How Bad Brains Created the Best Funk Metal Album 30 Years Ago
'I Against I' calcified a combination of hard rock and funk into something sexy, heavy, and thoroughly modern.
HR during a Bad Brains in concert in 1990 at Wetlands in New York City. Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage
Calling Bad Brains influential to late-20th century rock music is like calling Abraham influential to Western religion. Henry Rollins may have never joined a band if it wasn't for lead singer H.R. stage-diving onto him; The Beastie Boys wouldn't have had the guts to transition from punk to hip-hop had they not witnessed Bad Brains' subversion of racial stereotypes; the drums on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would've lacked their punch were it not for Dave Grohl nicking specific rhythms and fills from Earl Hudson. At this point, the band's importance has seemingly been affirmed by every musician who's ever heard them, so what's the point of even writing about it anymore?
However, one specific genre that Bad Brains were instrumental in popularizing is rarely discussed anymore: funk metal. In their early days, the band moved at precisely two speeds—those of breakneck punk and molasses-y dub. "They'd do their hardcore, and then they would just kind of turn a page and it was instant reggae mode," says Ron Saint Germain, who produced their third album, 1986's I Against I. The resulting ten songs branched out into many more sounds, but merged them seamlessly. Bad Brains blended rubbery bass lines and tight, syncopated rhythms with hair metal guitar riffs, heavily gated snare sounds, and the most outlandish vocals lead singer H.R. ever laid to wax. "We're from DC so the funk stuff was in us," says guitarist Dr. Know, "it was just another way to interpret who we are." I Against I was not the first album to mix hard rock with elements of funk and soul—that path was paved by groups like Funkadelic. But I Against I calcified the combination into something sexy, heavy, and thoroughly modern.
Funk metal has become a mostly-forgotten and occasionally-maligned genre. It's the the sound that birthed the 311, Sugar Ray, Incubus, and other less popular, bass-slapping headbangers with names that certainly contribute to memories of the style as little more than a garish curio: Style Monkeez, Psychofunkapus, Guano Apes, Super Junky Monkey. Most of it sounds dated as hell. The hybrid genre only existed in the mainstream for a few years, but it eventually gave birth to another genre: nu metal.
In 1986, Bad Brains were one of a few bands devoted to the dissolution of boundaries between funk and metal. Among them were Living Colour and Fishbone, who were more tied to hard rock and horn-driven ska, respectively, than Bad Brains, but viewed themselves as part of the same movement. "It was a fascinating time," recalls Living Colour guitarist and songwriter Vernon Reid. "I'd started the band a couple years before, but '86 was when [singer] Corey Glover came on and everything really changed. Bad Brains were already in the mix as a very influential, underground thing, but I Against I coming out precisely the moment that it did was powerful."
Glover admits that Living Colour were contemporaries, rather than descendants, of this particular school of genre-mashing, but doesn't deny I Against I's distinct pull: "There were parts of it that were familiar, because we were all part of that scene and we were basically doing the same sort of thing, taking hard rock music and infusing it with funk and Caribbean music, which is part of who we are. But no one could do it like them."
Fishbone's lead singer and saxophone player Angelo Moore credits Bad Brains with "mixing up the extreme styles of music that have nothing to do with one another, tempo-wise or attitude-wise, but making it all come together." He continues, "They were going into a different area, the rock vein, on [I Against I], and I like what their music evolved into. And plus, as a black man playing rock and roll in America, hearing them was liberating. 'This is what we're gonna do, and we're gonna stand for it no matter what anyone else says'—that's the feeling I got when I would listen to that album."
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were still a very funk-driven band at the time of I Against I's release, all loved Bad Brains. Flea once hilariously described their music as "the core of the real shit," John Frusciante covered at least two of their songs, and Anthony Kiedis voiced his love for the band in a 2012 documentary. Chad Smith was the only one who seemed unfamiliar with them when he joined the band in '88, but that quickly changed, as he remembers Kiedis giving him the following advice to brush up his drumming chops: "'Listen to Bad Brains, man—Bad Brains is the most ferocious band ever!'"
You simply can't understate I Against I's importance in shaping an era of music. "In its time, nothing sounded like that," Reid says. Saint Germain, who went on to work with Sonic Youth, 311, Tool, and many other iconic groups in the 90s, definitely got credit where credit was due.
"In my 46-plus years of making records, I can say unequivocally that I've gotten more work and more compliments all around the world from I Against I than any other album, period. That's how I got to do six albums with 311. When I was introduced to Billy Corgan, he immediately hit the floor, on his knees, and started kissing my feet in front of all of these people. Bowing to the shrine of I Against I."
Today, the album lacks the edgy reputation of Bad Brains' iconic self-titled debut. You're never going to see the cover art on a pair of Vans or a graphic tee that Pharrell's wearing on The Voice. Part of that, bassist Darryl Jenifer says, is due to some initial backlash from within the punk community.
"The core Bad Brains fans, they remember the roots, and they look back and say, 'That's not the Bad Brains, them dudes used to be some real shit. You want the real Bad Brains? You had to be in D.C. in like 1979, '80.'"
But it also comes courtesy of uncool associations that are made with funk metal. People tend to only remember Incubus, Faith No More, and the Chili Peppers as bands that got much better after moving away from that sound. But plenty of its offshoots were great. Living Colour and Fishbone were both revolutionary in their own right. Deftones used the sound as a launching pad for the most creative career in nu metal. Even some of R.E.M.'s late-80s output cribs from it.
"Back in that time," Jenifer says, "a cat like me from D.C. was supposed to play funk, a cat from Jamaica's only supposed to play reggae, and a white cat's supposed to play Zeppelin... But for Bad Brains to jump out and be this punk rock band and push it the way we did, I can see that we were used as a tool to spread the spirit of versatility. The Beastie Boys started rapping, The Chili Peppers were funky, all of that—'Well damn, if these black dudes from D.C. can be a punk band, maybe me, a white dude, I could be an ill rapper.'"
It's hard to determine the scope of Bad Brains' legacy. You could take one of their sub-two minute songs, split it into 10-second chunks, and start an entirely different band based off of each one. You could make the case that white rappers wouldn't exist without them. Without I Against I, it's possible to imagine an alternate version of the 90s wherein metal bands didn't perform with DJs and Korn never existed. Or if they did, none of their members would have dreadlocks. Sure, some of this could be dismissed by determinism—all genres eventually collide, and members of all races eventually participate in every genre. But without Bad Brains, it would all happen a hell of a lot slower.
"We never got into the logistics of, 'You gotta write like this,' or, 'This is your sound,'" Dr. Know says, "We just played what we played, and if that influenced people, then God bless 'em."
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that H.R. jumped from the stage onto Henry Rollins in 1985, influencing Rollins to start a band. This date was incorrect and has been removed.
Follow Patrick on Twitter.