H.R. ("Human Rights")—better known as the frontman of the world's original punk band, Bad Brains—sits down with Details to chat about the new documentary Bad Brains: Band in DC (which is currently making the rounds at film festivals), the early Washington, D.C., punk scene, recording tracks via jailhouse pay phone, and his friend Lil Jon.
DETAILS: It's about time a film was made about the Bad Brains! How did you meet director Mandy Stein?
H.R.:We originally met over at CBGB's before it closed down, maybe about four or five years ago. I got together with a friend named Ben [Logan], who is actually Mandy's husband, and he asked me if I would be interested in doing some work together. Mandy was working on a documentary about CBGB's, and I automatically said that I would love to work together. Bad Brains and I played a show, where he then introduced me to Mandy, and that's how it happened, just like that! It all came together very naturally.
DETAILS: In the film, we get to see where you and the Bad Brains first met, during middle school in the 1970s. What shows were you going to back then?
H.R.:Well, I originally went to a school called Central High School in 10th or 11th grade and got the chance to meet a few brothers such as Chuck Brown, James Brown, and also Al Green, to name a few. At the Capital Center I got to go to a Bob Marley show and that was the first authentic, grassroots culture event I got to experience as a kid. Another concert that struck a chord with me is the Ramones show I saw back in Maryland.
DETAILS: The movie really gives you a feel for the early Washington, D.C., punk scene. Do you think that the energy of the crowd back then was any different than it is today?
H.R.:I do. The crowd today feels to be a little more intellectual and educated. I think more kids come out today, too. During the early days it was about 50 to 100 people attending, and now we have kids come out by the thousands. It's a great feeling and a great energy to have around you.
DETAILS: In the film, we get to witness some pretty ugly fights that go down behind the scenes. Did it ever feel invasive to have the cameras rolling?
H.R.:Well, it was a little bit peculiar! But through it all, I got to meet some very nice kids and teach them theories and principles along with spreading good music. Little by little, we all got to know each other, and that made it more comfortable.
DETAILS: One of the most captivating parts of the film is an animation sequence that depicts the time you were forced to record vocals for the song "Sacred Love" on a jailhouse pay phone while you were serving time for pot possession in the early eighties. Can you speak a little on this?
H.R.:Well, I had a little bit of a drawback with the group, as you mentioned. We had been rehearsing and working together, getting ready to release an album. We did all of the other songs for our record in New York. Wooster, I believe. There was one other song the band wanted to pull off, and they asked what I would feel about recording the vocals on the telephone for the track. I said, "Well, I'll give it a try!" and we gave it a try . . . it came out pretty nice, pretty all right! Everything happens for a reason, and that record wouldn't be the same without that experience.
DETAILS: We really leave the film with that PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) that you and the Bad Brains put out.
H.R.:That is the exact message that I want, PMA! I wanted something that would be fun, thrilling, and exciting. I want to help the young audience to understand what is up for them as students and citizens in the world today. We also want to be able to reflect and give a chance for people to be a part of the history and documentation of the movement and music of our time. I hope the film gives solutions and answers for supporters who have that curiosity inside of them and want to know what's going on in the world of music.
DETAILS: Throughout the film, there are appearances by many well-known musicians who speak very highly of you, including rapper Lil Jon. How did you two meet and come to work together?
H.R.:We all met in a D.C. space, the original 930 Club on 10th Street to be exact. It was a little gathering that led us to become great friends. Back in '04 he recruited our band members to back him on one of his songs ["Real Ngga Roll Call"], which appeared on a limited-edition release of his album [Crunk Juice*].
DETAILS: Are you a fan of hip-hop? We read that you and R. Kelly are buds, and now you're rolling with Lil Jon. Is there a secret side to H.R. we don't know about?
H.R.:Haha! As human beings, yes, I am a fan and I enjoy their companionship. They are my brothers and good youngsters who aspire and reach phenomenal distances with their music. As far as the music goes, I enjoy it, though it can feel a little mainstream and intimidating. So for me, it's good to have some reggae music to balance out that intimidation and friction of worrying about the actual possibility of going head-to-head with anyone in the streets. Through reggae it is with proper love, care, and companionship that we are able to make it a one-love vibration and even it out.
DETAILS: What music can we find you jamming out to these days? Where are you drawing your inspiration from for your new solo album?
H.R.:I'm kind of an original individual, and I find the brothers from Parliament and Steve Wonder to be great. Having jam sessions with my brothers is really my main inspiration. My mother, father, and my Baptist church in Alabama truly define me as a person.
DETAILS: What can we expect next from H.R. and the Bad Brains in the future?
H.R.:What you can expect in the future is a whole lot of cool, groove-on music. Combinations of Eastern and Western love songs are coming together. A little Egyptian, a little Ethiopian, a little West African, being able to groove it out with that special magic touch. It's a little bit of everything. A-plus productions from my mind, guarantee it!
DETAILS: So no remixes with Lil Jon, then?
H.R.:[Laughs] Well, the Brains and I have our East Coast tour coming up. You'll have to come out to see us and hear what we're doing. Cool running!
—Alanna Raben is a native New Yorker with a knack for journalism, DJ'ing and filmmaking. Follow her on Twitter at @alannaraben.