Of all the bands to rise from the hardcore punk scene in the Eighties, Fugazi has remained truest to the genre's DIY ethos, steadfastly shunning mainstream attention, releasing albums on its own successful Dischord label, and inspiring young bands worldwide.
Singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye started Dischord in the Arlington, Virginia house he moved into after graduating from Washington, DC's Wilson High School in 1980. (Dischord later moved to a basement office beneath a dry cleaners.) He formed the label to release records by his first band, the Teen Idles, and by his next group, Minor Threat, which, along with Black Flag, was one of the most highly regarded and influential hardcore bands. Dischord quickly grew into a major underground force, focusing almost exclusively on DC-area bands and ultimately selling millions of records by such vaunted acts as Shudder to Think, Jawbox, Youth Brigade, Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty and the early Henry Rollins punk outfit S.O.A.
When Minor Threat broke up in 1983, MacKaye moved on to the short-lived Embrace before teaming up with Rites of Spring members Guy Picciotto (vocals, guitar) and Brendan Canty (drums) in 1987 to form Fugazi. Joe Lally, a native of Rockville, Maryland, had worked as a roadie for one of the Dischord bands before joining Fugazi on bass. The band took its name from the Vietnam War-era acronym for "Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In."
Inspired by the early work of hometown hardcore heroes Bad Brains, Fugazi's sound took the loud-fast aesthetic practiced by Embrace and Minor Threat to exciting new places. Starting with 1989's 13 Songs, which rounded up the band's first two EPs, Fugazi wielded the attitude and angst inherent in the hardcore punk rock of its predecessors, but slowed the tempos and added dense, metal-like instrumental foundations and the precise syncopations of reggae. The group released a series of hardcore classics in rapid succession throughout the 1990s: Repeater (1990), Steady Diet of Nothing (1991), In on the Kill Taker (1993, its first to reach The Billboard 200, at Number 153) and 1995's Red Medicine (Number 126).
The quartet stuck firmly to their status as an independent entity, but even with relatively little promotion, Fugazi amassed a huge following, consistently packing large venues on the tours it booked without outside help and selling hundreds of thousands of copies of each album. The band took a decidedly pragmatic approach to rock & roll, eschewing the excessive rock-star lifestyle. For years, CDs were priced at $8 each and admission to Fugazi's all-ages shows was usually $5. The band also advocated healthy living (Minor Threat inadvertently spawned the "straight-edge" hardcore movement of the mid-Eighties via the lyrics to such songs as "Out of Step" and "Straight Edge") and discouraged the hardcore rituals of slam dancing and stage diving at shows.
Its music now more arty and experimental than ever, Fugazi rolled toward the new millennium with 1998's excellent End Hits (Number 138) and 1999's Instrument, a film that documented 11 years of collected band footage on and off stage. A soundtrack album included previously unreleased tracks and new instrumental music recorded especially for the film. The 2001 album The Argument (Number 151) received some of the best reviews of the band's career, but it may wind up being Fugazi's last. After a spring 2002 tour supporting The Argument, the band announced a hiatus of indefinite length and has not performed since.
MacKaye continues to run Dischord and plays in the Evens, while Picciotto has worked with acts such as Blonde Redhead and the late Vic Chesnutt. Lally released his second solo album, Nothing Is Underrated, in 2007, while Canty has thrived as a partner in Trixie DVD, a film company that has produced the Burn to Shine live performance series and projects for Wilco and Jeff Tweedy. Canty has also recorded and toured with Bob Mould in recent years.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jonathan Cohen contributed to this article.