What Makes ‘Em Tick: DC’s Pioneering Punk Culture

Some background on Robert Leming’s project on the DIY punk scene in DC

This project aims to identify, explain, and discuss the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) music scene of Washington, D.C. as the result of values, attitudes, and beliefs of Washington, D.C. culture.  The values, attitudes, and beliefs at stake in this project are exhibited in language, events, and musical representations.  The birth of DIY music in the early 1980’s in Washington, D.C. was the result of a cultural disposition unique to the locality.  The local residents, outside the transient public culture of the government in Washington, have a collective identity, or cultural identity that stems from the social structure of the city.  The DIY scene is still thriving because the identity that corresponds to that music scene is still relevant in representing a portion of Washington, D.C.’s culture.  By analyzing interviews, song lyrics, audio aesthetics, and historical accounts of events, Robert hopes to shed light on why the DIY music scene originated in DC and why it is still thriving today.

During Robert’s formative years when developing a taste in music, raw and aggressive sounds always appealed to him.  Punk music was a natural fit and complemented many of his other interests nicely.  In NJ, there has been, since Robert can remember, a thriving punk scene, including such acts as the Misfits and the Bouncing Souls.  Following his attraction to bands like that, Robert found out about Fugazi and Minor Threat, never realizing (or caring at the time) that they were from DC.  He took long break from punk music but eventually renewed his interest in college.  With a more curious mind, Robert started learning about the bands that he liked from DC.  Then, when the opportunity to take a class on music scenes in DC came up, he took it in hopes of learning about the culture of the city he lives in from its various musical communities.  So he set out to answer some questions he had.  Robert figured that the amount of discourse on the hardcore scene in DC and the DIY work ethic that went with it indicated that it had importance locally and beyond (after all, had he not heard of “their” scene?).  So what is so important about it?  Why do people talk about it?  How do we make sense of the things we talk about on the subject?  Robert’s research began there.

DC Punk Podcast:

How the project changed over the semester

This type of project is different from anything Robert has done in college orelsewhere in his studies.  He did not know what to expect concerning the field of ethnomusicology.  Much of his fieldwork was an information gathering process.  The analysis, as he learned happens in a different stage than the research.  In other research projects, in many ways the subject “connected the dots,” so-to-speak, in a more apparent way.  Not so with ethnomusicology.  I did not anticipate that.  Technical difficulties were also a hindrance to this project.  Conducting interviews was easy enough, and quite enjoyable at times, but having to focus on recording equipment and adjusting levels often makes the situation awkward.  The most exciting research Robert could do was to go to shows, which was a great experience every time.  When the lines between “work” and “play” start to blur, the integrity of the research seems to dwindle.  Robert doesn’t know if that is a personal insecurity or a fact about the methodology of ethnographic research.  Somewhat ironically, the breadth of information on the subject is wide.  As a topic, it is finite and has been scrutinized so closely from so many angles that it’s almost tapped out.  There are only so many ways to view a topic with a relatively small scope.


Robert has three people to thank mainly for contributing to his work.  The first is Stephen Parsons, a bass player, an audio engineer, and AU alum.  Robert met him by coincidence through a mutual acquaintance and started talking about their interest in DIY music and the relationship grew from there.  He was generous enough to sit down with Robert a number times to talk about the subject and pointed him in the direction of countless other resources.  Secondly, a person who he will call Melissa, he thanks for her generosity in lending him access to her records from her own experience in the DC DIY scene.  Besides her great stories about spending time with Henry Rollins, Ian Mackaye, and H.R., she shed more light on what it means to be from DC and to be a part of the DIY scene–the most authentic person he met in doing his research.  Lastly, Robert’s partner Alex deserves thanks for guiding him in the field of anthropological fieldwork and encouraging new ideas.


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