Politics as Sound author Shayna Maskell lives just a few blocks away from the infamous Dischord House, home of the influential punk/hardcore label for 40 years. It took Maskell, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, eight years to write the 280-page book, which is subtitled The Washington, D.C. Hardcore Scene, 1978-1983. 

In the book, Maskell uses six of the most notable D.C. bands from that era— Minor Threat, Bad Brains, S.O.A., Government Issue, Teen Idles, and Faith— to explore the punk subculture in the area at a time when white supremacy, misogyny, classism, and militarism ruled the nation’s capitol (not much has changed in four decades, it seems). 

“D.C. hardcore, the music and the scene that developed around it, is a reaction to those things,” Maskell says. “D.C. hardcore is about resistance and rebellion. It’s about agency and power for young people who didn’t feel they had it.”  

Maskell was too young for the original scene but was huge into Fugazi-era Dischord bands.  

“What drew me to this music, as a rebellious teenager growing up around the D.C. area, was a nice ‘fuck you’ to these institutions that we grew up with,” she says. 

Politics in Sound started out as Maskell’s PhD dissertation and soon became an all-consuming passion. She did more than 30 interviews for the book, including with Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat/Teen Idles (of course), and Daryl Jenifer from Bad Brains. 

The unity and motivation within the D.C. scene, particularly the Dischord record label and Positive Force benefit shows, isn’t understated in Politics in Sound. The book honors the D.C. scene as a model for progressive, do-it-yourself, youth culture.  

“I decided on writing a book about D.C. hardcore because it’s so important in the lineage of punk and hardcore, but also so important to this area,” Maskell says. 

The book is a fascinating dissection of the fast, loud, and pissed-off hardcore of D.C.’s early era, and how the political system around it affected the sound and lyrics. 

“We think of music as spatial rather than tied to certain place, due to global technology, but ‘back in the day,’ music was so tied to place, the music, the institutions, and the people,” says Maskell. “Hardcore existed in many other places, but it was formed here in large part as a reaction to what D.C. was, as a symbol and a reality.” 

Get a feel for some of the sounds that inspired the book with Minor Threat’s Out Of Step here:

For more on Politics As Sound and to buy the book, check out the University of Illinois Press website.

Photo courtesy of Shayna Maskell

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