An Interview with the Legendary HR of
For over 20 years, the Bad Brains’ influence has spread through hardcore, punk, rock, metal, hip-hop, reggae, techno, and just about any hybrid of these styles you could think of, like no other band before or since. The last 20 years has seen the band split, while HR and Earl did their Human Rights project and Dr. Know and Darryl reformed with different singers and drummers. The band last reformed with the original members in 1995 for the album God of Love . A series of disasters, including an alleged assault on longtime Bad Brains manager Anthony Countey, and HR being arrested for assaulting a crowd member with a microphone stand, the band once again split for what seemed to be the last time. Fortunately it wasn’t. Over a year ago, the original members of the Bad Brains re-formed under the name Soul Brains. The name change is due to the fact that the Bad Brains ex-manager “owns” the name, and the band say they wanted to “move away from the negativity associated with the name.”
Regardless of what you call them, they’re still the Brains. They’ve spent the last year recording new songs, and playing them on tour along with classic Bad Brains songs. I recently had the privilege of speaking to one of the true innovators in music — not just hardcore, but all music in general — HR. Here’s what he had to say.
So HR, the Bad Brains originally started playing together under the name Mind Power in around 1978, which was a jazz fusion type thing, right?
Yeah. We’ve been musicians our whole lives, and the first time we started playing music was in the church and in school. Later on, we hooked up in junior high and high school, when we were over there in Southeast Maryland. We used to do little concert performances over at Central High. We used to have a little group called Mind Power, and we had Strength, 30th Century Man, Parliament, you know. So we tried a few different things. We were functioning on a more funky, disco, rock-type little groove, and later on we got to some research with some hardcore.
The band actually got into hardcore after Darryl’s friend Sid let him borrow some punk records, right?
That’s right. That was around 1978-79. We got a chance to go to a concert in Baltimore, Maryland, and got a chance to see this band called the Ramones (laughs). They were real fun. A lot of their grooves [were] more like on a rock time like, 12-12 and 16 times, which is kinda fast. What we would do is play their music on the turntable, and we’d jack the speed up from 33rpm to 78rpm, and then we’d all start jumpin’ up and down pogoing. That’s kinda how it came together. We heard those tempos, and we’d go into our rehearsal studio and try to match it with the same agility, but to put a little more of our universal personification on it with a healthy message. We always thought we could offer the solution to a lot of the improvements that were needed in modern rock and reggae music.
Right around that time, you recorded some songs with Don Zientara at his home studio, which were released a few years ago as Black Dots . I know that Earl’s drum booth was in a closet and you were in the backyard with the microphone. You can hear Don’s son in the backyard talking to you at the beginning of “The Regulator.”
That was a real peaceful vibe in like a home setting. He had some home recording equipment in his facilities, and we went out there and did it inside and outside with mother nature and also inside the temple. It was really a beautiful and educational experience.
You recorded the ROIR cassette a couple years later. Everyone from MCA of the Beastie Boys to Henry Rollins to Flea considers that “the defining hardcore/punk record.” How did you get hooked up with Neil Cooper (owner of ROIR)?
We went over to NYU, and we were doing some recording with a friend of ours named Patrick. He came to us and said, “you know, there’s some talk in town about a new label getting organized that works with different African rock, Caribbean, soca, and reggae musicians,” and that the brother’s name was Neil Cooper and maybe we should give him a check. So we had some friends check around town to see if he had any space available in his studio for us to go in and do some recording, and he said sure. He came to a show and introduced himself to us, and he invited us up to his office. We just started recording different takes, trying different styles, because he was so patient with us. He said, “I know that you are a young band and you’re just getting started and a lot of these tapes you’re taping now, years from now you won’t really be the same style. But take your time and try different techniques, and if you come up with some tracks that you’re really proud of and you want to circulate, we’d be more than interested in working with you.” So we said okay, and we did a few dates in town, and it was like wild. As soon as we showed up, people were just coming out of the woodwork. They were flying all over the place and the music was steamin’. What can I say? The music was just a supernaturalistic phenomenon. So we went and did the record with the ROIR people, and to our surprise, the album came out real original and didn’t sound like anybody else at the time. Next thing I know, people are coming up to us congratulating us, telling us they really like the music and the rest is just history, you know.
The Bad Brains, at least in my opinion, have had a broader influence than any other band. You’ve had a huge impact in punk, hardcore, metal, hip-hop, reggae… you name it. Bands like the Beatles and Elvis can’t say that.
Yeah, well the Soul Brains are really influential. Well, you know, some of the groups we’ve influenced over the years have become real popular, like Fishbone, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers…the list goes on and on. In these times, groups like EPMD, Cypress Hill, Snoopy D, Dr. Dre, Monika, and Janet Jackson, all those groups have a big influence on the Soul Brains, too. Like when a teacher has a pupil at the same time the pupil can be your mentor and you’re pickin up on there grooves.
Your influence keeps going firsthand, as well as second and third hand from bands that you’ve influenced. Bands like RHCP, Fugazi, Rage Against the Machine… these bands that you’ve had a big influence on continue to influence other generations, but your music is influencing bands today just like it did when it came out years ago. Like the people who were around in the early days always seem to prefer the ’78 to ’81 years of the band, but people from my generation, who also love the early stuff, love the later stuff just as much as the older people like the older stuff. Like the new tribute record Never Give In , most of the songs are from the I Against I and Quickness albums, and they’re done by some of the newer and more innovative heavier bands out today. How many bands can have a continuing impact that only seems to get stronger and with two different periods of the bands career? Most bands go downhill and end up rehashing the first few records, and that’s it. But the Bad Brains have made an impact with two or three different periods that are all arguably just as influential as each other.
Well, thank you so much. You know, the modern listener today, they go berserk as soon as Soul Brains/Human Rights hits the stage. They just go for it. People are just so receptive. It’s really a joy when people can enjoy and understand you and communicate with you on that spiritual level and know just where you’re coming from.
For Rock For Light , and later, God of Love , you had Ric Ocasek producing. How did you first hook up with him?
He came to Boston, and I heard he was from the Cars, and they just avalanched the whole industry for like 10 years. So, Mr. Ocasek came up to us and said, “You all are turned on, and I like what time it is in you all’s music. What makes you all so out there? I mean, I’ve been in the music business for a long time, and you cats are just playin’ different riffs and goin’ through changes that I’m still trying to figure out what formula it is.” I’m lookin’ at this guy like, “Who is this dude? He looks familiar but I can’t put my finger on where I’ve seen him before.” So Earl, Gary, and Darryl came to me and they said, “Go ahead and give this cat a chance. You never know, he might know what he’s doing.” I’m going to Ron St. Germain, “What’s up with this tall skinny dude lookin’ like Paul McCartney from the Beatles?” He said that cat probably got some money to spend and wants to invest in something he can have a future with. So we said, “Yeah, Mr. Ocasek, we’ll get in touch with you later.”
Meanwhile Ric started jamming with Darryl and Robbie & Sly. The church wanted one of them to go with them to Jamaica, so Ric took a little trip down to Jamaica and came back… Man, he was reborn again Rasta Man (laughs). That dude was reggae economics from then on. He was so proud he said, “Whatever you all do, include me in on it. I’ll always want to work with you. So whenever you’re ready, give me a call.” Man, within a year’s time, there we were recording with him, and it was phenomenal the music that we came up with.
Later on, we were up in LA with him, and he took us to a big elaborate studio called Ocean, and man, we recorded God of Love and some other tunes, and lord, it was a blessing. Because the man knows, like Ron St. Germain, these guys are specialist. they know quadraphonic, quantizing on the dimensional level of making the atmosphere and the soundwaves and frequencies coincide and exist along with the frequencies in the music. Some people that are engineers and producers, they get a style but the music kind of clashes and it doesn’t settle in your stomach. We feel, in the Soul Brains, that not only can the music help you learn things, but it can heal your body and your mind. We feel we can also cure people from horrible diseases. It can cure people from AIDS, cancer, insomnia, colds, flu, and all these other little things that are going around making people feel horrible. We feel like our music can cure those things. We don’t take full 100% credit. We think it comes from God and is a gift he gives us, and it moves the ones that believe. Those that don’t believe, it ain’t gonna be like that for them, but for you, as a believer, you’re gonna feel and think things are happening and rotating forwards, backwards, inside, and outside of your life.
I’ve talked to you a couple times before, and the last time we spoke you were talking about your belief that cannabis can heal people, among other things, and…
Yeah, it does. In the past days, it wasn’t really too familiar, but since then, collective institutions have invested time and money, and can now show them. Through the validification of their medical uses, they have collectively achieved decriminalization and given their permission for non-abusive use. Nobody wants to be part of something that does abuse to some. So within actually putting it into permission that you can use it, they advocate the non-abuse so people can’t get in trouble. So to avoid complications, they instead try to help people cure themselves from psychological disorders and child abuse. There are people in the church that support the advocation and production of those cannabis and hemp products. Soon we’ll be able to have stores and supermarkets and just networks of people that’s smokin’ and sellin’ US Grown Grade A Triple Purple Maximum!! It’ll conch you out and when you wake up you’ll still remember what day it was (laughs). I mean, let’s face it, it’s good for the community, it’s cost effective, easy to produce, and very good for man. Like music, I think it has to be professionally supervised. It can be very, very, very gratifying to one’s soul.
Speaking of pot, I remember reading something that Rollins wrote about you two. I know that you’ve known each other since the late 70’s, as well as Ian MacKaye and the other DC people. Anyway, you saw him in DC in like ’83, and you and your boys were smokin’ out in this club basement or something, and you told him, “Henry, if you think you go crazy on stage now, one day I’m gonna put a gas mask on you and just keep blowing smoke in. Then I’ll turn you loose on stage and you’ll REALLY go crazy.
(uncontrollable laughs) Yeah, well you know those brothers got a lot of energy already, and when they hit that stage, I’ll just be laughin’.
Have you seen Ian or Henry lately?
I saw Ian a couple of weeks ago. I got a chance to see the whole family. They’re all doing really well.
Was this when you went to New York a few weeks ago to play some shows?
How did the shows go?
Every show we did was sold out. Every single show. So make sure that the kids know that we really want to thank them. Man, those shows were just great, phenomenal. It was just history. I mean no sellin’ out. The band was really, really, very, very exciting and played really good. Every show was just packed to the brim and they just went off. They went berserk! They were dancin’ and clappin’ for encores after every song. It felt good to know that the band was received in that way.
You’ve been referring to the band as Soul Brains/Human Rights. Do you have more than just the four original members playing with you, and some of the people you worked with in Human Rights?
Well, we have the four man unit, Gary, myself, Darryl, and Earl. Then we have Phil, and there’s Freddie, the other guitar player. Then there’ Spacey T, he’s one of the 20 best rock guitarists on the planet. Freddie played with Black Uru and Ras Michael.
Have you ever thought about working with Lee “Scratch” Perry?
Well, you know, we did a beautiful show with a packed attendance up at the El Ray Theater with Lee “Scratch” Perry” and Human Rights. It was less than 3 months ago, and it was great. We got a chance to talk with him and do some video tape together.
Human Rights is another thing I wanted to talk to you about. You and your brother Earl left the Bad Brains in ’83 and started Human Rights. Why did you decide to stop doing the Bad Brains and start doing Human Rights?
Well see, Human Rights came together in around 1984, when there was a time for reggae music to be circulated and introduced to the masses as a support and a foundation of strength for these times. That was a rough time for the community, and during those times, they needed something to believe in. They needed a new sound that had only been introduced to them in the late 70’s with Bob Marley and Burning Spear. So the re-ignition or restoration of that throne needed to be protected and nourished on a daily basis. His holy angels have given us the signs to tell the people about Soul Brains/Human Rights. Let them know that god loves them and wants them to hear and learn how to be like him and how they can love him more and how this music is a for them. God says he wants to thank the world and the universe for making him the new sensation (laughs). He says he feels so flattered to know and he’s overwhelmed and flabbergasted and he can’t believe that creation could make him their superstar once again. We want the holy sprit to know that he’s #1 in our book. That way he feels good and he just laughs and smiles. He wants his family to know that he is so thankful that they’ve made him their superstar. I don’t think him and his angels miss any super concert.
While you were off doing Human Rights, Gary and Darryl played with different musicians under the Bad Brains name. I know that Mackie from Cro-Mags played drums and Chuck Mosley toured as the singer for a little while, but Mackie and Israel Joseph( Chuck’s replacement singer) recorded the Rise record. Were you cool about that?
Oh yeah. Man, we were cool about it, but sometimes we question a brother’s style of lyrics because we’re people of the church. We always want something that’s not only creative and something we can joke about, but also something we can learn from, and so that’s the only thing about Israel Joseph. We would just rather stay with the music that keeps listeners thinking and growing too, but that love without wisdom creates complications.
When the four original members got back together, you signed with Madonna’s Maverick label for the God of Love album. How did you hook up with her, and what do you think of her?
Madonna’s a fine, sexy woman. Her and Janet Jackson used to come around the Lower East Side. Just high rollers with their fine selves. I used to go, “Are those girls really that pretty? This has got to be an optical illusion that somebody can sound that good and look that good at the same time.” I was like, “Whoa man!!! Both of ya’ll girls is lookin’ good!!” (laughs). Well, I went on tour and came into LA, and a brother came up to me and said Madonna and a few labels want to talk to you. So I gave them a call and they said, “Man, we’ve been lookin’ all over for you!! We got some good news for you.” So we got the fellas together and went over there, and man, they started tellin’ us all these things they wanna do, and the next thing you know, we were in the studio once again. They came through with some nice features like management, an account, publishing deal…all the benefits. We actually got back together with them not too long ago, and they said Madonna might like to try it again.
So you might put out another record with Maverick?
It might just be. That’s what they came and told us. They said Madonna was trying to get in touch with the band and do it again. Then people started asking me if we, Madonna and I, were seein’ each other and hangin’ out.
She got a baby now so I don’t know if she’d have much time for doing anything but taking care of the baby.
Ha!! She’d have a whole lotta babies if we were hangin’ out together!! (laughs)
Well, you’ve got her number now, so the next time she’s looking for a daddy, you should have her on your speed dial.
Ha! (laughs) I don’t know. Whatever way the wind blows. She’s so beautiful, like a little bird up in the air. When she’s ready to build her nest, she’ll find the right home.
You need to tell her to fly on over to HR’s nest!
(laughs) Time will tell where she’ll land and hatch her little eggs (laughs).
So when is the new Soul Brains stuff coming out?
Soon, very soon. Early next year it should come out.
I can’t wait to hear it.
As soon as it comes out, I know that you all are gonna be all over it (laughs)!