The ground-shaking, precedent-setting punk rock band, Bad Brains, hit the commercial scene and began wowing audiences in 1979. But while the band released their eponymous debut LP in 1982, the group first got together and started to practice in earnest around 1977. At that time, says band front man, Human Rights (aka H.R., born Paul Hudson), it was all about rehearsing, nailing the sound and speed that Bad Brains would quickly and thereafter become known for. In the end, though, the focus for the group was primarily two-fold: play as fast as possible for the audience and play its signature punk rock music with an underlying positive mentality.
“What I saw was missing in those early punk rock days,” says H.R., “was the message and how it wasn’t too positive. That’s where I would change the message and make it more positive. We had a philosophy: PMA. Positive Mental Attitude. I got the idea from this Napoleon Hill book called, Think & Grow Rich, which talked about how you should be positive and keep determined. We were always determined.”
In the early days, says H.R., who in 2019 released his own solo reggae record, Give Thanks, Bad Brains was all about listening to music together and playing it fast, fast, faster. There was something about the thrill of speeding up music that tickled the members. Something about the joy and freedom in the ability to experiment with sound sparked their collective creative imaginations.
“One day we were listening to the Ramones,” H.R. says. “They had put out a song called, ‘Bad Brain.’ So, we listened to that song and we turned the stereo up from 33 [revolutions per minute] to 78 and we were all pogoing and dancing around. We just started to call ourselves ‘Bad Brains.’”
Bad Brains, the members of which are all still friends to this day (the band reconnected for a reunion show in 2017 in Chicago), H.R. says, shaped a great deal of music in its wake. With Road Runner-pace, scratch-screeching vocals backed by drums at 200 mph and guitars keeping pace with the electricity servicing them, the band played clubs like New York City’s CBGB as fans moshed aggressively, sometimes even joining H.R. on stage amid the mayhem.
“I think about when we used to have concerts,” says H.R. “I miss those days.”
Bad Brains band practices may have even been wilder than the shows.
“Oh gosh,” H.R. says, “they were hectic, man. Ooooowweee, let me tell you. Rehearsals were hectic.”
Often times, the band was tired after a gig or just with life, but H.R. pushed them.
“I said, ‘No, man, we got to rehearse if we want to be perfect!’ But they were years ahead of their time. In some ways, the songs that we wrote and recorded are just now being heard.”
On stage, the front man says, the group members were often hypnotized, in a sense, by the show and the surrounding festivities that resulted from their death-defying songwriting.
“We were zoned out,” H.R. says. “We’d mess around with beer and certain strong alcohols and we did ourselves so topsy-turvy. And then we would play, you know? Oh lord.”
After the gigs, H.R. and his band mates would spend time with fans, talking about the music, which songs worked, which were fan favorites. The band was spent energetically, though. They’d gone through myriad songs and upwards of multiple hours playing at 100 miles-per-hour, often in 16/16 time. H.R. remembers shouting to the drummer to “slow down” but he refused. But H.R. felt compelled to keep up his part of the bargain amidst the sonic chaos and excessive speeds.
“I’d have to sing to that music they were playing because I didn’t want to lose my job,” he says, with a chuckle. “We were very serious about it. So, at the end of the set, we were so exhausted.”
Despite all this effort, despite redefining punk rock (some call the band’s music “Hardcore”), despite living a life surrounded by wild fans and distorted instruments, H.R. still loves to make music. He spends most of his creative time making reggae songs for his self-titled group. While Bad Brains used to infuse reggae songs in their sets between their ravaging rock tunes, H.R. focuses solely on the genre now. Supremely gentle in tone and temperament, the lifelong musician says making reggae is continually “invigorating” his spirit.
“What I love about music,” H.R. says, “is having the ability and the gift that comes out of the sound, out of the songs, that stimulates people. It gets better and better and better and I’m so grateful for the Most High for choosing me and using me for his vessel for the work.”