Hardcore? I can’t use it. Not even if we talking Sex Pistols. ‘Cause inner city blues make me wanna holler open up the window it’s too funky in here. And shit like that. Or rhythms to that effect. But listening to the Sex Pistols is like listening to a threat against your child, your wife, your whole way of life: You either take it very seriously or you don’t take it at all. Depends on whether or not you’re truly black or white I guess. Or so I thought. Because never mind the Sex Pistols, here come something for the ass. Namely, the Bad Brains. Baddest hardcore band in the land, living or dead. So bad bro that even if you ain’t got no use for hardcore on the blackhand side, you’ll admit the Brains kick too much ass to be denied for the form. Whether you dig it or you don’t. Besides which, sis, sooner or later you got to deal with this: The Brains are bloods. That’s right, I’m talking a black punk band, can y’all get to that? Because in the beginning, the kid couldn’t hang — I mean when I was coming up, you could get your ass kicked for calling another brother a punk. Besides which, very few black people I know mourned the fact that Sid Vicious fulfilled his early promise. But, then, being of black radical-professional parentage, the kid has always had the luxury of cultural ambivalence coupled with black nationalist consciousness. That’s why my party affiliation reads: Greg Tate, Black Bohemian Nationalist. Give me art or give me blood. Preferably on the One, but everything I do ain’t got to be funky. So, a black punk band? Okay, I’m game.
Dig: Formed in District Heights, Maryland (a black low-moderate income D.C. suburb) around 1977, the Brains turned to hardcore from fusionoid-funk after getting sick of the AM/FM band and hearing a Dead Boys LP. Or so the story goes. Less apocryphally, virtually anybody who cares will tell you that Chocolate City’s hardcore scene begins with the Brains. Which means that to this day defunct punkateers like Minor Threat, Teen Idles, S.O.A., and the Untouchables still owe the Brains some play for being the first to say “Let’s take it to the stage, sucker!” Or however one punks out to that effect.
Now when spike-headed hordes of mild-mannered caucasoids came back from the Brains’ first gigs raving that these brothers were ferocious, I took the brouhaha for okey-doke. Easily intimidated, easily titillated white primitivism is how I interpreted that mess. Just some freak-whiteys tripping behind seeing some wild youngbloods tear up white boy’s turf. No more, no less. But when my own damn brother — Tinman we call him — came back raving the same shit, I had to stop and say, well, goddamn, these furthermuckers must not be bullshitting. And now that the Brains got this 14-song cassette out on ROIR, it’s for the world to know they ain’t never been about no bullshitting. Hardcore? They take it very seriously. You say you want hardcore? I say the Brains’ll give you hardcore coming straight up the ass, buddy. I’m talking about like lobotomy by jackhammer, like a whirlpool bath in a cement mixer, like orthodontic surgery by Black & Decker, like making love to a buzzsaw, baby. Meaning that coming from a black perspective, jazz it ain’t, funk it ain’t hardly, and they’ll probably never open for Dick Dames or Primps. Even though three white acts they did open for, Butch Tarantulas, Hang All Four, and the Cash, is all knee-deeper into black street ridims than the Brains ever been and ain’t that a bitch? Especially considering that sound unseen some y’all could easily mistake these brothers for soulless white devils. Because unlike Hendrix or Funkadelic, the Brains don’t transmute their white rock shit into a ridimically sensuous black rock idiom: When I say they play hardcore, I mean they play it just like the white boy — only harder. Which is just what I’d expect some brothers to do, only maybe a little more soulfully. Complicating this process in the Brains’ case is that while 95 per cent of their audience is white, they’re also Jah-praising Rastafari who perform hardcore and reggae (albeit discretely). Making them two steps removed from the Funk, say, and a half-step forward to Mother Africa by way of Jah thanx to the Dead Boys. Or more specifically the British Rasta/punk connexion.
While only three tunes on the Brains’ cassette are Ital — if mediocre — roots musics, Rasta permeates their hardcore via a catch-phrase they use liberally: P.M.A., or Positive Mental Attitude. In practice, this means that unlike many of their hardcore contemporaries the Brains don’t shit on their audience — which last time they played D.C. was two or three dreads, a whole lotta skinheads, lunatic funkateers, heavy-metal rejects, and some black fashion models — but instead reason with them in hardcore dialect, a messianic message of youthful unity, rebellion, and optimistic nihilism. Which is somewhere not even a “progressive” punk anarchist like Bellow Appalachia of the Daft Kindergarteners has gotten to yet. In The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige says that the critical difference between Rasta and punk rebellion — one life-embracing, the other death-defying — derives from Rastas holding to the dream of an African utopia and punks seeing themselves as locked into a culture without a future. The Brains’ extraordinary synthesis of the two is of course made possible by the fact that they’re black. Nobody seems to know how or why they arrived at this synthesis — apparently not even them. But the contradictions such as fusion reconciles are not only profound but very handy: How to be black (not Oreo) punks and how to be punks and look forward to waking up every morning.
And while that may just sound like some seriously schizzy shit to you, sis, I don’t think the Brains’ mutation into triple-identity Afro-American/Rasta/punk was brought on solely by an identity crisis. It was also encouraged by their convictions. Because when the Brains adopted British punk’s formal conventions and “classic” thematic antipathies — toward mindless consumerism, fascistic authority, moral hypocrisy, social rejection — they took to them as if they were religious sacraments. And when the Brains play hardcore it is with a sense of mission and possession more intense than that of any of the sadomasochistic Anglo poseurs who were their models. And yet, though locked into the form by faith and rebellion, the Brains inject it with as much virtuosic ingenuity as manic devotion. Their hardcore juxtaposes ergs of sonic violence against a surprisingly inventive slew of fusion-fast sledge hammer riffs, hysterical stop-time breaks, shrieking declensions, and comic asides (like the surf harmonies and soul arpeggios in “Sailing On” or bassman Darryl’s gonzo Segovian intro to “Banned in DC”). And onstage, the band’s Scot-screeching frontman H.R. throws down like James Brown gone berserk, with a hyperkinetic repertoire of spins, dives, backflips, splits, and skanks.
Ironically, the Brains’ genuine feeling for this music isn’t unlike what British rock’s first generation felt for the blues. Ironic because the Brains are black; hardcore is white (and no matter how much Hendrix and Berry they ripped, it still ain’t nothing but some whiteboy sounding shit now) and who would’ve ever thought that one day some bloods would go to the white boy looking for the spirit? Not to mention the revolution! I mean, if the Brains wasn’t so serious I’d think they were trying to revive minstrelsy. Because while they play hardcore as good as any white man ha ha, like it was in fact second nature, their reggae ain’t shit. Not only does it have less bottom than their punk, it also sounds half-assed and forced; more an outgrowth, like Dylan’s nascent gospel, of sanctimonious intent than of innate religious fervor. Signifying, if nothing else, how far down river the Brains’ missionary work has taken them from the wellspring of most black music’s spirituality — namely, the black community. Because where punk’s obnoxious energy is an attack on the parent-community, Rasta-influenced reggae draws strength from the ideal of a black community working in harmony. An ethic which isn’t foreign to black music not from Yard either: the Funk Mob identified it as one nation under a groove, James Brown called it soul power, and I call it doowop tribalism. The need for which makes even such outre individualists as Jarman-Moye-Favors-Mitchell-Bowie bind into “Great Black Music” ensembles; makes Cecil Taylor work himself into a “Black Code Methodology/Unit Structure”; makes Ornette Coleman improvise a funk-based, democratic system of notation. The need, in other words, for a unified black community respectful of both holy tradition and individual expression. An ideal which leaves me respecting the Brains for their principled punk evangelism and worried for their souls. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 10, 2020