Bad Brains
(Credit: Discogs)

How Bad Brains changed punk history

Few punk bands have a legacy half as strong as Bad Brains. While the pioneering group made a bagful of explosive anthems, their most contributing factor remains their presence in the scene and their ability to show that the punk movement was an inclusive and accepting arena for all.

The group, who initially formed as a jazz fusion ensemble under the name Mind Power, soon developed a fast and intense style of punk rock and changed their name to Bad Brains upon hearing the Ramones track ‘Bad Brain’. Their audiences’ vigour relentlessly matched their frenetic live energy, and Bad Brains shows gained a reputation for being an experience like no other.

While their music undoubtedly separated them from the majority, it goes without saying that Bad Brains were not the same as most people in the punk community at the time – played differently, too. Being a black band in a very white orientated scene saw the group mesh their love of funk, a factor which they fused with punk which saw Bad Brains not only combine two different sounds but, cultures too.

“You got to be true to yourself. We purposefully went out of our way to be different. And we just let the spirit lead us,” guitarist Dr Know once explained. “We weren’t like, ‘Well, we gotta write a part like this, because this is what’s playing on the radio now.’ We tried to grab from all of our influences and just put it in the pie.”

Doc later elaborated on this statement, telling LouderSound: “We kind of musically open up and just break down the barriers: a bunch of black dudes playing crazy rock’n’roll that you rock’n’roll white people can’t even play [laughs], playing some funk and this and that, and then playing reggae too.” 

Brad Brains performing live. (Credit: Alex Carvalho)

Today, in 2021, it is commonplace for groups to make eclectic records that draw from their vast musical tastes and amalgamate them on to one album. However, this was much rarer in the late ’70s when Bad Brains first emerged, especially in the monocultural punk scene. 

Bad Brains emphatically smashed through the looking glass and tore up the boundaries of what is expected of them. In turn, their presence resulted in fans of theirs — most notably The Beastie Boys — making rap music even though they were white guys. “Back in that time,” bassist Darryl Jenifer told VICE, “A cat like me from D.C. was supposed to play funk, a cat from Jamaica’s only supposed to play reggae, and a white cat’s supposed to play Zeppelin… But for Bad Brains to jump out and be this punk rock band and push it the way we did, I can see that we were used as a tool to spread the spirit of versatility. The Beastie Boys started rapping; The Chili Peppers were funky, all of that—’Well damn, if these black dudes from D.C. can be a punk band, maybe me, a white dude, I could be an ill rapper.'”

While Bad Brains were different from other groups in the punk movement because of their skin tone, it was their attitude that was refreshingly positive that set them apart from their counterparts. Their music still had the same punk, DIY spirit, but their sound was more refined because of their pure artistry and masterful technical ability.

They proved that punk could be something different; punk had no uniform, Bad Brains precisely showed how much was possible within this movement’s confinements and opened doors for the next generation. Although mainstream success was never their prerogative and remained out of reach, Bad Brains’ legacy has continued to go from strength to strength as they rightly become recognised as one of the most critical punk groups.

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