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Hardcore Mettle: Bad Brains’ Strange Survival Tale

Bad Brains / Photo by Frank Ockenfels III

It’s a cool November day as Bad Brains frontman HR descends the front steps of his brownstone apartment in the collegiate Baltimore neighborhood of Charles Village, which abuts Johns Hopkins University. The area is lined with trees still bearing yellow and orange leaves, but here to challenge the mundanity of this otherwise average fall day is one of hardcore punk’s most perplexing enigmas, a man who once leapt from a stage onto a young Henry Rollins, inspiring him to become a singer; a man who once smoked weed with a teenaged Brooke Shields; and a man whose chameleonic vocal delivery proved that punk frontmen could be more than just screamers.

Today, this man, whom the government knows as 56-year-old Paul Hudson, is as mild as the breeze. He responds to my initial small talk with a series of meek devoirs: “Yes, sir”; “No, sir.” When I ask him where he’d like to go for our interview, he suggests a coffeehouse about six blocks away, then gently asks if we could drive rather than walk. As HR situates himself in my rented hatchback, he closes the door so softly that the sound wouldn’t wake a sleeping baby.

As we settle into a table at Charmington’s, an exposed-brick café, some of the patrons seem to recognize the singer — though they could just be intrigued by the splash of eccentricity in their midst. HR is wearing a lime tracksuit, unzipped to reveal a white shirt and a Windsor-knotted yellow tie. His left-hand fingernails are painted periwinkle, his long dreads are tucked into a large knit cap and he’s donning dark shades with a tag still wrapped around the bridge. He sips hot apple cider.

A few days after meeting HR, I sit down with Bad Brains bassist Daryl Jenifer and guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Miller at a divey sushi restaurant named Wok and Roll near their Woodstock, New York homes. The burly Doctor Know is clad in a purple jacket and a maroon knit hat and is nursing a sake. Jenifer, wearing a green jacket, white scarf, and hat, drinks a Corona. The pair have lived in this hippie enclave since the ’80s, and the guitarist has managed a health-food store for more than a decade, while the bassist — like his bandmates HR and younger brother/drummer Earl Hudson — makes his non-Brains living as a producer, with credits on albums by Santigold’s old group Stiffed and songs by Jonathan Richman, Lil Jon, and Lauryn Hill, among others.

Despite the core members’ now upbeat, low-key (even serene) manner, they have spent 35 years challenging conventions, and their strong, new album Into the Future (Megaforce) is just another example. Weathering lineup changes and bitter public fights, the four have continually returned to each other since forming in Washington, D.C., in 1977. They’ve shattered both racial and musical barriers.

A smiling Doctor Know asks me, “Do you know how many times I’ve heard, ‘I thought you guys was white till I saw your record?'” He laughs boisterously. “A million times. I tell them, ‘You can’t judge a music by its color.’ Then they see it.”

“In the early days,” recalls HR, “we faced a lot of racists. Sometimes they’d throw beer bottles and do a little spitting. They’d yell racial slurs, but we didn’t let it bother us. Once we were able to get over that initial shock of being received by the audience that way, then they understood where we were coming from. And we understood where they were coming from, and we all reached a level of communication. Then we let the music do the talking.”

In the beginning, as HR explains, the music resulted from an almost absurdly basic approach. “We’d listen to the Ramones and the Dickies and the Clash, but we’d speed it up and listen to it on 78 [RPM]. We decided to come up with the tunes, but faster and with a more positive edge. So we came up with our own original style.”

That still-inimitable style — metallic guitar lines, reggae interpolations, HR’s elastic vocals — has won the foursome a legion of admirers that includes Minor Threat, Dave Grohl, Deftones, and Lauryn Hill, among others. Perhaps the most publicly vocal and visible Bad Brains fanboy was the late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who frequently wore the band’s T-shirt and once declared their self-titled 1982 full-length the “best punk-hardcore album of all time.” But “best” does not mean commercially successful. 2007’s Yauch-produced Build a Nation is the only Bad Brains effort to make Billboard‘s Top 200. It landed at No. 100.