Hardcore Mettle: Bad Brains’ Strange Survival Tale
Thirty-five years into their unlikely career, the punk legends have just released a strong new album and are finally coming to terms with their influential, genre-busting legacy. More importantly, they’re also coming to terms with each other. It hasn't been easy.
Eventually, HR returned to the Bad Brains shortly before the group made I Against I, its metal-infused 1986 masterpiece, which contains the scorching title track about, as HR puts it, “how a person should not allow themselves to be against themselves.” As miraculously organic as the album sounds now, restarting the band was difficult. “At first it was hard to relate to them,” the singer says about his bandmates. “They were like, ‘How do we know you’re not going to do it [leave] again?’ Later, they saw I was the level.”
Unfortunately, he was not. HR went to jail on a possession charge before recording all his vocals for I Against I. He tracked the album’s “Sacred Love” over a big-house payphone. “Our producer Ron [St. Germain] had the idea,” says HR. “It took about a week because they had to get permission to do it. They had to go from studio to studio, literally connecting the wires together to make sure that from New York all the way to D.C. the connection would be heard.”
The band’s HR-induced stops and starts have been a recurring theme. The Hudson brothers left once more following the I Against I tour, and then HR returned for 1989’s Quickness. Soon, he was gone again. (The group’s first major-label release, 1993’s Rise, featured singer Israel Joseph I.) He came back shortly thereafter, but on the first date of their tour opening for the Beastie Boys — to support their next release, 1995’s God of Love, released on Madonna’s Maverick label — HR refused to come off the group’s bus. He then attacked the band’s longtime manager, pulling his hair, and in another incident, sent a Kansas skinhead to the hospital when he bashed his microphone stand against his head. The band was forced to cancel the rest of the tour. “We’re like a family,” Jenifer explains with impressive equanimity, “and every family has dysfunction.”
For HR’s part, he’s been behaving differently onstage in recent years, a decision he says is for the benefit of the band. Gone are the gymnastic contortions, replaced by a monk-like sense of calm, standing with his hands clasped behind his back, his bandmates spinning fury behind him. “From my experience, I’ve found that if I go out and dance around and move around a lot, the audience goes berserk,” he explains. “But if I stay composed and manage my self-control, the group will be able to play a little better.”