History of Ska


Nineteen Ninety Three saw the historic Skavoovee tour, the first major national American tour package of ska music. This tour had the full spectrum of what ska is - the original Jamaican brand of ska by it's very inventors the Skatalites, British counterparts who revived it and reinvented in the late 70s with the Selecter and Special Beat, and American upstarts the Toasters who raised the ska flag for the third time starting in the early eighties. In January of 1994, American music-industry trade magazine Billboard had ska on the cover page as 'the next big thing.'

   "Ska hit big in England in the wake of punk, but it never really crossed the Atlantic. A few dedicated fans caught on in the U.S., though, and turned the Jamaican/British import into an American subculture." (Lieb, Billboard, January 15th, 1994)

   Only much deeper into the piece do we find that...

   "...ska, reggae's fast-paced predecessor, was born in jazz and R&B sessions of the early 60s" (Billboard 1994)

   The first wave of Ska was the first style of music in Jamaica to incorporate European/American influences wholesale. Ska music was created in a poor community in a third world country soon after World War II, by embracing American musical influences in the 1950's and local folk forms. Combining mento and calypso with the R&B, swing, boogie woogie, early rock and jazz made ska.

   The second wave of Ska - 2Tone - combined the punk rock music energy of late 70s England with the rhythm of Jamaican ska. Just as the 1st wave ska music was created by combining disparate genres, so did the new ska. Bands such as the Specials and Madness created a dance craze on European and Japanese shores, but never quite made it to the United States.

   The subject here though, is Post-2Tone: the third wave of Ska. Since Americans were deprived of the joys of ska the first time around, it was inevitable that some convert of the music would infect the US. In 1982, British ex-patriate and fan of all ska Rob Hingley started a ska band called the Toasters in NYC in the face of overwhelming indifference in the media and music scene. By the late 80s, many bands started playing ska music in new and wondrous forms all over the planet. Only today is there starting to be an acknowledgment by the arts community of the existence of modern ska music. Hence this article. To get a better understanding about the music, we should address some commonly asked.

   Why do fans dress up in suits and funny lil' hats? The original fans of Jamaican music were the Jamaicans themselves. In the mid sixties, when ska had slowed down to rock steady, the prevalent style was that of the 'rude boy' - a sharp dressed gangster in a stingy-brimmed pork pie hat with out any obvious means to affording such fancy dress. It was very similar to today's "gangsta's of rap music", whose fancy dress and sharp cars stand out in sharp contrast to their poverty-stricken communities. The English 2Tone movement of the late 70s imitated this sharp dress as a way of distinguishing itself from the loud punk style of the day. 'Dressing up to dress down' has always been a hallmark of the modern ska crowd.

   If the music is originally Jamaican, why in heavens would skinheads be attracted to it? When masses of Jamaicans emigrated to the UK to find work in the 50s and 60s, they brought their culture and music with them. After WWII, England suffered a labor shortage - between the men who never came home from war and the mass destruction in the cities, immigrants were welcome to fill the lower ranks of manual labor.The lot in life for any new immigrant group is at the bottom, and England has always been very structured around class. Jamaicans became members of the British working class, and cultural mixing was inevitable.

   Both Jamaican 'Rude boys' and British 'skinheads' were young and working class. The skinhead style evolved out of the Mod subculture, due to the fact that a declining economy prevented a kid from buying a scooter or having a nice, cushy secretarial position. Both blacks and whites worked in factories, and both shaved their heads and wore big boots as a matter of necessity - the original skinheads were both black and white. Like the original rude boys, skinheads dressed sharp when they went out, despite having no obvious source of income to support a clothes habit. Whatever cultural differences young blacks and whites had, in the late 60s one thing they did share (other than style) was a music - reggae, rock steady, original ska and soul music were all on the menu. While political weather and media frenzy demonized skinheads, the 2Tone movement remembered what skinheads originally loved and focused strictly on the music and anti-racism by example - skinheads who followed ska were unlikely to be racist if they were fans of black music and integrated bands.

   Today, the third wave of ska is flowing directly out of these styles - the Jamaican Rude Boy, the British Skinhead, and their combined love for the ska. While it may be strange to go to a hot, loud and sweaty ska concert and see kids dressed up in suits and formal dresses (or jack-booted skinheads dancing to Caribbean rhythms,) it all stems from a deep history going back to the ghetto enclaves of 1950s Kingston, Jamaica. Its ironic that its taken 30 years and tens of thousands of miles for the music to come around. R&B and blues of the 40's and 50's lives on in the United States in the 90's in the form of Ska, by way of Jamaica and England.

   Describing the roots of a movement is good, but history is never simple or linear. How bands on the East and West Coasts introduced ska to unexpecting masses? Just how did Rob 'Bucket' Hingley start the Moon Records ska empire?

   When he lived in London in the late 70s, Rob Hingley played in a band called Eye-Witness which featured members of Bad Manners, including West African percussion maestro Jimmy Scott - everything, according to Jimmy, was 'High-Life'. To be a white person playing reggae was pretty acceptable, because many bands with white members were experimenting with the genre. Chart-topping band UB40 is a prime example. In England at the time, the neighborhoods were far more racially integrated than they are now (in the contemporary USA.) Because of this contact, the music was more accessible.

   It wasn't till around 1981 that Mr. Hingley realized that he was going to be in the United States for more than a short stay, so he started entertaining the idea of putting a band together. The first line up of the Toasters were pretty much made up of his fellow co-workers at New York City's sci-fi comic book shop, Forbidden Planet. Around 1983, the Toasters were ready to gig. The name, 'the Toasters' is NOT a reference to the kitchen appliance, but a tip-of-the-hat to the original rappers and chanters of 60's Jamaica. Before settling that name, Buck's unit went of the names of 'the Bouncers' and 'Not Bob Marley'.

   Back in the UK, Hingley played a couple of ska tunes in his band, but it was predominantly reggae. In NY, there was no ska scene, absolutely nothing. Hingley was always into ska music, since buying his copy of 'My Boy Lollipop' by Millie Small in 1964 on his way back from Nairobi, Kenya, where his father had been stationed in the British Army. When he came over here there was no ska music at all and a million reggae bands. He was flabbergasted when he saw a mere 100 or so people show up for the English Beat in 1982 at Roseland ( a large concert hall.) That put him on a "mission from God," so to speak. Certainly ska music in the UK had peaked, but it was amazing to him that a really great band like the Beat couldn't draw a crowd in the US. And he saw Madness at another venue (the World) a year after that, and there was nobody there, either.

   At the very beginning in the early eighties, the audience was just basically people from the neighborhood. As the Toasters played more and more gigs, first at the notorious AZ club, then at CBGB, they found people in NY who were really into ska music that had no idea that there was anything going on at all till somebody told them about the Toasters. By the time 1986 had rolled around, there were many more bands playing - what is now considered the New York old school - Beat Brigade, the Boilers, the Second Step and the A-Kings, to name a few.. The Toasters released the "Recriminations" EP around 85, with Joe Jackson helming the production and even playing melodica on the track, 'Run Rudy Run'. The EP crystallized things because it was the first nationally distributed release for a domestic ska band in the US.

   The Toasters practiced at the 171A rehearsal space, rubbing shoulders with the Bad Brains, the Cro-Mags and Murphy's Law. At that time a bunch of high school kids were playing garage punk in the area. The Toasters drummer Scott Jarvis produced one of their first EPs, "Cookie Puss." The Lower East Side of Manhattan has produced more than just great ska bands like the Toasters: also international rap-popsters the Beastie Boys.

   After the first EP, Moon Records slowly came into its own as more than simply a mouth-piece for the Toasters. The two Toaster's albums, Skaboom (1987) and Thrill Me Up (1988) actually did not originally appear on Moon, but on a branch of the independent Celluloid called Skaloid. After getting ripped off by all companies who were licensing Toasters albums (Celluloid, Unicorn and Ska Records,) Hingley heard a loud sucking sound - a complete vacuum created by the need for a strong indie that could do ska music justice. One of the few Moon releases during this period was 1988's classic On the Move LP by the NY Citizens

   Buck envisioned a strong indie ska label in it's own right, not just the Toasters. And in 1990, Moon Records saw the release of the Toasters third full length This Gun For Hire, the seminal New York Citizen's Stranger Things Have Happened EP, and New York City Ska Live, a document recorded at the Cat Club which featured all the bands on the scene at that moment in time.

   Nineteen Ninety-One saw the debut of New York City ska-masters the Scofflaws, and an unprecedented move on Moon's part into the vast nether-regions of California. Because of a lack of an indie on the West Coast willing to step to the ska beat, Hingley came on in and released classic debut albums by Let's Go Bowling (Music To Bowl By) and the Dance Hall Crashers.

   The year 1992 saw further expansion of the Moon Ska horizon, with a debut from Cali's hepcat (out of nowhere), a compilation of Cali bands called California Skaquake and Dead or Alive by Germany's Busters. Moon started to pick up music for distribution, some of the firsts being King Apparatus from Canada and the Skunks for Washington, DC. A trading agreement with Pork Pie Records in Germany saw a whole slew of ska records being made available to a ska-hungry American public.

   Since then, Moon has expanded and only gotten better. More albums, more artists, a mail order catalog with literally 100s of albums and merchandise, and a storefront office on the Lower East side of Manhattan (where Hingley originally began jamming the ska.)

   In 1992, Moon organized a show at a venue called the Ritz under the banner of 'Skalapalooza', which featured Bad Manners, the Skatalites, the Toasters and many more. After this smashing success (and a legal injunction from the Lollapalooza people to stop using their name,) an annual Moon 'Skavoovee' tour package was christened, which has featured names such as the Skatalites, the Selecter, the Special Beat, the Toasters, Scofflaws and Pietasters.

   Ska has grown exponentially in the past few years, but the NY scene was the first one in the US to flourish. It was the first place to have a lot of bands playing live and Moon Records captured them on the NY Beat: Hit & Run compilation in 1986. NY Beat was the very first compilation record of what is known today as 'third wave' ska music.

   While Moon is kicking serious international ska music out of NYC, they are not the only ska-presence in the Big Apple. Stubborn Records, started by Jeff 'Django' Baker in 1992, has released some of the cream on the NYC crop, including Skinnerbox, the Insteps, and the Stubborn All-Stars(which consists of member of the two prior-named bands, as well as the Scofflaws, Agent 99 and the Slackers.) Recently, the Stubborn All-Stars have signed on to release a full LP on a semi-major label, Profile.

   The New York scene was the first one to really flourish, but there were isolated bands in other cities, like Bim Skala Bim in Boston.

   Hingley remembers the time. "I don't know why all these bands popped up around '86. I guess there were a lot of bands, like Bim Skala Bim, playing separately, but it seemed to be that at the time we met them perhaps they were going for longer than that." The Mash It Up series of compilation records started in the same period as NY Beat, but it is hard to pin down exact dates. According to Hingley, regardless of who got there first, "it was just a matter of establishing a network," the same network that the ska scene depends on today for its health and growth. It was ska fans, mods, scooterists, and skinheads who spread the word that allowed this network to thrive.

   But NY and Boston are strictly East Coast. The United States is a huge nation, and separately on the West Coast, a ska scene was being born.

   One band that can be seen as establishing the ska beat on the West Coast is the Untouchables. Their first album was put out in 1981 in England on Stiff (home of 2Tone greats Madness), because of an overwhelming feeling of indifference from American companies. "I Spy for the FBI" was a minor hit, a combination of ska with retro-soul, R&B orientation. An early, early ska band named the Donkey Show never had a domestic release in the US, although they had a 4-song EP appear on Unicorn, which is ultra-rare today.

   According to Hingley, "Fishbone was easily the best live ska band around at the time." Made up of solely African-American members, and sporting a style that mashed Ska, funk, punk and mod, they released a 6 song EP around 85 which was the first exposure to ska music for many a fan. Christmas 1987 saw two huge sold out concerts with Fishbone, the Toasters, and Murphy's Law at Manhattan's downtown Ritz. After being signed to CBS and the loss of some of the original members in recent years, Fishbone has seen radical changes of direction away from the ska scene.

   A Moon Records comp for 1988 called Skaface saw some of the recording debuts of bands like Let's Go Bowling, Donkey Show, No Doubt and Skankhead (which would later mutate into Skankin' Pickle.) In 1992, Moon would release the California Skaquake album, which would firm up Cali as a 'scene,' featuring bands like Jump With Joey, the Skeletones and Hepcat.

   Today, California is one of the most happening states of the union for ska music. Leading figures of the Cali scene include one Tazy Phillips, a DJ on the KROQ radio station there. He has produced many live concerts, a video documenting Cali ska, and recently a full-length CD of live-in-the-studio recordings from the best of today's Cali-ska called Step On It: The Best of the Ska Parade. Jump With Joey is one of the premiere ska bands in Cali, but they have never had a domestic release, their albums only available as pricey Japanese imports.

   One thing that has limited the Cali scene is the difficulty of touring outside the state - Let's Go Bowling and Skankin' Pickle are the only California Ska bands with a strong national live presence. While ska activity in NY is centered around its sole major metropolitan center, California is a huge state with several metropolitan centers. The scene in Cali is more fragmented, with bands breaking up before really having a chance to establish themselves. The latest developments in unifying and strengthening the scene there are the Dill record label by Skankin' Pickle and the Blackpool label and promotional force.

   There is a tendency in the youngest ska bands today to deny there ska-roots. It is not uncommon for ska-punk bands like the Voodoo Glowskulls, Skankin' Pickle and Sublime to say 'we're not ska' in the press. Skankin' Pickle's Dill Record label (home also to Hawaii's Tantra Monsters) recently released a Misfits of Ska compilation album, fully capturing this whole 'we're not ska' movement.

   When reflecting on the changes in the sound of ska since the beginning of the Third Wave, Rob Hingley said, "Back then, there a unique NYC 'ska sound', but now there's a lot more latitude. There's a lot more traditional sounds now but back then the NY sound was a lot more aggressive. It was on the punk rock tip, harder and faster." Today, two trend can be tagged on the ska music genre - the continued blending of ska with other genres that 2Tone never encompassed (such as hard-core and funk), and a new reverence for the original sound of ska - the traditional jazz/R&B/swing of the Skatalites and classic Jamaican stars.

   There is a big schism in U.S. ska today, and it's not all the flat, square states that separate the East Coast from the West Coast. (After all, there are thriving ska scenes all over the Midwest, such as in Chicago and the Jump Up! record label.) The difference is stylistic. There is ska, and then there is ska-core.

   Hard-core is a kind of punk music that established itself in the skinhead scene in the United States in the early 80s as an answer to Britain's own skinhead punk music, 'Oi!'. Though it has had its ups and downs, hard-core music is still alive and well in cities like New York, drawing a fan base of skins, punks, skaters, 'riot grrrls' and crusties.

   Ska music's base support of skinheads has overlapped with the hard-core audience to varying degrees over the years, especially when third wave ska was first establishing itself. It was only a matter of time before someone had the idea to combine the two musics of one audience..    ..and it came from Boston, the capital of Massachusetts on the East Coast. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones came together in the mid 80's, when the ska scene in Boston consisted of little more than Bim Skala Bim. After meeting to less than spectacular reaction, they were blown off the stage opening for Fishbone and broke up for a few years. As the ska scene began gaining momentum, they decided to give it another shot, and in 1991 released their debut album, "Devil's Night Out".

   The Bosstones explain that they played ska so fast simply because they weren't very good at their instruments. Says bassist Joe Gittleman, "When (we) started playing together it was mostly hard-core. The ska just kind of became part of us. And ska is just a small part of what we do." The Bosstones merged hard-core and ska (with a hard-core tempo) with horns on top to create a new subgenre called 'ska-core', because its too heavy to be ska and to skanky to be hard-core.

   The Bosstones have made pains to avoid to be labeled a 'ska band', and rightly so - they are a ska-core band. The attitude and drive of ska-core is essentially different than that of ska - it is much closer to the angst and anger of mainstream 'alternative rock', not the positive dance vibe of more customary ska music. Then again, the angst and anger of hard-core in the Bosstones is cut with the humor and positive vibe of ska, making for an appealing balance.

   Of note, a hard-core band from New York City named Murphy's Law was experimenting with adding ska to their sound as early as 1986, but never went as far with it as the Bosstones.

   Today, many bands who tread some where between ska and alternative rock blanch at being called ska bands. One band that adds even more core to ska-core are the Voodoo Glowskulls from California. Their record label (super-charged punk outpost Epitaph) proclaims "This ain't no fucking ska band!" in marketing the band. The band consider themselves a hard-core band and plays only with hard-core bands most of the time. In fact, they go as far as to refuse to play with horn-based bands at all! Other bands, such as No Doubt, Dance Hall Crashers (who were actually once on the central ska label of the world, Moon) and Sublime make it a habit of denying ska roots, though it is their ska roots which got them started and ska roots that mark them out from the rest of the huge alterna-rock market. Rancid is a perfect example of ska being marketed to the alternative market in the guise of punk.

   These bands take ska and bend it to meet ska-core, but there are also other bands within the ska movement that seek to make ska sound like it never left the shores of Jamaica. While some ska fans are also fans of hard-core and punk music, there is another segment of the ska scene that appreciates ska for its qualities that differ from hard-core. The influences that made ska - R&B, jazz, swing, soul music, and early rock & roll - are brought to the fore, bound together with the shuffling ska beat.

   Out of the Bosstone's hometown comes Skavoovie and the Epitones and the Allstonians. From NYC there is heavy skasters Mephiskapheles as well as traditionalists the Slackers and the Insteps. The West Coast holds many ska-core bands, but also Hepcat, Ocean 11, Mobtown, Los Hooligans and Jump With Joey. Replacing skacore's grinding guitars are rows of horns and a retrospective view of ska music makes for a ska music as far from rock music as possible. While ska-core can appeal to ska fans as well as mainstream rock fans, the new traditional ska asks the listener to accept ska on its own level.

   Some modern ska bands who don't necessarily play traditionalist ska have formed side projects which do. Moon Record's NY Ska-Jazz Ensemble are members of several bands who play a more rocking Ska (the Toasters, the Scofflaws) as well as some who play in the more traditional vein (the legendary bed-rock of 1st wave, the Skatalites.) The Stubborn Records All-Stars, also based in NY, is a traditionalist outfit that includes members of Skinnerbox, the Slackers, the Insteps and the Scofflaws. Most recently, the Moon Stompers have come together from several different acts in the Moon Records stable to record mostly instrumental theme and incidental music for the cartoon program 'Kablam!' on the Nickelodeon network. These super groups indicate that ska music is going in several directions, and ska-loving musicians want to experience as much of it as possible - and ska is too big for one band to do that!

   As mentioned, ska's original influences vary from R&B and Jazz to Swing and early Rock. As a mutant offspring fusion of this and native rhythms, the precise start point of ska is tricky to pin down, though this has not prevented many preeminent artists and figures from laying claim to parentage. Stepping back into the mists of time, we ask - what was the first instance of ska?

   Recently, Prince Buster-produced "Oh Carolina" (1960) by the Folks Brothers has generated a lot of attention because of a modern dancehall hit of the same name, but the burru drumming and various percussive elements make this closer to mento or calypso than anything else. "Easy Snappin'" by pianist Theophilus Beckford in 1959 has been pointed to by some academics as the first ska song. The slowed down boogie beat and the driving bass of Cluet Johnson marks a startling difference from what came before. Some music, such as Cuban born Laurel Aitken's "Boogie In My Bones" (1959) is R&B with definite Caribbean inflections but its a stretch to call it ska.

   In speaking with Studio One chief producer and leader Clement Coxsonne Dodd, "Easy Snappin'" and Beckford were too R&B to be classified as ska. Coxsonne point's to the classic "Push Wood" by calypso vocalist Jackie Opel (1955) (which is incorrectly listed as "Sit Down Servant" on Opel's best of LP) as the first ska. If this track was indeed recorded in 1955, the thumping off-kilter rhythm is very much ska, though the naughty lyrics are definitely in the calypso school.

   As for the term 'ska', it is generally accepted that Cluet Johnson coined the term. Bassist Johnson and the Blues Blasters were Coxsonne Dodd's house band in the 50s and earliest 60s before the rise of the mighty Skatalites. In explaining the 'ya-ya' sound of the music & rhythm being made, the word 'ska' popped out. This may because he greeted all his friends as 'skavoovee', perhaps imitating American hipsters of the era.

   Lester Sterling, founding member of the Skatalites, confirms the Cluet Johnson story, but discredits the Bluesblasters and even his own Skatalites as the inventors of the style. He credits the inspiration fro the ska beat to the interesting guitar playing going on in the Boots Randolph Big Band coming over the radio from the US. (Frighteningly enough, Boot Randolph is responsible for "Yakety Sax", otherwise known as the Benny Hill Show Theme.)

   The native music of Jamaica was mento. With the culture of the west seeping in through colonization (Jamaica was first colonized in 1655, and was a member of the English Commonwealth up to 1962) and the music of the west pouring in through radio waves, Jamaican music owes a huge debt to African American music, whether it was the Jazz of Coltrane and Gillespie, or the blues of Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson, or the R&B rock of Little Richard and Chuck Berry or the soul of the Motown and Stax labels, the Jamaican music scene ate it up, loved it, and turned it around into what is known as ska, rock steady, reggae, dub and dancehall.