Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ike Turner should be molded in marble Mount Rushmore style for inventing rock and roll music in the 1950s. But the kudos for punk rock’s beginnings have always gone to White bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, with their mohawks, combat boots and safety pinned motorcycle jackets. Well, not anymore.
The 2012 documentary A Band Called Death (newly available on DVD) tells the tale of Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney of Detroit, whose unreleased 1975 album …For the Whole World to See undeniably created a punk rock blueprint years before anyone else. Though Death mastermind David Hackney passed away from lung cancer in 2000, his legacy lives on as his brothers tour Afropunk and rock scenes around the world.
EBONY.com gave Death its due in a recent interview with the band, discussing African-Americans’ relationship to rock music and some of the all-time great Black giants of the genre.
EBONY: In A Band Called Death, you mention the demons your brother David struggled with before his death in 2000. Could you comment on those demons?
Dannis Hackney: David did have demons, and those creative genius types always seem to come with demons. The last thing David did for me, he filmed my wedding. All the wedding shots you see in the movie, that was David filming. David told me after filming my wedding, “Well man, this is the last time you’re gonna see me.” And I start: “David, come on man. I’m tryna get married and get prepared for my honeymoon.” [laughter]
He’s getting philosophical on me and I had to listen to it and take it to heart. Because you know, your brother he comes to you and he says, “this is the last time you’re going to see me,” that kind of strikes a chord.
EBONY: Of course.
DH: When they were getting ready to leave, he got in the car. And my mother was in the car. He told my mother, “When you get back to Detroit, be prepared to bury one of your sons.” And two months later, David actually passed away.
All the way up to the end, we had kept making plans about what if we [get back] together. With Dave’s advanced alcoholism at the time, he wouldn’t have had the strength to play the guitar like he used to. Or he probably would have played like he used to, but it would have just been different.
EBONY: Have you had any musicians that you used to listen to back in the 1970s say that they think Death is great?
Bobby Hackney: I tell you, everybody from the old to the new. Wayne Kramer [of MC5], Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg. It’s just been incredible, amazing and surreal. We never thought that anybody would even like the Death music. We went through so much rejection with the name. Now the music has come back to overshadow the whole issue of the name, and David said that would happen. He said, “Everybody’s fixated, preoccupied with the name, but once they see the music and what we’re doing, then things are gonna change.” And wow man, he’s really right.
EBONY: I’ll throw out some great names in Black rock music. Tell me what you think of them. First: Prince.
BH: Me and Dennis used to say that Prince was a cross between Jimi Hendrix and the Funkadelic. And a little James Brown on the side. [laughs] We thought that what he was doing was great, man. Especially his guitar playing.
EBONY: Living Colour?
BH: I remember David, when Living Colour first came out, saying that these guys didn’t have to go through what we did. And we was glad for them, that an all-Black rock band had finally really cut through and made it. We were very proud for them.
EBONY: Lenny Kravitz?
BH: Lenny Kravitz was another one that we thought was great. I mean, that first album—
EBONY: Let Love Rule.
BH: It reminded us so much of great rock ’n’ roll music that was coming out of the ’70s. It was just heart and a lot of passion and great songwriters. Berry Gordy used to always say, “In Detroit, a great song always has a story, and when you listen to a song and it transports you into the story, then you know that’s a great song.” And Lenny Kravitz has that ability to transport people into his stories. We were proud of him as well.
EBONY: Arthur Lee and his band, Love?
BH: Love and Arthur Lee… you know what? That’s the one that might’ve slipped by us. We didn’t interact too much. Our icons really were Jimi Hendrix, the Chambers Brothers. I thought the Chambers Brothers was white ’til I saw them on Ed Sullivan.
EBONY: Sly and the Family Stone?
BH: Well, Sly and the Family stone means a lot to me, Dennis and David. Because 1968 was a pivotal year for us. Imagine me, I’m only 12 years old. Dennis is 14, David is 16 going on 17. And in April we lost Martin Luther King. Then in May, not even a month later, we lost our dad. And then in August, we lost Bobby Kennedy. So for the nation, those two names was the hope of the nation at that time. For us, not only did we lose the hope of our nation, we lost the hope of our household as well.
So we had to grow up really fast. My mom and dad had lived apart at that time, and I never forget rifling through my dad’s record collection and I saw Dance to the Music. We just loved it, and never knew that this group would become the icon of Woodstock and the whole peace and love movement.
When we saw him on Ed Sullivan, I’ll never forget Sly jumping on top of the organ. We had never seen a group where there was Black and White [bandmates] together, female and male and brothers and sisters. And they became the icons of Woodstock. Death, that’s where we came from and that’s what encouraged us the most to be musicians. Not only losing our dad, but the fact we were not really trying to be a Black band or a White band. We was trying to be like peace and love, positivity.
EBONY: What do you think accounts for the resistance in the Black community to rock music?
BH: We are fortunate in that we grew up in the Black community, and we’ve lived in the most White community in the country, which is Vermont. One of the biggest frustrations Bob Marley had was trying to reach the Black audience when he was alive. They put him on a tour with the Commodores, which was one of his last tours. And you know, the Black community wasn’t ready for Bob Marley. But now if you go into the Black community, you see Bob Marley just as much as you see any other name, and he would be proud to see that.
It’s almost like it parallels what Death went through and what I’m seeing right now. When we see young Black kids come up to us, older Black kids, that’s the most heartfelt thing for me and Dennis. We went through so much resentment in the Black community, we felt that nobody Black would ever think that Death would be [successful].
DH: When we were back at home in Detroit, it was the sisters who used to get on our case the most. ’Cause you got to play something you can dance to, you know what I mean? So they used to get on our case hard and heavy! And now, last night we played this show and some of the sisters in town came out to see us, and that made me so proud. Because you get the sisters, you get the community. And you know that! [laughs] The sisters have come up to us and said “good job.” They were smiling, they were buying stuff to be autographed. I could not believe it.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.