Chuck Bettis has small baby feet. Laced into scuffed blue Adidas copies, they peak out from underneath the flares of his baggy pants. Lacking a car and loathing public transportation, Bettis prefers to see the world on foot. Hiking up Connecticut Avenue on a cold Sunday afternoon, he strides fast, keeping his head down. He walks like a runaway, but he knows where he wants to go: Malcolm X Park, to catch some drummers.
Weaving between a chesty statue of John Witherspoon and a couple of banks onto 18th Street, Bettis, the lead singer of the All-Scars, says that in the summertime this hike becomes a ritual. The mix of traditional African drummers, dancers, and street musicians is more comforting to him than most Black Cat shows. “I’d like to think I’m not in the punk scene, but I’m sure I’m in it,” he says. With his hair orange in patches and his fingernail polish flaking off in white chips, he looks like he’s in the middle of his escape.
At 16th Street, Bettis crosses what he compares to an “equator,” one of the city’s racial dividing lineswhich could be a musical one as well. “16th Street is just like the Anacostia Bridge,” he explains. “Down there you got Cleveland Park and Friendship Heights and over here you got Cardozo High and U Street, Shaw. And the punk scene is all white.”
Crossing into Malcolm X Park, Bettis stares intently at the “white” side’s high-rises. He admits he’s not sure what he’s going to find in the park. Is he too late? Will anybody even show up? Is it too cold to play?
Bettis, 21, has spent years playing in punk bands, most notably the Meta-matics. Although he addressed race issues throughout the band’s 1996 self-titled debut, the Meta-matics still fit into the punk scene. Bettis began to feel he was in a rut. Soon after the band broke up he went in search of his own beats, rhymes, and life. He floated into jungle parties and sometimes spun his own mixes. He even answered an ad from a Belgian guitar/synth player.
Despite Bettis’ scene hokeypokey, his quest led him to form the All-Scars with some punk lifersguitarist Brendan Canty, drummer Jerry Busher, and bassist Dug Birdzell. Canty drums in Fugazi, while Birdzell played in Beefeater and Rain Like the Sound of Trains, as well as with Busher in Fidelity Jones and Las Mordidas. Ironically, Bettis was now telling his heroes what to playand they proved willing experimenters.
Bettis and Co. have gone from emo noise workouts to a style that blends jazz, electronica, and go-go (read: It doesn’t sound like Fugazi). The All-Scars don’t even play songs; instead, the band works in sets, each of which is roughly 15 minutes long and usually ends in heavy improvisation. On their upcoming “two-set” release, it’s as if the All-Scars are working past their separation anxiety. Sets may start out as traditional punk, but they soon move into uncharted territorytrumpet skronks, ambient moments, and bang-on-a-can combustion.
The All-Scars offer a collapsed map of D.C., on which different worlds collide. It’s a revised version of Chocolate City: Cardozo High School’s basketball court overlooking the monuments butts up against the jeep-heavy Friday-night rush at Montana and New York Avenues; a Goya-stocked Adams Morgan grocery store sits next to a midnight gathering of potheads, crackheads, and homeless people at Dupont Circle.
Canty sees the band’s mix as a natural product of being exposed to all of the city’s sounds. “I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up in D.C. with go-go around,” he explains. “It is one of the most phenomenal organic music forms ever. It’s definitely one of my favorite forms of music.”
Although the band makes a successful case for genre-hopping, the question remains whether this all-white group can transcend a scene not traditionally known for being inclusive. Despite the recent Junkyard/Fugazi show, ’90s punks have often used black culture either for a punch line or as a fetish. White boys wigging out on soul food has led to the Make-Up, which trades gospel for uneasy laughs. During the riot grrrl movement’s heyday, women sometimes treated blacks as if they were so much jewelry: One prominent fem pioneer confided to me that the grrrls constantly squabbled over who had the darkest, most nonwhite boyfriend.
For Busher, the band’s sound grew out of his displeasure with the narrowness of the scene. Motivated more by the personal than the polemical, he wanted to broaden his playing. “When we got together, it was exactly the way I wanted to feel,” he explains. “It was what I needed to be doing, and it happened, and I don’t know why. When we started this band, I wanted to feel like I could almost do anything. I wasn’t interested in filling some role of holding down a beat.”
Birdzell agrees. “I feel more relaxed than I did back then,” he explains. “In Beefeater, that was a really intense band. Part of that was the feeling that there was something bigger at stake. If we didn’t get a show, or if the van broke down, I would go crazy. Now, the music is more personal. Now, I take what comes.”
Bettis is the one pushing the band forward. When he rants, “You can’t hold me back from growing/No matter how many walls you build/I will continue to climb all over them,” he means it. He isn’t satisfied yet. For him, the recording is just a starting point. “The All-Scars are not really what I want to do, but it’s fun for now,” he says. “I know you’re not going to get what you want right away….Right now we have a candy-coated experimental sound. It’s too easy to do what we do. I’d like to challenge people: What is a song? What is music? What is music used for? It’s not always used for straight-up entertainment purposes.”
“I want to be in a scene of oneme,” Bettis asserts. Sitting alone on a bench in Malcolm X Park, for the moment he’s got his wish. The drummers have failed to show. Bettis takes it in stride, eating a banana and taking in the scenery. “I am me, and that’s how I make it,” he continues. “I don’t relate to people, and I never really wasted time in that.”
Before you label him an existentialist thug or just plain pretentious, know that Bettis isn’t trying on poses. For him, this is a survival tactic. He learned to draw inward early on, growing up in Kensington with a father who worked as a janitor and electronics deliverer, a mother who baby-sat, and six other siblings. Bettis and his family moved several times because they couldn’t pay the rent; once they were evicted after their house was condemned.
“We weren’t poor, but we weren’t middle-class at all,” he explains. “The whole family was on free lunch….We had two refrigerators, because my Dad got all his electronics shit for freewhatever he could fixso we had the Kool-Aid refrigerator and the other one would have bologna.”
He admits, though, that as far back as he can remember he always felt as if he was renting a room from his parents. Bettis says they were absent at best; at worst, his Dad was physically abusive. “It was just your basic child-abuse kind of thing,” he recalls. “He was very short-tempered, and he would get mad, and we were the closest thing. That’s why I moved out. It came to the point where if he beat my brother, I was ready to pounce on him. My brothers have wrestled him to the ground, so he doesn’t really mess with them anymore. He’s chilled outthat’s what I hear.”
Having moved to D.C. when he turned 18, Bettis has barely kept in touch with his family since then. He hasn’t seen his sisters in a year or his brothers in three. He became a musical misfit, clinging to both hiphop and punk for support. He says that for a while he considered his fellow band members his foster family.
Although he eventually graduated from Public Enemy to a public university (Maryland) and majored in African-American studies, he dropped out after three semesters to devote more time to music. Taking a cue from Malcolm X’s triumph over poverty and racism and inspired by the Bad Brains’ conversion from jazz to punk, he wanted to cut his own paththrough bands, side projects, and now his own label, Mass Particles. Since his Kensington days, Bettis has continued to displace himself from one scene and move on to another. These days, that leads him to the streets of Adams Morgan and to jungle shows.
Walking up Mount Pleasant Street, he lights up at the sights and sounds. The mix of cheap electronic stores and Latin American restaurants is his laboratory. He points out the street preachers cooling their heels by the grocery store and the street vendors blaring the latest Latin pop hits. Part John Cage, part voyeur, Bettis says that punk can be felt in any found sound. It doesn’t have to be made by white guys.
“There’s so much to be used,” he explains. “Every time I’m at work, I hear sounds and I want to do them….A couple of days ago, I walked through Mount Pleasant and people be blarin’ all the tapes that they’d bootlegged, and then you go through Adams Morgan and you got more sounds. And you got cars on top of the music. I love that. That calms me. This music is the only thing that makes sense to me.”
When we get to his house, Bettis parks it on the couch. The place is completely bare except for a small television, a VCR, and a spare couch. The phone’s ringer is broken, so he can’t hear incoming calls. He says his homelike his musicmay be just a rest stop. “The house has a temporary feel,” he admits. “There’s no pressure in staying. It’s not like I’m settling down in D.C. Right now, I’m for living here.”
Before a March 19 Cold Rice show at Kaffa House, Bettis keeps mum. He refuses to divulge his intention, saying only, “It’s a surprise.” Sitting on a bench by the red-lit stage, he wears a sly, mischievous look. Is he going to give people in the audience instruments so they can play along, as he did at the last show? “I’m not telling.” Is there even going to be a surprise? “I’m not telling.”
One person who is already shocked is Kaffa House owner Elias Zeleke. Standing at the entrance, he offers nothing but praise for the Cold Rice crew of retro punks, club kids, DJs, bands, and impresario Ian Svenonius. This could be a big step toward some scene mixing between all subculturesjazz, reggae, hiphop, and now punk, he offers. “Black, whiteyou can’t say he’s not a good guy because he’s white,” Zeleke says. “On the surface, we’re all struggling. None of the people here are liberal or conservative. They’re not caught up in the 8-to-5.”
For some audience members, the fusion of cultures doesn’t come so easily. There are still mixed-up feelings about intentions, musical history, and respect. Tunde Oyewole, 22, says the Make-Up, the All-Scars, and the rest of the Cold Rice scene worry him. Although he likes the Make-Up, Svenonius’ band does make him uncomfortable. “I feel offended by what the Make-Up does. There’s a lot of things he’s stepping on,” he says, referring to Svenonius’ near-parody of gospel and soul. “As a kid, I grew up in a Baptist church. It’s hard not to see the distance [between the band’s sources and its music]. I’d say it’s an impossible project.”
But the All-Scars may be the next step the scene makes. Bettis and Co. are righteous about their theft, not coy. It’s more a mutation than a caricature. Even Oyewole admits, “There’s this joke that Chuck is an African woman reincarnated.” Indeed, when the band comes on, Bettis is already dancing like a Pan-Africanist, as the musicians segue into the DJ’s jungle riffs so smoothly that you’re not sure if his spinning has stopped at all.
Unlike on their recording, tonight the All-Scars go completely toward the ambient side. You can’t tell the punk parts from the electronic parts anymore. The opening pits Svenonius against Bettis trading distorted yowls as the band works a sound that’s close to being meditative. Busher uses a two-second drum loop, and Birdzell tweaks his bass sound to hold down notes with mere blips and beeps as Canty works waves of sound from two keyboards and his guitar. Bettisforced into the front rowis surrounded by a half-circle of gawkers and dancers. It looks as though it should be shot for a sequel to Banned in D.C. Yet they’ll never play these sets here again.
Bettis doesn’t carehe’s moving on. After the show, he shrugs off his performance and spends the rest of the time dancing with various Dischord vets. (Are they now converts?)
DJ Arch Deluxxx, who spun hiphop last Wednesday, is standing outside. He’s skeptical but impressed. He says that for the scene-merging to work, it has to include go-go. “I guess everything needs a starting point,” he says. “The effort here has to go much further than
the Kaffa House.”CP