Extending our exploration of straight-edge, we shine the spotlight on Krishnacore – the seemingly improbable union of Hare Krishna spiritualism and hardcore music.
Words: Colin Helb
The Hare Krishnas are something of a cultural artefact. Tied to the peace and love flower children of the 1960s, the Krishnas seemed a cultural and spiritual outgrowth of hippies who, having experimented (or continuing to experiment) with drugs, sought some sort of enlightenment unavailable or unattainable via Western religion. In a pre-9/11 world, the Krishnas could be seen as the saffron-robed devotees selling flowers, stickers, and literature at airports (as parodied in the 1980 film Airplane!) In cities throughout the U.S. and Europe, they chanted their familiar chant, offered free vegetarian food (called “prasadam”), and carefully danced in the grey area between cult and “conventional” religion.
Since its development, several famous cultural icons have been tied the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and founder Prabhupada, including Allen Ginsberg, George Harrison, Chrissie Hynde, Boy George, KRS-One, and members of X-Ray Spex. In addition to celebrities, a group of straightedge hardcore kids from the New York area also showed a spiritual interest in the movement’s path towards enlightenment. That path is one that seeks a life of self realization over sense gratification. Free of intoxicants, vegetarian diet, and largely celibate, the life of a Krishna monk, or devotee, is one that should appear similar to the “don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t fuck” mantra first uttered by the godfather of a movement, Ian MacKaye, and built into the straightedge hardcore punk subculture predominant in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So, it should not seem unusual that these two subcultural paths would cross almost in spite of the the scene’s seemingly aggressive culture.
This intersection led to a genre (really a subgenre of a subgenre) of music now often referred to as Krishnacore – though I do not recall ever hearing this term contemporaneously. Because the genre is defined both by its musicality – aggressive American hardcore punk – and its extra-musicality – monk-like devotion to an niche spiritual lifestyle beyond its already demanding straightedge cousin – its natural lifespan is understandably limited. Granted, hardcore bands continue to adhere to Krishna Consciousness’s edicts, and the marriage of Krishna and punk has spread beyond its U.S. birth, but, there was a period of time, a period that was largely informed by John Joseph and Harley Flanagan, and helmed by Ray Cappo, John “Porcell” Porcelly, and Vic DiCara, during which a small scene of Krishna Conscious hardcore produced its finest work. While it would be easy to point to Ray Cappo as the scene or genre’s sole architect, that would be to overshadow those who existed largely in shadow or, possibly more accurately, in his wake.
Listen to the playlist and scroll down to explore the records individually.
The title of the debut album by John Joseph and Harley Flanagan’s Cro-Mags is derived from Vedic scriptures, but without that knowledge, its place as a Krishna Conscious album (or the band as the quintessential proto-Krishnacore band) could be overshadowed by the band’s perceived penchant for violence. In The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon, Joseph details his relationship with a local Krishna temple in the 1980s who helped him leave his “thuggish” lifestyle behind. While the record finds itself in this list because of Joseph’s Krishna Consciousness, the album is largely celebrated for its bridging of hardcore punk and heavy metal at a time when the camps were clearly separated culturally and musically.
Shelter’s debut seven inch was released around the same time as vocalist Ray Cappo’s Youth of Today’s final release. No Compromise (released on a label Cappo founded at a Maryland ISKCON temple) along with its follow up full length, Perfection of Desire, is both a spiritual departure and a musical departure. The music is more melodic and dynamic than Youth of Today, and the lyrics are more sung than shouted. The two songs on the seven inch, ‘Freewill’ and ‘Saranagati’, are lyrically derived from Cappo’s recent trip to India, Vedic studies, and spiritual transformation to Raghunath Das. Unlike Youth of Today’s previous releases, no individuals are credited, only Prabhupada and other gurus. Cappo’s subtle humor credits “It’s a Cult Productions.”
Inside Out No Spiritual Surrender
(Revelation Records, 1991)
Vic DiCara, a native New Yorker and former bassist for the short-lived Beyond, was attending college in Southern California, when he formed Inside Out. Though DiCara penned the lyrics, including the titular track which has become a sort of Krishna Conscious anthem, he recruited the former guitarist of another short-lived band, Hard Stance, as vocalist. Though the vocalist, Zack De La Rocha, would achieve greater fame with Rage Against the Machine, and DiCara with 108, the band’s sole release remains one of the finest releases of the era. The seven inch is full of feedback, aggression, youthful anger, and developing spirituality.
Following the first Shelter releases and the establishment of Equal Vision Records, Cappo and company set up shop at the Philadelphia ISKCON temple and became active members of the straightedge, hardcore, and punk scenes centred around Trenton, New Jersey’s City Gardens. At the time, Ressurection (that is not a typo, it’s how the band spelled it) was establishing itself in the local scene. Vocalist Robert Fish and guitarist Dan Hornacker were the core of Ressurection, which shared several members with fellow New Jersey band Lifetime. The band played an aggressive and heavier brand of straightedge hardcore, as opposed to the proto-emocore sound of Lifetime. Though Ressurection was not a Krishna Conscious band in the purest sense, Fish was living at an ISKCON temple, and several allusions to Prabhupada’s teachings are present lyrically and in the liner notes.
Shelter In Defense of Reality
(Equal Vision Records, 1991)
Although this is the third Shelter release, it is the first recorded by a formal band consisting solely of Krishna devotees living monastic lives. On previous Shelter releases, Cappo was assisted by friends from other bands including members of 76% Uncertain, Bold, and Youth of Today, as well as musical devotees. By the time of this release’s recording and subsequent live performances, Shelter also included drummer Ekendra Das, bassist Chris Interrante, and DiCara on guitar. Following the release of In Defense of Reality, Porcell had also become a Krishna devotee and joined the band as DiCara began to focus on 108. Musically, the melodic hardcore of Shelter’s previous releases is coupled with DiCara’s aggressive guitar work; lyrically, Cappo delivers personal modern day applications of Prabupada’s teachings.
Refuse to Fall Soulfire
(Equal Vision Records, 1991)
Refuse to Fall were a Houston, Texas-based group of devotees. Soulfire holds the unique position of being the only Equal Vision release from the early years not featuring either DiCara or Cappo. Likewise, as a Texas-based band, Refuse to Fall was geographically outside the unofficial Mid-Atlantic U.S. headquarters of Hare Krishna hardcore in the early 1990s. Though the band went on to release two more records, their association with Equal Vision and (possibly) Krishna Consciousness did not last long beyond Soulfire release. Produced by Shelter’s Chris Interrante, the seven inch features four well-written, skillfully performed, and masterfully recorded songs.
Like Ressurection, Prema (a Sanskrit word loosely translated as “love”) was a young band active in the Trenton, New Jersey scene. The band worked directly under the tutelage of Cappo, Equal Vision Records, and the growing number of hardcore kids who began to call the Philly temple home. Pebble is a collection of six songs and one of the first Equal Vision releases not pressed on vinyl (cassette and CD only). The music and lyrics are complex – situating itself somewhere between the more staccato “youth crew” hardcore and Lifetime-esque “emo” – especially when one considers the mean age of the band was around 18 at the time of its recording. Prema recorded one more record for Equal Vision, Drivel in 1996, before disbanding.
If Shelter sought to connect Prabupada’s teachings to the modern world, 108 sought to lyrically explore the ancient Vedic scriptures with academic rigor. Throughout its history, 108 has had a revolving cast with DiCara and Fish as its core members and has produced a highly prolific body of work despite recurring years of inactivity. Holyname is heavy, intense, and powerful. Its lyrical content is so demanding of its listener that DiCara included a glossary of terms in the liner notes of its initial release. Since 1993 was still rather early for the production of compact discs by independent labels, an error occurred in the original pressing of the album causing the album’s individual songs to play as a single track. Possibly as a reference to this error, 108’s follow up album was titled Songs of Separation.
Project Kate …The Way Birds Fly
(Equal Vision Records, 1996)
Hardcore has always been a male-dominated genre of music. The presence of women in bands is disturbingly rare. And while straightedge hardcore has had as one of its common tenants a belief in gender equality, female musicians remained uncommon in the scene. Kate Reddy (aka “Kate 08” as result of her tenure in 108) is the wife of Steve Reddy and, with her husband, current co-owner of Equal Vision Records. Under the Reddys’ leadership, Equal Vision has grown to expand its roster beyond Krishnacore while still maintaining a personal and professional relationship with the label’s spiritual founding. Following Kate Reddy’s time with 108, she formed one of the genre’s only female-fronted bands along with Sergio Vega (Quickstand, Deftones) and Norman Brannon (Shelter, Texas is the Reason). While not as hard as other records in this list, the record Birds Fly showcases Reddy’s Vedic-inspired songwriting and adept guitar work.
Ray and Porcell Two Songs
(Revelation Records, 1991)
Porcell might just be the number one sideman in all of the “youth crew” era of straightedge hardcore. He has been a member of Youth of Today, Judge, Bold, Shelter, his own Project X, among others. Cappo has been one of, if not his most common collaborator. This one-off seven inch released by Revelation just as Porcell was becoming a member of Shelter is unique in two distinct ways: one, it is credited to “Ray and Porcell” rather than one of their collaborative bands, and two, it features a drum machine. It may be the only “hardcore” release, if it can still be called hardcore, to feature a drum machine rather than a live drummer.