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Music

How Ian MacKaye saved D.C. hardcore from itself

@TylerGolsen

Washington, D.C. will forever be known as a beacon for punk rock. Although the area is well known for its melting pot of music, specifically the R&B infused go-go music that is central to the city’s DNA, D.C. is also home to one of the most legendary punk rock booms in the history of the genre. That’s because D.C. is where pun became hardcore.

Hardcore took the lessons originally laid out by the Ramones and made them even simpler: three chords, loud, fast, and energetic. Singing became replaced with shouting, and a palpable current of politics began to infiltrate song lyrics. Out in California, bands like the Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, and Black Flag were refining the same elements, but D.C. proved to be the most exceptional breeding ground, likely thanks to the highly political atmosphere and amalgamation of different cultures.

But by the early 1980s, punk rock was threatening to leave D.C. for good. That’s because the city’s biggest and most exciting band, the Bad Brains, were moving to New York. Bad Brains had been the subject of an unofficially blacklisting among D.C. performance areas, ostensibly because of the violent nature of their shows. In reality, Bad Brains preached a philosophy of P.M.A. and usually kept the raucous energy contained to the mosh pits. No longer able to find places to play, the Bad Brains moved up to New York and set up shop at the legendary CBGBs nightclub.

Ian MacKaye, a teenage punk devotee who played bass in a local band called the Teen Idles, saw a burgeoning scene dissipating before his eyes. In trying to keep the scene going, MacKaye noticed a logical problem: none of the bands had records for fans and listeners to take home. MacKaye recognised that D.C. hardcore wasn’t going to survive unless bands could do more than just play live shows, so he and his bandmates decided to form their own independent record label, Dischord Records.

MacKaye had initial worries that putting together a formal record company would be akin to selling out, so he clarified the process for any doubters. “Releasing a record, and monetising music, some people looked at a little askance,” MacKaye told The Guardian in 2020 to celebrate the label’s 40th anniversary. “So we declared any money made would go to documenting other bands.” Record sleeves were made by hand in the small D.C. house that acted as the label’s headquarters, and records were sold at a discount price in order to make them accessible to all fans.

“It was electric,” said Guy Picciotto, who later played with MacKaye in the legendary band Fugazi. “Kids releasing music demystified the process, but, because it was such a statement, the object was heightened. It felt different to hold that record. I had this weird pride, even though I had nothing to do with it.”

Byt the early 1980s, hardcore was beginning to burn itself out. The Teen Idles had folded, as had MacKaye’s iconic second band, Minor Threat. MacKaye largely focused on keeping Dischord going as the D.C. DIY scene continued to evolve. Influential acts like Scream and Rites of Spring recorded for the label, and young local musicians like Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl saw Dischord as a guiding light for turning their music dreams into reality.

Violence also began to turn into more heightened political awareness, as the label spearheaded the Revolution Summer of 1985. The movement sought justice while also purging the punk scene of racist skinheads and violent thugs that had become synonymous with punk rock. Dischord advocated for gender equality, animal rights, and global peace in a way that no other scene in America did. MacKaye was largely seen as the leader and elder statesman of D.C. punk rock, and his influence continues to extend into the modern-day.

“I realised I’m bolstered by the trust of hundreds of people,” MacKaye reflected. “They entrusted Dischord with the caretaking of this music and I have a custodial responsibility… Everything is less now, in terms of sales, but music will never die. It will take new forms. Kids are developing secret languages through music and they’re going to figure out ways to disseminate that. Whether it’s on plastic or their devices; whatever form, there are ways of doing it that feel ethical, meaningful and righteous.”

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