By: Josh Kasoff As unfortunate of a reality as it is to admit, drug addiction and abuse is tragically common among musicians. Across decades, far too many talented souls have become victims of a disease that knows no socio-economic bounds. From psychedelic rock legend Jimi Hendrix to Port Arthur, Texas legends Janis Joplin and […]
By: Josh Kasoff
As unfortunate of a reality as it is to admit, drug addiction and abuse is tragically common among musicians. Across decades, far too many talented souls have become victims of a disease that knows no socio-economic bounds. From psychedelic rock legend Jimi Hendrix to Port Arthur, Texas legends Janis Joplin and Chad “Pimp C” Butler, AC/DC’s Bon Scott, Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, Dee Dee Ramone, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots, Hillel Slovak, the original guitarist for the iconic band Red Hot Chili Peppers and son of Holocaust survivors died at 26 from a heroin overdose. Even more modern examples that still hit close to home for millions such as Mac Miller and Juice WRLD, drug addiction and abuse is a sadly prevalent epidemic that affects musicians across the board.
One such wildly talented yet unfortunate victim of drug addiction in the mid-1990’s, right when his rising band was putting the finishing touches on their album that would go on to become one of the decade’s best and have hundreds of millions of Spotify streams, was named Bradley Nowell.
Although fans of the ‘90’s era ska-reggae sound that had increased in popularity and that Nowell popularized throughout his music may know him by a far more commonly known name.
Brad from Sublime. He had a high-energy stage presence and playing style like few others of his contemporaries and a clearly evident gift for music and the production of songs that aren’t easily forgettable. Using the reggae music he had been a fan of since childhood and combining the alternative/ska genre that was taking off at the time, Sublime is an example of a band that defined a sound that they’ll forever be associated as a trailblazer for.
Whether for the catchy riffs and equally talented band members or the attention-grabbing lyricism that certainly stood out in terms of substance, Nowell became one of the most legendary and legacy-establishing musicians of the diverse decade of music that was the 1990’s.
To this day, both within the culture associated with both cannabis and reggae/ska music communities, Sublime’s music is fondly remembered and still jammed out to by millions across the world. Through the unique sound they pioneered, Nowell cemented himself in music history. Even for those who aren’t the most dedicated of reggae/ska fans, Sublime is a name that holds prestige to it.
Terribly though, Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose on May 25, 1996 at 28 years old, never truly seeing how adored by the masses and over-encompassing the legacy of Sublime has become in the decades since his passing.
From this tragedy and loss of talent however, an organization dedicated both to Bradley’s memory and to finding musicians the help they desperately need to overcome addiction was formed.
First seeing their booth at the recent Reggae Rise Up Festival in town, I was captivated by their story and the mission of the Nowell Family Foundation.
Instead of going immediately into the mission statement, a representative with the organization asked a question of great importance to the organization and reggae/ska fans alike.
“What’s your favorite Sublime song?!” she excitedly asked.
(Don’t worry y’all, I said Santeria immediately).
Through contacting the organization, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kellie Nowell, one of the founders of the Nowell Family Foundation and the sister to Bradley himself. While Bradley’s untimely death was certainly a driving force behind the formation of the organization, a more current matter still deeply involved and connected with Bradley acted as a catalyst of sorts in that formation of the group that hopes to help musicians just like him.
“Unfortunately his son, Jakob, was following in his footsteps.” Kellie said. Jakob, who was born in June of 1995, was less than a year old when his father died. As tragic as it was to see Jakob have his own struggles with addiction, it was the true passion of his father that subsequently saved his son; that being music and its abilities.
“When he was in a treatment program,” Kellie explained, “and we started to see the importance of music for musicians in recovery and to see what a big role it played for Jakob and realizing that was something missing for Brad that made it difficult to stay in any program. Just having that music element, because it was such a huge part of who Brad was. So that got us thinking and talking about it and just realizing how close we had come to losing Jakob the same way we lost my brother. So it was a wakeup call that maybe there’s something we can do to help others.”
Through this desire to help other people, Kellie saw how necessary addiction treatment for musicians is and the ultimate dream behind the Nowell Family Foundation was formed as a result.
Bradley’s House, a full-fledged six-bedroom residential 90-day treatment program dedicated to helping musicians struggling both with addiction and financially that may not be able to afford other more expensive forms of rehab. Starting with a one-week medical detox in a medical facility followed by integration into sober living following those 90 days.
“Hopefully we can establish a community of sober musicians,” Kellie said, “and an aftercare program where they come back and speak to those currently going through the program. With my nephew being a musician, he’s got almost five years of sobriety now in January and it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge being around that environment and not participating in any of that. So hopefully, we’ll be able to develop a whole community of like-minded artists who can support each other when they’re on the road.”
Along with treatment, Kellie also hopes the organization will help to destigmatize those going through addiction in the music industry. When shame and stigmatization stands in the way of someone receiving addiction treatment, they’re often hesitant to even attempt treatment.
“We all struggle with something in our lives. Nobody’s perfect and it’s part of the human condition. If they’re ashamed of their struggles, they’re not going to get the help they need. But if we can destigmatize addiction, then hopefully it becomes more comfortable talking about it and more normalized and people can get the help they need without feeling ashamed.”
Destigmatization is a key step in getting someone to treat their addiction, especially in a community where those addictions run so rampant (such as musicians). Although the organization doesn’t yet have a physical house to send patients to, which is what Bradley’s House will eventually serve as, the Nowell Family Foundation has multiple Board of Directors members with years of experience in drug recovery. They’re more than happy to provide referrals to existing centers and recommendations until Bradley’s house does open.
Once again, Kellie stressed how important music is for musicians going through recovery:
“Music is a big part of their lives and you can’t just take that away when they’re going through the biggest struggle of their life. You gotta still provide music as a means of therapy and expression but it also gives hope and comfort.
A successful program would recognize the challenges and barriers there are in getting help to break those down which is what I’m trying to do by being a non-profit and getting grants and donations. Having a program that goes beyond and maintains contact and encourages people to encourage people in their sobriety.”
Despite myself just learning about the organization at Reggae Rise Up 2021, Nowell Family Foundation has presented a booth detailing the mission of the organization and the eventual plans for Bradley’s House at several music festivals and large events of the sort. As for where the festival that the organization’s first presentation was, the location couldn’t have been more properly fitted towards the history, sound and lyricism of Sublime.
“The first one we did was at a festival called Music Tastes Good in Long Beach.”
From the location that will forever be synonymous with her brother’s band, Kellie then took the organization to festivals such as Cali Roots in 2019, the One Love and Arizona Roots Festival in The Grand Canyon State. In the past year especially, the message behind Nowell Family Foundation has received significantly more recognition thanks to Law Records and their project The House That Bradley Built. In total, it’s a 24-song collection of several of the most prominent artists in current reggae music such as Common Kings, Trevor Young of SOJA and The Movement. The last track on the collection, Rivers of Babylon, is even covered by Jakob Nowell himself. With songs spanning the Sublime catalog from 40 Oz. to Freedom to their final eponymous album, it’s a magnificent sight to see how impactful and influential that Sublime’s music is to so many musicians even 25 years following Bradley’s passing.
Furthermore, all the proceeds raised from sales of the album collection will be going to turning Bradley’s House into a reality:
“The record has really expanded our visibility within the community.” Kellie described. “At Reggae Rise Up, the majority of people who came up to the booth had already heard of the organization, so that was nice.
If the organization isn’t already tied to Bradley Nowell’s legacy enough, the Board of Directors includes multiple family members of Bradley’s, from his father to Kellie and even his son Jakob. Miguel Happoldt, a producer and musician who frequently worked with Sublime and even took care of Bradley’s beloved Dalmatian and mascot named Lou Dog after Brad’s passing, is also on the Board of Directors.
“Everyone wants to do something to help the opioid epidemic, but they don’t know how. And I think this organization gives a way for people to be a part of a cause that is meaningful to them in multiple ways. Maybe they know someone who struggled with addiction or maybe they lost somebody, but then also their love for Sublime and my brother’s music gives them a feeling that they’re part of something that’s really kind of extending Brad’s legacy in a whole other area. I know for me and my family, it’s been very therapeutic because we feel like it’s something we can actually do. We can take that grief and turn it into something positive to help other people avoid the same thing.”