Ska never died... it merely sank back underground to the grimy clubs from whence it sprang, while the genre’s biggest stars took time to rest, regroup, and strategize their comebacks.
For a moment it still seems like 1996 on Leonard Street in front of the grungy Knitting Factory club in New York City. Legions of teenaged ska kids loiter in front of the TriBeCa institution, dressed in their two-tone uniforms of stylish rebellion: black-and-white checkered ties, pork pie hats, and suspenders dotted with pins declaring their allegiance to mid-‘90s bands like the Slackers and Reel Big Fish. They’re here for Three Floors of Ska, a semi-annual event that attracts a 600-strong crowd primarily from the suburbs in Long Island and New Jersey, featuring ten bands and DJs playing the Knitting Factory’s three stages.
Three Floors of Ska is the brainchild of two middle-aged Brits: Rob “Bucket” Hingley, of the inexhaustible ska band the Toasters, and Knitting Factory president and manager Shay Vishawadia. Members of an illustrious ska nobility, these two friends have tirelessly spread the gospel of ska throughout its rollercoaster of popularity, which peaked in the mid-‘90s with the rise of bands like No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. By 2000, the ska boom had gone bust -- skewered by critics as an empty fad devoid of musical relevance.
But ska never died... it merely sank back underground to the grimy clubs from whence it sprang, while the genre’s biggest stars took time to rest, regroup, and strategize their comebacks.
No Doubt launched its first tour in five years this summer, kicking it off with a live performance on The Today Show. Giddy fans practically drowned out Gwen Stefani’s vocals on their biggest hit, “Don’t Speak”, as they screamed the lyrics, gleefully capturing the moment on their camera phones. Stefani has traded in the designer duds of her solo career for the classic ‘60s skinhead look favored by many a ska fan: bleach-splattered Levis rolled up at the ankles, suspenders, and a fitted Fred Perry polo -- signaling a return to her roots.
No Doubt on The Today Show
“I’ve been around ska for 20 years,” says Vishawadia, the dark circles below his brown eyes betraying countless late nights. “I have thousands of stories. I’m the one who put Rolland Alfonso [original saxophonist of the Skatalites] onto the gurney before he died. I’m the one who took Tommy McCook [saxophonist of the Skatalites] to the airport from Boulder, Colorado. That was the last time Tommy ever set foot on a stage. I carried Lester Sterling [one of the last surviving members of the Skatalites] into the hospital as he was having a heart attack.”
The Knitting Factory became the most ska-friendly venue in lower Manhattan after the Wetlands shut down in 2001, followed by the seminal CBGB club in 2006. But like its brethren, the club isn’t immune to the rapid gentrification of the TriBeCa neighborhood, which has been slowly pushing artists and musicians out in order to make room for more upscale residents.
In July, the Knitting Factory shut its factory doors for good, but the club recently reopened on September 9 at a new, smaller location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Vishawadia promises to keep ska alive at the new venue by hosting monthly ska parties, called Skasplash, together with his old friend, Bucket. The inaugural Skasplash was held on 3 October, featuring concerts by East Coast ska bands Hub City Stompers and Void Union.
Back on the sidewalk, the bouncers, who have worked the door of “The Knit” for years, trade insults about the yuppie locals whose penchant for condos and wine bars have priced the club out of the neighborhood. “I hate this passive-aggressive shit,” says Justin, a short, stocky skinhead covered in tattoos. “These people that come up to me off the street and ask, ‘Isn’t this club closing soon?’ instead of just complaining to my face.” He pauses and shouts, “Who was here first!?”
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Ska music -- born in Jamaica, raised in England, and transplanted to America -- has a long, storied history. A weird amalgamation of American R&B, traditional Jamaican mento, Trinidadian calypso, and big-band swing, ska is characterized by its emphasis on the upbeat rather than the downbeat accented in jazz and rock n’ roll. Early ska was played fast, and featured a horn section that carried the melody (vocalists found it difficult to sing “the ska” due to its speed). With a distinctly happy sound somewhat similar to the polka, ska is, first and foremost, dance music.
Ska was king, but some musicians were already experimenting with a new, slower sound: rock steady, the precursor to reggae. Easier to sing and dance to, rock steady gained immense popularity among Jamaica’s first youth subculture: the rude boys. Dressed sharp in three-button tonic suits (favored by British mods), pork pie hats, and black sunglasses, they ruled the street corners of Kingston’s notorious ghettos such as Trenchtown and Riverton City. Their slick, urban look would come to epitomize the ska style still celebrated today.
Meanwhile, the large Jamaican population in England (around 200,000 in 1964) began importing ska records from their homeland, as well as starting record labels of their own. The mods -- a popular youth subculture dedicated to American soul music, Vespa scooters, and beat bands like the Small Faces and the Who -- appreciated the look of the rude boys, and they added Jamaican ska and rock steady albums to their collections. Singers Laurel Aitken and Desmond Dekker, both Jamaican immigrants, became British stars who topped the UK Charts. Dekker achieved worldwide fame after his 1968 hit “Israelites” broke into the top ten in the US. Even the Beatles would try their hand at replicating ska music in their 1968 track, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, inspired by Dekker.
By the early ‘70s, however, ska had retreated back to the underground, where it remained safely in the hands of Jamaicans and true fans like the mods and skinheads. It was revived again in the mid-'70s by British punks such as the Clash, who covered reggae hits like Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”.
Characterized by their working-class roots, rude boy style, and racially integrated lineups, 2 tone bands like the Specials, the Beat, and the Selector (led by black female vocalist Pauline Black) didn’t shy away from politically charged songs. “Ghost Town”, the Specials’ 1981 number one hit, commented on the disaffected youth in Margaret Thatcher’s England with lyrics like “This town, is coming like a ghost town / Why must the youth fight against themselves? / Government leaving the youth on the shelf... / The people getting angry”. Dammers, committed to fighting racism in England, started a record label he named 2 Tone in honor of racial unity between black and white. The iconic logo, a black-and-white image of a rude boy modeled on a photo of Peter Tosh from seminal Jamaican band the Wailers, reflected his message. Despite its mainstream success, 2 tone, much like punk, fell quickly from favor. The Specials broke up in 1981 and Dammers’ label collapsed in 1986. Ska music once again submerged below the surface, where it remained until its second revival a decade later -- this time on the other side of the Atlantic.
Jennifer Davis is a freelance journalist, vocalist, and fervent Russophile who returned to the United States last summer after nearly eight years in St. Petersburg, Russia. With her band St. Petersburg Ska-Jazz Review, Jennifer has recorded three albums, several singles, and toured Russia, Europe, and the US. She writes about arts and culture on her blog Beet Salad.