Editor’s Note: This week, The Root commemorates Black History Month with a series on little-known or forgotten rebels, celebrating black America’s legacy of defiance.
“If they’re actually selected, it would be pretty startling.”
Those were the words of punk music stalwart Ian MacKaye, who during his decades in the music industry spearheaded bands such as The Teen Idles and Minor Threat, before eventually co-founding Dischord Records in 1980.
It was the tail end of 2016—nearly 35 years since the earth-shattering release of Bad Brains’ eponymous debut album—and the funk metal gods were finally on the ballot for induction into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame.
But despite this joyous occasion, MacKaye wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid.
“I don’t know who the nominators are, and frankly don’t care,” he told WTOP. “If this is something they want, I’m happy for them.”
MacKaye’s apprehension at the time, while disheartening, was warranted: Though the band was finally nominated in 2017—nine years into their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame eligibility—they failed to be inducted. This is pretty much the recurrent theme in the mythos of the avant-garde, D.C. based outfit: Despite their immeasurable influence and unquestionable standing as punk pioneers, proper reverence and accolades have remained elusive for decades.
“I know the impact they had on my life,” MacKaye recalled, “and that of other people.”
In entertainment, we use the term “influential” loosely. Especially in music journalism, where platitudes like “legendary” or “groundbreaking” often feel like consolation prizes. But Bad Brains—first founded in 1976 as a Stevie Wonder-influenced, jazz fusion ensemble named Mind Power—are all of the above and so much more.
Ask the Beastie Boys, who damn near formed a supergroup with them in 1987, and who cite the Rastafarian rockers for influencing their own transition from frenetic punk music to eccentric, dorm-friendly hip-hop.
“When the Beastie Boys came down and saw, as little punk kids, four black dudes from D.C. shredding this punk,” bassist Daryl Jenifer told Pitchfork, “and then when they see [Philadelphia rapper] Cool C or the early rap days [and] they say they want to rap, Mike D wants to put on a Volkswagen chain, you can bet that ‘If the Bad Brains played punk, I can rap’ was in a subliminal place.”
Or you can ask drummer Dave Grohl, who cites his obsession with 1983’s Rock for Light as the secret sauce to Nirvana’s sonic supremacy.
“I know every drum lick off that record and I have since I was 14,” he confessed. “I still use a lot of the tricks that I learned from [drummer Earl Hudson] to this day. Listen to [Nirvana’s landmark album] Nevermind and there’s little fills here and there that I took from Earl.”
And what about The Roots? Joint frontman Questlove sang lead singer H.R.’s praises—though he goes by the moniker Joseph nowadays—in the mesmerizing 2016 documentary Finding Joseph I.
“He has an ‘it’ thing that not many people have,” the Grammy Award-winning maestro said. “That rockstar ‘it’ factor. And he still has it.”
In order to put the quartet’s significance into proper context, it’s important to remember the cultural landscape from which they came. Before sparking a musical insurgency in 1979, the group arose from the ashes of bands like Return to Forever and the Dead Boys with an unmatched fervor befitting Washington, D.C.’s nascent punk scene. There was also that whole “black” thing they had to overcome, considering radio had a love affair with white musicians who leisurely breezed through radio-friendly tunes.
But in combining their jazz fusion origins with their newly adapted, non-conformist sound, Bad Brains was not only eons beyond their peers in musical aptitude, but in ideology—the punk scene was rife with merciless violence and vulgarity that the group wanted absolutely no parts of. So in order to counter that climate, the band did something completely unheard of at the time: They incorporated Positive Mental Attitude—a philosophy attributed to Napoleon Hill’s inspirational classic Think and Grow Rich—into their music.
“When we first came out, [punk] was kind of on some vulgar shit,” Jenifer told Wax Poetics. “We started kicking [Positive Mental Attitude] in our music, and the message was different than the regular punk rock. You know, a punk rocker can write a song about hate—I hate my mom or some shit, you know? We wasn’t on no shit like that. Some kids who wanted to see some regular shit saw us, and every kid’s heart and mind was opened.”
He continued, “When we would play, you’d see, [sings] ‘I got that PMA,’ and there was a whole mode of consciousness that was coming through it.”
Bad Brains’ devotion to PMA serves as the underlying philosophy that fueled what would eventually become punk rock’s transformation into hardcore. Yet for all their unfettered positivity, their legacy isn’t without its share of controversy.
Take for instance 1989’s incendiary “Don’t Blow No Bubbles,” which brazenly boasts “don’t blow no spikes, don’t blow no fudge buns” and “don’t blow no bubbles and we can stop the AIDS.” And just when you think it can’t get anymore homophobic than that, there’s the infamous Big Boys incident in 1982, in which the band allegedly spewed anti-gay rhetoric during a shouting match with queercore pioneers the Big Boys, then handed over a manifesto that reportedly read, “Fire burn all bloodclot faggots!”—or worse.
And what was Bad Brains’ defense?
They insisted that there were racial dynamics at play that were being completely ignored—basically that if white artists did the same shit, nobody would be talking about it.
“This is all simple, stupid shit, and that to me is racist, because if the Dead Kennedys would have came and done the same thing, that shit would not have stuck on and stigmatized them,” Jenifer explained in 2007. “That shit would not stigmatize them as homophobes and carry on throughout their careers.”
Not exactly an apology, but not entirely a lie either.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that’s not only intrinsic to the band’s ascension into rock royalty, but to the soul of the music they revolutionized. If punk is rooted in discomfort and conflict, then what would Bad Brains be without it? And more importantly, what would the musical landscape be without Bad Brains?
In its current incarnation, the group consists of longtime guitarist Dr. Know, bassist Darryl Jenifer, drummer Earl Hudson, and enigmatic lead vocalist H.R., but after decades of destroying boundaries and pouring their hearts and souls into the music they adore, attrition has taken its toll. Dr. Know has battled both organ failure and a catastrophic heart attack in recent years, while H.R. has struggled with schizophrenia and debilitating headaches brought on by SUNCT syndrome.
And while they might never receive their much-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, their unparalleled legacy will never die.
Nor will their standing as courageous black rebels.