Soul Brains drummer Earl Hudson is not one to dwell on his band's lesser moments, such as the last time the Soul Brains (then known as the Bad Brains) were scheduled to play the Triangle (August 1989). The group arrived at the Cat's Cradle at 2:30 a.m. to be greeted by a packed house of diehard fans who'd just endured a two-hour plus set by New York hardcore punks Leeway, hoping that the headliners would finally show.
When asked about the incident, Hudson drew a blank. "I don't remember that," he says, laughing. "Did we play?" The set the band turned in, although abbreviated, generated the kind of "best band I've ever seen" buzz that's followed the Brains since their inception. Even now, legions of respected musicians cite seeing the Bad Brains live as a pivotal moment in their musical lives.
The Soul Brains' story is one of the more unlikely in rock. Hudson, his brother (vocalist H.R.), bassist Darryl Jennifer and guitarist Gary "Dr. Know" Miller--the quartet that would go on to become one of the most important and influential of the '80s punk/hardcore bands--actually began as a jazz fusion outfit called Mind Power back in 1976. "Mind Power really didn't get off the ground, but that was the first musical thing we tried to do," says Hudson, during a recent call from his Atlanta home.
"At the time, we had started to move over to playing harder music," explains Hudson, "the reason being that those bands that we were listening to--Return To Forever and Weather Report--were breaking up, and they weren't really generating the vibe that we were trying to achieve."
Hudson credits the band's longtime pal and bass tech Sid McCray with turning them on to punk rock in 1979. "Sid was already into punk rock. He played us some of it and we were like, 'Yeah, that's what we want to get into!'" he recalls. Mind Power re-christened themselves Bad Brains and dove headfirst into punk.
But they soon found an even stronger influence. "We all went to see a Bob Marley concert at the Capital Center in D.C.," says Hudson, "and that was a headblowing experience. The bass was rumbling through the ground. It was crucial, man. I'll never see a show like that again in my life." Soon after, the band began incorporating original reggae songs into its sets.
In 1981, the Bad Brains (now living in New York City--the result of finding themselves banned from several D.C. clubs) released their lightning fast debut single "Pay To Cum," showing just how far the limits of punk could be pushed. Live, the band was stunning audiences up and down the East Coast with their unique brand of hardcore and throbbing reggae. The group's "PMA" ("Positive Mental Attitude"--a philosophy they adopted after reading Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich) helped them overcome any obstacles they encountered traveling in punk's predominately white circles.
"We're soldiers, man," says Hudson. "Our band doesn't see color. It's strictly the content of one's character. We try to break down the barriers to this day still. This racism bullshit is a bunch of crap. It's all about positive and negative, it's not really a color situation."
New York-based cassette-only label ROIR released the now-Rastafarian Bad Brains self-titled debut album in 1982. The impact of this album, and the Ric Ocasek-produced follow-up Rock For Light, cannot be overstated. Both albums proved a huge influence on such future hit-makers as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Jane's Addiction, Rage Against The Machine and No Doubt, and are still considered two of the cornerstone albums of hardcore punk. Then--just as the band seemed poised to become the reigning kings of the underground--they disbanded to pursue solo projects.
After three years of little activity (H.R. released a solo album called It's About Luv in 1985), the Bad Brains reformed and released I Against I. During the sessions, H.R. was arrested for marijuana possession and had to sing his vocals for the track "Sacred Love" from prison via telephone. Nevertheless, the album was hailed as the crowning achievement of their career, staying lodged in the upper reaches of college-radio playlists as well as catching the ears of hard rock fans turned on by Hudson and Jennifer's heavy grooves and Miller's guitar wizardry. But this foray into hard rock may not have rung entirely true for H.R. Over the next three years, he and his brother frequently left the band to make reggae albums (under the name Human Rights), before calling it quits in 1989.
While Hudson and H.R. stayed busy with Human Rights during the early '90s, Jennifer and Miller kept on as Bad Brains. "I still wanted to try to do both Bad Brains and Human Rights," says Hudson. "But after a time you want to chill out and do something else." Hudson eventually moved to Germany but rejoined Jennifer, Miller and then-current vocalist Israel Joseph for an Australian tour. Soon H.R. was back on board.
The original line-up reconvened once again in '95 to record the God Of Love album for Madonna's Maverick records. With the muscle of a major label behind it, it looked like the band might have a shot at mainstream success.
Just a week after God Of Love's release, the ever-volatile H.R. had a meltdown, refusing to take the stage on the first night of an arena tour supporting the Beastie Boys. He went on to physically attack the band's former manager and slug his brother. Later that summer, on the band's headlining tour, he was arrested in Lawrence, Kan., after hitting a heckler with a mic stand. Hudson remains tight-lipped about these incidents. "I don't like to dwell on that stuff," he says, but adds that it was heartbreaking for him to see his brother reacting so violently. Once again--according to the group's official statement--the Bad Brains were over.
But in 1998, the four childhood friends found themselves together in a rehearsal room. "We're all brothers, man," says Hudson. "It's a love-type situation. Things are much more positive now. It feels good to know that we all can get together and give the people some music and have a good time." The band went so far as to adopt a new moniker to celebrate this newly recaptured positivity. "H.R. figured people were getting the wrong vibe from 'the Bad Brains'," says Hudson.
The band was exposed to a whole new set of fans when Victory Media released Never Give In; A Tribute to the Bad Brains in 1999. Hudson sites Moby's "Sailin' On" as being one of his favorite tracks from the album. And Moby--the man who brought techno to the masses--is such a fan of Hudson's drumming that he recently brought him to Europe to play on a recording session. And the props keep coming: No Doubt asked Hudson to perform "Sailin' On" with them at their recent Atlanta show, and Spin magazine recently ranked "Pay To Cum" among the top 10 punk songs of all time.
Hudson, however, has no interest in resting on the band's laurels. "We've got to make another album, because after this tour I can't do another one playing the same old songs," he says. "Three or four new tunes along with some of the old tunes is fine, but we got to get some new material." The drummer is also very wary of being seen as a 'Bad Brains tribute band.' "I'm trying not to be like a Beatle band, y'know? That's why I like to keep recording." A new song, "On Like Popcorn," is already available in Japan and a new Soul Brains album is scheduled for 2002.
Can the Soul Brains really keep it together this time? "God willing," Hudson sighs. "Only Jah can see the future, all we do is do our part to keep the positive vibes flowing and work hard."