For The Love of Ska! A History

My first introduction to ska came in 2003, when I was 2 years old. On September 3rd of that year, a video game called Disney’s Extreme Skate Adventure was released, and my older brother got it for our PlayStation 2. Being a skate game released in the early 2000s, the soundtrack is absolutely full of ska-punk music.

Fast forward about 16 years. 2019. I am now 19 years old, and in my freshman year of college. One cold November morning, I wake up with a start. The only 2 things I can remember from my dream the previous night is the name of that game I hadn’t touched in at least 15 years, and one of the catchiest horn melodies I’ve ever heard. After furiously Google searching, I found the song that my 2 year old brain deemed important enough to etch– apparently permanently– into my developing brain. “Sell Out” by Reel Big Fish. Ska had re-revealed itself to me.

2 year old Dan’s first introduction to ska came from this video game

WAVE 1: JAMAICA

This genre comes from the island country of Jamaica, and has gone through 3 waves over its close to 80-year history. Derived from jazz and RnB records brought to the island by US soldiers in WWII, ska is a syncopated and catchy genre of the people. In the 60s, when Jamaica gained independence, ska became a symbol of individuality, self-expression, and nationhood.

This first incarnation of ska is called first-wave ska. Some of the surfers of this first wave are artists like Prince Buster, The Skatalites, Shawn Elliot, and Toots and The Maytals. The connection between jazz and first wave ska is very clear; largely instrumental songs with an improvisatory feel, and an unquenchable desire to move to the music dominates the sound. It was in this first wave that the defining feature of ska was cemented: the rhythm. Notice how the guitar and/or piano play chords ‘in between’ everything else. In music theory lingo, they are playing on the ‘and’ of the beat; they are syncopated. Along with this, notice how the bass lines are fairly ‘straight’ and on beat. The juxtaposition between these rhythms is what creates that desire to move that is so ska.

“Freedom Sound” by The Skatalites
“Shame and Scandal In The Family” – Shawn Elliott
“One Step Beyond” – Prince Buster

WAVE 2: UNITED KINGDOM

The UK– being the colonial power ruling until 1962– had close ties to Jamaica. As a result, the sounds of ska were exported to Britain, and were picked up by teens in the late 70s. The area surrounding Coventry was a hotbed for ska in the 70s and 80s; by fusing ska rhythms and instrumentation with the harsher guitars, edgy lyrics, and faster tempos of punk and new wave, the genre entered its 2nd wave: 2 Tone. These new features merged perfectly with the syncopated guitar/straight bass combo that Jamaican ska musicians cemented in the decade prior. This new take on ska had a much more tense feeling than first wave ska, reflecting a tension that was felt throughout the UK in the 80s.

2 Tone music reflects an active desire by musicians to diffuse racial tension being felt in 80s Britain. The name 2 Tone is a cry for racial unity: black and white united together under one sound. The band lineups of this time reflect this desire for racial unity; many of the spearheading acts of this time had black, white, and multiracial musicians all working together to create their music. The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, and The Beat are some of the biggest musicians of this genre. 

“Ghost Town” – The Specials
“On My Radio” – The Selecter
“One Step Beyond” – Madness

WAVE 3: AMERICA

In the 90s, ska started to exert its grip over the US, and everything got all American. Bigger, faster, and louder, ska had entered its third wave. As more hardcore punk characteristics started to merge with 2 Tone, creating a distinct sound from the waves prior. Ska-punk saw a return of the horn section, making it distinct from regular punk music.

The ska rhythm began to take on an accentual role, being used as a way to add structural variation to a song, rather than the syncopation dominating the entire song. This flip-flopping between offbeat ska rhythms and more straight rock rhythms, catchy and expansive horn sections, and just-cheesy-enough vocal delivery led to a genre that was set to explode and see tons of commercial success. In the mid- to late-90s, ska-punk saw just that. Sublime, No Doubt, Goldfinger, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Reel Big Fish all saw mainstream commercial success.

“Date Rape” – Sublime
“Sell Out” – Reel Big Fish
“Superman” – Goldfinger
“Spiderwebs” – No Doubt

WAVE 4?????

In the early 2000s, ska-punk began to peter out, and ska as a whole has remained  fairly underground since. Will we see a new, fourth wave of ska, nearly 30 years after its last wave?

In my experience, ska is a very polarizing genre. People either love it or hate it. Some say it is the best genre to exist, others say that it is way too over the top and should never see the limelight again. In my opinion, ska is a great place to start when trying to make a fusion genre. Combining the syncopation and catchy horn lines with other genres is a recipe that’s ripe for new musical innovations. Who knows? Maybe fourth wave ska will see an EDM or hip hop crossover– only time will tell.

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