Few musical groups from Washington have brought together audiences across the city’s stark racial divide. But the hardcore group Bad Brains not only did that, they also brought a unique blend of reggae and punk music to audiences around the world. Kojo chats with a pivotal member of Bad Brains and the directors of a new documentary about them.
- H.R. Member, Bad Brains
- Benjamen Logan Co-Director, "Bad Brains: A Band In D.C."
- Mandy Stein Co-Director, "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C."
“Bad Brains: A Band in D.C.” Movie Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Your Turn on the president invoking executive privilege, D.C. school vouchers and the president's reversal of his position, the upheaval at the University of Virginia or anything else on your mind. But first, the tale of a local D.C. band that paved the way for everyone from Nirvana to the Beastie Boys.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWashington is a place that likes to export ideas around the world, even ideas about rock and roll music. But in the case of one band beloved by generations of hardcore punk fans it was more like the city that kicked them out of town then shipped them around the globe for everyone else to know about.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBad Brains came together in Washington a few decades ago when four black musicians coming up in the city picked up the mantle of punk music. They started playing harder and faster than other bands ultimately setting the pace for a new niche called hardcore. And the responses from the audience who thrashed at Bad Brains concerts and couldn't get enough and the local club owners that banned them from D.C. venues were equally hardcore. But this city still celebrates Bad Brains as its own, even if, like one of its songs, they were Banned in D.C.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is the lead singer on that cut and lead singer of the group Bad Brains. He's better known as H.R., Paul Hudson joins us in studio. H.R., good to see you again.
H.R.Thank you very much. Good to see you, Mr. Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Mandy Stein. She's a filmmaker and the co-director of the documentary "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C." It's one of the films being featured at the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival this week. It plays tonight at 10:45 at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Md. and again at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday. Mandy Stein, thank you for joining us.
MS. MANDY STEINThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe also have a reluctant witness in studio. Benjamen Logan is the co-director of "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C." Ben, thank you so much for joining us in studio.
MR. BENJAMEN LOGANThank you for having me.
NNAMDIMandy, "Banned in D.C." is one of the iconic songs made by a band that ultimately influenced everyone from Fugazi to Nirvana to the Beastie Boys. You found the idea so central to the identity of the band that the name of your documentary "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C." is a play on the words. Why?
STEINWell, D.C. is a huge theme in the film. That's where they come from. And I have to be honest. I think the title was something that we went back and forth with band members. And if I remember correctly, isn't this right, that H.R. pretty much named the film?
LOGANYeah, it was H.R. that would get on stage often and introduce this song. The next track will be Band -- A Band in D.C., B-A-N-D, so it kinda just took off.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you actually started this project when you were filming at the legendary rock club CBGB in New York doing its final days and you saw Bad Brains play three nights in a row. What did you see in the band that made you want to tell their story?
STEINWell, I had known the history obviously before having seen them play at CBGB's. And those last three nights were really magical and special. I mean, not only was the band incredible but just what those nights meant. And I sort of cut together a couple of songs just to show the band and maybe beg them to see if I could, you know, put that as a DVD. And then they sort of approached me about doing a whole documentary and I just felt so honored.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Are there pieces of Washington's culture or underground culture that you find are more celebrated outside of the area than they are within the city? If so what are they? Call us at 800-433-8850. H.R. it was here in the late '70s when you and your band mates stopped listening to the station that I was working for, WHUR Radio which was playing jazz fusion in those days. And you ditched your backgrounds in jazz -- infusion jazz for punk. And that was not at the time a style exactly popular with young black kids. What memories do you have of those early days when you started playing with your band mates?
H.R.Yes, sir. Mr. Kojo, we started as a local group performing in D.C. Space and (word?) Kansas City and New York. And also a lovely little crowd began to notice us not too far from Jewish Town over at the -- I think it was called the Jewish...
H.R....University Hall -- Hall of Nations. And we did get a chance to go to the Bayou and perform there. Henry Tenenbaum did a show for us there.
H.R.And Mr. Mandy -- I mean, Mrs. Mandy and Mr. Ben visited us at the CBGB's location where we weren't to perform. And some of the kids insisted that we go on the stage and do work. I was kind of reluctant to -- a bit shy and bashful. Gary and Daryl and Earl would go on stage. I would do one song and walk off. Everybody in the crowd said, oh come on, man. Is that it? And it took them almost ten years to get me to do more than one song. But eventually we did do more than one song.
H.R.And now we played the other day at Tennessee, a big festival they had, Bonnaroo, Tennessee. And we're going to be getting together shortly around August 28. And then shortly thereafter we're going to do some more work together.
NNAMDIOne of your band mates once said in an interview that it was the rebel spirit of punk rock that appealed to him. Was it -- that about the sound that appealed to you?
H.R.What really was going on was there -- a keen sense of accuracy. The group -- as I recall I discovered them in a friend's house doing songs at that tender age of theirs. Daryl was about 15, 16 and Earl was slightly younger than me and Gary -- no one could really ever tell how old he was because he had mustaches and beards by the time he was in the 7th grade. And so...
NNAMDIFrom the time he was 12, huh?
H.R.Yeah, I know. So that was that, you know. And I remember I would go for walks in the region and Alvarez's brother would drive around on his motorcycle and he'd have his hair flowing in the wind and his shirt off and had this long gooseneck on his motorcycle. And he's just going around and around in the projects. And one day I heard the group -- or them jamming in Alvarez's basement. And I said, well let me go in here and see what's going on 'cause I was totally amazed. And man, they were ripping out the jams.
H.R.And I said, well, look, can I vocalize with you all boys? He said, yeah man, sure dude, Gary, you know. And the rest is history. The music speaks for itself.
NNAMDIAnd it is...
H.R.We went to Addison Inn -- they went to Walker Mill. Yes, sir.
NNAMDI...it is a remarkable history. That's the voice of H.R. is how he's known as the lead singer of the group Bad Brains. His name is Paul Hudson. He joins us in studio along with Mandy Stein. She is a filmmaker and co-director of the documentary "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C." She joins us with her co-director Benjamen Logan. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Has music captivated and sparked a new perspective or new energy within you? What significance or inspiration do you find in your favorite bands, 800-433-8850?
NNAMDIMandy, you grew up around rock musicians and rock music so you knew that scene pretty well. But what did you learn about Washington and the scene here through spending time learning about the Bad Brains?
STEINWell, I learned quite a lot. We actually took this amazing road trip with Daryl and he showed us all the monumental spots for the Bad Brains. He took us to the original Madam's Organ, which I think was a -- it's a beauty parlor now or a hair dresser?
NNAMDIOver there in Adams Morgan?
STEINYeah. And we went to basically the house where he was living where Syd McCray, who was a founding member, came and brought him punk rock records and exposed him to that kind of music. And they took us on this incredible journey of all these monumental spots within their career. And then just in doing that they introduced us to local musicians like Alec and Ian MacKaye and...
STEINYeah. So we got the privilege of speaking to those guys and learning from them as well. So it's just...
NNAMDIYou hear a lot of names mentioned here. We introduced H.R. but he mentioned Earl. That would be Earl Hudson, the drummer; bassist, Daryl Jennifer; guitarist, Gary Miller. You just mentioned Syd McCray. This band is obviously a part of the local fabric here but they were also the envy of bands all over the world. A lot of influential musicians told you that H.R. in particular changed the idea for what a rock singer was supposed to be.
HENRY ROLLINSAt Madam's Organ, I remember standing in front of Bad Brains one night with H.R. so close I could smell his breath. And I said, I sure hope that guy doesn't land on me. Wham, I'm on my back with H.R. pinning me to the ground singing on me. I was like, ah, whoa. And that was kind of the -- kind of the start of my life.
NNAMDIThat's, of course, Henry Rollins of Black Flag whose real initials by the way are H.R. But what did you see when you looked at that archived footage of H.R. doing back flips and diving into that crowd off the stage?
STEINI honestly thought it was the most beautiful elegant -- I'd never seen anybody really like that perform. I mean, sort of Iggy Pop but it was just stunning.
NNAMDIH.R., you described yourself at the beginning of this conversation as being shy in those days. What was it that finally inspired you to perform in the way that you did? What did you see as your purpose onstage?
H.R.Yes, greetings in the name of Jah (word?). Praise the Lord, Jesus Christ, Rasta. As I was saying, along with the influence of others like James Brown, Earth, Wind and Fire and the ever so popular Stevie Wonder, being an advocate of true awareness in the early days along with James (word?), who I do want to say happy birthday to you, James. And happy -- blessings to your lovely wife. They did just get married in (unintelligible) .
H.R.Yes, congratulations to them. But in the early days Mandy and Ben kind of would see me on the lower east side of Manhattan, N.Y. And along with David Bowie and the Sex Pistols there was this other group Fishbone, who I must say now...
NNAMDII love the Fishbone.
H.R....had a big influence in my career. And one day while at the Atlantis or the 930 Club, the old location over by -- between 8th and 9th Street in Manhattan, right up the street from one of the most magnificent families I've ever met, Mr. Obama and his wife, whom I'm so grateful for, and whom also introduced us to a policy of love and over standing.
H.R.I want to say every so often we would appear at the mall. And that's the way we did our first big show over there at Rockingham's race. And they invited us -- a friend named Russell Brane (sp?) invited us to do shows and asked us, would we be willing to perform there. And I didn't really know if we could pull it off, but what I decided to do was not only perform, vocalize, but add a little bit of acrobats to the presentation.
H.R.And later on, at the request of a good friend, Paul and Pierre, Paul Beshow (sp?), another artist who works up at the Georgetown region said, well, you know -- this was from his own lips, you know, we understand where you're coming from H.R. But please would you just keep still and deliver your message? Play some music for us. We want to hear the song that she like. I said, oh okay. All right. Well, that's what I'll do.
H.R.And then the theme of our new album -- we have a new album coming out. It's called "In the Future" and the theme, let's have fun. It's one of the most magnificent, outstanding creations that they have came up with. They authentically pulled it off. If you think the Beatles were something, if you think the Jam Band was something or the Police or even the latest overnight sensation with, you know, the Jackson Five and Mariah Carey, well let me tell you, Beyonce, she has something to listen to finally. And Daryl and Gary and Earl have pulled it off. And with, of course yours truly vocal, all I can say is Mr. Anthony Countey, thank you very much.
NNAMDITogether they make up Bad Brains and a lot of people, frankly, think that you were and are something. Here is Mary in Annapolis, Md. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYWell, hi, Kojo.
MARYHi. I am so excited about your guest today. I can't even tell you. H.R., I have to say hi. I (unintelligible) to call in. I have been a fan of the Bad Brains since the early '80s, a long time. And as a teenager, I was able to see them in places like the Marble Bar in Baltimore and the old, old 930 Club and the Kilimanjaro Club. And as a teenager, that music saved me. I mean, teenagers go through a lot of things and that music was a release, an escape, you know. It was spiritual for me.
MARYAnd I just have to say, when they're onstage, I mean, it is -- there's no words to describe going to a Bad Brains show and seeing them play live. I mean, I have seen hundreds and hundreds of bands live. And to this day they will remain my all-time favorite band to see live. It is magical vocally. Never in my life have I ever heard anybody like H.R. Musically, yes...
NNAMDIMary. Mary, I gotta take a short break, but thank you so much for your call. And you have, in fact, been testifying here to what a lot of other people have been saying since the late 1970s, early 1980s. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation...
H.R.Thank you, darling.
NNAMDI...about Bad Brains and the documentary now playing at AFI Silver. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about Bad Brains, the Washington-based punk rock group about which a documentary has been made. Mandy Stein is a filmmaker and the co-director of that documentary. It's called "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C." currently being featured at the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival this week, playing tonight 10:45 at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring. And again at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday. She joins us in studio with her co-director Benjamen Logan and the incomparable H.R., Paul Hudson. He is the lead singer of the group Bad Brains. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIMandy, at certain points during the film, you use cartoons of the band to recall stories about them where you didn't have footage. What sense did you have for how these cartoons literally depicted people like H.R. as a kind of larger than life comic book hero?
STEINWell, the idea to use the comics initially came from lack of photography footage because when I was searching and trying to find this material everyone kept saying, oh, we were so broke back then. We didn't have a camera. We didn't have film. So, I mean, the different dynamics in the band really were sort of larger than life cartoonish. So it was pretty easy. And we worked with an amazing artist. And, you know, I think it really helped to tell the story.
NNAMDIWell, you may have heard during the course of this conversation H.R. saying things like over standing. You may have said Jah Rastafari because all of those are concepts associated with the religion of Rastafarianism. And when these guys were coming up, a lot of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Damned channeled a fair amount of negative energy into their music while Bad Brains promoted a more positive philosophy, calling this PMA, a positive mental attitude. Let's take a listen.
NNAMDIH.R., that was you performing "Attitude" at CBGB in New York back in the '70s. At this point in your life, what does PMA mean to you?
H.R.It is one of the thoughtful and reassuring solutions that Napoleon Hill of the Think and Grow Rich manuscripts, along with an idea and also a future and present and past theory that could be put into a thesis and eventually along with an analytical raising and nurturing that seed into a fertile living lifestyle. One would be able to manage their own career and eventually go on to be successful or to be an achiever instead of just a wannabe.
NNAMDIThere's a story that I heard about how you came to the Think and Grow manuscripts, that your father at one time was saying to you, well, Paul, what are you going to do with your life? Paul, why don't you start doing more reading? And you went over to his library and put your hands on Think and Grow Rich and you have used that as a centerpiece of your life and philosophy ever since. True story or not?
H.R.Yes, sir, it is true. Daddy mentioned it to me. The first original copy he obtained and gave it to me. It was a paperback but then later on I did, through the diligent search and also my mother, who would at times give a listening ear to some of the discussions that we had because he was an -- and is still, along with Mr. Obama, of course, Curt Baker, big influences in my life.
H.R.And they would encourage me and also warn me about the responsibilities of a young man that lived the life of only partying. Because for me, I would often say, well, let's go get together and have a party. And he would say, well, son, you know, life is a little bit more than just having a party all the while. And I'm so glad he explained it to me 'cause I do now, as an adult, understand.
NNAMDIHere is Chris in Waldorf, Md. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYeah, my question is for H.R. I just was kinda wondering why you feel that Bad Brains got chased out of D.C. when you had all the other hardcore bands that essentially stayed there and kinda did good. I'll check out the answer off the air. Thanks.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Chris.
H.R.Yes, son. I can answer that for you. There is a multiple re quest. On the up and up, the producers of the album wanted us to have a -- as they say, a sort of Rude Boy image. And reality, the group never really did have that actual image. Everywhere we went, people were very thoughtful to the group and very loving. But the audience, on the other hand, was slightly controversial. So what they would do sometimes is leave in the hall centers broken bottles, cups spilled all over the place with beer. And that to them was what the issue was.
H.R.Thank goodness we've all improved and now through the efforts of dispensaries throughout the nation and collective living and the liberties that have helped us and assist us through being clean and knowing that cleanliness is next to godliness, we received and are rearing children who do obtain and have given us their blessings along with their elders. And we give them our blessings and say also, don't forget to vote. Because if you don't vote well, you're not gonna really be able to get the- -- obtain the kind of privileges that one needs.
H.R.And along with voting, there is also the responsibility of being mindful of the one one has voted for. Again, thank you so much for reminding us.
NNAMDIHow Paul Hudson, Bad Brains and H.R. have evolved. We got this email from someone, I guess, who wanted to remain anonymous who says, "I love the Bad Brains. Really underappreciated. Please discuss their reggae side. I love 'I and I Survive.'" After seeing Bob Marley in concert, you and your bands moved -- and your bandmates moved towards Rastafarianism. You started working reggae into your sound. What was it about Bob Marley?
H.R.Well, what do you say about that, Ben and Mandy? What would you say about that?
LOGANWe actually discussed it in the film and, you know, they got inspired by Bob Marley. And I think Daryl mentions that PMA thing kinda turned more into a Rastaf thing, which was the same thing. And, you know, they were inspired by the music as well. So they started to play reggae and I think it just became like a part of their set. You know, they'd play a few of the more rock and roll punk rock stuff and everybody would get, you know, rowdy and have big mosh pits or whatever and then they'd play a few dump tracks to kind of cool everyone down before they went right back into it. And, I mean, that was the way I understood the story.
H.R.Now you used the word mosh pits. Could you be a little more specific about that please, sir?
LOGANWell, what I've been told is the actual -- the word mosh pit came from -- actually from H.R. talking about coming on the stage and saying, all right we're gonna mash it up.
H.R.Oh, I see.
LOGANAnd it eventually turned into a whole moshing thing.
LOGANI've heard that from numerous people, too. I don't think it made it to the film, though.
NNAMDIAs you may have realized the interview is now being conducted by H.R. I am no longer conducting the interview.
H.R.No Kojo, please.
NNAMDIHe's asking the questions.
STEINSo you understand how our film went.
H.R.Please understand this is the first time I had a chance to ask the young man. I didn't know...
NNAMDIWell, the recording history with Bad Brains...
H.R.…specifically where that phrase came from.
NNAMDI...involves a particular episode, Mandy, connected to D.C. jail and H.R. We're going to take a listen to another track that's called "Sacred Love."
NNAMDIMandy, Ben, H.R. would like to know exactly what are we listening to right there?
STEINThat would be "Sacred Love."
NNAMDIYes. Tell us about how that was recorded.
STEINWell, H.R. had gotten in a little trouble and wasn't able to finish the recording, which was going on in Massachusetts with producer Ron Saint Germain. And they figured out a way how to get the vocals, which took a couple of months, but H.R. actually sang it from jail.
NNAMDIYou got a telephone, unscrewed the mouthpiece of the telephone so that there could be no background noises and sang into the mouthpiece from jail. And that was what was recorded. The voice you hear laughing in the background happens to be the individual who now has his head and face covered who did it himself.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have, except we can share this last email that we got from Dorian who says, "My memory of the Bad Brains. We had a benefit at the University of Maryland Student Union in College Park in 1984 to raise money for a smoke-in. The Bad Brains were the headliner. The band was on time but H.R. was late. The crowd was starting to get antsy. The band assured us that H.R. would show up but we were starting to worry. At the last minute H.R. ran into the room, grabbed the mike and the band started playing. The crowd went nuts. It was a great show. Does H.R. remember this?" H.R., do you remember that at all?
H.R.Yes, I do. All due respect unto the almighty one still. As a youngster, it was my responsibility to maintain that level of over standing and also that groove of love. I had fell in love with this sweet sister named Lois Dalton. And peer pressure leading one into the temptation zones, I wanted to see if it would be a possibility of me taking her out on a date. We used to call her love.
H.R.Well, there was a meeting ground where the young sisters would meet over there at Columbia Park or Malcolm X Park. And I came with this great idea, well maybe if I go over to the park and kinda act nonchalant about things, I'll be able to hook up with her. And so one thing led to another and one of the friendly officers came over to our administrator of that region. He came over to me and he said, well I think I know who you are and what's going on. By the way, may I please have permission to do a small search? And at the time being of innocent, naive, young buccaneer I did have a small amount of what I didn't know at the time was a poisonous contraband.
H.R.They later explained to me that I was on my way to Super Hero school and they were going to turn me into a super hero. I said, oh, okay, thank you. After that, some of the administrators and a few attendants set me down in a room and I was then reminded of my responsibilities. Well, while I was in there, I got a phone call from the manager up in New York, and he said, well, listen. We have to finish -- as Mandy was saying earlier, we have to complete the recording.
H.R.And we have an idea. Ron Saint Germain was the producer at the time, and he came with this magnificent, outstanding idea along with my dad of recording the vocals over the telephone, and that's when they gave a few extra privileges...
NNAMDIFrom the facility in which you were being turned into a superhero.
H.R.Yes, sir. That's correct.
NNAMDIA superhero he is indeed, and he has to fly off to another location, otherwise, we'd be continuing this conversation for a while longer. Paul Hudson is the lead singer of the group Bad Brains. He's better known as H.R. H.R., thank you so much for joining us.
H.R.You're very welcome, and thank you, Mr. Kojo. Excellent, excellent interview.
NNAMDIYou are more than welcome. You did half the interview yourself. Mandy Stein is a filmmaker and the co-director of the documentary "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C." It's being featured at the AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs Festival this week. It plays tonight at 10:45 at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, and again at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday. Mandy, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd our reluctant witness, Benjamin Logan. He is co-director of "Bad Brains: A Band in D.C." Ben, thank you very much for staying.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, it is your turn. You can call us. You can decide on the issues. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can start calling now whether you want to talk about the attempt U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, cited for contempt of Congress, D.C. school vouchers, the upheaval at the University of Virginia or anything else. It's your turn. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.