Sunday, February 11, 2018

A Vessel of God: H.R. on Maturity, "Good Music" and the Future of the Bad Brains

H.R., August 2017 (photo by Lori Carns Hudson/

The first thing that struck me during my recent phone call with H.R. (a.k.a. Joseph I) was how great he sounded. 

During a career and personal life marked by glorious highs and frightening lows, the man born Paul Hudson 62 years ago today has built a reputation that is as legendary as it is enigmatic. While H.R. the singer brought a new and inspiring level of spirituality and musical/lyrical intensity to Punk and Hardcore as a member of the mighty Bad Brains, H.R. the man has seen his life (and more than a few of his personal and professional relationships) continually marred by a series of mental and physical health issues. Last year, he underwent brain surgery to strengthen his battle against SUNCT Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by severe and debilitating headaches. H.R.’s life has not been an easy journey by any means, but the here and now finds him animated, good humored and existing in a world of positivity, creativity, gratitude and inner peace.

Currently, H.R. and his long-running solo band, Human Rights, are writing new material with the goal of releasing an album within the next year. He considers this upcoming release a major step forward in the group’s evolution.

It’s grown, and it’s full of life and spirit. It’s just a combustion of new music. When you heard it, you’ll understand just where I’m coming from. It gives me great joy and happiness, and the music is a lot happier and more fulfilling for me as an artist.”

Although H.R.’s work away from the Bad Brains has largely explored the world of Reggae, newer fans might be surprised to learn – and hear – that this was not always the case. Last year saw the release of H.R. Live At CBGB’s 1984, a blistering recording of his first-ever NYC performance as a solo act following his first of many breaks from the Bad Brains. With the exception of the funky “Stand In Your Heart” and “Who Luvs You Girl” and the eight-minute Reggae jam “Happy Birthday My Son,” Live At CBGB’s 1984 contains blast after blast of Punk energy on par with the sonic vibes found on the Bad Brains’ Black Dots. In addition to H.R.’s unmistakable vocal delivery, the fire contained on the disc is fueled by a bulletproof backing band then comprised of guitarists David Byers and David Jordan and The Mob bassist Jose “Judah II” Gonzales. H.R.’s brother and Bad Brains bandmate, Earl – one of the most jaw-droppingly skilled drummers in the genre – supplies the beat. This record is not just a release from the vaults; it is a crucial addition to the record collection of anyone who appreciates the history of American underground music.

Of course, there are plenty of other audio/video documents of H.R.’s various legend-earning performances at CBGB’s, both on his own and with the Bad Brains. Not surprisingly, he still holds the solely missed venue in high esteem.

CBGB’s offered opportunities for young groups and alternative groups. Hilly Krystal had a lot to do with that while he was the manager of the place. He gave the Bad Brains a chance to play and be heard by professionals.”

Live At CBGB’s ’84 serves as a fantastic introduction to the musical brilliance of David Byers, a D.C. legend who spent time in the arty original-era Punk band The Enzymes alongside future Rollins Band/Pigface/David Bowie guitarist Chris Haskett. (Demo recordings of The Enzymes from 1980, which finally hit the masses decades later thanks to Henry Rollins’ old Harmony In My Head radio show on Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles, are absolutely worth a hard dig through the internet to find.) Sadly, Byers passed away in 2003; H.R. still feels the loss.

I think he was a brilliant individual; he was years ahead of his time. He would be the kind of man who would go with us in the studio and come up with these great influences. After a few minutes or an hour at the most, he’d know just where I was coming from. He fit in great with the Human Rights lineup. I really miss him, and I think he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest artists and guitar players that there ever was.”

When not sporadically reuniting with the Bad Brains, H.R. spent the second half of the ’80s gradually shifting his solo work away from the Punk-driven sound of Live At CBGB’s 1984 to the full-fledged Reggae heard on a series of H.R./Human Rights releases including 1990’s exceptional Charge (which featured the classic track “Just Because I’m Poor.”) He credits the change in musical direction to becoming “much more mature” thanks in large part to time spent in Jamaica. 

I was given advice by my old manager, Anthony Countey, to go out and experience myself and to learn from my different experiences and then work on the new sound.”

After a few years, H.R. and his Human Rights cohorts found the sound they were out to capture.  

I think the group had it all together when we did a record called I Luv [in 1991], which was produced and arranged by Mr. Paul Cornwell. He helped me with the arrangements along with David Byers. One of the songs on it was called ‘I Luv,’ and I really dug that song. It really expressed, for me, where I was coming from, what I was going through and what I wanted to relate to the people I’ve been playing my music for. I really loved the spiritual connotation of the group.”

Although H.R.’s place in history was solidified the very first time he hit the stage with the Bad Brains in the ’70s, he has experienced a career renaissance in recent years complete with the public acclaim he has so richly deserved. In addition to their 2006 return as a recording and touring unit (resulting in 2007’s Build A Nation and 2012’s Into The Future), the original Bad Brains – H.R., Earl, guitarist Dr. Know and bassist Darryl Jenifer – were prominently featured in the 2006 film American Hardcore and later became the subject of their own full-length documentary, 2012’s Bad Brains: A Band In D.C. In 2016, H.R. was the subject of the documentary Finding Joseph I and an oral history book of the same name.

Overall, the book and the film were great. They had a lot to do with what people thought about me. I was so surprised to know that that many people had cared about me, really loved me and wanted to work with me! I was surprised at that, and what they had to say was just overwhelmingly cool. I want to thank them very much for their inspiration and for their support.”

As celebratory as the Finding Joseph I releases are, both also offer an unflinching view inside H.R.’s turbulent mental state. Tales of violent outbursts, burnt bridges and bouts of homelessness flow between words of praise from fans and musicians alike, painting a complex portrait of a man who is both immensely talented and deeply troubled.

Unsurprisingly, the fallout from his unpredictable behavior has had a chilling effect on the Bad Brains’ career. In one pivotal scene in A Band In D.C., a frustrated Jenifer unloads on H.R. backstage in Chicago after the singer delivered a near-catatonic performance (punctuated by snarky comments) in front of an agitated crowd.

Fortunately, things are finally turning around. The Finding Joseph I book and film both end with H.R. finally welcoming professional help for his schizophrenia, a process helped along by the love and support of his wife/manager, Lori. Shortly before Finding Joseph I’s initial November 2016 theatrical release, the Bad Brains became the first Hardcore band in history to be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After decades of inner strife, H.R. is finally enjoying a life worthy of his many gifts. 

Naturally, one very big question remains: What does the future look like for the Bad Brains?

The future looks bright!” replies H.R. “We got a great new manager. We just came from doing a little tour over the summer, and we’re just waiting for the weather to break and we’ll be on our way to do more festival work.”

Now a five-piece band following the recent addition of full-time second guitarist Chogyi Lama (“Man, can that dude throw down!” says H.R.), the Bad Brains have new music on the way – 35 years after their legendary self-titled cassette changed everything.   

Any day now, we’re scheduled to go into the studio and do some more work on a new album. The greatest album that we did, Into The Future, came off great, and I really like working with the fellas.”

If there’s ever a time for new Bad Brains music, it’s now. With America in a state of political, financial and spiritual disarray, the Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) expounded by the band is in high demand. While the realities of modern life are difficult for many, H.R. insists that there is still plenty of hope to be found on stages and records around the world.

“I think that people overall need to listen to more good music! (laughs) What they need to do is put down the sword and learn to be forgiving towards each other, just give a chance to let peace rule over their bad, negative feelings and be more positive with listening to good music and being supportive of the good scene that’s happening.

There are musical artists who define “success” by the number of records they sell, while others find their greatest satisfaction through simply sharing their music, art and message with others. What does “success” mean to H.R.?

I think it has a lot to do with God and what He wanted me to be as His vessel and as an individual who would bring joy to the world and joy to my listeners. I give all the glory to Him. I think I’ve grown very much into the scene, and it just brings me great joy to know that God is working out things for me.”

H.R. Tour Dates

Official H.R. Website 


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