by Maxwell Williams
The first thing you notice about Dennis Dent is his arms—heavily muscled and bulging with crosses and skulls. They’re strong. They look like they could crush craniums—possibly mine. Once you tear your eyes away from those bruisers, you catch sight of his hat, a black ball cap with the word “SKIN” embroidered in puffy black thread. Shit.
Although Dent is only about 5’9″, he’s got the intimidation thing down pat, especially when you’re a Jewish writer with an overactive imagination who’s only too aware that he’s currently knocking back pints of Guinness in a dark Jersey Shore pub with a bona fide skinhead. That’s right, Dent is the lead singer of hatecore punk group H8Machine, a band reviled across the globe for their aggressive, violent songs set to equally aggressive, violent music. Suffice it to say, alcohol is totally a must for my tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte with Dent, whose very name implies the aftereffects of a violent outburst.
Dent leans across the table and I feel my insides twist slightly, my instincts shouting, “GET THE FUCK OUT.” But he’s only trying to make himself heard above the barroom din, and when he speaks it’s with the gentle gruffness of a world-weary barfly. “Most of the songs are really just biography,” Dent says, like any other crooner waxing poetic about his influences. “It really is just the story of my life, growing up in North Jersey. I don’t set out an agenda when writing a song—it’s just whatever pops up,” he explains. “Realistically, 99 percent of the songs that I write have nothing to do with race. Any song could be read into and perceived any way [the listeners] want.”
According to Dent, it’s that 1 percent that’s preventing H8Machine from being big time. As proof, he offers the claim that in the not-so-distant past a major label once courted the band. “But they wanted us to disassociate ourselves,” Dent says with a growl. “Why is it I have to dissociate myself with [the skinhead movement] when there are plenty of bands out there that are anti-white and really violent?” Dent asks, leaning farther across the table towards me. (“Maybe because skinheads are associated with lynching, cross burning and the stomping of indiscriminate minorities,” I consider retorting, but instead settle on a huge gulp of beer.) “A black guy’s talking about killing white guys and making a ton of money doing it and I’m just singing about doing my thing, and I’ve got to tone it down?” Although, he acquiesces, “If Capitol Records said today: â€˜Hey, H8Machine, we want you guys on right now. Who cares about your past!’ Would I jump on it? Fuck yeah, I would. Would I become a capitalist pig at that point? I probably would.”
Sensing this opportunity, white power bands like H8Machine are now changing their tune. Unlike their predecessors—who were content to spread their harrowing message to skin fans alone—hatecore bands today want more. And with the power of the World Wide Web at their fingertips, it’s easier than ever for Skins to stream their hate-laden message from the recording studio to your iPod. To be sure, bands such as Dent’s won’t be making the cover of Rolling Stone or earning a spot on Pitchfork’s top songs any time soon. Unless, of course, they say bye-bye to hate-speak and hello to peace, love and understanding—or so says Dent. As a result, the majority of bands, H8Machine included, continue to operate mostly on the DL, despite their dreams of musical fame and fortune.
Why? Well, if you ask the hatecore bands themselves, there’s a vast media conspiracy organized to keep their message from the mainstream. And there certainly is a grain of truth to the argument. Getting a respectable music journalist to seriously address a white power band is probably harder than getting one to seriously address the latest John Tesh record. In fact, I could barely find a single music critic to comment on the subject. David Marchese, an editor at Spin, has written about Skin music in the past. When I get Marchese on the phone, he explains, “You can’t ignore subjects because they’re not positive.” As Marchese wrote in Spin, these bands’ lyrics are not the only thing that’s offensive: “Their ideas, and their music, are no good.” But most critics do tend to take the ostrich approach to hatecore jams, ignoring them out of the hope that they’ll go away.
While some members of the white power music movement increasingly crave media attention, others are wary of the impact that the press might have on their message and are content to remain under the radar. Take Jeff Schoep, the founder of NSM88 Records and commander of the National Socialist Movement, whose website declares that its “core beliefs include defending the rights of white people everywhere.” I give him a ring at his suburban Detroit home. We chat about music for a while before he pauses to tell his son to brush his teeth. It’s a weird moment of vulnerability; this man, who runs an organization that ostensibly hates—hates—the ethnicity of his interviewer, is having a family moment—a regular Danny Tanner moment. Visions of him strangling puppies and burning things in effigy temporarily exit my brain.
When he comes back to the phone, we start talking about artists who have toned it down in an effort to court the mainstream. Schoep makes it clear that this is not the case for the bands on NSM88 Records—88 translates alphabetically to HH, or “Heil Hitler”—some of them are banned from entering countries like England and Germany. “If anything, our stuff is over the top,” Schoep points out. “Obviously, there’s other labels that put out pro-white music, but it’s all considered legal, because they’re not saying â€˜sig heil’ or anything about Hitler [or] the over-the-top stuff that gets people banned or put in jail. That’s the stuff we’ll put out. It’s not illegal here, so we consider ourselves patriotic. Every time I get a letter from the German government or the English government saying, â€˜You’re banned from coming here,’ to me, it’s an honor, because I live in a free country still where we have the right to do and say as we wish, as long as we’re not advocating violence or anything illegal.”
In preparation for my interview with Schoep, I upload some of his label’s tunes to my iPod and wander around New York listening to bands like Operation Race War. I stroll past Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery with the metal clashing against my eardrums, chugging guitars mashing against lyrics including, “Jews taking my money / And niggers raping my women / What am I suppose to do / Sit back and watch? / Fuck that / Fuck you.” The lyrics of songs like “Fuck Jewish Sympathy” and “Racial Serial Killer” are truly stomachchurning, but it’s the reedy production that truly bogs it down. I’m usually cool with hardcore music, but I have to shut that mess off after only a few refrains.
Like any genre, hate music has good bands and bad bands. At one extreme, there is Grinded Nig, a grindcore shitshow that hits a truly puerile note of wretched musical vomit in which every song sounds exactly the same—like Gwar with the fast-forward button stuck, only far less proficient at their instruments. Then there’s the godfathers of hatecore, Skrewdriver, who ended up making some of the genre’s best music, and Brutal Attack, who during the late ’80s, had a three-album run that constitutes some of the best hardcore music—racist or not—on the scene. “Brutal Attack in ’88 or ’89 was the best fucking skinhead music out there,” says Alex Gottschalk, a punk-rock historian and former non-racist skinhead. As for the more recent stuff, there’s a lot of garbage out there, but Bound for Glory has produced a series of heavy, thumping sludge metal that, if listened to objectively, sounds pretty darn good, and H8Machine puts out some pretty passable retro-style metalcore. When one thinks about the current state of affairs in the music industry, the ever-weakening influence of the major labels, the mainstreaming of indie and the lack of loyalty that consumers express toward brand-name bands, can you blame a generation of hatecore bands for dreaming?
Byron Calvert, a former employee of Resistance Records, one of the biggest record labels on the white power punk scene, knows only too well how to do the creative hustle. Calvert, nÃ© Bryant Cecchini, is a shrewd, no-nonsense businessman and a self-described “neo-Nazi racist skinhead.” An ex-con and ex-mercenary soldier, Calvert lives on a 40-acre farm in Arkansas with his wife and their five home-schooled kids. Having come across his record label, TightRope, over and over as I was researching this story, I give him a ring, and he seems more than happy to relate his history as a merchant of white power music.
Calvert hooked up with Resistance Records in 2000, seven years after it came on the scene. Resistance was created by George Burdi (who later renounced white supremacy while serving a prison sentence) and became a benchmark for American white power music. Its flagship band, Bound for Glory, was their bestseller. “When I was there, that was at their peak,” says Calvert. “There were 12 full-time staffers living at headquarters.” Still, the label soon fell onto hard times under the control of Dr. William Pierce, a physicist and leader of the National Alliance. “They had a really disastrous experience trying to break into the black metal music scene,” Calvert says. “They would press a CD they thought was really going to take off and—I shit you not—it would literally retail nine copies. Resistance was never a profitable business.” Eventually Bound for Glory broke away and helped underwrite a new label, Panzerfaust Records. Calvert transferred there, becoming one of the directors of the label and proving himself adept at the biz by helping Panzerfaust become one of the first white power labels to gain an Internet presence. By employing methods that were truly ahead of their time to build a genuine online community—carrying over a mailing list from Resistance and starting a message board—Calvert helped launched white power into the Internet age.
Since those first digital baby steps, the Internet has become High Street for white power music. iTunes and Amazon both carry digital files, and you can get hard copies of H8Machine and various other white power albums at online retailer CD Baby’s website. Add to that file-sharing applications like BitTorrent, and you’re set for life in the hatecore department. When asked why he carries hate music albums, CD Baby’s founder Derek Sivers told Punknews.com: “Start with one album and we’ll have to commit ourselves to a lifetime of deciding, on every album that comes in, if it’s offensive or hateful and if we should allow it. We get 200 to 300 new albums a day now, so there’s just no way we can judge them all.”
Although Calvert does most of his business on the Internet, his most hyped endeavor, oddly, focuses on an older school of media distribution: the free sampler. “I had wanted to do a free CD for years,” says Calvert of his pet mix CD, Project Schoolyard, originally released in 2004 and pressed in an edition of 100,000 copies. Meant to be distributed by street teams throughout schools and at non-white power concerts and events, Project Schoolyard featured songs from all the white power heavy hitters—from Skin heroes like Brutal Attack and Bound for Glory to newer bands like Youngland and Final War. “We got about 40,000 on the street,” Calvert says, “I went up to New York and 60 Minutes interviewed me, which didn’t make it on the air. But CNN, Newsweek, shit, I don’t even remember, there were so many. You have to remember, that project was in operation for less than 60 days.” Why? Well, mostly because of Calvert himself. He was convinced that something was up with his Panzerfaust partner, Anthony Pierpont, and accused him of everything from being Mexican to taking sex tours of Thailand. Not surprisingly, Pierpont became anathema to the white power scene and the whole Panzerfaust operation fell apart. Sick of institutions, the bosses and nearly having his name dragged through the mud, Calvert resurrected his own record label, TightRope Records, soon after the dust settled.
And how does Calvert feel about the whole mess? Pretty damn content, that’s how. Without the profit sharing and internal fighting of Panzerfaust, Calvert has turned TightRope into a sustainable company that supports his brood. “I can take Wednesday off and go fishing with my kids,” he says. “I don’t have anyone above me, I don’t have anyone below me. Eighty-five percent of my customers are brand-new mainstream people. They don’t know what 88 means, never heard of Ian Stuart [the lead singer of Skrewdriver]. And Obama’s a godsend,” he says with a contented sigh. “Jesus Christ, I’d like to keep that fucker in office forever. My hits tripled the day he got inaugurated.” Because of Calvert’s Internet expertise, TightRope is the first site that pops up when Googling racist gear, including a sticker of a chimpanzee’s face with the words “OBAMA ’08” emblazoned across it. Moreover, TightRope released the second volume of Project Schoolyard this past December, and already videos have popped up on the Internet documenting the disc’s distribution. In one, a group of skinheads board a frat boy booze cruise and hand out CDs, shooting party snaps of unwitting college dudes with their free swag.
Just because the music is finding new outlets doesn’t mean that white power music could ever be a true moneymaker. First of all, album sales are no longer a measure of success in the music industry—as of late, many artists make their money through touring and selling merchandise at shows. (Licensing deals are also a lucrative market, and, needless to say, it doesn’t seem likely that any of Calvert’s bands will be crooning away on the latest plug for the Big Mac.) And since hate rockers are not able to tour the way, say, the Jonas Brothers can, they’re at a huge disadvantage from the get-go in terms of achieving marketable success.
Instead, groups assemble at relatively small festivals, such as Kentucky’s Nordic Fest and Uprise, organized by a White Nationalist group called Keystone United. I find out about the latter fest, an all-day music event held in rural Pennsylvania via Stormfront, the white power movement’s most active message board. (You can find my faux punkass comments under the truly brilliant moniker, “skinnyskinskin.”) Sadly, I miss out on Uprise, having learned of its existence a week after the fact, but I do discover that one of the bands on the bill will be playing in Pennsylvania on the very next Thursday. The band is called MRSA, a Philly emo hardcore deal named after the drug-resistant staph infection. They sound a little like screamo band Blood Brothers, and they all look like average punk kids—complete with Rancid T-shirts and studded belts. Scores of pre-teen girls habitually post adoring comments on their MySpace page, professing their undying love for the strapping rockers. I decide that I need to check these dudes out to get a better sense of this subversive scene. Unfortunately, I end up fucking up my story, if not blowing my cover. Allow me to explain.
For Skin shows, even the most mundane of endeavors like publicizing an upcoming gig amounts to an ordeal. If you give away too much info, you could attract hordes of angry protesters bent on shutting you down. “They’ve shut down plenty of concerts that I’ve tried to play in this country,” says Dent. “We did a gig to raise money for the kids of a friend of ours that died of leukemia. Every anti-racist group in the world was out there protesting and trying to shut it down.” Consequently, shows are played on private land and directions aren’t given out until hours before show time. Furthermore, it often seems like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center know more about the activities of the white power movement than the movement itself—you can find a list of upcoming hate group events on their websites. So one has to be stealthy when planning a performance. “When it’s word of mouth, it’s a little harder to figure out who’s responsible for what,” says Gottschalk. “But nowadays, everyone knows everything. To an extent, I think the white power scene is its own worst enemy; these idiots going on MySpace talking about where the next Nordic Fest is going to be. So everyone knows exactly where to show up and beats the shit out of them.”
In the case of MRSA, that idiot was me. In the days building up to the show, I had gone on the Stormfront board, fishing for neo-Nazi opinions of the band. Channeling the semi-illiterate 17-year-old buried deep inside, I dashed off a post: “Were MRSA good? I want to see them in Philly next week. Are they WP [White Power]? They have a MySpace so maybe not, but they sound good and I want to know if they were good at Uprise. I wish I could have gone! :(”
It’s the day I’m supposed to go to Philadelphia and, shaken a bit by warnings from Dent and Schoep (who pretty much think I’m insane for trying to infiltrate a white power show), I’m ready to shave my head and bust out the Doc Martens to save my ass from a stomping. But as I go online to find the directions to the show, I notice MRSA has been taken off the bill. A quick search and I find an article that says the Battle of the Bands’ promoters found out MRSA had played Uprise. How did they find out? Some idiot named “skinnyskinskin” was blathering about the show on Stormfront.org.
I shoot an email to MRSA asking what the deal is, and they respond: “MRSA is an apolitical band that will play for anyone at anytime. Uprise was just a big venue and that’s why we played. To be honest, we think it’s bullshit. We didn’t play Uprise to promote any certain kind of belief or make any sort of statement. We played Uprise because it was a show and we were asked to play.” So, according to the band, they’re not down with white power. Still, the fact that they associated themselves with the genre in the past came back to bite them in the ass. How this will affect the band in the long run is hard to say, but for now, they won’t be playing Philadelphia anytime soon.
MRSA is not the first band to get the heave-ho for racist ties. A 2006 show in North Carolina was supposed to feature lionized British white power punks Brutal Attack, but their lead singer, Ken McLellan, was turned away at U.S. Customs, and Nordic Fest’s organizers, the Imperial Klans of America, have been hit by a lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center, putting this year’s concert in jeopardy. So while bands may get their fair share of Internet fame, it seems as though Skins with their sights set on a Grammy, or, at the very least, mass cultural acceptance, will most likely be hard pressed to see their dreams realized. And what’s Dent’s dream? I call him up a few weeks after the initial meeting to find out. “[To be] given the same opportunity any mainstream band has,” he says. “Given the same outlets to promote and distribute the music. And, over all, to be able to play [my] music to all audiences and let them decide whether it is acceptable or not, instead of the decision being made for them.” Well, judging by hatecore’s public reception in mainstream America as of late, it’ll be a while before Dent’s dream is realized. But bands like his will keep reaching for the firmament, even if that golden statue is out of reach.