Get Loud!: An Exclusive Interview with Punk Rock Legend Darryl Jenifer of Bad Brains
Welcome back to the Echo Sixty6 interview series, Get Loud!, featuring remarkable professionals known for their distinctive work.
In our inaugural edition, we interviewed Chef Ric Orlando, pioneer of the world-famous Hudson Valley farm-to-table movement. We’ve also spoken with fine artist, curator and entrepreneur Jen Williams Dragon and award-winning photographer Brandon Schulman.
Today, we graciously take advantage of the rare opportunity to interview hardcore punk, reggae and dub musician Darryl Jenifer, bassist for Rock & Roll Hall of Fame-nominated Bad Brains, solo artist, accomplished producer, painter, clothing designer, and American cultural icon.
Darryl doesn’t do many interviews; while his basslines boom and his image echoes throughout the art world, the man himself is soft spoken and private.
Born and raised in Washington, DC, Darryl Jenifer has been playing bass for nearly 50 years. He co-founded Bad Brains in 1976–1977, alongside his lifelong friends, guitarist Dr. Know and drummer Earl Hudson — originally as a jazz fusion ensemble known as Mind Power.
Bad Brains — with new lead singer HR (Human Rights) — pushed all the boundaries, musically and conceptually, and came to be considered the pioneers of hardcore punk. The band, though, rises above genre-labeling, playing more complex rhythms than other so-called hardcore punk bands and blending in funk, heavy metal, soul, reggae and Hip Hop across its nine studio albums. While its members never asked for it, as one of the most notorious American rock bands of the 1970’s and ’80s, and the most successful all-Black punk band, Bad Brains holds an important place in music history: a constant reminder that punk rock is as much Black music as it is the realm of working-class Caucasians.
“Punk music is not the sole property of whiteness, even though to people of my generation it may appear that way at first glance. Like many facets of pop culture, its historical image has been whitewashed,” writes Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff for Dazed, pointing to Bad Brains as “obvious co-conspirators.”
Brinkhurst-Cuff continues: “In many ways, black people were the original counter-cultural figures, racially excluded from a domineering white society, albeit not out of choice. Our music and culture has been intimately linked with the punk genre since its inception.”
In an article for PROHBTD, entitled “The Very Black History of Punk Music,” Sacha Jenkins adds, “I’m not saying black people created punk rock. I’m saying we are punk rock without even trying.” Jenkins is a former Rolling Stone journalist, MTV and VH1 producer, filmmaker, curator, creator of archetypal Hip Hop magazine ego trip and, since 2012, a member of The White Mandingos, a ‘rock supergroup’ also featuring rapper Murs and Darryl Jenifer on bass.
In addition to leaving an everlasting legacy with Bad Brains and working with The White Mandingos, Darryl released a solo album, In Search of Black Judas, in 2010; today, from his country home base in Woodstock, NY, Darryl produces and engineers for established and up-and-coming musicians; creates Basquiat-esque visual works; designs limited-edition Bad Brains gear; performs periodically (read: when he wants to), with and without Brad Brains; and even finds time to influence the youth as a guest instructor with the Rock Academy.
With 20 questions, we ask Darryl about his past, present and future; his take on the music industry, and his role in it; his favorite artists; his advice for aspiring musicians; and more…
- Growing up in DC, when and how did you know music was your calling?
When I was nine or 10 years old, my older cousin Jack Bowles played guitar and had a band. I found it fascinating — the chords from his guitar, the various instruments in his band — and that’s all it took.
2. We heard you were so obsessed with the bass at a young age that, when you weren’t playing, you were drawing pictures of it. What was it about this particular instrument that most intrigued and inspired you?
You heard right. I spent a lot of time drawing stage settings and dreaming about being a musician, and the bass always seemed to be the sound that folks would mimic to describe a song — like the bass lines to the Temptations’s “Gettin’ Ready.”
3. Where do you see your and Bad Brains’s roles in the history and evolution of punk music?
I’ve recently discovered that the role of Bad Brains in music is as unifier of all genres and sounds. We represent fearless creativity, void of race, creed, color — all the isms.
4. What is your take on the popularity today of Bad Brains? Why do you think your music achieved such notoriety, to the extent of being nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
I have no take on the popularity of Bad Brains, then or now. Our notoriety was achieved through a relentless quest to spread the message of PMA, peace and love to all. Rock Hall honors are not for Bad Brains.
Editors Note: “PMA” is an acronym for Positive Mental Attitude, a concept championed by 19th- and 20th-century motivational author Napoleon Hill, who said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without a positive mental attitude.”
5. What about the other side of fame? In a way, it reminds us of Che Guevara, with the types of people you might see wearing your T-shirts. What do you take from this?
I am not famous. My band was mildly popular in the ’80s. Van Halen is famous. Prince and Michael Jackson are famous. As for the T-shirt, it’s an anti-Babylon image, so folks who have the rebel spirit love the Brains’s Capitol-light-bolt look and feel.
6. Fair enough. How about the whitewashing of punk history?
I was only a punk or interested in punk rock music for a year — maybe two years — as a teenager; it’s interesting how some things can stick with you, or become you. I remember when Bad Brains was called hardcore, I was like, ‘Really, what’s that?’ I actually recall thinking it was porn related, so when you say I am a pioneer of punk I think, ‘Damn, I wonder what Johnny Rotten thinks of that?’
I consider myself a multi-styled instrumentalist, known for a brief encounter with punk rock as a teen. When I discovered punk rock, I was attracted to it because it was free in every way. I was a shy youth — maybe I can play without even being seen on stage. I like to say I pioneered progressive punk: high-energy, precise, passionate riffage.
But to answer your question, I didn’t know that punk rock history was being ‘white washed.’ Do you mean that the true inventors of the style and movement are not being recognized? I’m not sure how to answer that, but punk is white — mostly. All white bands play it, and mostly white folks dig it.
Hip hop and reggae seem to be of the same vibes, then and now.
7. How do you think race, religion and politics have played a role in how you’ve been perceived and received by fans, critics, media, etc., in the music industry, both White and African American?
Blacks… Whites… Faith based… Critics… Media… Music… I feel ya… I wish I could elaborate on all that; I’m just an aging punk rock bassist.
8. What is your relationship to Hip Hop? What are the similarities and differences between the worlds of Hip Hop and punk, and what is your take on the current state of Hip Hop today?
Every member of Bad Brains is multi faceted in styles and patterns — it’s a blessing of versatility.
9. Understood. Your group The White Mandingos, for example, is not your traditional rap trio. Plus, you joined with MCA of the Beastie Boys on a hard-rock side project known as Brooklyn. On your own and with your band of brothers Bad Brains, you’ve pushed the boundaries of how music can sound, and how sounds and styles should be labeled. How important is it to you to blur the lines between genres?
Being creative and enjoying all that music has to offer allows me to venture off, and meld and blend all styles and patterns of music. I’ve lived music from 1968 until now — from funk to Hip Hop to dub to the smoothed-out WHUR Quiet Storm.
10. What’s the craziest experience you’ve had on tour? In the studio?
Well, once I broke a string, and I don’t break strings — maybe three to four in 40 years — and I never really listen back to what I’ve recorded while in the studio. I generally wait in the live room until folks finish listening.
11. That can’t be the craziest thing, but we’ll let it slide. What has been your greatest musical achievement?
For me, the greatest musical achievement has been composing nine studio albums that had a positive impact on the listener.
12. How important are marketing and social media for musicians to engage and expand their audience? And how have you used each to further your career?
My career was earned through world touring and a dedication to creating and spreading the gift of music. In the words of Floyd: “hard work and dedication.” The internet is cool, but I feel it’s softening the talent pool.
13. In 2017, you hosted the MIND POWER art exhibition at Okay Space. The show featured more than 30 of your own works, plus five Shepard Fairey Bad Brains-inspired originals and Bad Brains career-spanning photography from Lucian Perkins, John Mousheghian and Craig Wetherby. Bad Brains played at the opening. There’s also now a Bad Brains line of socks, t-shirts and other clothes, which I believe you design yourself. How did you become interested in the visual arts, and what are the similarities and differences in creating and showing this type of art, versus music?
There’s no difference. It’s all in the vision. Without a vision, there is nothing. I visualize riffs, borders, shapes, colors, chords, muted tones, dynamic tones, feelings, hopes, wishes, and dreams.
14. Spoken like a true artist. What in your life do you most focus on now, and what’s it like living the so-called country life as a black rock and roll celebrity in the Hudson Valley?
I am Black as a natural fact… I focus on continuing to remain creative for the future… I live on the earth, next to a mountain and stream… I am not a celebrity — maybe a respected OG with a knack… I don’t consider myself a musician, but I have the knack and vision to create music at times.
15. When it comes to creating music, how would you define your role today? Is it recording, producing, writing, instrumentation? How do you determine who you want to work with?
I am a lifelong band dude, I produce, I am currently writing a solo album, and I’m gearing up for art… The Great Spirit determines who works together.
16. Other than living nearby, how did you get involved with the Rock Academy, and what has it been like working with young rockers?
Paul Green loves Bad Brains, and I really enjoy watching young folk play and enjoy music and instruments.
Editors Note: Paul Green is the founder and former owner/operator of the Rock Academy in Saugerties, NY.
17. What is one piece of advice you give such aspiring musicians?
Find another love, to go with your love of music and instruments… Play from your heart and spirit, and play what you want — even if it’s all in one song.
18. Which new artist or artists in any genre are you excited about today, and why?
I’m excited about The Monclairs, Black Ivory, The Temprees, Issac Hayes, Doug Carn, Sun RA, Dead Boys, the Damned, Jah Shaka, and Jack Bowles.
19. I guess that means that newer artists aren’t really your focus… What output both in musical and visual art can we expect from you in the near future?
You can expect me to remain on the job until the wheels fall off — all wheels.
20. Glad to hear it. So, when was the last time you were in awe?
When I chipped in for birdie to push a playoff in the Woodstock Golf Club championship.
Editors Note: We did not see that one coming.
For more from Darryl Jenifer, follow him on Instagram.
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