The Current Rewind: Sept. 27, 1982

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The Current Rewind: 9/27/82
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Sept. 27, 1982: Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Husker Du
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Sept. 27, 1982: Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Husker Du

Almost 40 years ago, D.C. rockers Bad Brains played First Avenue with two Minnesotan openers: Sweet Taste of Afrika and Husker Du. While Husker Du are relatively well-known today, Sweet Taste of Afrika are all but forgotten. Meanwhile, Bad Brains are world-famous, but their hurtful behavior has flown under the radar. In this episode, we tease out the complicated relationship between the three bands on the bill, their genres, and their identities.

This is the third episode of The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. If you missed the first two episodes, catch up below.

April 3, 1970 (The day it all began)
Nov. 28-29, 1979 (The days that told the future)

Listen on Apple PodcastsSubscribe: Apple Podcasts, NPR One, RSS, Spotify, Stitcher

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 3: "Sept. 27, 1982"

[Bad Brains' "Banned In DC"]

Cecilia Johnson VO: D.C. rockers Bad Brains are among the best-known hardcore bands in history. They're famous for their live shows. Imagine a scene like this:

[volume inches up]

Cecilia Johnson VO: Lead singer H.R. is flailing, his voice curdled from screaming, and drummer Earl Hudson rides the cymbals hard. A song later, the band dips into reggae. The kids who were moshing just a minute ago are now letting their shoulders slump, swaying from side to side, until Dr. Know fires up the guitar again, and the audience churns back into a pit.

Maybe you've experienced this in person, maybe you've just heard about it...but whatever's the case, for a lot of people, Bad Brains are one of the only Black rock bands they've heard of. Let's talk some more about that.

[Icetep's "Hive Sound"]

Cecilia Johnson VO: [over theme] I'm Cecilia Johnson, and this is The Current Rewind, the show putting music's unsung stories on the map. For our second season, we're exploring the history of First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis venue that has become one of the Twin Cities' – and the country's – greatest clubs.

[Icetep's "Hive Sound" crescendos, plays for several seconds, and fades down]

Cecilia Johnson VO: So far, we've seen First Avenue evolve from the Depot to Uncle Sam's to Sam's. For this episode, we'll jump ahead to 1982, when Bad Brains, Sweet Taste of Afrika, and Hüsker Dü shared the Mainroom stage.

We set out to tell a story about one of the most revered bands in punk music. But we ended up learning a lesson: that while representation is definitely necessary, if you treat individuals' identities as their virtues, you can actually allow them less humanity – and excuse the harm that they've done.

Honestly, this episode presented a lot of challenges, and we want to let you in on them as we tell this story. So let's do that. I'm super excited to introduce our guest host for this episode. She runs the show Rock and Roll Over at the University of Minnesota's Radio K and her name is Zoë Challenger. She's definitely one of our youngest guest hosts this season, but I can already tell she has a ton of talent and wisdom to share with the world. Here she is.

[rewind sound effect]

Zoë Challenger VO: I'm Zoë Challenger. Being a Twin Cities native, I am embarrassed to say that my first concert at First Avenue was when Noname came to town in January of 2019. I was 19 years old, and I went alone. While I grew up with a desire for musical exploration, I did not grow up in a musical household by any means. I told my parents I was going with a friend, when in reality, I couldn't find anyone to go with me. So I draped my mother's elegant hand-me-down wool coat over my plaid skirt, crop top, and tattered stockings. I let the material confidence override any underlying social anxieties.

As an only child, I've never been afraid of being alone, but walking into a venue by myself brought up new feelings. Since that night, I found myself at the First Avenue Mainroom or the 7th St Entry nearly once a week until the coronavirus pandemic hit the nation. Most of the time I would arrive alone, but over time, I would find myself running into more and more familiar faces at any given show. Maneuvering the block of 7th Street and Hennepin Avenue will always be an act of muscle memory.

Over the last 50 years, First Avenue has hosted a variety of big names, but the early 1980s were jam-packed. From 1982-84, the calendar swerved from funk to punk to New Wave, with acts ranging from talkbox legends Zapp & Roger, to Minnesotan rockers the Replacements, to Bow Wow Wow, the band behind "I Want Candy." That's not to mention Prince, U2, Ray Charles, and a then-unknown Wynton Marsalis. But if you were to look through the 1980s First Ave band files that are now housed at the Minnesota Historical Society, you'd struggle to find a particular category of artists: well-known Black American rockers.

The Minnesota music community has a lot of excuses for this, the most common one being, "There weren't that many Black rock bands to book." It's true that funk and soul were much more popular among Black Americans, especially those raised in the church. But it's too easy to say that Black rock wasn't a thing. In fact, according to those band files, rock-adjacent bands War, Ipso Facto, and Defunkt played First Avenue in the early '80s. But aside from the Historical Society files, those shows hardly left a paper trail, whether in microfilm archives or the internet. Which brings us to an issue at the heart of this story: which legacies last and which fade away.

The story of Bad Brains is fairly well-established. The D.C. group originally banded together in the 1970s as a jazz fusion ensemble called Mind Power. After going to a Bob Marley concert and hearing the Ramones' song "Bad Brain," they were influenced enough to change not only their name but also their sound, ending up with a mix of punk rock and reggae. At this point, a pattern was beginning to form with Black musicians who dove into punk music; they were often eclectic in their genre-molding and evolution.

In Minneapolis, local punk bands who'd been performing at bars like Duffy's and the Longhorn had a new room to fill: the 7th St Entry, a small space off the side of the First Avenue Mainroom.

Steve McClellan: And there was just, say, we got this empty room. It's a storage area.

Zoë Challenger VO: Around the same time as he opened the Entry, general manager Steve McClellan hired Chrissie Dunlap, who ended up booking the space.

Chrissie Dunlap: I started out just 100 percent Steve's assistant: You know, his desk (and office generally) was just filled up with contracts, riders, promo material, you know, label stuff, cassette tapes everywhere. And I would go in there and just try to prioritize things – tell him, "This needs to be signed, this, you gotta do this." And then I would just sorta take the promo material and start promoting shows. And as time went on, a lot of that detailed stuff ended up leaving Steve's desk and [moving] over to my desk. The bands would start calling, looking for gigs, and, you know, I started out giving the info to Steve and kinda working on him with it, but he was busy doing the real talent buying, and I was there during the day more when the phone rang and people stopped by with cassettes and stuff. So I just kinda, little by little, picked it up.

Zoë Challenger VO: One of the bands Chrissie would book – a lot – were Hüsker Dü, the St. Paul punk group who opened for Bad Brains at First Avenue. But that's not a huge surprise; in the '80s, they were playing upwards of 60 shows a year. Hüsker Dü guitarist Bob Mould wanted to tell us all about this era, but right when we were producing this episode, he was actually called for jury duty. While Bob did his civic duty, we grabbed a clip from the audiobook of his memoir, See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody.

Bob Mould: We started the spring tour in the Midwest, with our four-year anniversary gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis. First Avenue was originally a bus depot in downtown Minneapolis. It became a nightclub in 1970, and 7th St Entry was the coat check before becoming its own 300-capacity music room. First Avenue had been a cornerstone of the Midwest rock scene for years, and to play the 1,200-capacity main room was the goal of many a Midwest musician.

Zoë Challenger VO: Along with Bob, bassist Greg Norton and drummer/songwriter Grant Hart recorded their debut album Land Speed Record at the Entry in '81, and they released it via New Alliance in January 1982.

Bob Mould: The band always played with purpose – there wasn't a lot of goofing around in the live shows. On the faster material, Greg would start jumping in the air or do scissor kicks. I typically wore a grave, glowering expression, digging deep into my guitar when not singing. Grant was behind the kit, looking much like Animal from the Muppet Show band, except with longer hair and bare feet. We were young and inexperienced, but we had tons of energy and were able to create a solid wall of sound.

Zoë Challenger VO: In selecting this show as one of First Avenue's pivotal nights, we were excited to focus on the positive, celebrating punk heroes Hüsker Dü and Bad Brains on one bill. But it didn't turn out to be that easy.

Bob Mould: There was a loose network, which we often discovered by chance, where like-minded bands would share a stage and the hometown band would offer accommodations to the traveling band. In return, when that band came to your town, you would reciprocate. Sometimes you'd run into a band that didn't understand or appreciate the idea. When Bad Brains stayed with Grant and his parents, they took Grant's pot and left behind an antigay note. Some gratitude. But once people caught the drift of those bands, they were usually shunned, and eventually they faded away.

Zoë Challenger VO: Bob and Grant's sexualities were open secrets in the Minneapolis punk scene. Bob would come out as gay in a Spin article in 1994, and Grant is on record talking about his bisexuality around that time. Bob and Grant wanted to avoid becoming pigeonholed for their identities. But when you consider the scope of their experiences – and how scary the AIDS crisis was – their angry, frenetic catalog takes on new meaning.

[Hüsker Dü's "Pink Turns To Blue"]

Bob Mould: Gays in the hardcore punk scene were much like gays in the military. If the military says, "Don't ask, don't tell," the hardcore punk collary was, "Don't advertise, don't worry." If someone made a disparaging remark about gays, I would simply say, "That's not cool," or, "You're so ignorant." It was a way of making my feelings known without broadcasting my sexuality.

Generally, there was no more homophobia in the hardcore scene than anywhere else in America, although as 1981 progressed, the media began reporting on the "gay cancer," and homophobia escalated throughout the country. Numberwise, the hardcore scene didn't seem any more or less populated by homosexuals than most major cities were. Then again, the scene attracted the margin walkers, the folks who were outside the norms of society, so maybe there was a slightly higher ratio of gays to straights.

Zoë Challenger VO: According to several sources, Grant wasn't the only person Bad Brains mistreated. Lori Barbero, who drummed and sang in Babes in Toyland, remembers similar behavior toward Randy "Biscuit" Turner of Texas punk quartet the Big Boys.

Lori Barbero: Think they did the same thing to one of the guys from the Big Boys down in Austin, Texas, because he was gay. And I heard kinda the same story. And it's like then don't – if you know they're gay, why would you even stay at their house?

Zoë Challenger VO: In Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains, punk rock activist Mark Andersen also mentions the band's mistreatment of Biscuit. He echoes Bob Mould's thoughts on margin walkers: quote, "Weren't we all in the punk rock underground because we were all different, and because none of us felt like we really belonged out there?"

In 1989, Bad Brains released the song "Don't Blow Bubbles," which guitarist Dr. Know described as an "angry warning to homosexuals." One chorus goes, quote, "Don't blow no bubbles and we can stop the AIDS/ Don't blow no spikes/ Don't blow no fudge buns/ Ask Jah and he'll make the change." By this point, 100,000 cases of HIV/AIDS had been reported in the U.S., and the public health crisis would get much worse before the government approved the first antiretroviral drugs in 1995. It's shocking to hear H.R. cite "P.M.A" – Bad Brains catchphrase "Positive Mental Attitude" – in the same song as he encourages, as a fundamentalist Rastafarian, that non-straights pray the gay away. In 2007, bassist Darryl Jenifer addressed the band's past worldview with some remorse, saying, quote, "Damn right, I was a homophobe! [...] You have to grow to be wise."

As more details about Bad Brains' homophobia came to light, the Current Rewind team weren't feeling too good about focusing this episode on such a disappointing group. So we turned to the third band on that night's line-up: Sweet Taste of Afrika. Before learning about the show, I had never heard of that band before, and neither had our producer, Cecilia Johnson. But we were excited to learn that they're from the Twin Cities.

Joe Shalita: So I came to the Twin Cities in the '80s and I've been in – you know – participating in the music and art industry all that time.

Zoë Challenger VO: This is Joe Shalita, Sweet Taste of Afrika's lead guitarist and the man the Twin Cities Daily Planet has called "the face of African music in the Twin Cities." He grew up in Uganda and moved to Minneapolis in 1979.

Joe Shalita: When you grow up in Africa, you have – music is a big part of our culture – people are tilling the garden, they're always using music to till the garden or till the land. Whether they're chopping trees down, they're gonna be singing along. [Shalita laughs]

Zoë Challenger VO: And when he got to Minneapolis, he found a small but strong African music scene.

Joe Shalita: In those days, really, there were a whole lot of live bands, live groups of almost every genre, but Simba was the original roots-reggae band in the Twin Cities. And then there was the calypso band, which was Shangoya with the late great Peter Nelson. Then there was Sweet Taste of Afrika, which was our band, which performed strictly African music.

[Sweet Taste of Afrika's "Children of the Nile"]

Joe Shalita: Hassan [Omari] was our lead singer, and then there was Mr. Robert Mpambara who was on bass. He's still in the Twin Cities. I was on lead guitar and also singing, and then there was Mr. David Mutebi from Uganda also. Mr. Mpambara was from Uganda; I was from Uganda; Mr. Mutebi from Uganda. So the Ugandans dominated the band. [Shalita laughs] He played rhythm guitar. And then we had native Minnesotans who played. We had the late Paul McGee on percussion [and] Mr. Ben Hill on drums.

Zoë Challenger VO: In 1980, the band helped organize an event called Afro Fest. But most of the time, they had to rely on white bookers to let them onstage.

Joe Shalita: We were really stubborn, because getting into First Avenue was not easy. And I know personally, I kept harassing Mr. McClellan – Steve McClellan – and I'm sure he got tired of listening to my voice – "Is that Joe Shalita calling again?" [Shalita laughs] Steve, wherever you're listening – it's true, because I kept bugging him all the time, said, "You gotta give me a chance! Come on, man. How many times do you have an African band on your stage?" And then, fortunately, First Avenue started having these big African stars coming in to grace the stage. They had, like, Tabu Ley Rochereau was like one of the superstars of Africa [who] came to First Avenue, and I think that opened their eyes, too, to say, "Ok." I was young in those days. But eventually they let us open for some artists – Bad Brains being one of them.

Zoë Challenger VO: Sweet Taste of Afrika spent a little time in the studio, but to Shalita's knowledge, none of their music was ever released to the public.

Joe Shalita: There are some YouTube videos of Sweet Taste of Afrika. Have you seen them?

Cecilia Johnson: I have seen them! They're so good!

Joe Shalita: I know! I was skinny, with a huge Afro. [Shalita laughs] I think David and Hassan may have some recordings, but I don't have any myself. I just look at those ones on YouTube and marvel at the quality of the sound and musicianship. I was like, "What?" [Shalita laughs]

Zoë Challenger VO: According to Joe, the band had some creative differences, and they broke up in 1982. Joe found work as a roadie, then learned a little sound engineering, then formed his own band, Shalita, which lasted until 1999. He rarely performs these days, but he's planning to retire in a few years, and he dreams of returning to music.

Joe Shalita: Art doesn't have an age limit. That's a good thing about art.

Zoë Challenger VO: After learning about Sweet Taste of Afrika, we got to thinking about the Black rock artists who work in the Twin Cities today. Some are relatively well-known, having placed in "best new band" polls or opened for bigger acts. But sooo many of them have never been in the spotlight. And as we've learned while relying on microfilm and internet archives this season, the press has the power to preserve artists' legacy.

So we decided to talk back to this narrative. Our producer Cecilia met up with a few Minnesota Black rockers – Matt Slater and Himes Alexander of the Smokes, plus Nadi McGill of Gully Boys – and asked them, what musicians inspire you? What constitutes a good legacy? What do you love about rock music?

Nadi McGill: Um, I feel pure joy. It's like I can feel the oxytocin rushing through my body. It feels really good.

Zoë Challenger VO: Nadi drums and sings in the Minneapolis rock band Gully Boys – who've performed in the First Avenue Mainroom and many times in the Entry.

[Gully Boys' "New Song No. 2"]

Nadi McGill: I'd always wanted to drum. My mom said no when I was a child, of course. A past partner was a very good drummer, and he had two [or] three drum kits, so I just sat down at one of the drum sets he had set up at his house and just started playing.

Cecilia Johnson: What do you think of when you hear somebody talking about rock, or like, what is rock to you? What do you feel when you're listening?

Nadi McGill: Everyone's playing their own instrument, like that's – the sound you hear is the sound that is being put out, and I think that's really cool. I think that's a really awesome aspect of rock.

Zoë Challenger VO: Although they're a young artist, Nadi is already thinking about legacy.

Nadi McGill: I will always be loud about what I believe in, and I'm always willing to be corrected, and I just want to be known and remembered as someone who used whatever platform that I had to make Minneapolis a better and safer place. For all people, but mostly femmes – fat femmes, femmes of color – in whatever space they choose to occupy... Every opportunity that we have, I try to encourage femmes to join a band, and then I specifically make a point to encourage Black femmes to join the band, because I feel like there is a lot of gatekeeping, and there is a lot of tokenization that happens, which is very annoying. I think the best way to kinda combat that tokenism and gatekeeping is to just be loud about it, and rock music is a great way to be loud about it. And you kinda just make your own space.

Zoë Challenger VO: Nadi says they've taken inspiration from other Black rockers.

Nadi McGill: I was obsessed with this band called Dance Gavin Dance when I was younger. I really was into pop punk music and a little bit of emo music, and Dance Gavin Dance I loved, and then I found out their guitarist was a Black musician, and I was even more in love, because it's very rare for me to see anyone who looked like me, not only in the crowd at the shows that I would love to go to, but on stage.

Also, The Smokes locally? Two Black amazing punk rockers. And my favorite is that Matthew, the drummer rocks an Afro while he's playing. They sing about racial experiences that they've had. And then I appreciate that they're transplants as well. They're not even from here, but they kinda came here, and they were like what's up, like we are here to rock. So that's amazing.

Cecilia Johnson: [laughing] We are here to rock.

Nadi McGill: Honestly, like they really did. I remember I saw them for the first time. It was, like, maybe a week or two weeks after they had moved here, and I was like, "Welcome! Welcome, let's do this," like, "Y'all came like riding on the pavement 100 miles per hour," and I was so stoked to have them here.

[The Smokes' "2 I Luv" (demo)]

Himes Alexander: Black pride is something that's difficult for a lot of people to swallow, but is inevitable as you look at the influence that Black culture has had on American society, especially.

Zoë Challenger VO: That's Himes Alexander of the Smokes, a two-piece garage/punk/indie/soul band who've been performing together for about five years. Himes and his cousin Matt Slater grew up in Spokane, Washington and moved to the Twin Cities in 2017. They've learned from many Black artists around the world.

Matt Slater: This is a really broad one to start with, but I really love Fela Kuti. I've always loved Fela Kuti for lots of reasons. I've got like a soft spot for funk, and he was like a – just comes off as like this African king to me. And then jumps around musically so freely, like, just like feels the spirit of the music. And it was like, oh my god. This music is so Black, so free, and so it like captures his voice so well that like even now I hear it and it just like it makes you feel good, inspires to actually say something – say something real, and it doesn't have to be like a downer.

Himes Alexander: I'd like to talk about a collective like Odd Future who has a bunch of different bands, a bunch of different projects coming out of the same collective, and there's a wide range of eclectic taste when it comes to all of that. You know, Steve Lacy is doing some sort of indie thing. The Internet is electronic R&B or – and even goes outside of that, and [Earl] Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator are enigmatic, like you can't really hold them down to one thing.

Matt Slater: And then there was the drummer from – god, why can't I –

Himes Alexander: Yellowcard?

Matt Slater: Yeah, the drummer from Yellowcard. Who cares about Yellowcard? [The Smokes laugh] The drummer from Yellowcard was this Black dude with dreads, and it was like hell yeah, I wanna do that. I literally – I was like I didn't even like their music. I was just like yes, cool.

Zoë Challenger VO: The Smokes have brought up several musicians who made an impact on them. For me, Whitney Houston, Nina Simone, and Janis Joplin have probably been my biggest musical influences. Years after Houston's death, her friend Robyn Crawford told The Guardian about their queer past, saying, quote, "Our friendship was intimate on all levels." Both Simone and Joplin also held relationships with both men and women. And going back to the beginnings of rock and roll, artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Little Richard experimented not only with instruments and genre, but also with their sexualities. Many beacons of musical creativity have occupied many different identities – there is no "prime" or perfect human being, whatever H.R. or anyone else might say.

Like it or not, Bad Brains are part of rock history. It's true that their actions were garbage. But it's also true that they inspired members of Fishbone, Rage Against the Machine, ho99o9, and many more groups to make rock music. They played First Avenue during a complicated and sometimes tense time in the club's history, with respect to race. Many of the Black bands who played there were not supported by press, radio play, or strong ticket sales, and community members noticed. In fact, one of the people who would've been paying attention was Prince.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Thank you, Zoë. In 1983, the year after the Bad Brains show, Prince would take the First Avenue stage to change the club – and music history – forever. As we'll see in our next episode, the artist who catapulted First Ave from a well-known local rock club to an international destination was a genre-fluid Black rocker. And that was no coincidence.

[Icetep's "Hive Sound"]

Cecilia Johnson VO: This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by Zoë Challenger and me, Cecilia Johnson. I produced this episode, with research and consulting by Taylor Seaberg. Marisa Morseth is our research assistant, and Jay Gabler is our editor. Our theme music is the song "Hive Sound" by Icetep. This episode was mixed by Johnny Vince Evans. Thank you to Brett Baldwin, Rick Carlson, Matthew Gallaway, Dirim Onyeneho, Jackie Renzetti, David Safar, and Jesse Wiza for additional support. If you'd like to learn more about Hüsker Dü, check out The Current's five-part podcast Do You Remember.

If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review our show on Apple Podcasts, or tell a fellow music fan it's out there.

To get in touch, please send an email to rewind@thecurrent.org. To find a transcript of this episode, go to thecurrent.org/rewind.

And thanks for rolling with these mid-season changes. We have one more episode hosted by Mark Wheat next week, and after that, we'll share a bonus episode about his personal connection to First Avenue. I miss him already, and I know you might, too.

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.

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