Black Punk Predecessors ‘Death’ Recognized By The Smithsonian

By Sameer Rao Sep 17, 2015

Just a decade ago, most people didn’t know about a band called Death. They didn’t know that three black men from Detroit—brothers Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney—took cues from The Who and The MC5 and made some of the early ’70s’ hardest and fastest rock music, preceding acts like The Ramones and The Clash in influencing the shape and direction of punk rock to come. But between their name and their race, they didn’t reach the heights of those other highly-canonized punk bands. 

But thanks in part to the 21st century vinyl revival, a 2009 reissue of old music on indie label Drag City Records and an acclaimed 2013 documentary chronicling their incredible story from start to reformation, Death is finally getting some of the acclaim that it deserves. And in 2016, the Smithsonian’s latest museum will preserve the band’s memory for posterity.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open to the public in 2016, will honor Death in its permanent collection. Prior to a May headlining show at Washington, D.C.’s The Black Cat—a storied venue in D.C.’s historic indie and punk scenes—the current band (guitarist David died in 2000 from complications related to alcoholism; their current guitarist, Bobbie Duncan, is a friend of the surviving Hackney brothers) toured the museum’s collections and spoke with D.C. independent radio station WAMU. You can read the full interview, which was published yesterday, here (along with a video of their performance and tour above), but check out some important comments about their legacy below:

Yeah. You’ve been called protopunk, the first punk band, the first black punk band. But you weren’t trying to make anything like that.

BH: Yeah. We just liked rock music. We wanted to be like The MC5, like The Who, Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and all those great bands that we saw in Detroit. We were just into the rock ‘n’ roll. Of course we grew up with Motown and we loved The Beatles, too, like everybody else did, so that’s basically what we were trying to achieve.

So what is it like now being called history makers? Is that surreal?

DH: [Laughing] When we buried that Death music, we never thought anybody was gonna say anything about us being history makers.

BH: That’s right. We never thought it. Timothy [Anne Burnside, from the Smithsonian] said something about a Harriet Tubman piece [in the African American museum’s permanent collection]. And when she was talking about that Harriet Tubman piece, she said this person just had this laying around. That’s almost the way the Death music was. When the world came knocking, there were only two songs, that little obscure 45 we released, and it was like, “Is there any more?” And we were like, “Yeah, sure, we got ’em up in the attic. You wanna hear some more?” [Laughs] And it just ballooned from there. It’s really surreal.

Death is now on a world tour. Head to Drag City’s website for dates, and check out WAMU’s video above and full interview here.