By: Ann McMullen
The nation’s capital is, understandably, most well known for politics. However, the District of Columbia also birthed multiple genres of music. In fact, if you’re into any subgenres of punk, your favorite bands probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the thriving early hardcore scene in D.C.
Although the first punk rock band is generally considered to be Death, who emerged from Detroit in the early 1970s, a major punk explosion took place in D.C. in the late 70s to mid 80s.
Here are some D.C. hardcore punk bands and the impact they’ve had, in chronological order of when they were active.
Bad Brains were pioneers of the scene, forming back in 1977. Being one of first punk bands in the D.C. area, their shows were often seen as “too intense” by the public eye, resulting in many local clubs banning them from playing. This caused the band to relocate to New York, where they released their first studio album — with the hit track given the straightforward title of “Banned in D.C.” The band has played a number of reunion shows over the past couple decades, and frontman H.R. has released a good amount of solo reggae music as well. Bad Brains further established that punk is by no means an exclusively white genre, kicked off hardcore scenes in both Washington and New York, and could easily be considered the face of the D.C. scene.
Minor Threat was arguably the most well known and iconic band in the scene. If you wouldn’t consider Bad Brains the face of D.C. Hardcore… you’d probably give that title to Minor Threat. This early 80s band was fronted by Ian MacKaye, previously the bassist of the short lived Teen Idles. MacKaye created his own label, Dischord Records, which would eventually own almost every band in the city, but Minor Threat was one of the first bands signed to it. While a lot of their songs consisted of the typical anger towards society, they also coined the term “straight edge” by a song of the same title — used to describe a lifestyle free of drugs, alcohol, and anything of the sort. This was truly groundbreaking, as most other rock adjacent bands prior to them were all about “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” The straight edge culture created by Minor Threat remained very prominent in future music in D.C., and created a movement that spread to musicians and fans all over the world.
Rites of Spring isn’t a name as well known as Minor Threat or Bad Brains, but they had just as big of an influence. The band put out a single album in 1985, and later released a six song demo tape under Dischord. Despite the small amount of content they put out, the legacy of Rites of Spring is absolutely incredible. The insane number of bands they went on to inspire is all thanks to the label that was placed upon them due to their intense, personal lyrics and emotionally intense live shows: emotional hardcore. This would be shortened to emocore, and then simply emo. The emo label would go on to be used on some of the most well known bands of future decades, and, similar to straight edge, create a worldwide subculture.
The Hated were technically from Annapolis, MD, but are still considered a part of the D.C. scene due to their close proximity. Their work is often overlooked considering they were first active at the same time as the iconic Rites of Spring, but The Hated are believed by a good group of people to be the true beginners of emocore. They are having a reunion show in Los Angeles next spring, which is something relatively uncommon among bands of this scene, and era, and will hopefully bring more attention to this truly underrated band.
Moss Icon emerged from the same Annapolis scene as The Hated in late 1986, but had somewhat of a different approach. Their songs almost have a spoken word aspect to them, and the lyrics can be read as stories or poems — which makes sense, as vocalist Jon Vance is rumored to be a descendant of Edgar Allen Poe. Lyrics aside, the most prominent sounds in Moss Icon’s music are the intricate basslines. Their longest term bassist was Monica DiGialleonardo, and having a female in a band like this was pretty groundbreaking, at the time. Although they may not objectively be the best band to come out of the capital, Moss Icon is easily my favorite.
Embrace was short lived, but highly influential nonetheless. Like Minor Threat, Embrace was fronted by Ian MacKaye. They only released one self titled album in 1987, but also contributed greatly to the emocore phenomenon as their live shows were just as intense as those of Rites of Spring. In fact, Thrasher Magazine referred to Embrace as the creators of emocore in a 1987 issue, and MacKaye (and most other musicians at the time) were… not fond of the label. Embrace tends to be overlooked because of MacKaye’s more well known bands like Minor Threat, but they are my personal favorite project of his.
Fire Party was a racially diverse, all female band. Unfortunately, they were significantly lesser known than their male counterparts, but released a great couple of albums and played a number of live shows in D.C. and far beyond. Although members of the group have since moved onto other endeavors like writing and art, they remain very open about their experiences in music. Fire Party was successful despite being faced with various challenges as women in the scene, and established that the genre was a safe space for people of any gender.
Scream peaked around the same time as Fire Party, and actually toured Europe with them. Although their music was just as important as that of every other band in the scene, what really stood out about Scream was a certain member of their lineup. Later into their career, the band hosted auditions for a drummer – who would end up to be none other than Dave Grohl of future Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame. Grohl credits Scream, the Dischord label, and the D.C. scene as a whole, as his starting point in the music industry. Essentially, without Scream, one of the greatest music icons of this generation would not be who or where he is today.
Fugazi is considered a supergroup, with a highly accomplished lineup including Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Embrace and Guy Picciotto of Rites of Spring. Forming in the late 80s, Fugazi released their debut album in 1989, and carried hardcore music into the 90s and beyond, while also adding more experimental aspects into their later work. They remain one of the most well known bands from this scene, and their 1988 single “Waiting Room” helped to make hardcore more mainstream.
As you can see, the D.C. hardcore punk scene most definitely peaked in the 80s, but the same type of music is still being made there today. Dischord continues to sign new bands, and a few groups that have been around since the initial explosion still make music to this day.
Although the musical history of the city is greatly overshadowed by politics, there are still places of musical importance available to visit. Smash Records, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, has existed since the peak of the D.C. hardcore explosion, and is still open to this day, making it a fun place to pick up authentic memorabilia. Museum exhibits related to local music also come and go, and the city is still home to great, iconic small music venues.
There’s really something for everybody in D.C. hardcore, even if you’re not a fan of the style of music. For those interested in the history of music, I greatly recommend a visit to the capital, or simply looking further into the musical significance of this location.
For more information on this era of music, please see:
- https://www.google.com/books/edition/Dance_of_Days/bfPuzbXZdJAC?hl=en&gbpv=1& dq=dance+of+days+book&printsec=frontcover