30 Years Ago: Bad Brains Deliver Their Magnum Opus, ‘I Against I’
Depending on the fine print, it’s often the case that new record contracts come embedded with new liberties or limitations that alter the direction of a band’s songwriting output. In the case of Bad Brains, however, neither such narrative holds water. Indeed, while the sonic departure from 1983’s no-nonsense hardcore Rock for Light is palpable from the very first few thunderous moments of I Against I, the radical embrace of thrash metal that marks their migration from ROIR to Black Flag ringleader Greg Ginn’s SST imprint was a natural evolutionary leap to anyone paying close enough attention.
Arriving in November 1986, I Against I, the band’s third official release, begins almost exactly how Bad Brains did themselves: by launching a frontal assault on the orthodoxies of their immediate environment. Where I Against I opens by taunting the unsuspecting punk loyalist with a brawny instrumental metal blitzkrieg, treated with stadium-rock reverb no less, the band itself formed by muzzling the skillful jam virtuosity of their jazz-fusion outfit, Mind Power, and re-emerging with throttling power-chord mayhem as Bad Brains, named after the Ramones' song “Bad Brain.”
Officially forming in 1977, the year of the melodic politicking of the Clash's debut and the angsty anti-monarchy affront of Never Mind the Bollocks, Bad Brains were meanwhile amplifying the bellicose antagonism of punk and delivering it at breakneck speed. Brash, vulgar and unfettered, it was the style and sound that would come to all-but define punk rock by the early '80s. By the time Bad Brains were finished with their native Washington, D.C., “Anarchy in the U.K.” would sound like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Little did they realize then, though, that such a finish with their hometown would be so premature—or mythologized. Decamping to New York in 1979, after accruing a reputation for tumultuous live performances and frontman H.R.’s unhinged stage antics, their Rock for Light staple “Banned in D.C.” inspired a widely-circulated urban legend about a non-existent D.C. blacklist. Bassist Darryl Jenifer dismissed the tale as a myth in a 2007 Pitchfork interview. “No one could have stopped us in D.C.,[...] I'm telling you,” Jenifer joked.
Within the tight-knit network of regional hardcore punk subterraneans, bands occupying “the D.C. scene” were characterized by distinct stylistic restlessness, almost as if in direct reaction to the unbearable stasis of political Washington. As opposed to churning out new iterations of the same hardcore product, like much of their interstate contemporaries, D.C. bands freely experimented, explored, and metamorphosed in between albums (or bands). This is exemplified by the Slickee Boys’ penchant for oddball psychedelia and Ian MacKaye’s evolution from Minor Threat’s hard-nosed punk to Fugazi’s heady rhythm-section orientation. But before MacKaye had even formally declared his militant sobriety on “Straight Edge,” devout Rastafarians Bad Brains were disorienting slam-dancers by peppering their carnal 90-minute sets with slackened reggae odes to Jah.
It’s an ethos, and an evangelism, Bad Brains took with them to New York. But while the band were united in their Rastafarianism, it couldn’t equally be said that Rastafarianism was enough to keep the band united. The band’s history is decorated with a trail of break-ups and falling-outs, the first of which occurring in between Rock for Light and I Against I. It’s plausible that band’s magnum opus I Against I might not have ever been recorded if not for their admirers in high places.
As an adoring Ric Ocasek lured the punks into the studio to produce Rock for Light three years prior, the disbanded group now had producer and noted fan Ron Saint Germain knocking on their door. He proved equally determined during recording sessions. Legend has it that when the recording process was interrupted by H.R. having to serve a prison sentence for a marijuana charge, Germain insisted lead singer H.R. record vocals for “Secret 77” from a telephone at Lorton Reformatory.
The collection of songs captured by Germain were the most stylistically varied written by the band, yet the album remains their most cohesive whole. Behind the uncharted stylistic forays into funky and more metallic territory, all the essential elements that heretofore comprised the Bad Brains musical identity exist harmoniously on I Against I. Which makes it perfectly fitting that the album title derives from “I and I,” a Rastafarian phrase meaning “oneness.”
The album is a mainstay on the upper ranks of best-of '80s lists and remains cited prominently as a critical influence among musicians representing virtually all genres. The album was no doubt an integral factor into their 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination. But above all it was an initiation of detente between punk rock, heavy metal, and funk that broke down archaic borders between genres with an impact that still rumbles to this day.
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