I Against I
It's Not Easy Being a Punk Legend, But H.R. Still Has That P.M.A.
Pablo Fiasco, keyboardist, DJ, and renter of a sizable chunk of a five-story warehouse a block from the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street, directs me into the warehouse's parking lot. Once through the chain-link fence topped with razor wire, he leads me to the front door and into the dark central mouth of the building. Inside, there's a dentist's chair with a drill set. There are band practice spaces. A portrait of Jesus Christ on an upside-down milk crate, surrounded by shotgun shells, and a sign reading thou shalt not steal. Virtual walls constructed out of empty bottles of hard cider. We head up the freight elevator to the third floor. Fiasco (an occasional City Paper contributor) knocks and puts his ear to a fire door. I think I hear snoring. We wait.
On the other side of the door lives H.R., the singer for the Washington, D.C.-born thrash/funk/punk/reggae quartet the Bad Brains. When performing solo, he also leads the Human Rights Band. He was born Paul Hudson 52 years ago, though before long he became known as H.R. In high school, it stood for Huntin' Rod. Now it stands for Human Rights. He's also Ras Hailu Gabriel Joseph I. Friends call him H, or Joe.
Six degrees of separation with H.R. will get you a number of big names in the rock pantheon. He has played alongside underground icons such as the Beastie Boys and Minor Threat. Bob Marley's guitar player, Al Anderson, has played with Human Rights. Legend has it that the Rolling Stones tried to get him to open for them (and then settled for Living Colour). Prince has been sighted in his mosh pits, albeit with security guards. Madonna's Maverick Records label briefly seduced him. He gets pulled up onstage by jam giant 311. He gets called out in stadiums by Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. Moby, the Deftones, Ignite, and Jeff Buckley have covered Bad Brains songs, as has, well, Living Colour. The list goes on.
A bare-bones version of his story as frontman for the Bad Brains goes like this: After exploding onto the D.C. music scene in 1979, the band recorded a classic first 45, "Pay to Cum." In 1982, the Bad Brains came out with their legendary eponymous ROIR cassette-only release, cementing their status as legends of the hardcore underground and, musically, the most dominant band on the scene. In 1983, the Bad Brains released the classic Rock for Light album, followed three years later by the epochal post-hardcore statement I Against I. In the years since--most accurately represented in Dance of Days, a chronicle of D.C. punk rock written by Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins--the Bad Brains have functioned as a dysfunctional family, fronted by a charismatic, unpredictable singer who has a knack for attracting major labels and, in equal measure, driving them away. The band's latest effort, 2007's Build a Nation, was produced by the Beastie Boys' Adam "MCA" Yauch.
And then there's the history of H.R. the solo artist, a story that's full of even more fits and starts than that of the Bad Brains. From 1984 to 1992, H.R. and a wide and varying group of collaborators released a string of albums featuring an eclectic fusion of elements including (but not limited to) roots reggae, jazz, rap, funk, and hard rock. There was a long fallow period during the '90s and early '00s when H.R. lived in California, but two years ago, Grant Garretson invited H.R. back to the D.C. area and helped the Human Rights Band get under way again. Hey Wella, the first H.R. record since 1992, is set for release Oct. 21 on the independent DC Hardcore label.
When he's not on the road, H.R. lives in Baltimore, on the third story of Fiasco's warehouse, without much in the way of obvious accumulated wealth. The fire door opens, and he emerges with a smile. He's 52, and his beard is flecked with gray. Under his jacket, it looks like he's wearing a back brace. That's because, when he feels like it, he wears a bulletproof vest. "That thing weighs a hundred pounds," says Garretson, who bought it for the singer two years ago. "It shows you what good shape he's in."
Being a punk rock legend is a tough gig. Once you start talking about it, and making money off it, it loses its shine. Iggy Pop has spent about a decade being professionally legendary. Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins have gone on one too many speaking tours. But H.R. is still the real thing. He's unpredictable and enigmatic, a mixture of Sun Ra and Little Richard. He's easier to talk about than to talk to. A lot has been said about him. When I explain that I haven't heard a lot from H.R. himself--especially about the music--he agrees to talk.
I meet him for our first interview outside the Depot on North Charles Street on a Monday night. H.R. is standing quietly outside, smoking a cigarette, wearing a hooded sweatshirt reading positive mental attitude. We head inside to a table. He starts to talk about Capitol Heights, in Prince George's County, where he grew up. His conversation is quiet and halting. Sometimes, when he pauses, I fill in the blanks.
He says he was born on Feb. 11, 1956, in Liverpool, England, where his dad was stationed in the Air Force. His mother was Jamaican and had met his father in England. His early childhood was spent as an Air Force brat, as the family moved from Georgia--where his brother Earl Hudson was born--to Hawaii to Maryland.
H.R. attended Central High School in Capitol Heights. His family lived on Addison Road. "I was the outrageous one," he says of his youth. He was a gymnast, a diver, and a daredevil. He was also heavily into LSD and, later, heroin. He describes coming home one afternoon after doing blotter acid to find the sound of his father's voice echoing in his ears--"It was a mind-bender." He played guitar and began absorbing the musical vibrations of Washington, circa 1975. Singing? He says he briefly did some singing in a church choir as a child. His brother Earl, meanwhile, began honing his considerable skills as a drummer starting at age 5.
Asked about his early musical influences, he goes all over the map. He mentions Deep Purple, the musical Hair, the Beatles ("`Helter Skelter' . . . `Day Tripper'"), Black Sabbath, and Parliament-Funkadelic, among others. In 1975, however, when he began playing in high school bands, he was a jazz-fusion fan. "Billy Preston, avant-garde jazz, Chick Corea, Mahavishnu Orchestra," he rattles off. In 1976, he and a group of likeminded musicians who lived in the neighborhood began to practice together. That would turn into the fusion group Mind Power.
"Gary Miller went to the same school as my brother [Earl]," H.R. says. "They were both two years younger [than me]." Miller, soon to be known as Dr. Know, or just Doc, was already an accomplished bass player in fusion groups and was about to morph into a guitar player. "We shopped around a little," H.R. says. "We found Darryl [Jenifer], who was younger." Jenifer, from Oxon Hill, was a guitar player who was morphing into a bass player. Earl Hudson played drums. They began to jam in a friend's basement.
In a quirk of fate that has become part of the Bad Brains legend, H.R. started thumbing through a copy of Napoleon Hill's self-help book Think and Grow Rich. "My father gave it to me," he says. "I was 18. I read it through cover to cover." It introduced him to Positive Mental Attitude: "It was saying, if you do it in your mind, if you get your mind right, you can do anything. It had this dramatic change in my life. I decided I would use it in my day-to-day living and I would put the lyrics and the message in the songs." In brief, the book lays out keys to success: "definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it."
"There was a lot going on in 1977," H.R. says. "There was a demand for an original, creative, and innovative music, and seeing that there was a gap there, we wanted to fill that gap." Sid McCray, briefly the singer for the band, got turned on to punk rock after seeing a documentary about the Sex Pistols, and soon he was playing his friends music by Eater, Wire, the Dead Boys, etc. The band pulled its new name, the Bad Brains, from a Ramones song, although H.R. insists that he didn't know it was a Ramones song. He says he thought "bad" was street slang for "good."
He speaks of the band's nascent musical vision as a practical matter. "It was kind of like a transformation," he says, "taking an idea and certain techniques together and putting them together and creating a visionary style."
H.R.'s musical career began in earnest as his other career option started to tank. For three years he attended Prince George's Community College and then University of Maryland as a premed major. Then he decided he didn't want to be a doctor. I remark that it's a tough course of study. He laughs, shortly: "Yeah."
The newly renamed Bad Brains found a house together in Forestville and set up their instruments. "We practiced over and over and over again," H.R. says, smiling. By that point he had taken over singing duties and stopped playing guitar. After over a year of rehearsal and preparation--integrating the sudden and complex shifts of jazz fusion with the raunchy full-frontal assault of punk--they never looked back.
"That was the summer of '79," he says. "We knew we were good. We played our first show at the Marble Bar in Baltimore." Asked about the show, he adds, as if he's still trying to find a positive spin for what was, by many accounts, a disaster, "Well . . . there was a light attendance." The band's first big show in D.C., he says, was outdoors near the Lincoln Memorial and was prematurely cut short by police.
They recorded "Pay to Cum" soon after, and it was released on a seven-inch single in 1980. A scorching yet melodic 1:45 punk anthem built around a raging, three-chord riff, a machine-gun drumbeat, and vocals that sound like a cassette tape on fast forward, it would become a defining classic, inimitable, one of those songs no one dares to cover.
"We were listening to the Ramones," H.R. says, describing the band's development of "Pay to Cum." "We just wanted to do it faster We played [the Ramones] at 78 rpm. We decided we'd try to replicate that sound.
"We were shopping around for musical ideas," he adds. The Ramones were melodic and fast. Black Sabbath, he says, had the "grinding sound" that pops up in the Brains' early music. Jenifer was moving into metal. Miller was refining his fusion jazz licks at hardcore speed.
In 1979, the newly minted punk rockers went to the Capital Center in Largo to see fusion bassist Stanley Clarke and found themselves mesmerized by Bob Marley and the Wailers, who were also on the bill. If Napoleon Hill gave the Bad Brains their attitude, Marley gave them the spiritual ground for their sound and, once they became Rastafarians, for their lives.
"I was fortunate to have a friend who had a lot of reggae, and I went to his house and listened," H.R. says. "I introduced the sound to the band, and I asked them if we could orchestrate a couple of songs. And we worked from there." H.R. says the occasional reggae tune gave him more freedom vocally than the slam-bang hardcore tunes. That would remain the mix for the Bad Brains and his own music from then on: the high-pitched, reedy shriek of punk and the freer incantations of reggae.
H.R. writes most of the lyrics for Bad Brains songs, and I take him through a few. "Big Takeover" ("So understand me when I say/ there's no hope for this USA/ Your world is doomed with our own integration/ Just another Nazi test"): "Yeah. I was thinking about the divisions and segregations. Staying above it and making beautiful music." Asked about "Living at the Movies" ("Here's to the maker/ The film double taker/ The illusion type faker/ The paravision viewer"), he describes the negatives in his songs as "hypotheticals," stories he tells to help people avoid banging their heads against the wall, metaphorically or spiritually. When explaining "I Against I" ("And I say I don't like it/ And I know I don't want it/ I against I against I against I"), he says, "I think you have people who want you to fight yourself. You have to stay above it."
There aren't any visible chinks in the Positive Mental Attitude. When asked about Babylon, he muses, "I love the United States." So is he a patriot? "Yes," he says, "very much a patriot." What does he think about the state of the world? "I think it's a wonderful time to be alive," he says. What does he mean by that? He pauses thoughtfully: "There are the unifying possibilities of digital technology, the internet." (H.R. doesn't use the internet. His MySpace page is currently maintained by Garretson.)
OK, how about "Happy Birthday My Son" from the H.R. album It's About Luv? He speaks in the third person: "It's the story about a man who's in prison and his son is turning 5 years old. He wants to say hello to him." And he wants to keep him happy while he's doing badly. I ask him specifically if it's about his own experiences with incarceration, since H.R. spent several months at D.C.'s Lorton prison in 1984 for possession of marijuana: "Yes, sir." He says his son, Simeon, is now 32 and a computer programmer.
"Cool Mountaineer," from the Bad Brains' 1995 God of Love, originated on a farm in Vermont, he says: "We were sitting around, and someone just said, `Mountaineering, that's cool!'" I ask how he came up with the lyrics for "Riot Squad," a hoarse fist-pumper from Bad Brains' early days that would send people diving into mosh pits. "It was a reflection of society'" he says. "A parody. It shows the irony of life." And "Hey Wella," the title song of H.R.'s new album? He pauses. "Well . . . sometimes when someone is thinking about what's next, he says, `Well . . . uh . . . '"
I ask if, in his many years of singing in front of thrashing minors, he's found he's singing to people without much of a sense of irony. He pauses. "Yes." Was that a problem? "No. Not really."
A few nights later, we meet again in the warehouse. H.R. is wearing a jacket and his dreadlocks are covered with a red, green, and white knit hat. We head into a room lined with wall hangings, monitors, amplifiers, guitars, an armchair, and a stool. He opens the door for me and motions me in. He graciously gives me the armchair; he takes the stool. He gets up frequently and wanders around the room as he speaks in an exaggerated British accent that I've heard him use onstage.
The discussion turns to the word "polytechnical." He's using it to explain what sort of role technology plays in the life of the spirit. He considers the word and concept professorially. "Polytechnical," he muses. "It has multiple meanings. Technical regeneration. So it goes into multiple, polytechnical functions. Regeneration. Reuniting. Re-Ignition."
"Re-Ignition" is the title of a song from the Bad Brains' 1986 album I Against I. Musically and philosophically, H.R. repeatedly refers to it as a turning point musically for the group. In 1986, H.R. and his brother Earl had left the Bad Brains to begin work on Human Rights, but with I Against I, producer and ardent fan Ron St. Germain led them back into the studio to create a funkier, more metallic sound.
"It took four years to get that song right," H.R. says of "Re-Ignition." The staggering riff and bass line dated from 1981; the I Against I sessions found him in the studio with his bandmates and the producer waiting for him to add lyrics. "[Darryl] kept on asking me, requesting me to play on it, and we would take it into the studio, and then he'd be like, `Play it!'" H.R. recalls. "I'd be like, `In time, Darryl.'
"Then Gary [Dr. Know] tells me, `You get in there, you put vocals on it.' I say, `No way. You want me to put vocals on that kind of bass line?' Gary said, `It's either that, kid, or back to making pizza.' Because that's what I used to do at the Navy Yard, at Gino's." H.R. starts to laugh. "I'd be making my pizza, working at Gino's. I'd set up all the chairs, and the placemats, and the napkins. . . . "
St. Germain seemed to be the Bad Brains' ticket to the big time. He had the connections and credibility to bring them closer to the break they deserved, and a metal-edged sound that was commercial but also encompassing. With St. Germain's urging, the band crafted a hitherto unheard combination of funk, soul, and punk. "I'd put the vocal tracks on, and [St Germain would say], `I like that one! Can you try it again?'" H.R. recalls. "I'd say, `To that type of music?'"
But I Against I, though well received, was not the band's big break. Shortly after recording the album, H.R. left the Bad Brains to concentrate on his solo career. It was not the first time he had left, and it would not be the last time he and the rest of the band would part ways, often seemingly just as they were attempting to make a significant career move. (Attempts to reach Gary Miller and Darryl Jenifer for this article were unsuccessful.)
With the Bad Brains, H.R. was a frontman, pure and simple. With Human Rights, he was beginning to think of himself as an orchestrator of music, dabbling in funk, jazz, and other genres.
"I was thinking about being in an orchestra, going to the White House" he laughs. "I never wanted to be in the back of an alley pretending to be Sid Vicious. I knew I was a conductor. I wanted to be onstage with my orchestra. Wherever I was. New York University, CBGB. . . ."
Of course, living a vision as a conductor is a little hard when "they"--and he doesn't say exactly whom "they" are--always seem to want him to be a reincarnation of his former self.
"They're like, `You want to be mean and angry, you want to be a bad dude,'" H.R. says. "I'm like, `I don't want to be known as a bad dude at this time in my life.'"
The wailing whirling-dervish H.R. of early Bad Brains shows, immortalized on the recent Bad Brains Live--CBGB 1982 concert DVD, is now 26 years older and ambivalent about rehashing punk legend. In 2006, the Bad Brains delivered three sold-out shows at old stomping ground CBGB. The first night was distinguished by H.R. walking onstage with a motorcycle helmet, bulletproof vest, and headset mic; he was inaudible much of the time.
It ain't easy being a punk icon at 52. "They're like, `You're going to have to be here, you're going to have to be here. . . . Dude! You're the man. I've been telling everybody you're the man. Get with it!'" H.R. recounts breathlessly. "That's Darryl. And Earl would be like, `Don't get him started, he'll vocalize all night long.' And Darryl would be like, `You better not hate me, you'd better be entertaining.' And I'd be like, `Darryl! Of course I don't hate you.'
"Darryl's like, `You're crazy, you think you can go to a club and act like you're in church?' And you know what I'd say to him? I'd say, `I do what I want to.'" H.R. laughs out loud. "And I'd say, OK, `Gary, anybody else but you, I'd say no.' And I'd go onstage."
Human Rights guitarist and drummer Grant Garretson, who also is a drum technician for the Bad Brains and a longtime friend, acknowledges that when H.R. goes onstage wearing a motorcycle helmet, or perhaps wrapped in a robe, and stands stock still, as he usually does these days, it leaves some Bad Brains fans wondering what happened to the hyperkinetic punk avatar of old. Or they pass him off as off his rocker. "But none of them believe he's a normal guy when I'm hanging out with him," Garretson says. "He's cursed, you've got to understand. The dude is 52 years old. He'll do it. He'll go ahead and play [with the Bad Brains]. They're family. But a 52-year-old guy isn't going to do the same thing as a 25-year-old."
One afternoon, just before H.R. and the Human Rights Band are scheduled to start a mini-tour to promote Hey Wella, I visit H.R. in his room, which is no bigger than a college dorm room, with a window looking out on a parking lot, a large futon on the floor, and a large abstract painting on the wall. He's resplendent in a kingly blue robe with a white scarf on his head and a huge crystal pendant in the shape of a crown. His voice is very low, sometimes inaudible.
He offers water or food. I decline. He sits back. A long, polite, and nonlinear discussion follows. Much of it concerns the early to mid-'90s, when the Bad Brains were being courted by various major labels.
H.R. was living in California during the period and involving himself in reggae-oriented projects. In 1993, the Bad Brains put out Rise on major label Epic with another singer, Israel Joseph I, but that album flopped. The Bad Brains asked him back again for their next record. It looked like the the band had landed another deal, with Maverick Records, a label run by one of the biggest pop stars in the world. "Madonna came to me and asked me, did I know reggae, and would I give her a copy of my records," H.R. recalls.
In 1995, Maverick released the Bad Brains' God of Love album. While on tour supporting the album, a violent confrontation between H.R. and an audience member landed the singer in jail, ending the tour and, ultimately, the band's relationship with Maverick.
H.R. seems bored with discussing close calls with stardom. He pulls out his guitar and starts to noodle, then offers an unplugged version of "We Belong Together," a reggae tune that appears on Hey Wella. After he puts the guitar down, his conversation goes in different directions, as he discusses the state of the nation. He says things look good. The conversation slips to the subject of warning labels on microwave ovens. We talk about the possibility of building a new nation, in reference to the most recent Bad Brains album, Build a Nation. He tells me as models he likes Mexico and Singapore.
Singapore, I say, is a very clean place.
"Yes, it's a sterile location, definitely."
But they put you in jail if you swear.
"Well, one does have to be careful."
What do you like about Mexico?
"Well, the beer is very good."
You like Corona?
"I haven't tried to drink it, but I hear it's very good."
Building and governing. Acting. Reacting. Polytechnics. Corona. Microwaves. Love I and I. These sorts of phrases come together at the end of the meeting. The conversation travels all over the place, and I ask him what advice he would offer younger artists.
"Love I and I," he says. "Move away from self-destruction and totalitarian views."
A week later, around half past midnight, a flannel shirt-clad H.R. is resting on a sofa in the warehouse's main rehearsal room, which is crammed with keyboards, guitars, amplifiers, and speakers. The Human Rights Band has just run through its Hey Wella set. There's a large flat-screen television playing Entertainment Tonight, which H.R. is watching with purple-haired Doc Night, a former saxophone player with Human Rights and a friend since the mid-'80s. H.R. looks a little bleary-eyed, and the room is filled with pot smoke.
Human Rights just finished a short jaunt that ended with a gig on a boat in the harbor in New York City; H.R. also played with Bad Brains in Chicago, opening up for N*E*R*D. (H.R. appeared onstage wearing a floor-length robe.) He is now preparing for a record-release party on Oct. 21, in New York, and a Nov. 1 show at Rams Head Live in Baltimore. There'll be a Bad Brains show a few days afterward, on Election Day, at the 9:30 Club in Washington.
Hey Wella, which Doc Night has placed in the CD player, pumps through a set of speakers. The album may be a grab at a larger audience. The guitars are heavy, in the service of a musical combination that Garretson and Doc Night call "funk/soul/rub-a-dub-dab." Garretson says he thinks this one will do well.
For Hey Wella, Garretson laid down tracks, some of which he says he's been developing for years in different versions. Then, as in the Bad Brains, H.R. added the vocals. Garretson plays some of the mixes for the album's title track, a combination of heavy metal, funk, and rap with a guitar hook. In the initial version, H.R. overlays the instrumental track with improvised vocals, including an English-accented rap that mentions, among other things, Michael Jackson. By the final version, H.R. has gradually moved the lyrics and vocals into place over a complex interlay of rhythms. It's the kind of technique that probably goes unnoticed at CBGB.
"I don't know anyone who can [lay down vocals] like that," says local filmmaker James Lathos, a friend of H.R.'s since the '80s who has been working on a documentary about H.R. that he hopes to complete next year. "He just cuts through to the melody, even when it sounds like chaos to others." Lathos shows me footage of H.R. laying down the vocals for his 1991 roots-reggae tune "I Luv." In the clip, H.R. stands alone in the studio, with his four huge dreadlocks, working his way into an almost operatic mix of high wails and slow crooning.
Paul Cornwell, a friend and one-time manager, has known H.R. since the early '80s and served as executive producer on two of H.R.'s reggae albums, It's About Luv and Singin' in the Heart. He speaks of H.R.'s disciplined vocal technique as something that frequently goes unnoticed. "He's almost got a cantor voice, it's almost jazz," Cornwell says. "I love his voice. It touches the heart where few artists will."
It's no secret that if H.R. was a little more predictable, a little easier to deal with, he could loom larger in the music industry. But those close to him seem to feel that a more focused, goal-oriented artist wouldn't really be H.R.
"That's the whole enigma of him," Lathos says, speaking carefully. "You never know what you're going to get. I'm not a doctor, but there's definitely something going on there. He's an artist, you know. He's a Rastafarian. His way of life isn't about money. H.R. is always doing something. Bad Brains is one dimension. He's got multiple dimensions."
After four interviews, I ask H.R. if there have been low points in his life and career. He considers the question and, for the first time, seems to give a hint at a less positive side. "There've been little depressions, temporary delays," he allows. He refers to "Saddest Day," a slow, lilting reggae lullaby that appears on his 1990 release Charge. It's H.R. at his vocal peak, with a voice that shifts from reggae lilt to crooning soul, from an album where he manages to flip back and forth between metal and mellow. "I'm gonna see the saddest day of my life," he sings. "Keep us from those eruptions/ Don't cry, my papa always said."
I ask him what it's about. He says it's about an incarceration, one of several he experienced in the late '80s. I ask him what it was for. "A case of mistaken identity," he says, a little sadly.
That explanation may not have worked in court, but after four conversations with H.R., I'm inclined to believe him. There are dimensions to him that no police officer, and few of even his most faithful fans, will understand. That may be why, unlike many punk legends, he's still a work in progress.
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