death: proto-punk and irrepressible blackness
June 6, 2019
A long lost relative is still family. Even if they were forgotten by history or perhaps obscured by circumstance. For a long time, when people talked about punk’s family tree — and the proto-punk pantheon at its roots — they would only mention bands like MC5, The Ramones, Velvet Underground or The Stooges. These were the garage rock bands from places like New York City and Michigan who, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, laid the foundation for the loud, fast, and brash sound and attitude of what we call punk today — extraordinary talents all, yet still, conspicuously groups comprised solely of white men. All but lost in the annals of time, there was a little known trio of Black men — blood brothers from Detroit — named DEATH. The band featured Bobby Hackney, Sr. on vocals and bass, Dannis Hackney on drums and the eldest brother, David Hackney as guitarist, songwriter, and its conceptual leader. The music they made, best consumed as the unearthed 1974 demo that would be released as 2009’s . . . For The Whole World To See, was confrontational, political (see: “Politicians in My Eyes”), and decidedly unconventional. It was also very, very Black.
How did these brothers from the “D” end up becoming part of the vanguard of a punk movement they couldn’t have possibly predicted? Well, influence isn’t a one-way street. It’s not even a two-way street; it’s a busy intersection in an overpopulated city, full of people in vehicles and pedestrians going to and fro — sometimes quietly but more often, a cacophony of honking horns and expletive-filled versions of: “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” Understanding that, is helpful in grasping the reciprocal nature of the relationship between Black people and American popular culture.
A very abridged, remedial, and, oversimplified history goes like this: Black people playing the Blues begat white boys and girls doing rock ‘n’ roll. When rock ‘n’ roll diverged into hard rock it gave the world groups like Alice Cooper it reached the ears of the young Hackney brothers who were, at the time, a soul and R&B band known as RockFire Funk Express. Feeling inspired, the Hackney brothers realized that they didn’t have to conform and imitate Earth, Wind, & Fire or the Isley Brothers, instead, they could push past what was expected of a Black band back then. After taking in the sounds that of bands that were springing up around them in the midwest like MC5 and across the pond like The Who, the Hackney brothers made the conscious decision to be on some other shit — a thing that is extremely AFROPUNK.
I can relate to the Hackney brothers. In the early aughts, around the time the Afro-Punk documentary itself debuted, I was in the midst of my own “rock and roll nigger experience.” A hip hop head who was drawn to the rebellious attitude of rock and a desire to defy the limitations on what Blackness was supposed to be, I immersed myself in guitar music with angsty vocals that were more screamed than sung. It also helped that some of my rap world faves such as M.O.P., The Roots, and Mos Def were leaning into rock, invoking Bad Brains, and experimenting with punk as both a sound and attitude. And in hindsight, I recognized that pioneering hip hop journalist and film director Sacha Jenkins primed me for punk by putting people like Orange 9mm’s Chaka Malik in the pages of the influential hip hop zine Ego Trip. Around the same time, I found myself working at MTV.com, a junior producer creating brand-sponsored video fluff pieces on the pop celebs du jour like Jessica Simpson and Kelly Clarkson. There I worked with a guy named Jack Lefelt, a video producer and rock enthusiast who was ten years my senior. With his receding hairline and vintage glasses frames, he resembled a North Jersey version of Hunter S. Thompson. He had a special fervor for the foundational rock music of his youth and was eager to share with a curious kid like me.
Lefelt fed my curiosity with CDs, MP3s and DVD rips of rock docs. Anything and everything by Television, MC5, The Stooges, New York Dolls, and Velvet Underground-related made its way to my desk and email inbox. This was my introduction to proto-punk, I loved the sound; I identified with the energy. As I received my hard rock 101 education, I found myself in awe of the figures who created the scene but I didn’t necessarily see myself in the faces of guys like Iggy Pop or David Johansen (who I knew as “Buster Poindexter” before I knew about New York Dolls). That changed when I was introduced to DEATH. The 2012 rock doc, A Band Called DEATH recounted band’s extraordinary story, a story of Black men with a creative spark that threatened to be extinguished by the world around them. Back in the ‘70s people weren’t ready for a Black band playing the music they played or David’s insistence that the keep the name DEATH despite the protestations and disapproval of people who refused to see things their way—even if cost them radio play and a record deal. There is tragedy in their story; after a decades-long battle with alcoholism and mental illness, David died from lung cancer in 2000 before the band got its recognition. But ultimately there is triumph. People like you and I can look to them as representative of the expansiveness of Black creativity and its influence on popular music. DEATH is proof that Black creative genius is more than just novel; it, like the people it comes from, is resilient and its contributions to the world indelible.
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