We come to rock for light
By Pablo J Boerr
Bad Brains emerged out of Washington, DC in the late ‘70s and influenced the evolution of hardcore music like few other bands. Creating their own brand of fast hardcore punk mixed with reggae, Bad Brains spread a message of positivity and unity to the youth. Heads Lifestyle interviewed bassist and founding member Darryl Jenifer.
Heads Lifestyle: Greetings Darryl. What’s inspiring you these days?
Darryl Jenifer: You know, I love that rub a dub sound, the rah rah, deep dub, like Jah Shaka-type of sound. I like the old school R&B in terms of music motivating me. I’m into production, and I just want to live out my life as a musician. That’s what I did my entire life.
HL: Are you still smoke marijuana?
DJ: Yes, I smoke everyday for spiritual purposes. I don’t smoke to get high or buzzed, you know what I’m saying? When I smoke, it’s a very sacred thing. Everyday I give thanks to the almighty for everything. You have to give thanks for creation.
HL: Some of your music has been released under the moniker Soul Brains. Let’s clear the air on this Bad Brains/Soul Brains story?
DJ: You see Soul Brains is a nickname for Bad Brains. If you are familiar with Rasta culture, Caribbean culture, like sometimes I could call you Pablo p or P lo, you know what I mean? The real deal with that is you know H.R. is fun loving, goes out and tells the world that we’re The Soul Brains. We’re not going to go to H.R. and tell him, No man don’t tell them that, we’re Bad Brains. You know what I mean?
DJ: That’s just some Rasta vibes. That’s just some fun lovingness. But it’s taken to a level that’s real. I mean, come on, we’ve been around for over 40 years. Everyone knows us. You know who the hell we are. If this would have been another band, they wouldn’t talk about it. If No Doubt would come out and decide to call their band Snow Doubt (laughs out loud) no one would care, no one is going to trip on it. They gonna know who they are.
Darryl Jenifer, Bad Brains bassist and founding member.
HL: What’s your take on the evolution of Reggae throughout the years? We went from great roots conscious stuff like Burning Spear, Bob Marley, Linton Kwensi Johnson, Israel Vibration, Peter Tosh and some great dub production with guys like Lee Scratch Perry, King Tubby and Sly and Robbie. Now we got guys like Shaggy and Sean Paul on the airwaves compared to the more roots-oriented '70s. What do you think happened?
DJ: You know man, that’s youth man runnings. That’s like when I was coming up in the early eighties, the type of reggae we used to do and feel. I’m sure we had some dudes from the ska era going, Man, what are these boys doing? What kind of sound is this? That’s youth man, with the dancehall, cuz we did all that stuff, like Brigadier Jerry, etc. It’s just the time. Now we got Shaggy, Sean Paul, all these types of youth man like with kids back in that era, and they’re just coming to scoop up some of that dancehall, the Jamaican hip hop. That’s youth runnings man. The thing is we have some youths that are culture-minded, that are spiritual. They need their groups, too. I’m looking for where the new Israel Vibration youth at. Where’s the new Burning Spear? We don’t get those anymore because of the DJ and that digital era. For a while, there was a pocket where kids were not buying guitars and drums.
That’s youth man runnings. That’s like when I was coming up in the early eighties, the type of reggae we used to do and feel. I’m sure we had some dudes from the ska era going, Man, what are these boys doing?
HL: When kids sold their guitars for turntables?
DJ: Yeah, that’s that little era, and it’s going to crack. Kids are getting tired of that. Kids are like, Let me see that guitar. Kids are proud of being a bass player or a drummer now. Pretty soon we’re going to hear kids say, Yeah! I play drums. I don’t care about DJs and MCs. That little hole right there kept us from getting a new Marley. There’s a few bands out there like John Brown's Body and other groups that are culture groups, reggae groups that play that root sound. They tend to stay in community. They don’t really break through like an Aswad or Steel Pulse could break through with roots music. There’s a roots reggae band in every city, but where’s the major breakthrough? We can’t get that like we got with Steel Pulse, but we can get it from dancehall, because of hip-hop.
HL: That’s the crossover right there, everyone relates to that rhythm.
DJ: Exactly! They could have that faceless sort of plastic redundant kind of digital age sound. People want to feel modern, almost like your workstation becoming all futuristic and minimalist. You know, the whole world that is sort of clean and modern. The same thing will happen to the art music until it breaks through. I’m going to get rid of my computer and cell phone. You want to contact me? Send me a fucking singing telegram (laughs) or something. You know what I’m saying? Go back to the old days. What’s to come if technology takes over?
We’re moving forward. What we’re talking about is what happened to music. When the technological age came, there was big hole left with all the DJs, MCs and these bits and bytes and this digital age, taking guitars and drums out of the youths' hands.
The classic Bad Brains lineup, left to right: Earl Hudson (Drums), Darryl Jenifer (Bass), H.R. (vocals), Dr. Know (Guitar).
HL: Do you feel that we are now getting back to that?
DJ: I believe we are. There’s more substance to that.
HL: You need skills to play an instrument. There’s a certain effort that a musician has to put in to get some sort of decent result.
DJ: Even in hip hop, the production is going back to something that is real and not too sequenced.
HL: A real drummer is always going to be better than a machine.
DJ: Yeah man! They tried for years to make beats and convinced a lot of people, but there was always that plastic element to it. Nothing beats a real drummer, and that’s what I think we’re going back to.
We never intended to be who we are. It’s not a pretentious thing, it just happened. We were youths that were looking for different forms of music to play as young musicians.
HL: I remember H.R. deciding to play an all-reggae set. Any chance of doing some shows under the Zion Train moniker?
DJ: Well, Zion Train was a concept of H.R. back in the early early days of Bad Brains, when we had just discovered Rasta, and put that in the place of our P.M.A. Rasta became our P.M.A. So during that era, it was sort of H.R.’s first solo project. During that time me, Doc and Earl were still very rooted in what we were doing as Bad Brains with our rock music. H.R. being older than us, you know growing, he was like, I want to do this now, but I’ll always do Bad Brains. I even had a little group back then, you know what that’s like. If you have a band in your hood and they get popular playing rock music but all of a sudden they discover Rasta! You go see them live and they’re playing this strange reggae music. That’s another thing that people need to demystify about Bad Brains—we never intended to be who we are. It’s not a pretentious thing, it just happened. We were youths that were looking for different forms of music to play as young musicians. It wasn’t like we said, Okay we’re going to play this punk rock, make it really fast and technical, and have this message. None of that was intended; it just turned out to be that way.
HL: It’s basically what makes an artist real, playing what comes from the heart.
DJ: Exactly! When I look back, half the things I wrote I don’t remember writing. But I know only me and Doc could of written them in terms of the riff. I can’t remember. I must of been on something when I created all this stuff.
HL: You guys must have a crazy bank of riffs and songs at this point?
DJ: Yeah, and they just happen. It’s like chemistry. We’re just who we are. We’re just cats, who have been blessed with versatility in terms of music. I grew up in DC, where they played go-go, mostly funk, but I used to listen to Return to Forever, Earth Wind & Fire, Kool & The Gang, some Black Sabbath. I’m listening to all these different forms of music as a young man, and that’s the only blessing that is born with versatility. As a musician, sometimes I sit at home and play a little funk or a little rock. I never stuck with that go-go, and that’s what most musicians do.
HL: So you feel that most musicians stick with what they know?
DJ: They stick with what they’re feeling. They can say stuff like, I can play reggae music; it’s easy. But they don’t play. The key here is when I play reggae, I could play with The Wailers because I live reggae music. I didn’t play it as a style, I lived it. I live rock music. I could go on stage and play with The Sex Pistols or Metallica or anybody like that. It wouldn’t be like a reggae dude or a black guy playing rock.
HL: It wouldn’t sound like the reggae version of Metallica Sound System?
DJ: Right. I can play all these forms of music. I could play funk with Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers and it would be authentic because I’m from DC, funk is in my bones and I lived all these styles. You get a lot of musicians that are like, Ah man, I play rock (laughs)…but you know that dude, he’s really a jazz dude. You see what I’m saying? And you can hear that in his music and in his sound. So the only blessing I can give thanks and praises is the blessing of versatility. I am a very versatile artist through living these styles.
The key here is when I play reggae, I could play with The Wailers because I live reggae music. I didn’t play it as a style, I lived it.
HL: You’ve been involved in a lot of production work. How do you see your role in the studio?
DJ: You know, that’s the natural progression for me—going up on stage and doing the thing with The Brains, involving myself with stage work. It’s sort of like crossing a bridge into more studio work. I feel like I’m more of a counsellor for younger groups, who want to know what step to take, and how to rock this rock business. Not so much even on the business side, but more on the artistic side. Like how to feel about what you are doing as a young musician. I feel I’m like a counsellor more than your typical producer or some dude who gets the level right. Making you comfortable in studio; making sure you’re happy with what you do.
HL: So, you embrace the role of a producer?
DJ: Yeah, I love it! I mean, it’s a role I’ve been in my whole career with The Brains. We had to produce our own music. Ron Saint Germain is a great engineer, so he was able to produce I against I, in terms of our arrangements, sounds and the way the songs were popping up sonically and technically. Ric Ocasek is a good organizer, so he was able to get us in the studio and get us to play the right amount of songs, the right amount of time. He’s more like a counsellor going, Ok guys, you’re doing three songs today, get here at twelve and I’ll let you go home at eight but we got to get this done. However you guys do it, that’s the fuck how you do it, I’m just helping getting you in and out of here. See what I mean? There’s different styles, different ways of being a producer.
HL: I’m glad you mentioned both producers. They have participated on some very important records including Rock for light, I against I and Quickness. What were those experiences like?
DJ: The first record, Rock for Light, was like a kid record. Ric Ocasek had heard about us. I think he was listening to our ROIR cassette on his tour bus to hype himself up before shows. So he was a fan of ours and gave us gear when we were young, put us in the studio. It was like a Disney World sort of session, like young kids meet pop star. Then there’s Ron Saint Germain; he was more of a technical engineer kind of guy. He came in with a hands-on approach and helped us create a classic record. Then we switched back, and there was a record we did with Beau Hill.
HL: That was a label move, right?
DJ: Yes, although Beau Hill is a nice guy and great sonically too—no disses on him—he got that record because the label thought that with his heavy metal cred and our street cred, we could create some sort of metal street cred (laughs).
If you have music and art, and you get in a position where you have to compromise your art for what an administrator is saying is gonna help them make money, well you better think twice.
HL: Good old politics!
DJ: That was the only way they were going to give us the deal and the politics once again jumped in. That’s a lesson for the youth right there: if you have music and art, and you get in a position where you have to compromise your art for what an administrator is saying is gonna help them make money, well you better think twice. You may be looking at a bit more money in advance or at a bigger distribution, but what are you going to be distributing? Your art kind of gets twisted. The label is like, We want this guy here to work with you. Does he know us? No. Does he like our music? Don’t know. All we know is he did this. You see what I mean? So politics in music and the arts don’t really mix either. Politics of music.
HL: Two words that shouldn’t go together.
DJ: But they do all the time—sometimes for the good, most of the time for the bad. That shit can work sometimes, that’s what I’m saying. But that’s the administrators. There are people in music that don’t play music; they are not artists. All they are trying to do is arrange to sell your art. All these A&R and VPs and heads of labels—they got these titles, but really it’s the administrators of music and the artist themselves. The artists can’t go out and distribute their music, so they get these guys onboard. A lot of these guys are conglomerates, they have money, they can keep the artists fed. And now the artists are starting to make moves over food, moves that have nothing to do with art.
HL: Half the time these guys never even meet the band.
DJ: They don’t know about music.
HL: It’s the last column of their spreadsheet that matters to them the most.
DJ: Exactly! That’s what happened to us on Epic. They made a minimal investment and put us on tour for a year.
HL: That’s the Rise album right?
DJ: Yeah, although that record is kind of weird, it actually has its own unique fans.
HL: What message do you have for the youth of today?
DJ: The message I would send to the youth of today would be: within every disadvantage in life that you can experience, a greater advantage is within that disadvantage. I’m finding myself saying that a lot because people face a lot of things and they turn it on themselves. You have to be spiritually grounded. You have to give thanks and praise, and you can’t be responsible for everything—for anything for that matter. Once mankind and the youth can get in their mind that this is Jah’s work. This is a spiritual working and not a man working. Until then, there’s going to be people jumping off bridges because of Wall Street, kids killing themselves over grades, dudes crying because they crash their car—all these material things attacking the spirit. So what I’m saying is, when you face these things in life, if you’re a good person—and most of us are, the wicked is few, they are there but it’s few. Most people are good people, just confused and tormented people at times. But if they can get the philosophy that they are a seed of a greater advantage within whatever confronts them. Like the old saying goes: one door close, two doors open. That I believe can help the youth.
Like I tell my kids, I believe in a room when you’re standing there’s pluses and minuses. Some people have a lot of minuses collected around them, some people got a lot of pluses, some are fifty/fifty, that all depends on how you carry yourself and how you act. If you’re quick to anger, like people being quick to the negative draws negativity. People being quick and trying to practice on being positive, now that’s a positive way to live and collect positiveness around you. What I’m saying is the more youth man can just learn how to deal with things in a positive perspective, I believe that can make the world a better place.
For more Bad Brains info go to: www.badbrains.com
This article first appeared in Heads Vol.5 Issue 03 - May 2005