Bad Brains H.R. interview by Jim Murphy of the Alva Boyz

H.R. interview by Jim Murphy featuring photography by Glen E. Friedman

Back in the day, there wasn’t a backyard ramp session, or a 10-hour skate mission that didn’t involve a Bad Brains tape in the mix. You could always feel the session get more heated when the Bad Brains were playing. Loud and powerful, the Bad Brains came out of D.C. with a fury of fast-paced music that took the hardcore scene by storm! Their unique combination of hardcore and reggae inspired an army of youth with positivity and aggression. Today, HR continues to share his love for music and PMA.

Hey, H.R.

Hey, Jim. How are you doing?

I’m good. How are you doing, HR?

I’m doing much better. Everything is finally coming together.

Right on. I want to talk with you about who you are and how you grew up.

Yeah, man. Sure.

Cool. Tell everybody where were you born and raised.

I was born in Liverpool, England, and raised in different parts of the U.S. My father was in the Air Force and I spent most of my time in Washington, D.C. after the age of 16. In ’79, the Bad Brains did our first New York show at CBGB’s. We had been bouncing around playing music since 1977 and doing backyard and basement parties at the house that we lived in on Bay Way in Maryland.

How did you get the Bad Brains started? How did you get into the hardcore scene?

Well, a friend of ours named Sid McCray had been playing punk and hardcore records over at his house in ’77, and we got a chance to listen to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and other great punk rock bands, then we decided to give it a try.

What did you think of punk rock, because your earliest influences were jazz? Didn’t you have a jazz fusion band before the Bad Brains?

Yes, we did. We had a jazz fusion band called Mind Power. We felt that we could do a little better in the hardcore scene and give the kids something positive to listen to in the punk days. We saw that’s where we could fit in with the whole thing and bring some positivity to punk rock.

After you guys got up on the D.C. scene, you had Minor Threat and other punk and hardcore bands coming up, so how were you accepted? Were they stoked?

Yeah. They were very agreeable with the music and the band, and they were very nice to us in the early days. We had a number one song on the charts in Europe, and we also got a write up in this little paper called The Village Voice in New York, so we started out right on. We had made the record Pay To Cum and that’s when it all really started. Then we got a cassette deal with Neil Cooper. The name of his label was ROIR and it was based in New York.

When you hit New York City, what was the situation?

It was very nice and very positive. It was amazing because we never thought that we’d be able to bring people in to see our shows so early in our careers, but everyone was totally into it and we were into it too.

Rad. I remember seeing you guys in D.C. and it was such positive energy. We had seen Minor Threat and then we saw you guys and you brought it to a whole other level. Everybody would come together and it was great. It was fighting against all that skinhead racist stuff. Seeing you guys come on the scene was invigorating, you know, bro?

Yes sir, I sure do know. That’s what we had endured through. We had gotten approached by labels like Epic, but we just wanted to take our time before reaching that level, so we started our own label called Bad Brains Records and we enjoyed that. We had hundreds of songs and we picked “Pay to Cum” and “Stay Close To Me” for our debut 45 record and those records sold out right away.

Nice. When you guys were based in New York, did you do countrywide tours?

Yes. We sure did.

How was it going to Chicago and the Midwest? What was the reaction?

That was cool. It was really nice. Everybody was so responsive and understood where we were coming from. It just came together and it was a miracle the way that people reacted to us. They were charged up and we were too. We enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Did you take bands with you on the road?

In those first years, we were on tour by ourselves and we’d have local bands open up for us in each city. In New York, we had Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front and the Lawndale group, from California, opening up for us.

Did you hang out with Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front in New York? Were they cool with you?

Yes sir.

What was it like going to the West Coast and playing out there in the punk rock scene?

Well, we found that there were a lot more places to play in New York and California. D.C. only had a couple of places to play. We played at the D.C. Space and the Atlantis, which later on became the 9:30 Club. Those were the only two places we could play. When we got to New York, there were nine or ten more venues to play in.

Killer. Did you play gigs in L.A.?

We sure did. We played at The Whisky a Go Go in LA and Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, and we played the Iguanas Club in Tijuana.

Were you playing with punk rock bands like the Adolescents or the Dead Kennedys?

We played with the Dead Kennedys one time in the early days and it was right on.

What did you think of being on the road?

At first, it was kind of difficult for us because we didn’t have any money. We had to play with local bands that would let us use their equipment. When we came back to D.C., we found a manager who got us brand new equipment. Then we were playing in D.C. and somebody stole our van with all of our equipment in it, so we had to start all over again. Later, after we got our record deal, we had interest from a group called The Damned, from England, so we went over there, but they wouldn’t let us into Europe. They said that we needed passports. We were so young that we didn’t know that we needed work permits and passports.

So they turned you away?

They sure did, so we had to start all over again. It was a challenge in those days.

Did you finally get over there and hang out with The Damned in England?

Yes. It took us about five years to get back on our feet, but we finally got our passports. We had gotten new management and we tried it again and this time they let us in.

Cool. What was the scene like over there in the ‘80s? What were the kids’ reactions to you?

Their actions towards us were super cool. They went off and they were ecstatic, man! The clubs were packed and the kids asked us so many questions. They wanted to know if we enjoyed playing in Europe and what it was like in the U.S. They asked a whole lot of interesting things.

It must have been really great energy over there, post-Sex Pistols with punk rock and hardcore bands. Did you get to travel all over Europe?

Yes. We traveled all over Europe. Our manager, Anthony Countey, pulled it off.

When you got back to the States, where were things going for you? Were you still on a record label and making a living?

Yeah. This man named Hilly Kristal at C.B.G.B.’s was letting young bands and alternative groups play his club and we had lined up a deal with the Dead Kennedys. Jello Biafra offered us a deal and we released our first song with him on Alternative Tentacles. By that time, we came back to New York and they wanted to produce our record, Rock For Light. Instead, Caroline pulled off a better deal for us, so we did Rock For Light with Caroline Records.

Did they put you on the road with that record and did you start playing bigger venues?

Yes. We played the Rock Hotel and we went out to L.A. to do another tour and we toured San Francisco, San Diego, San Pedro and a few other places. It was a much bigger response and the band had grown a little bit more. The response from the kids was overwhelming. We couldn’t believe we had reached that level.

That was in the ‘80s when skateboarding was really taking off too. Did you notice how skateboarders and the skateboard scene was attracted to you guys?

We sure did.

Did you ever get into skateboarding?

Nah. I like to watch it, but I didn’t do it.

Did you guys surf? Did you guys go down to Venice Beach and hang out?

We hung out in Venice and we had seen some kids doing their thing, but we never took it on in any way. I’ve been watching skateboarding and surfing for a long time though.

I was talking to my friend, Jef Hartsel and he told me how you stayed with him and J.T. in Venice so you probably saw a lot of skateboarders there coming in and out.

Yes sir. We sure did.

After that tour, you went back to D.C. and what was the D.C. scene like at that point? I remember seeing bands like Scream playing. Did you see how the music scene was evolving in D.C.?

We did. It had grown and it went from about 100 people to about 500 people at the shows.

I know you got into the Rastafarian movement. Was it around that time that you got into that and less into the hardcore music scene?

It was. It was the new legacy and a new upbringing of kids. There were new bands like The Teen Idles. They played with us and Minor Threat and S.O.A. and Scream. There was a band called Trenchmouth that we had met earlier and they had grown too. What we did with them was, in the early days in 1979, we played a Rock Against Racism show in the ghetto part of D.C. in a place called the Valley Green. There were a whole lot of kids that came to see us play and they were just overtaken by how the group was. We had on different outfits and they didn’t know where we were coming from, but they were into the music. They were little kids, like ten or eleven and twelve-year-old kids.

That’s rad. That’s such a positive influence on the youth there. Did you talk to them after the gig and have any conversations with them?

We did. They were asking us where we came from and why we were wearing such odd clothes. I explained to them that we were going through what was called rebellion and we were rebelling against war and going with what the hippies had taught us. We told them that until there was world peace, we were going to stick it out and keep ourselves in a more moderate level. Instead of wearing the glamour, glitz and glitter clothes that the glam rock kids were wearing, we were wearing these clothes. We had gotten an offer to play the Capital Center before they turned it into a mall, but they said we had to change our clothes and wear spandex and tank tops. It was too far out.

[Laughs] Oh man. They wanted you looking like Van Halen. You probably saw a lot of that out in L.A. too in the rock scene. What did you think of that?

We just thought it was funny and ironic and a trip to us. We saw it more as funny. We just didn’t think it would be for us, so we didn’t give it a try.

Did any of those cats in those rock bands like Van Halen ever come to see a Bad Brains gig?

As a matter of fact, Mick Jagger approached the band and some of his friends asked if we would do a movie about Bob Marley. Ron Wood said that Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones thought that I was one of the greatest lead singers to ever walk on a stage.

He was right too, man!

We did a show at Stony Brook College with Peter Tosh and that was sold out and that was so cool. We were playing punk rock and the people didn’t understand us. They were like, “What are they doing?” They wanted us to play some reggae, so we played some reggae and they dug it.

What about Peter Tosh? What did he think of your energy?

Well, he thought it was too controversial to be playing punk rock and that we should stay with reggae, but we just wanted to play what the band was known for. Although the kids and Peter Tosh wanted us to play more reggae, we wanted to play both styles, punk rock and hardcore and reggae too. They were like, “Come on man, play your reggae for us.” So we played some reggae too and got a good response.

How did you guys feel playing reggae?

We were cool with it. We thought it was new and exciting and it had a good beat to it. We wanted to join in after seeing Bob Marley in concert in Central Park. We thought we could do that too, so we started playing reggae. Seeing Bob Marley playing live in concert is what changed our minds completely. To us, it was eye-opening and really amazing.

Well, you guys had been playing the same kind of music for so long, it was probably good to switch it up a little bit and chill and play some reggae. Is that what your heart was telling you?

Yes. That’s true, brother.

Were people bummed because they wanted to hear the Bad Brains and you guys were playing reggae? Did you still get support from the kids?

We sure did. It was good vibes. At first, we said that we wanted to play all reggae at our shows and people were saying, “Come on, man, don’t let us down. Play some of your fast stuff for us.” This was early on in our career in the early ‘80s. We said, ”All right. We’ll give it all a chance.”

In the late ‘80s, the glam rock thing was going on and then grunge came on the scene. Where were you at that point when the whole Seattle scene was blowing up? Were you more into the reggae scene?

No. At that time, we were into hardcore. We wanted to try something different so the kids could relate to it, so we played the music super fast and we came up with intricate arrangements in the music. We started playing “Heaven Forbid” and the “Big Take Over” and “At The Movies” and we speeded them up and played them with immensely powerful grunge-like style, but much faster. When the kids came out to see us play, they were just blown away. They were like, “You guys are so good that we’re going to tell our friends and family!” Things started jumping for us in ’86 and ’87, and then we took a break from it and decided to go out and try to find our own way, so each member of the band started these solo groups. I went to Jamaica to visit some of the people there and do some recording because I’d gotten an offer from SST Records to go over there. My manager said, “Go on, man. Take time out to go get more experience and write songs from your own experiences.” So that’s what we did and it was totally accepted.

How were the people over there? Did you meet with any of the Marley family?

We sure did. The people loved us and gave us ultimate respect. They let us into their clubs and their studios so nicely and they were really cool about everything.

When you got back to the States, what was your perspective as far as music goes?

When we came back to D.C., we said that we wanted to play both styles of music. The band had gone from an experimental band to being a lot more settled in ourselves and more focused, and it brought us to a maturity level where we wanted to give back musically. Punk rock had a head start, but we also wanted to bring in the perspectives of reggae that we loved. We grew all the way around. That was in ’89. In 1990 we went to L.A. and they loved us so much and they were really taken in by the music.

In the ‘90s, when you were doing gigs, was it mostly reggae or hardcore that you were doing?

We balanced it out and we were playing mostly punk rock with a few songs of reggae. We didn’t get into any racial problems while we were playing punk rock, but people were saying to us, “Why are you guys playing punk rock so much? Why aren’t you playing reggae?” We didn’t want to be influenced by anybody. We just wanted to be as original as possible. That’s why we decided to play punk rock a lot more, but we did two or three reggae songs in most shows.

Did you find it hard to explain to people why you wanted to play punk rock music? Did it become a dread thing where people tried to put you in a box and define you by your looks? It was probably hard for a lot of people to understand, right?

Yes sir, it was. It took them by surprise. They asked those very same questions and we told them we just wanted to play music from the heart. We just wanted to play good music. We didn’t see it as being punk rock or hardcore or reggae. It was just our music. That’s what we wanted to be known as, good people making good music.

When the ‘90s came, were you playing bigger venues and getting more of an international acceptance?

Yes. We started playing bigger shows and it went from 500 to 1,000 people. More recently, we played Riot Fest in Chicago, and there were so many people out there and we played a big show in California. At Riot Fest, we got too big to fit into a regular club anymore.

What did it feel like to step out on a stage and have that many people looking at you?

I was in total awe. I could never believe that the band would reach that level. I was tripping out. It was beautiful.

I bet you saw big mosh pits going off as soon as you kicked in. With 40,000 kids, those pits had to be sick. Did you guys ever do big gigs in Japan or Australia?

We sure did. We played Japan. I remember the group got invited to play in Australia, but I wasn’t in the band then, so they took this brother named Joseph I out there and did some shows in Australia. I started my own reggae band because I wanted to play all roots and reggae for a while.

You were doing your own thing.

Yes. I still am, as a matter of fact.

In the 2000s, you were doing your own thing and the guys in the band were still keeping the Bad Brains going?

Yes. Darryl insisted on playing punk rock still. He was into reggae too and he asked me to come back into the band, two years ago. He said, “Whatever you want to do, just come back in the band, and we can make it big. If you want to do all reggae, we can do that. If you want to play a lot more punk rock, we can do that.” I said, “Yeah, let’s try that.” So we played rock n roll and reggae together. I told him that I might want to play all reggae with the Bad Brains and he understood where I was coming from, and we went ahead and tried it. Everybody was in awe when they heard us and, by this time, we were pulling in about 100,000 people.

Wow! It was a whole new generation of kids too.

That’s true. There were kids that had grown up that were into it and their kids had kids too that were into it. It was enigmatic and amazing.

You had such a huge influence on the scene. Did you see how your music made a difference in how kids looked at music and accepted each other at gigs?

I sure did. They were a lot more respectful to each other and that’s what counted the most to us. We wanted to see that respect and love going on, along with good music with a good vibration about it.

How did things go on the business end in the ‘90s? Were you guys still with Caroline or did you stick with SST for a while and then start your own thing?

SST released an EP called Spirit Electricity. By that time, we had outgrown Caroline. Caroline Records was fine, but we wanted to get to a bigger label. By that time, the brothers at Epic were ready for us, so we landed a deal with them.

What did you learn from the music industry and how hard was it to start your own record label?

Well, for a long time, the band was approached by big labels for deals, but we held to our guns. We understood that it was going to be a challenge. A lot of the older record labels were trying to get us to play with them, but the band decided to stay independent and stay on our original own groove and have re-releases done through our own label. We didn’t know if it was going to work out. We had been playing for smaller labels, and, to us, it was surprising to know that we had reached such a massive level. The kids were so supportive and so groovy and so talented. Later on, a lot of other bands had shown us that we had influenced them so much that they wanted to try to do the same thing and they did. It was groups like Long Beach Dub Allstars, 311 and P.O.D. and they all got signed by real big labels, and then they opened the doors for us. When we finally came back to LA, we got a deal with Maverick, Madonna’s label. They picked us up and we considered them to be totally cool people.

Did you interact with Madonna directly?

No. We worked with the Vice President of the label.

Did he have a plan to bring your music to a bigger audience?

Yes. He had figured it out beforehand. He told us that we had influenced so many people, so he thought his label would be able to pull it off and make it work for us, and get the massive appeal that we wanted to get. He said that, by the time we played, we’d know for sure that he had faith in the band, so we gave it a try and it worked out just great.

What year was the Maverick deal?

That was in the mid to late ‘90s.

With that kind of muscle, did they get you into some bigger venues and put you on a worldwide tour?

We did a national tour.

Was there anything memorable from those tours?

Once we were playing Lawrence, Kansas, and we were playing sold out venues. The clubs weren’t really ready for us. They were sold out and people were waiting in line, and I got into a scuffle and one of the police officers arrested me for about 30 days. I was really bummed out and Maverick Records was bummed out too. They were like, “We’re not working with your band anymore.” Then they gave us a second shot, and the group did much better and I kept my nose clean. It was just all the excitement beforehand, but we pulled it off and it worked out well.

What did you think of other bands like Fishbone?

Oh, man, they were so cool with us. Those brothers are so full of fun and electricity. I had gotten a chance to work with Angelo. He came to me and he said, “Please, H.R., whatever you do, keep on playing music. Our band loves and respects the Bad Brains.” I said, “Okay, we’ll keep on playing.”

I remember seeing you guys play and then we saw Fishbone and Living Colour starting to come around and get a lot of notoriety. I thought those guys had to have been influenced by the Bad Brains.

They sure were. What we found interesting was that the Black Rock Coalition wanted to do a tour with us and have us play in the line up with those bands. We had been offered some gigs at the Afropunk Shows that they were having in the summertime and those were just great.

Were you seeing more young black youth forming bands within those urban communities? Were they getting into punk rock more, like Bad Brains style?

They sure were.

It seems like there is a lot of the rap influence out there, but you guys came out of nowhere with one of the most hardcore bands in history. Were you influenced by people like Jimi Hendrix early on too?

Yes sir, we were. Dr. Know, and the way he approached his solos, they had a lot of distortion in them. You could hear the influence of Jimi Hendrix there. What Dr. Know was doing with those lead solos was totally erratic and completely radical. The group was known for the fast music that we were playing. He pulled it off and really made it happen.

You could hear the hardcore influence on your jazz fusion style early on. There was a lot of freestyle in the horns, drums and guitar and you guys turbocharged it.

[Laughs] That’s true.

If you listen to jazz, it’s beautiful and it’s going in all different directions, and then you put the Bad Brains on it and it’s all soul, but it’s aggressive too. I hear all of that in your music. It’s soul, blues, jazz, punk rock and hardcore at 110 miles an hour. You just blew everybody away. Then you throw reggae in there too and everybody wins. So these days are you still back and forth with Bad Brains or are you just strictly doing the H.R. Human Rights tour?

Well, in 2017, we did some shows in LA and Chicago with the Bad Brains. We did the Riot Fest in Chicago and there was at least 100,000 people there. That’s when we knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was happening. We had gotten a new manager and a tour manager. They were so cool to us and they gave us maximum respect. We got up on that stage and did our full set and the kids went off. The show was outside because no room could hold that many people.

Being out there and seeing how your music has influenced people, where do you see things going in music?

Well, there is a lot more acceptance for punk rock and hardcore music. A lot more bands have been influenced by the Bad Brains and they’ve changed their style of music. Some of the bands have asked to do some of our songs like, “Banned In D.C.”. I saw that as them answering the question that we had been asking them for a while, which was, “Do you like our music? Do you think what we’re doing is cool?” The answer was, “Yeah, man, we sure do. We want to hear what y’all want to play.” That’s what they were saying to us.

Do you still see an underground punk rock scene going?

I sure do.

Have you seen any up and coming bands that you’re digging on?

Well, I had seen Gwen Stefani play and she came to me and asked if she could play one of our songs. I said, “Go right ahead. It would be an honor and a privilege for you to play one of our songs.”

Which song did she play?

“Sailin On”, “Total Hate” and “Banned in DC.”

Wow. Did she pull it off?

She sure did. She worked with Dr. Know on it. Then the group the Foo Fighters asked to play a few of our songs, “Banned in DC”, “How Low Can A Punk Get’ and “The Regulator”. They pulled it off and it sounded great.

Did they go full tilt?

Well, they lightened up a little bit. It wasn’t like the Bad Brains, but I could see the Bad Brains influence in it.

That’s cool. Well, it seems like it’s always been hard to get super commercially successful being a punk rock band. Have any of these record labels ever tried to change your sound and lighten you up?

No. They respected us and encouraged us to play our way. We worked with different producers like Ric Ocasek from the Cars and Ron St. Germain, and they said to us, “Please play your rock n’ roll songs just the way you like to play them. Give it all you can give.” So that’s what we did and it was accepted by the kids.

So Ric Ocasek was stoked on you guys?

Yes, he sure was.

That’s so righteous, H.R. The influences that you’ve had are amazing. With what you’re doing now, with Human Rights, are you looking to play smaller venues and get with the crowds?

Yes. We’ve been focusing on my reggae band, Human Rights, and we had to start from ground level and slowly work our way up, so the venues have been smaller, but the acceptance has been so great. We did a show in Brooklyn at the Safari Room.

How was that gig?

It was full of love, soul power and love power. The kids came out and packed the venue. We were in awe of how many people came to the show. The band I’ve been working with is Brother Ezekiel Zagar on guitar, and Josh Freshy on bass and Wesley Rast on the drums. They thought that the shows were really great and we really pulled it off.

The power of H.R.

[Laughs] Yes sir.

For the rest of the story, get Juice Magazine #76 here.

HR and dr. know – BAD BRAINS – 1981 – A7 – NEW YORK CITY – JIMMY GESTAPO AND CORY RUSK IN THE AUDIENCE. PHOTO © GLEN E. FRIEDMAN

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