My first exposure to punk rock was a show during high school at some dingy all-ages club off the west edge of the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington. I haven’t the faintest recollection who opened the show, but I remember quite clearly watching as local hardcore heroes Active Ingredients brought the house down with a set played at breakneck speed, closing with a contemptuous track called “I Hate MTV”, its chorus sung to the old MTV jingle. That show sent me down to Bear’s Wax, my local used record store, to explore punk. I started with releases by local punkers Squirrelbait, and moved on to nationally known bands like Circle Jerks, Fear (most famous for the classic “Let’s Have a War”), the Minutemen, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, the Dickies (responsible for gems like “Stukas Over Disneyland” and “You Drive Me Ape (You Big Gorilla)”), and dozens of like-minded bands I’d only read about in the pages of Trouser Press.
Unfortunately, I was never able to find a copy of Bad Brains’ eponymous debut, released in 1982 on the cassette-only imprint ROIR (Reach Out International Records). Not surprisingly, none of the local record shops in Kentucky stocked it, though I did manage to hear their seminal (sorry!) single “Pay to Cum” on one compilation LP or another. Ultimately, Bad Brains turned into the punk equivalent of the Velvet Underground—their debut release didn’t sell a ton of copies, but everyone who bought one started a band. Artists as diverse as Glenn Danzig, 311, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, Living Color, Tony Kanal (of No Doubt), and Billy Corgan have cited the band as an influence.
Produced by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, Build a Nation (the band’s first release in five years) features the punk godfathers’ classic lineup of mercurial vocalist H.R., guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Miller, drummer Earl Hudson, and bassist Darryl Jenifer. As with previous releases, the band switches tempos and styles easily, moving from short blasts of blistering thrash to laidback reggae to heavy metal and back again. And it’s their ability to incorporate such diverse influences into a sound that’s uniquely their own that sets them apart. Ultimately, however, listening to a Bad Brains record is a disjointed experience. Those expecting a 30-minute blast of frenetic punk may be put off by the occasional reggae, while those hoping for a mellow, positive reggae album may be startled by the ferocity of the band’s punk tracks.
Build a Nation is no exception in that regard. Starting off with the muscular punk of “Give Thanks and Praises”, the band cranks through the album’s first three tracks in a breathless five-and-a-half minutes before abruptly slowing things down with the dub reggae of “Natty Dreadlocks ‘pon the Mountain Top”. After that brief interlude, the band returns with another five minutes of breakneck thrash (on the title track and “Expand Your Soul”) before getting back to the reggae with “Jah Love”.
As a band Bad Brains still sounds pretty good, despite the five-year gap between recordings. Unlike some of their barely competent contemporaries who flamed out after an album or two, Dr. Know and company always had solid musical chops, having started playing together (without vocalist H.R.) as a jazz-fusion act called Mind Power in the mid-‘70s. Somehow, the band is able to seamlessly incorporate elements of metal, thrash and reggae into its sound—often in a single song, such as the intense, yet somehow still funky “Universal Peace”, where Dr. Know and Jenifer switch effortlessly between hyperkinetic thrash and muscular metal riffing, with H.R.’s positive lyrics laid over the top. Build a Nation is another credible slice of intense, fundamentally positive punk and reggae—Bad Brains are still going strong, nearly 30 years after exploding out of the Washington, D.C. punk scene.