Bad Brains :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Bad Brains emerged from the D.C. punk underground in the late 1970s, an all-black band in a mostly white hardcore scene, playing faster and harder than anyone else. Though best known for furious songs like “Pay to Cum” and “Banned in D.C.,” the band was omnivorous, musically, taking the technical pyrotechnics from fusion jazz, the pace and rhythms and spiritual awareness from classic reggae and the sheer, deafening volume from hard rock and metal. Their albums, like their live set, interspersed blistering punk with laid-back reggae cuts. The band refused to be limited, either by punk conventions or racial and cultural norms. They played what they wanted to play.

Throughout 2021, Org Records is remastering and reissuing nearly all of Bad Brains’ catalog, starting with the “Pay to Cum” single and the debut album (known as the ROIR cassette) which defined hardcore and set the foundation for bands including Minor Threat, Fugazi and Black Flag. Daryl Jenifer, the founding bassist and author of many of the band’s signature blistering riffs, spoke with Aquarium Drunkard about Bad Brains’ beginnings, their influences in punk, reggae and Rastafari culture and the fearless creativity that he hopes will be the band’s lasting legacy. | j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: You guys were just kids when you started Bad Brains. How did meet and how did you start?

Darryl Jenifer: Well, geez, that was a long time ago. Back in the day, you know, in the late 1970s, there was no hip hop or anything like that, so the thing that we did in the hood was play basketball, football, not even baseball. Baseball was not in the hood or hockey or anything like that. It was basketball. I played guitar. I played football, but I was also one of the guys around the hood that played guitar. So, you go down the alley with these little bands. And HR and Earl and Doc actually were in a band, and they’re a little bit older than me. Like if I was in the seventh grade, they were in high school. HR is six years older than me. They were like my big brothers. They were all musicians, too. I guess what I’m trying to say, when you were a musician back then, it stood out like you were a rapper or a DJ now. We were all kids in the hood.

AD: You found each other.

Darryl Jenifer: Yeah. Basically. I was going over to a friend’s house named Alvarez, and he knew Earl, and HR is Earl’s big brother. It was like now when the young kids go to the house where somebody has DJ equipment for rapping. We went to basement of the guy that played.

AD: Your first band was kind of a jazz fusion thing? What can you tell me about that?

Darryl Jenifer: Well, I can tell you that that’s a rumor that’s been going on for 30 or 40 years.

AD: Really, it’s not true?

Darryl Jenifer: Yes and no. What the deal is with that, like I described just a minute ago, is how we played music. We were cats that played music, but we didn’t necessarily play go-go or funk or R&B or whatever black people are supposed to play. We liked other styles of music, and that’s where the whole blessing is as I look back now to what Bad Brains was all about. It was a blessing of versatility among teens and young men that wanted to play music, but not necessarily the music that they’re supposed to, culturally.

There was this idea that you don’t play rock and roll. You don’t play metal. Or hard-edged rock. In the hood, they would say, now you’re playing white boy music. But to me, the fusion jazz came from my love of playing the guitar and looking for musicians that stood out like Return to Forever or Mahavishnu.

When we came together as brothers, younger brothers and older brothers, that was the kind of band wanted to be. We wanted to be a jazz-fusion, Return to Forever group, but we never got going on that. We had one song. We made a little name for ourselves. We were fluent in jazz fusion as young musicians. And then, like teenagers do, we were doing one thing in the spring and then by fall, we were punk. When you’re young like that, you’re always doing something new.

AD: Tell me about punk. How did you get into that?

Darryl Jenifer: I was in the group we were calling Mind Power, which was supposed to be fusion group but we never got it going. During this time, a friend of mine who recently passed, a member of our group, Sid McCray, came over to the house one day, and he had these records. He said that he saw a special on PBS about the Sex Pistols, and it kind of got his attention, and then he bought these records. He was another guy who was looking for something different. And then he played me the Ramones and the Damned. I was a young teen, probably 17 or 18, and being the fusion head, I said, “This ain’t nothing.” From a competitive standpoint, not so much a musical standpoint.

AD: You mean because it wasn’t technically good?

Darryl Jenifer: Yeah, it wasn’t technically good. Plus, I was really shy when I was young. I felt like I had an advantage as a player…

AD: Because you knew how to play.

Darryl Jenifer: Because I knew how to play already and I already listened to high-end fusion artists. So that was what I wanted to be. But when I heard punk and the Ramones and the Damned, I said, “They think they playing fast? Watch this.” Right? But from a competitive standpoint, I’m just like, “Oh, this is about fast? Well, damn.” Because I’ve been playing like Return to Forever, a mile a minute, a thousand notes.

So, the Ramones and stuff like that wasn’t really fast to me. But I loved it. And loved it more because it seemed like a kind of music where I could be myself. I never was a showman or anything like that. I was talking to my son the other day. He said I should do some clips about my jamming and how I play. And I told him that never was me. People that know me now don’t even know I was in the band. For all these years, sometimes people still say, “Damn, D, I heard you played music!” I never was that guy. I kind of keep it low. I never wore Bad Brains merch or a Bad Brains t-shirt.

AD: I wanted to ask you about the reggae. At the time you’re talking about, there were a lot of pretty mainstream bands like the Clash and the Slits and Elvis Costello and the Police, all using reggae. And I think that you and the guys in Bad Brains had a more direct connection. How did you feel about it being so popular?

Darryl Jenifer: We were young and always changing. You know, one week you’ve got green hair and you’re a punk, the next week, you’re a rasta. So, we were punk and then we had a new manager who took us to the movies to see Rockers, which was a reggae movie. And when we left, it’s almost like we discovered that our P.M.A. [positive mental attitude] that we were singing about in our songs really was Rastafari. We got turned on really quick, being young dudes that are seeking consciousness, that’s the key.

A lot of rock bands, they sing about girls and drinking and all that stuff. But for us, we wanted to sing about P.M.A. And then we realized subliminally that calling P.M.A. was calling Jah. You see what I mean? It’s the same thing.

But we took it to another level. And then musically, we could play it because we could play all forms of music. That’s an interesting thing because the dudes in Bad Brains always lived the style that we played. It’s one thing to play music like a wedding band, to play reggae, like Bob Marley. But it’s different when culturally you understand the people and the sound and the music deeply. We developed what I consider to be a Yankee reggae. You know, you’ve got the Jamaican style, you’ve got the British style, and America never really had a reggae groove. Steel Pulse and all those dudes are from England.

In America, you name me one reggae group. You can’t. They’re all obscure. You can’t tell me one American reggae band besides this band. So, for us, we’re that band.

And then, we had this fearless creativity that allowed us to say, “We’re going to play four rock joints and then we’re going to play this reggae joint.” As opposed to saying, “What are people going to think? You’re crazy,” and all that. So that’s the deal with fearless creativity part that I look back and I remember.

The only reason we played reggae — other than loving it — in our Bad Brains set was to pace our set. You play “Bad Brains Attitude” and “Pay to Cum” over and over again, and you’re going to be done. So, dropping into dub, because of the Clash, because of those groups you mentioned, and Rock Against Racism, as a movement, that’s where you got the Bad Brains going. We we never contrived any of this. The only thing that we contrived was playing fast and playing tight.

AD: The first record is such an adrenaline rush. I know you’re not crazy about the term, “hardcore” but why so fast? Why so aggressive?

Darryl Jenifer: That’s another interesting question. When I was a teenager, I was always listening to what they would call, back in my hood, the white boy radio station. It was all about me wanting to be different. But when I would listen to “Taking Care of Business” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” all of that stuff was fast and hard in that time. During the 1970s.

So, what happened with the Bad Brains going faster and faster and faster, it’s like when you teach a kid something. Say a kid likes the way you play drums. You teach the kid to play drums like this, and then, he’s going to play faster. He’s a kid. So, what happened was, when we would play shows, the bands that went on before us and wanted to be like us, they would try to play like us, but they would play faster than us, because they were young, they were kids. Tempo is not something they’re focused on. So, I would always say, the speed came with the times. I would say, man, I used to think “Sweet Home Alabama” was fast.

AD: It’s not anywhere near as fast as you.

Darryl Jenifer: But I’m saying the perception. What happened was that our first song “Pay to Cum” was really slow at first, but by the time that it got popular, it was moving a mile a minute. We could barely play it. And that comes from being the headliner of something like this and watching younger bands that are coming up trying to be like you, playing it fast.

AD: Did you ever try to play too fast and crash?

Darryl Jenifer: Well, that has to do with loving the fusion. It’s all in the picking. It’s all math. You see what I’m saying, like how you say five and five is ten, six and four is ten, eight and two is ten. So, what I’m trying to say is, I could play as fast as you want, but I’ll switch out the picking, the spacing. It’s math.

AD: The title of that single must have been pretty risqué in 1980. Did you ever have any second thoughts about that?

Darryl Jenifer: Here’s the key to that. I’m the youngest member of Bad Brains. And I composed that title. But I’m punk. I was a punk. My big brothers were dudes doing music. We all were punk, but we were freaks in all kinds of shit. Being a punk is a real thing and I was a punk. Two-tone hair. Safety pins. So, the title “Pay to Cum” has nothing to do with the music or the lyrics. It has to do with the youngest dude in the band saying, “We ought to call this song, ‘Pay to Cum.’” Just because it’s punk. It’s crass. It had nothing to do with the song. If you listen to the lyrics, that’s my big brothers making those lyrics. I’m coming in as a little brother saying, “Why don’t we call it this?” I wish I hadn’t. I started not spelling it like that. The only connection is just me trying to be a smart ass.

AD: The second album that you’re redoing is the self-titled debut. Can you tell me about making that record; I understand you had just moved to New York City.

Darryl Jenifer: You’re talking the ROIR cassette? By that time, Bad Brains was off and running and the culture, the rasta culture movement was strong in our minds and hearts and music.

What they call hardcore punk rock had become something that I did well, and I could do it anytime, but I didn’t want to be there. I was no longer a punk. It was more about the music and keeping it going for the fans.

Basically, when Bad Brains was really Bad Brains was before we adopted our rasta culture. Those records before that when we were punks in D.C. at the 9: 30 Club. That’s Bad Brains. The group of Bad Brains after that was a different group. That’s why you can tell in our lyrics how we started to become more spiritual. So, the sound of it was just getting good, just to be able to do it, but I wasn’t living it. That’s why I don’t know a lot of music from a lot of my peers like Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi and all that stuff. I don’t know their music because it came after I stopped being on the scene.

But I was down for the Bad Brains. I was in the Bad Brains, but I wasn’t on the scene, so I wouldn’t know any of those songs. When the punk bands were playing at that time, I’m out back smoking spliffs with my brethren. I wasn’t jumping around and doing wild punker shit. So, a lot of that happened, that a lot of people don’t really realize. I was a punk at a certain time, but once I wasn’t a punk, it wasn’t like I was in clubs to see punk or listen to it.

AD: But you still have some very hard, fast, ferocious songs on that album, like “Banned in D.C.” that sound like punk.

Darryl Jenifer: Those are all the songs from before that. All those songs are the same songs. That was our first set. Like Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins will tell you. They know these songs from this era of this band, not the rasta band.

AD: I know as part of this reissue project, you’re releasing a few of your live albums, which try to capture what must have been a really incredible live show. What did it feel like to play those songs live?

Darryl Jenifer: Being in Bad Brains was a lifestyle. Both as a punk and not as a punk. I was molding myself into this hard composer and bass player, so it was all about executing. You see what I mean? It’s almost like when you have a football team and at practice you say, “We’re going to hike on two. Hut. Hut. You go this way. You go that way. You go this way.” It’s about executing. That’s where the fusion inspiration fits in. Always, regardless of what I was, if I was a punk or a rasta or a soul brother, whatever I was, whenever I was playing music I had a keen sense of execution and wanting to be like a tight team, like I described, like a football team. I was bringing that to the stage.

So, I was always worrying about it and policing it, right? That’s what made the band powerful and tight. It’s caring. A lot of punk groups don’t care. They’re just kicking it, really. Sometimes the musicians haven’t even decided what they’re going to play. It’s like you’re going to be the drummer. You’re going to be the bassist. It’s all about a message, punk music. But for me, I never really wrote a lot of the lyrics. I mainly composed riffs, all of the riffs or a lot of them.

So that’s where the whole being on stage live was full of adrenaline and anxiety, all that anxiety to execute this properly, for you, for the people who are watching. When I stepped out there, my nerves were up. I’d be mad if we didn’t do right or something happened. And later on, I learned that that’s not the way. Early on, I didn’t understand collaboration. I didn’t know how to collaborate. I knew how to agree we’re going to go left, right and down the middle and that’s it. But I’ve learned that. I let up the pressure of that and let people do what they do with Bad Brains music.

AD: That makes sense to me. I think a lot of people don’t get that whole difficulty and the discipline and the skill that’s required to do this. You’re creating a cathartic outlet for the people who are watching, but it’s not necessarily that kind of a release for you. It’s more complicated.

Darryl Jenifer: Yeah. It’s emotional and it’s stressful. Like I said a lot of times, I’ve said to my brothers after leaving the stage, why couldn’t we be like Dave Matthews or some shit. Why do we have to stand here and go nuts on this? 

[At this point in our interview, in amazing coincidence, Daryl, who is driving somewhere north of New York City as he talks, spots Dr. Know in a car nearby.]

Darryl Jenifer: Oh, shit, there goes Dr. Know! I just passed him. I’m on the highway in New York, and Dr. Know, I can see him in my mirror. Here he comes! Hah hah, what’s up? That’s crazy.

AD: That’s insane! Wow. [We talk about how crazy this is for a little while, and then get back to the interview.]

Was it a violent scene?

Darryl Jenifer: It didn’t start out like that. It started out youthful and having a good time. And then, there was a time when the whole slam dancing turned into something else. Maybe bigger guys or frat boys or whatever started doing it. Something that was fun started turning into not so much fun.

AD: Was most of your audience white?

Darryl Jenifer: Yeah.

AD: Was that weird for you?

Darryl Jenifer: Nah. I was always …I never felt racism and I never felt black. I always felt like a punk, like a musician. I felt like Daryl Jenifer. Which is a good thing. I just always felt a youth movement connection when I was younger in the punk scene.

AD: There is somewhat of a political element in your music, I think? Or do you not think that?

Darryl Jenifer: Yeah, in the beginning with Ronald Reagan and what have you. I think our music is mainly spiritual, and it’s about positivity. Not so much about governments. But when we started out, yeah, that’s what we mean when we say “Babylon.” That’s how we look at politics. It’s just Babylon, not so much left or right.

AD: What can you tell me about your Rastafarian faith and how it’s influenced your music?

Darryl Jenifer: Well, being black, it brought a certain sense of dignity to myself. It’s a way of life. It’s not a religion. That’s the other thing people get mixed up. Rastafari is not a religion. It’s the way you live and the way you think. It’s a positive lifestyle movement. That’s what that’s about. Knowing oneself. You ever hear when they say, know who you are and where you’re from. Some of these things, I never knew, and maybe most Black Americans never consider. We never had anyone to talk about our culture. In music, our music is always soul, girls, you know, different common subjects in song. But with Bob Marley, now we’re talking about freedom and spirituality. We’re talking about Africa. That’s how we were guided by Rastafari and what it bestowed upon us as young men. And, we carry that lifestyle to this day.

I’m trying to find an easy way to put that to you. Being a black man, I feel comfortable recognizing my roots. That’s what it’s all about. Recognition of one’s roots. Whereas a lot of people, they don’t even think about that. Or they think about Roots on TV or something. The whole history of the word roots and where you’re from and where you’re going, that’s what the Rasta culture made me a man in that way.

AD: What do you think about Bad Brains looking back from quite a lot of years? What stands out to you about it?

Darryl Jenifer: I think that Bad Brains was good thing. It brought positive mental attitude to people from all walks of life. In the beginning, even disenfranchised white kids. One time, a kid came up to me and said, “Mr. Jenifer, I want to thank you because I used to be a racist. I used to be a prick. And then when I heard Bad Brains, my whole mindset changed. Now I’ve got kids. I’m happy, and I want to thank you for that. Your music did that.” And that is my platinum record or my reward. I’m proud of that. Aside from the loud, fast part, if you listen to our music, it’s about unity, love, positive progression. That’s what it’s about. And every song, except for one song…

AD: You can’t be positive all the time.

Darryl Jenifer: But you want to strive for that. We’re all humans. But still, if you’ve got in the back of your mind, positivity, that’s the name of the game, you’re better off.

AD: Are you still doing music?

Darryl Jenifer: Yeah, I play. I produce. I’ve got a whole album. But it’s not so much rock. I’ve got a style that I call dub or Jah rap. It’s like a hybrid. It’s smoothed out music. It’s not roughneck music.

AD: Do you see the impact of Bad Brains on music as it is now?

Darryl Jenifer: I don’t look for that, but I see it, yeah.

AD: Where do you see it?

Darryl Jenifer: I see it in the fact that we helped make music not so racial. That’s why you have groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers in funk. You’ve got the Beastie Boys in rap. Before that, it’s like I said, when I was in the 1970s, they would say, “Daryl, you play white boy music.” A lot of the music that the Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys, being white boys, would play, they would see it as black kid music. When Bad Brains came, it wasn’t nothing on us, it was just what was happening. I guess people could see that it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. Play what you like. And that’s what I see.

AD: What would you hope that young people, who are maybe just hearing Bad Brains for the first time, get about it? What would be the most important thing you were trying to get across?

Darryl Jenifer: I think it would be to have fearless creativity. Don’t be scared when you’re being creative. Do what you want. You hear what I did. I made a song that went a thousand miles an hour and ended in jazz. It was “Sailin On.” See what I’m saying? So, I want them to see that, too. Be fearless in what you want to do? If you want to start out sounding like this and then you want it to sound like that, whatever it is you want to do, do it. Music has no colors or racial boundaries.

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