by Hobey Echlin
Bad Brains are the greatest band you never heard — unless you caught them on VH1’s “History of Punk Rock” when Dave Grohl called them “the best fucking live band ever.” A quartet of black, middle-class, jazz-fusion-bred kids from suburban D.C., the Bad Brains were both an anomaly and brilliantly overqualified for the East Coast hardcore punk scene they dominated in the mid-’80s. Led by singer H.R. (Paul Hudson) and drummer brother Earl, the band included bassist Darryl Jenifer and guitarist Dr. Know. The chemistry was as combustible as it was inspired. On the mic, H.R. could be a galvanizing force or a cracked-out provocateur. (After the release of the band’s 1989 swan song Quickness, he would not rejoin the band until the mid-’90s, when even a deal with Madonna’s Maverick label, a reuniting with producer Ric Ocasek and a choice opening spot on the Beastie Boys Ill Communication tour could not inspire the band to its former greatness.) H.R. has since taken to reciting his lyrics to a birdcage onstage while the band, in as prime form as ever, soldiers on.
As this best-of, appropriately titled Greatest Riffs shows, the Bad Brains were at their best utterly transcendent, taking the dead-end “one-two-three-four/one-two-three-four” of hardcore punk and expanding it into fiercely anthemic songwriting fused with their dreadlocked conversion to Rastafarianism. “Re-Ignition” (from 1986’s rasta-punk masterpiece I Against I), is so potent it would inspire the Offspring’s “Self-Esteem” a decade later. “Soul Craft,” a track inspired by a bebop scat riff transformed into an avalanche of a chord progression, is groove metal at its heaviest and proudest, 10 years before skater boys would attempt the same but come off as downtuned mopers.
Riffs suffers when it leans too heavily on demo versions of songs like “I Luv I Jah” and “I Against I,” whose superior takes are found on other albums. Add to this the inclusion of too many rote thrash tracks and the collection drops from pure reggae-thrash brilliance to half-decent punk cacophony.
E-mail Hobey Echlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.