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[Q&A] Dr. Know of Bad Brains on the spirit, the youths, and the works


Most bands and artists like to take credit for their own inventiveness, which is a perfectly logical and understandable reaction to the toil and innovation that comes with being in a functioning rock band.  Which perhaps makes the attitude of a band like the Bad Brains all the more unique-- they were arguably one of the most unique and trailblazing acts of the entire punk movement, and yet when I spoke to guitarist Dr. Know, on the eve of a quick Northeast jaunt that brings them to the Paradise tonight, he spoke as if the band itself could take no credit for any of their myriad accomplishments.  We ran a feature on the band in last week's issue; here's the complete transcript of my talk with the Doctor to get you psyched for tonight's show:

How did the band that eventually became Bad Brains start?

We were all friends, we grew up together, we lived in apartments but we had a friend named Alvarez and he and his brother had a basement in his house, so we’d go over there to play, other musicians in the area played there and it became the “jam house”, and it all started from there.

You guys weren’t punk when you started out as Mind Power, what were your influences? I always read that you were a jazz fusion band.

Nah, not fusion: back in the day, we used to play funk. We used to listen to Stevie, Bob, Return To Forever, so we had a mixed palette of influences; reach one teach one.

How did the speed and intensity of the Bad Brains emerge from those influences?

It was just energy, you know, the energy of the youth. We wanted to be informative, hence the rebel music and the hardcore and the reggae. Bob Marley used to say “punky reggae party.”

What was the goal of this rebel music spirit, what was your aim back then?

Consciousness. DC is a funny place, growing up there we saw a lot of hypocritical things. There was a lot of racism at that time, and... it just wasn’t right! We went through busing-- at that time we were living in Maryland, right across the DC line, and we lived through the whole gentrification of DC, and it was so messed up.

Right-- but at the same time, even though things were so messed up, what’s remarkable about Bad Brains is that you guys were so positive! No one else was doing that-- what was that all about, why the emphasis on the positive?

Because the negativity around us was too much. Positive thoughts and actions create positive reactions, and we kind of knew that. Everyone kind of knows that, that’s what your parents are supposed to teach you. God is always your parent, ‘cause if you don’t have a parent you always have God to teach you.

Was it hard proselytizing that kind of attitude to a teenage white punk audience?

Well, we didn’t want to preach to the choir, you don’t want to preach to the choir, you want to preach to people who don’t know.

Who was your ideal choir, who were you looking to turn on to your message?

The youths. All different walks of life of kids, just kids looking for something as an alternative, and through positive spirit and playing reggae.

Was it confrontational, did it take a while to convert this crowd to what you guys were on about?

We established ourselves and so that’s what people came to accept that we did. Of course the first time people hear things it’s strange, but that’s life!

It must have seemed novel, to people, your mix of punk and reggae.

In a lot of ways, that had already happened: you’ve got the Clash playing reggae, and the Police, and like I said, Bob Marley singing “Punky Reggae Party.”

Right, sure, but the Clash and Police mixed reggae in their new wave-y punk, whereas with you guys it was superfast hardcore and then super-traditional roots reggae!

We chose the roots flavor, the roots tradition, that’s all.

What inspired you guys to pursue that dichotomy of sound and attitude?

That’s what the spirit says, that’s what we gotta do, so we gotta do what the spirit says, you know? You can’t be mad at God, you can’t fight God. That’s just how it works.

That’s awesome-- that your musical style was just an inevitability. Most bands like to take credit for that sort of inventiveness!

Well, we realized that that was our works, so we didn’t fight it. Like our song “Attitude”, our attitude is P.M.A., and God, and oneness and unity. That’s what the message was, and is. And that’s it, that’s the works!

That kind of attitude must have helped in the ensuing decades, with their ups and downs, in the music business.

Key word there is music business. “Business”. There you go.

Did you make a conscious effort to move towards heavy metal in your sound in the 80s?

We don’t have any preconceived concepts, we just do what we do. We weren’t listening to metal or anything, our music is universal. It’s just what we were doing at that point in time.

Music is life and love. We don’t want to be a cover band of ourselves! Everyone has a gift and everybody has to find their gift, and ours was the music and the message. We didn’t want to be pigeonholed, we just sat down and did it, came up with riffs. We never thought “Oh, this is the style of music that’s in now”, we didn’t really care what other people thought.

It seems like, in the punk world, you guys were always standouts in part because of your technical mastery and skill-- did you just have a lot more experience, upon hitting the punk world, than most hardcore acts of the day?

We didn’t really have that much experience, but the key was that we honed our skills and just let the riffs flow. It just kind of happened, we’d play the C flat and then put a Q sharp over here, figure out the transitions and it just kind of happened.

Right-- but you did that, but with such breakneck speed. Where did that come from?

It was just the kind of music we were playing, the mood that was happening, and just being youths, being rebels and developing our identity and staying true to the works.

You guys were really amazingly rebellious-- do you think, playing music now, that this is a different time for rebellious youth than your time in the late 70s and early 80s? Or is it kind of the same?

It’s different, it’s always something, you know? The world’s a very different place now than it was thirty years ago, and it all comes out. The youths are more conscious nowadays, but they have to be. It ain’t easy for the youths these days; it never is, but especially in these times, it ain’t easy.

Well, you have the chance to play for new generations, which must be interesting.

It’s always been like that. I got kids older than the kids that come to the shows. Our audience always goes from 16 to 60, 14 to 60, 12 to 60. There’s no musical limitations, no age limitations.

H.R. is one of rock’s great frontman, so wild and creative. Was it ever a struggle to work over the years with someone so mercurial? I mean, his singing and performance and lyrics were and remain so awesome, but it must have been a challenge at times.

Looking back, looking forward, we just do our works, and that’s how it is, you know what I mean? That’s who we are. Everybody’s got their things, and especially creative artists because it’s hard to express themselves.

Everybody’s got their way, who they are, and I’m not just talking musicians. And it all goes back to universalness and oneness and brotherly love and the works. I mean, we didn’t create this, the spirit did. It has our fingerprints, everybody has their own fingerprints, and you can’t really change those, because you’re born with them!

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