What One Life Crew Taught Me About Hardcore
In the 90s, the literally massive Cleveland band took a scrawny teenager under their beefy wing.
If you weren't involved in the hardcore scene in the 90s, you probably don't know about One Life Crew. Back in the days of zines and message boards, they were one of the most controversial acts in the genre at a time when vegan-friendly, ecologically minded acts like Earth Crisis and Snapcase reigned supreme. However, the only thing One Life Crew had in common with these acts (aside from a penchant for breakdowns and straight-edge living) was the fact that their 1995 debut album Crime Ridden Society was actually released on Victory Records—yes, the same label that would go on to put out records by (and get subsequently sued by) swooped-hair acts such as Hawthorne Heights, A Day To Remember, and Design The Skyline.
But if you put all these bands in a room together, you would think that One Life Crew were the aforementioned acts' security guards, weighing in at around 300 pounds and clad almost exclusively in bandanas, X'd up work gloves, and the occasional Tommy Hilfiger or Polo long sleeve. Despite their lifestyle choices, the group—which rose out of the ashes of legendary Cleveland hardcore acts like Mean Streak and Confront—bragged about drinking non-alcoholic margaritas and posed in front of low riders with Cuban cigars in their mouth. They essentially took the more flashy elements of hip-hop, paired with hardcore's trademark riffs, and created an entirely new aesthetic in the process.
They were also the first people to introduce me to hardcore.
I became friends with One Life Crew shortly after they were kicked off Victory Records for inciting a riot at a now-legendary festival in Ohio in 1996. (The footage is still available on YouTube.) I'm not sure exactly where we met but despite the fact that I was 15 years old and weighed 130 pounds, they were super friendly and inclusive. Soon enough, I began hanging out at the tanning studio that their singer Mean Steve owned, Sunbelievable Tanning, which was located in the same shopping complex as the Kids "R" Us that I would work at later in high school. I would basically just loiter around and talk about hardcore and try to pick up knowledge about early Revelation bands before the internet was as wide-reaching as it is today.
One Life Crew's drummer Chubby Fresh and bassist John Lockjaw took me to my first out-of-town hardcore show ever in Erie, Pennsylvania, a few months into our budding friendship. It was only about an hour and a half away but it felt like I was going somewhere exotic as it was the home of legendary (for me) acts like Brother's Keeper, Shockwave, and XDiscipleX. A one point, we took a break at a rest stop for lunch and John sat down and literally broke the passenger seat in the car and they had a 20-minute argument about whose fault it was while myself and my best friend Dan sat in the backseat trying not to laugh at what seemed like a staged comedy routine. (It wasn't.)
Eventually we got to the show and Chubby breezed through the door and talked us all into the show for free by simultaneously namedropping and exuding a confidence that I'd never witnessed before. Looking back, it must have seemed ridiculous for the four of us to be hanging out: Lockjaw and Fresh clad in Starter jerseys while myself and my friend sulked back wearing baggy jeans and oversized Strife shirts, but that's what was so exciting about it. Although we clearly had nothing in common with these guys (who in reality weren't that much older than us), they were happy to welcome impressionable teenagers into the world of hardcore and introduce us to a value system that stressed commitment to family, friendship… and in the case of Integrity, well, Satan.
This... does not hold up so well.
I want to be careful not to glamorize what these guys were about at the time. The aforementioned riot was spurred in reaction to their anti-immigration song "Pure Disgust" which featured lines like "Dirty fucking leeches, you must get out / don't use this country for free handouts," but at the time, I didn't know what this meant aside from the fact that the guitar riff behind the vocals sounded transcendently heavy. I remember attending their shows at the old Grog Shop in Cleveland where Steve would chant the phrase "Fuck the liberals" between songs and I would excitedly cheer along, having no idea what a "liberal" was or realizing that I would likely be one myself if I had spent more time watching the news and less time poring over liner notes as I pretended to study algebra.
If you're not familiar with the lexicon of the Cleveland hardcore scene, let me give you a quick primer. The worst thing you could be called was a "fruit," as evidenced by the introduction to Crime Ridden Society which features the sound of traffic followed by someone asking "Hey, who the fuck is this guy?" to which our protagonist responds, "I'm from the neighborhood… fruit." Additionally nerds were "nerdarios," jocks were "jockarios," and women were largely relegated to "coatracks" who held XXXL NFL-licensed jackets as their overzealous boyfriends beat the shit out of each other in the pit. It's hard to say how much of this was sincere and how much was an over-the-top reaction to PC posturing, but it was certainly an odd lens to experience adolescence through in the late 90s.
Looking back now, yes, there was plenty of machismo and misogyny. But as a lanky kid who didn't really relate to most of his peers in high school, it gave me a welcome sense of belonging and inclusion. In fact, there were a lot of positive aspects in the Cleveland hardcore scene involving standing by your friends, having pride in your community, and supporting "the scene." (Admittedly these traits can easily become caricature-esque clichés and a favorite memory from that era features a singer for my previous band introducing a song by stating, "I've been stabbed in the back so many times that I can't feel my back.") But it's hard to deny that there was a real bond between a lot of the members of the Cleveland community that drew me into it and made me feel like I belonged far more than I did when I was wondering the halls of my high school wearing JNCOs and feeling like a pariah compared to my Abercrombie-clad peers.
Me in high school, when I was lanky, wore JNCOs, and my best friend was my sister. Naturally, I wanted to hang out with hardcore's tough guys.
Eventually, I started a band with two of the members of OLC and a couple of other random friends from the local scene who had been in a straight-edge band called, wait for it, Set Straight. We were called Committed and would practice in my parents' basement in the suburbs. I distinctly remember one evening going upstairs to see Chubby and Lockjaw sitting at our kitchen table, telling my very understanding parents about how we were going to tour Europe together and what it was like to be in a successful band. (It's only fair to add that Committed actually went on to become a very competent and fairly well known band on their own, eventually. This first incarnation lasted only briefly and without any known documentation.)
As you may have imagined, my old-school hardcore career was cut short by having to go to college upstate. In reality, I never really considered staying in Cleveland any longer than I had to. Plus when I realized the alternative to working in a record store selling bootleg VHS tapes was taking classes in Ithaca, New York, with a host of kids (including girls) my own age and weight class, I left immediately. My relationship with Cleveland and that whole crew kind of fizzled after that, but Chubby Fresh did call me on my 19th birthday on dorm room's landline and updated me on what was happening back home, which is probably the last time we spoke.
I've lost touch with most of the people from that era but judging from Instagram—which is always the most accurate portrayal of what people are really like—it seems as if everyone has largely grown up and learned to keep the best parts of that scene (a.k.a. the sense of humor) without blatantly championing the xenophobia or hate that was so often ascribed to it (unless it involves Victory Records). From what I've gleaned, Chubby owns a t-shirt company in Cleveland and recently helped out my friends in Creepoid when they had some van issues. But maybe better yet is the case of Lockjaw who is now a successful comedian operating in Austin, Texas under his given name.
The last time I saw Lockjaw, I was passing through Texas in the peak heat of July. (OK technically I was on a road trip in a short bus painted like a turtle from Rhode Island to Austin with a shaman and his wife but that's a totally different story.) When I got into town, I learned that he was performing at a local comedy club and checked out some of his comedy online. Admittedly it was still moderately offensive but not in a way that would likely incite riots or protests, it was more aligned with blunt comedians such as Ari Shaffir or Joe Rogan who enjoy knocking down politically correct norms in a humorous way that allows us to laugh at some of the more absurd aspects of our society. (I mean this dude was at one point in band called PC Death Squad but I'm pretty sure he never killed anyone for eating a Boca Burger.)
I got to the club early. He was sitting alone at a table and looked slimmer but largely the same, sporting two full sleeves of tattoos and enough mass to easily toss me back out of the entrance without cracking a sweat. I tapped him on the shoulder and, despite knowing how ridiculous it sounded coming out of my mouth, I greeted him the only way a product of the 90s Cleveland hardcore scene knew how. "What's up, fruit?"
Jonah Bayer is on Twitter if any JNCO representatives would like to contact him - @mynameisjonah