Bad Brains' H.R. Reflects on His Move From Rock to Reggae & Documentary About His Life

Jeff Schmale
Paul “H.R.” Hudson of Bad Brains.

Amidst an outpouring of love from fans across the world strengthening the PMA (positive mental attitude) he has championed since his earliest recordings as the incomparable lead singer of legendary hardcore/reggae band Bad Brains, Paul “H.R.” Hudson underwent a successful brain operation on Feb. 21. The under-two-hour surgical procedure, which took place at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hospital, was intended to alleviate the excruciating pain associated with the SUNCT headaches H.R. has endured over the past 10 years, caused by a blood vessel pressing into the trigeminal nerve that is primarily responsible for transmitting sensations from the face to the brain.

On March 14, 2016, H.R.’s wife/manager Lori Carns Hudson set up a GoFundMe page -- Health Fund for H.R. -- to assist with the spiraling costs of his health care. The page has been shared more than 12,000 times and surpassed its goal of $15,000, as of late February, raising nearly $20,000. H.R.’s longstanding associate, his business manager J. Barry D.I.A. (aka Jamekee), the promoter of several of H.R.’s tours/concerts including his December 2016 shows in Manhattan and Philadelphia, says the singer spent two nights in the hospital following the operation and is now home and doing well. “His recovery period is expected to be about eight weeks but he will take however long he needs. He has been very upbeat about this whole process and was rehearsing up until last week.”

In an interview earlier this month at a private studio in Philadelphia where he often rehearses, H.R. told Billboard that he was uncomfortable taking the cocktail of medications prescribed to minimize the debilitating pain caused by his headaches. “The doctors keep telling me don’t worry about the pain, just relax; they give me a lot of pills to take but that hasn’t been working out so good, it is conflicting with playing with my band (Philadelphia-based Kingsound: Josh Freshly on bass, Adam Williams on drums and Ezekiel Zagar on guitar) so I am hoping this operation will help me out,” said the renowned vocalist, whose initials stand for 'human rights.' (Human Rights is also the name of the collective of musicians who’ve backed H.R. on his various solo projects over the years.)

Profoundly inspired by the Twelve Tribes of Israel branch of Rastafari whose Old Testament derived teachings ascribe the name of one of Jacob’s sons to each month, H.R. celebrated his 61st birthday on Feb. 11, the month of Joseph; many friends and colleagues call him Joe. (Another significant influence on H.R., Bob Marley, a February-born Twelve Tribes member, was also called Joseph). Over time, his deepening involvement with Rastafari curtailed his use of hard drugs, as he gravitated towards playing the music most closely associated with the Jamaica-originated spiritual path: Reggae. “A lot of people who were encouraging the band (Bad Brains) said that before long, rock won’t be a part of your band; we continued to play rock but my hope and heart were in reggae and that was pretty tough for me because the kids that came out to support the band wanted rock,” H.R. reminisced.

On Dec. 29, 2016, a capacity audience of 200 crammed inside Manhattan’s Bowery Electric to hear H.R. headline J. Barry D.I.A.’s Global Rock Showcase (opening for H.R. were Dubb Agents who’ve backed him at numerous shows between 2005-2015). Attired in a camouflage tracksuit and a black knitted tam, a mellow H.R., backed by Kingsound, performed an all-reggae set spanning selections from Bad Brains’ catalogue and his various solo albums. H.R.’s spirited delivery of "I Luv I Jah" from Bad Brains’ landmark 1982 self-titled ROIR cassette-only release garnered an enthusiastic audience sing-along, while his rendition of "The Youth Are Getting Restless," the title track from the band’s brilliant live album (Caroline Records, 1990) prompted two aging skinheads’ unrelenting moshing in front of the stage (they were the evening’s sole vestige of H.R.’s preeminence within the hardcore scene).

“As an angry kid I was into aggressive music punk, hardcore, even metal but most of the artists weren’t saying anything but 'f--k you'; with H.R., it was more like 'f--k that,'" observes Howie Abrams, co-author (along with James Lathos) of Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. From Bad Brains (published by Lesser Gods), the companion book to the documentary of the same name (Lathos’ directorial debut for his Small Axe Films). "Whether it was a solution or not, H.R. let you know where he stood; Bad Brains’ songs, H.R.’s lyrics brought an uplifting element into music that was often nihilistic, violent. That was one of his biggest contributions,” 

Formed in Washington, D.C. in the late '70s, and based in New York City in the early '80s, Bad Brains -- who were on the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shortlist -- are considered one of the greatest hardcore band of all time and among the finest rock outfits overall. In the band’s '80s heyday, H.R.’s younger brother Earl Hudson (drums), Darryl Jenifer (bass), and Gary “Dr. Know” Miller (guitar) displayed unparalleled instrumental control, their ferocious riffs often incorporating jazz and R&B influences, discernible even at the band’s defiant breakneck speed. As hardcore heroes, Bad Brains consistently brought inspiring lyrics to blistering punk anthems such as "Attitude" and the manic yet melodic "Pay To Cum." As African-American Rastafarians, their multi-textured, dub-infused roots reggae rhythms supported chanted praises to Jah. H.R.’s vocal intensity and soulful subtleties, complemented by his precision back flips and targeted dives into adoring, frenzied audiences, elevated him to hardcore icon status.

The original Bad Brains lineup have performed sporadically since the 1990s; they reunited in 2006 headlining three sold out nights at CBGBs (prior to the closure of the landmark venue that helped build their reputation) with H.R. bewildering fans on opening night by wearing a bulletproof vest and a motorcycle helmet that obscured his vocals.

As the numerous interviews featured in the Finding Joseph I book/documentary attest, H.R. and Bad Brains have profoundly influenced a broad swathe of artists from Guns N' Roses to Nirvana to The Beastie Boys to Living Colour, with the latter’s charismatic lead vocalist Corey Glover humbly admitting: “As a singer, all I’m doing is a cheap imitation of H.R. A real cheap imitation.”

Director Lathos first met H.R. after a show in D.C. circa 2007 and requested an interview, which took place at an abandoned warehouse in Baltimore where H.R. lived when he began to experience severe headaches. “I thought it was a temporary spot but he’d been living there for nearly five years, with no heat in the winter, roaches and rats everywhere,” Lathos recalls.

Subsequent interviews for the documentary took place, several conducted in Jamaica, where H.R. and his brother Earl (sons of a Jamaican mother and American father) spent a portion of their childhood. Earl is quoted throughout Finding Joseph I but Bad Brains’ Darryl and Doctor Know chose not to participate. Regardless, Doc, who suffered a heart attack in 2015 which progressed to multiple organ failure (he’s since made a full recovery), did attend the film’s December 2016 screening at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema. Currently screening at film festivals across the country, Finding Joseph I won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the recently concluded San Francisco Independent Film Festival.

Finding Joseph I’s most disturbing scenes surround incidents of H.R.’s erratic behavior over the years, which includes walking the streets in a blonde wig and bathrobe, his refusal to leave the bus while on tour with Bad Brains in 1995 (then signed to Madonna’s Maverick Records) as the opening act for the Beastie Boys, followed by smacking down his brother Earl and pulling out a clump of manager Anthony Countey’s hair. Later that year, at a show in Lawrence, KS, H.R. hit an audience member in the head with a mic stand. “People knew there were issues from the 1990s, and the word schizophrenia was mentioned,” says Lathos. “Although it was not easy to talk about, I told him to man up and ask for help; one day he called and said he was ready. Anthony got him into the Grammy’s MusiCares where he started seeing a psychologist, was diagnosed and treated.”

Abrams and Lathos sought to provide a deeper understanding of where H.R. is coming from, what he’s gone through and how he’s been perceived. “He’s lived those anthems 'I and I Survive,' he’s been that hardcore guy, resisting the system, embodying what he is talking about,” notes Lathos. “You can’t help but want H.R. to get better, make more music and affect more people like he has in the first 40 years of his career,” offers Abrams.

H.R. participated in Q&A sessions following the Brooklyn screenings of Finding Joseph I including on Jan. 24 at Saint Vitus Bar in Greenpoint, despite his misgivings about some of the opinions expressed in the film. “The documentary is a good try but I would reject the views of some of the people,” H.R. told Billboard. “Everybody has their own points, their own words so I am not going to get involved with the difficult subject matter or deal with the negative. They [Abrams and Lathos] tried, and I am not wronging them for that; that was their view of me, so it’s cool runnings!”