punk to reggae to punk. Darryl Jenifer and Dr. Know bring some of the most brutal and timeless musical jousts, and their interplay with Hudson drives the Brains' energy and intensity. Vocalist H.R. and his vocal virtuosity continue unchallenged today. His dub-influenced delivery is sometimes majestic, sometimes bizarre, sometimes brutal, but always compelling-- H.R. is clearly an innovative singer ahead of his time.
Their debut 7” single, “Pay to Cum,” became an underground hit and their debut LP, simply called Bad Brains is considered by many to be the "holy grail" of punk and hardcore. This self-titled debut album created a firestorm and put the Brains on the map -- It was a sound unheard of and also captured the Brains’ live reputation. The band quickly became one of the most popular punk bands on the East Coast, particularly in their hometown of Washington, D.C. Their legendary live performances were often banned in their hometown, and their recordings were often difficult to find helping forge an even bigger underground following. The band released a few EPs and in 1983 they released the Rick Ocasek-produced Rock for Light.
The band released I Against I in 1986, which was for Bad Brains what London Calling was for The Clash -- the band's more rounded effort that pushed them into legendary status. It had a focused vision, yet retained its diverse influences. Like the Brains' self-titled release, I Against I was another masterpiece in the original sense of that term — a “creative juggernaut.” The album is blistering, musically exhilarating, and contains some of the most complex and viscerally compelling songs the band ever produced. Their next album Quickness was an interesting detour into funk-metal for the band. Everything was slowed down and the sonic textures were thick.
Over the next few years, H.R. and Hudson left the band to make reggae albums before finally departing in 1989. Bad Brains were then offered a major-label contract, releasing Rise on Epic Records. The album's sales were modest, despite the absence of H.R. and Earl Hudson. Following that release, Madonna's
Maverick Records offered the group a contract, provided that the original lineup reunited. They did so and released God of Love in the mid-1990s The intense relationship of H.R. and Hudson and the rest of the band led to H.R. and Hudson's departure again shortly after the album's release, and thus the band split from Maverick.
The recordings Bad Brains left behind, as well as their live shows, made the band legendary. Yet few potential fans could actually hear the band due to erratic touring. Their turbulent past and combustible live experience are also what created the Brains’ mythology and intensity. This brings us to 2007 and the appearance of Adam Yauch (MCA of The Beastie Boys) bringing together all the original members and also bringing the band back into focus.
Build A Nation was the result of Adam calling bassist Darryl Jenifer during a rehearsal break with the Beastie Boys. "I was watching an episode of McGyver when Yauch gave me a call one day to say 'what up' and that he and Steve Tyler were rehearsing some vocals together. I said 'That's hot! Is your man Bono gonna get down with y'all?’ says Jenifer. "I told Adam I was thinking about a new Brains' record, then Adam said 'Word! You should let me produce that shit, son! I'll smoke those other cats that tried to produce y'all. I'll make you sound real!' I said 'Word!' And the rest is history."
"The thing about a lot of punk is the feeling that bands have is of apathy and hopelessness. Whereas Bad Brains lyrical content had a lot of hope in it." -- Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day
The genesis of Build A Nation is one built on positivity. "We were trying to spread positive vibes to all through our gift of riffs," says Jenifer. One thing that is apparent is the raw and organic nature of the album. Recorded strictly with analog tape and mastered with analog equipment, producer Adam Yauch wanted to create the rough and raw early sound, yet also capture where the Brains are today. Some 17 songs were written for the album and recorded at Oscilloscope Studios in New York City. It is also the first studio recording, aside from Beastie Boys' recordings, from the Oscilloscope laboratories.
After spending weeks perfecting the brutal punk riffs, break-neck tempos and the most forward-looking reggae vibe, the album was lifted to a new plane of consciousness by H.R.'s futuristic and unique vocal style. But, both Doc and Darryl will insist that this album's genius is the riffs in hand. "This album is tha shit because Doc and I made sure the riffs were BB's to tha fullest, none of that fancy jazz metal shit," says Jenifer on the album's fierce nature and further added the strange forces lurking in the studio. "So you see, these little quirks are what makes us." The aura of the Bad Brains was obviously in full force in the studio.
The opening song, "Give Thanks And Praises" foreshadows the album's direction with melodic Rasta-like vocal lines mixed with heavy riffs and punk fury. The sequence is similar to a live Brains’ show with several furious punk songs mixed with a reggae throwdown, and so forth. "Natty Dreadlocks Pon The Mountaintop" introduces the album's reggae side by way of an infectious hook and groove. Obviously, this album contains some of the Brains' finest dub songs, which are very hook-laden and rounded by HR's brilliant vocal style. The band's uncanny ability to mix punk and reggae genres are at their pinnacle with this album. Unlike past albums, the band created masterful and seemless transitions from dub to punk that feel as though these two genres were even more important to each other. But perhaps what really unites the two different genres is H.R.'s vocal acrobatics remaining consistent from song to song, regardless of whether it's a punk or reggae underpinning. H.R. does not compromise nor condescend to each genre, but merely sings what comes naturally to him creating an ethereal quality.
Build A Nation has clearly brought out the best in the band. H.R. digs deep into his bag of voices and pulls them all out, one by one: The frightening falsetto, the rubato soul-deep baritone, the dub echoes, the sneering punk, and a speed-chatter that spews lyrics like a machine gun. Dr. Know shreds with a lacerating speed attack, deep reggae riffs, and a pure guitar tone. And Darryl Jenifer’s lightning-quick bass, monster riffs and raw tone combined with Earl Hudson's jabbing rhythms and pounding beats are flawlessly represented on every track. It's this incredibly tight and tonally rich interplay between Dr. Know, Darryl Jenifer, and Earl Hudson that gives this album its rhythmically sonic texture. The integration of all the songs into one cohesive whole was very important to communicating what the band has to say – which is music reaching a higher level. In the end, this album has a supernatural feeling that transcends music – A spiritual awakening of mad genius.