In the early ’90s, a world away from slums of Trenchtown and the belching smokestacks of Coventry, a new ska music scene was developing in an unlikely place: Orange Country, California. A beacon of suburban American affluence, sunny Orange County was teeming with palm trees, swimming pools, shopping malls, and wholesome family entertainment epitomized by a 160-acre theme park in the town of Anaheim known as Disneyland.
Into this idyll entered two brothers who called themselves Tazy Phillipz and Albino Brown (their real names are unknown), students at University of California Irvine and serious ska fans. The brothers decided to produce a two-part radio documentary for the UC station KBIC called Ska Parade in 1989, featuring live performances by ska’s biggest acts, which at that point weren’t very big. The show, on which they coined the term “third wave ska,” was so popular that KBIC gave them their own weekly program to showcase local and national bands. More playful and poppy than its previous incarnations, third wave ska was the perfect antidote to the despair of grunge that dominated the airwaves in the early ‘90s. Ska found a new audience—fast.
“Being the third generation, being a combination of all these different types of music, I naturally called it third wave ska,” says Phillipz. “I pretty much met everybody. Our show included the last-ever interview with Operation Ivy [the extremely influential punk band whose members went on to form Rancid]. And it had a young band from Anaheim called No Doubt on it.”
In fact, No Doubt would appear on Ska Parade 16 times between 1989 and 1995, and their first massive single, “Just a Girl,” premiered on Ska Parade six months before it broke into the Billboard charts. Their 1996 album Tragic Kingdom (a pun on Disney’s “Magic Kingdom” in the band’s hometown) would go on to sell 16 million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest albums of all time. Ska was bigger than ever, and record companies were ready to capitalize on this radio-friendly sound.
Sublime at KUCI Ska Parade
True impresarios, the Ska Parade brothers produced a compilation of live performances from their show called Step on It: The Best of The Ska Parade Radio Show. Phillipz, who was interning at LA’s biggest radio station, KROQ, passed the CD on to the programming director, who liked a track called “Date Rape” by the little-known ska-punk/reggae band Sublime. “Date Rape” soon became a most-requested track on the station, and Sublime quickly attracted the attention of the major labels.
“The whole time I was at KROQ, I was totally pushing the ska thing,” said Phillipz. “I knew that was where the music was going to go.”
Record companies scrambled to sign ska bands, but there was one label that had been dedicated to the genre since its formation in 1986: Moon-Ska Records. Launched by Rob “Bucket” Hingley as a means to promote his band, the Toasters, Moon-Ska had a number of both West and East Coast ska bands on its roster.
Stephen Shafer worked in the promotions department at Moon-Ska during its heyday, and now writes a blog called “Duff Guide to Ska”. In the early ‘90s, he maintained a full-time job while promoting the label on the weekends. “Things were really lean back then,” he says. “In the course of eight to nine years, things went from obscurity to pretty big. In the early ‘90s, the US ska scene was parochial and disjointed. The ska fans in New York City had very little idea what was going on in Southern California, and vice versa—there was almost no interaction between the regional scenes in that pre-Internet age.” Moon-Ska Records and the constantly-touring Toasters connected fans across the country, according to Shafer, laying the groundwork that would lead to the ska boom later on.
Moon-Ska put out hundreds of releases before it folded in 2000, including albums by Jamaican ska legend Laurel Aitken, the newly-reformed Skatalites, British 2 tone stars Bad Manners, the ska-punk band Mustard Plug, and traditional ska outfits Let’s Go Bowling, the Pietasters, and Hepcat. But during the mid-‘90s, the label was under immense pressure to meet consumers’ demand for ska, and quality control sometimes floundered.
“We had a lot of competition,” recalls Shafer. “Labels were springing up left and right. There were tons of bands that were cropping up or emerging from obscurity…There were several releases that were put out maybe more for political reasons, or just shouldn’t have been put out.”
Chris Murray, former frontman of Toronto’s biggest ska band, King Apparatus, and current vocalist/guitarist in his own Chris Murray Trio, now runs a weekly ska party called the Bluebeat Lounge at Knitting Factory’s LA location. He remembers the sudden explosion of ska into the mainstream. “When King Apparatus started, I was probably only aware of a dozen ska bands in North America period,” he says. “By the mid-‘90s, there were hundreds. I think at a certain point there became a glut of substandard ska where there had been before a smaller pool of seasoned bands.”
Ultimately, there was a backlash. Popular music critics at magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone, who had done so much to make ska the “it” thing, turned their backs on the music they had championed. Suddenly, it was very uncool to like ska. David Kirchgessner, leader of ska-punk veterans Mustard Plug, (they will be celebrating their 18th anniversary in November), blames a fickle media for ska’s mere fifteen minutes of fame. “The radio and press at the time really latched onto it really hard and really fast as kind of this new, novelty thing,” said Kirchgessner. “Then, at a certain point, I think when something gets too popular, people just instinctively kinda reject it. The media kinda looks for something new. Something else to build up and push down.”
Nowadays, the American ska scene resembles its down-to-earth, pre-‘90s self. “Things seem to be actually turning around,” said James McDonald, drummer and founder of D.C.’s Eastern Standard Time, who are marking 14 years together this September. “There is a definite upswing in attendance at ska shows. It’s no longer uncool. It’s more like a neutral thing.”
No Doubt’s decision to return to the stage has been sort of a covert signal to other ska bands that it’s finally safe to come out of hiding. The Specials have reunited this year for a highly anticipated 30th anniversary tour, and their sister 2 tone band the Beat (a.k.a. The English Beat) is back on the road this summer with Reel Big Fish and Hepcat.
The ska boom in the ‘90s was one of the last big commercially-supported music trends before the decentralization of the media spurred on by Internet; it made No Doubt one of the biggest-selling bands of all time. No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” (albeit a romantic ballad devoid of Jamaican rhythms) remained number one on Billboard’s Top 100 Airplay chart for 16 weeks in the winter 1996-97, a feat that seems almost impossible today. And even if you hated that song, you knew it—it permeated mass consciousness like few songs can today, in the age of MySpace music and satellite radio.
“There are few bands that can carry a stadium tour nowadays,” says Shafer. “The only ones who can broke into the mainstream media in the pre-Napster days, when commercial radio and MTV determined who was popular. It’s so hard to do now. We’re all so distracted and overloaded with information. We have so many things to distract us or entertain us. I think it’s hard to break through all the noise and flashing lights.”
For people hungry to unite once again in a massive cultural moment, ska music is like comfort food from a nostalgic time—a throwback in the age of a splintering, highly personalized media that can cater to increasingly specific tastes. Yet again, ska music rests on the periphery of popularity, but this time the rules of the game have changed. It’s unlikely that ska will ever rise again to the glorious heights of its third-wave incarnation. But ska, rooted deep in a world culture that transcends national borders, race, and gender, marches on regardless. No doubt.