On the eve of the new '90s ska doc 'Pick It Up,' Billboard checks in with a long-discounted scene that's thriving more worldwide than you may realize.
For a brief period in the mid-1990s, ska bands dominated the musical landscape. If you were alive and skanking at the time, it was impossible to ignore the cadre of 10+ member groups playing upbeat, occasionally goofy ska on the radio and MTV, gracing the covers of music magazines, and bringing energetic sounds to stages across the country. If you could look past a few full-on Monets in Clueless, you may have even noticed one of these groups on the big screen, or heard them while playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
The resurgent period -- which began in the late ‘80s with bands like The Toasters, Hepcat and other groups at the middle of the So-Cal punk and mod scenes, peaked in the late ‘90s as Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones charted, then faded in favor of pop-punk and nu-metal at the turn of the century -- is often referred to as third wave ska, and loosely defined as “fast reggae with horns” that incorporates elements of punk. Led by bands such as the Bosstones, Sublime and Rancid, third-wave groups iterated on the music of Two Tone artists like The Specials and The English Beat, as well as original 1960s Jamaican sounds from artists such as Jackie Mittoo and The Skatalites, to redefine what ska could be.
“Following the huge grunge rock movement in the ‘90s, many of us in our teens and early 20s were reeling from so much angst, depression and gloom,” says Leanor Ortega Till, who has played saxophone in ska-punk band Five Iron Frenzy since 1995. “Hearing ska bands in high school reminded me that not all of life was a drag.”
This prolific and oddly resonant time is depicted in the documentary Pick It Up: Ska in the ‘90s, which will debut at the Newport Film Festival in California this Friday (Apr. 26) and on streaming platforms this summer. Directed by Taylor Morden and co-produced by Ortega Till with narration by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, the documentary chronicles the rise, fall and redemption of third-wave ska.
Third-wave ska was communal, bringing together former band geeks, mods, outcasts and heads. Nowhere was this more common than in Southern California, which boasted dozens of bands and birthed some of the genre’s biggest names -- some of whom, like No Doubt and Sublime, would go on to build musical legacies far beyond the genre.
Ska sounds burbled in the underground for years before shooting up the charts in September 1997, when four ska songs cracked the top 20 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart: Sublime’s “Wrong Way” (No. 3), Reel Big Fish’s “Sell Out” (No. 12, though it would eventually hit No. 10), and the Bosstones hit twice with “The Rascal King” (No. 11) and “The Impression That I Get,” (No. 17). Yet its mainstream popularity was a flash in the pan, and the nation’s “ska fever” quickly broke. By the new millennium, third-wave ska was relegated to use in commercials and as a generic party time soundtrack; No Doubt had long since retired their ska influences. While alt kids continued to see shows by live favorites and scene stalwarts Mephiskapheles, Catch 22, The Toasters and others, ska was considered dead by mainstream tastemakers.
But they were dead wrong. The music went back underground and thrived in cultural epicenters like Los Angeles and Mexico, where bands from the third wave, as well as those who began playing in the 2010s, develop new iterations of ska. The result is a prolific community of players who have taken the third-wave influences of ska-punk and 1960s Jamaican ska to create what could be considered a fourth wave. Last summer, The Interrupters became the first female-fronted ska band to have a radio hit since No Doubt, when “She’s Kerosene” peaked at No. 4 on Alternative Songs in November. (“Gave You Everything,” also from their their 2018 album Fight the Good Fight, has also climbed to No. 21 on the listing so far this year.)
“Our little world has just gotten bigger within itself. So many more people are involved, but it’s still as underground as it ever was,” says Greg Lee, who has been singing with popular L.A. band Hepcat since the late ‘80s and, more recently, with ska orchestra Western Standard Time. “We’ll always be locked as an underground music, just as punk is. And I think we all want it that way.”
The new crop of bands reflect a generations-long consumption of ska music, where each wave builds off the sounds of the one prior. “That’s how new music happens. You try to emulate your heroes a bit, and you’re probably not very good at the time, but then you create something else,” Roddy Radiation, The Specials’ guitarist and songwriter, says in Pick It Up.
As a result, third-wave bands now perform alongside the fans who grew up listening to their music. “Third wave to me, and I suspect a lot of other people, is their first taste of ska music,” says Alfredo Barrios, who plays trumpet in Los Angeles ska-rocksteady group The Steady 45s, who have performed with members of Hepcat and opened for foundation ska legends The Skatalites and supported legendary Jamaican singers. Their contemporaries, The Delirians, performed on Coachella’s Sonora Stage in 2018.
The Interrupters, who played the first week of Coachella this year, also grew from this L.A. scene. A family band fronted by the slickly growling vocals of Aimee Allen, The Interrupters formed in 2011 and gained significant following for their Tim Armstrong-produced 2018 album Fight the Good Fight, a ska-tinged punk record that sounds like Rancid circa 2003.
“Ska never went away, it just dips in and out of the mainstream,” Allen says in Pick It Up. Interrupters guitarist Kevin Bovina continues, “If we were gonna make music, why can’t it be something that feels like home? [Ska music] circles back to having a place to go, having something that makes you feel good and that you belong.”
The Interrupters’ ska-punk sound was catalyzed by third-wave groups such as Rancid (and Operation Ivy prior), as well as Voodoo Glow Skulls and Fishbone. Today, that sound lives on in groups like The Skints, Matamoska, We Are The Union, and others. “When ska music gets subsumed by a rock sound or a punk sound, it takes over and people are familiar with that,” says Nina Cole, a doctoral candidate at University of California, Davis, whose research centers on Jamaican music culture. “That aligns with what’s on the alternative charts, compared to something that’s distinctively older-sounding.”
The past year and a half has been particularly prolific for established ska bands, many of whom released new records. Encore, The Specials’ first album of new music in 37 years, reached No. 1 in the U.K. and they continue to sell out international shows; Los Angeles recently declared May 29 to be “The Specials Day.” In 2018, Reel Big Fish released Life Sucks... Let's Dance!, its first album in six years, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones dropped While We’re At It, the band’s first since 2011. Ska-punk band Buck-O-Nine just released its first record in 12 years, while L.A. “dirty reggae” band The Aggrolites will release their long-anticipated Reggae Now! on May 24. The inaugural Back to the Beach Festival brought 25,000 ska fans to Huntington Beach, California in 2018 to see third-wave groups like Goldfinger, Big D and The Kids Table, The Aquabats, Less Than Jake and Save Ferris.
“Nobody was talking about it a couple years ago,” Morden says, noting that the timing of Pick It Up is more fortuitous than planned. “It’s crazy how there’s this whole new generation discovering ska right now the same way I did 20 years ago, then falling in love with it and going back and finding out about these other bands.”
While many of the third-wave groups never stopped touring, picking up new fans along the way -- some of whom are the children of fans from the ‘90s -- much of this increased interest in ska can be tied to connections made through Instagram and Facebook, as well as the prevalence of streaming services. “Today’s scene is more informed, maybe because of social media,” Barrios adds. “There is a beautiful thing going on around the country there are a lot of bands touring together and sharing their music.”
Many of those bands -- particularly in Los Angeles -- are made up Latino and Chicano musicians, and supported by fans with similar ethnic backgrounds. While ska has forever drawn people of different races and ethnicities to its upbeat sounds, today’s groups reflect their localities more than those of the third wave. With a few exceptions (including members of No Doubt, Hepcat, Viernes 13 and Fishbone), the majority of third wave band performers were white, and most (with the notable exception of female-fronted groups Save Ferris and Dance Hall Crashers) were male. Groups like Los Aggrios, The Delirians and The Black Emeralds draw influence from “Jamaican ska music, local circumstances, and personal experiences that the musicians bring in. It’s a cross cultural conversation that happens through music,” Cole, herself a member of third wave all-girl ska group The Cover Ups, notes.
In New York, third wave bands like The Slackers continue to play their unique brand of ska and tour extensively. Musicians who grew up listening to them have riffed off those sounds to create ska-influenced groups who traffic in the sounds of rocksteady and reggae, including The Far East, Boomshot! and Anant Pradhan and Friends.
“It’s interesting to see that the youth have picked up on the nuances of what’s been called a generic good-time thing,” says Don Letts, a British DJ, BBC presenter, documentarian, podcast host and originator of “punky reggae” whose roots run deep in the world of Jamaican music. “The musicians who created the original music in Jamaica were real jazz artists. People have identified the things that have given those original groups their individuality and built on that. God bless the youth for keeping it alive.”
So how has ska music retained such resonance when the rest of the world cast it off as a silly fad of the ‘90s; a cultural blip that simply put down its trombone and died? Nearly all of the musicians interviewed for this piece noted that ska’s upbeat rhythm, attitude of experimentation and welcoming vibe have attracted decades of young people searching for community. Hepcat’s Greg Lee surmises that while other scenes require you to be tough, “with ska, you’re allowed to be a superfan. Even the players are superfans of the music and that’s why they play it.”
The Interrupters’ Kevin Bivona told Billboard in July 2018 that ska and punk make people feel “less alone,” and its influence sticks: “It’s very community-based. Any kind of music any us has ever done has always been ska-adjacent. At the end of the day, what kind of music do I want to play for the rest of my life? This is it! And I can honestly say that."
As a result of that earnestness, fans remain incredibly loyal to the ska bands that blew the soundtrack to their teenage lives. “For the longest time it was younger people, teens to college age, at our shows and there would be a new crop of young people like that every year,” says Reel Big Fish singer/guitarist Aaron Barrett. “Over the last five years or so, I’ve noticed a lot of people my age who are going out for nostalgia. I think there’s also a wave of people who want to see ‘90s music, which we fall into because we were on the radio.”
Ska’s reputation as a positive, danceable music has lasted through the ages and provided aural respite in troubled times. “I always believed [ska] was made to take people out… because getting out of the [negative] frame of mind is the strongest weapon we have,” Lee says. Morden sees ska as an antidote to a globally dark time. “Listening to ska in 2019 is like an escape almost, away from the constant barrage of, ‘Our president said this,' or ‘People don’t have drinking water.’”
Although many ska bands steer clear of politics in their music, the genre is inherently political. Developed at the dawn of Jamaican independence in the 1960s, ska blended indigenous rhythm with international sounds, then took flight across the globe. “It’s very interesting to see how these early sonic experiments that were created in Jamaica have had this lasting legacy,” Letts says. “It’s a testament to the power of Jamaican music. This tiny little island that spent so many years under colonization has culturally colonized the rest of the planet.”
Indeed, some of the biggest contemporary ska scenes are outside of Jamaica and the US. Mexico may have the largest and most vibrant community of ska fans and bands, with multiple festivals, a thriving subculture dedicated to first wave ska, DJ nights nearly every day of the week, and, of course, popular and long lasting bands such as Inspector, Panteón Rococó, Skapital Sound and Travelers All Stars. The horn-heavy, upbeat sounds of ska are “compatible with popular Mexican music [and adapt] local sounds such as horn lines that sound like traditional mariachi music,” Enrique Montes, the guitarist for Mexican ska/rock band Maldita Vecinidad, says in Pick It Up.
Mexico has deep appreciation for original ska sounds, and has received OG Jamaican artists such as Keith and Tex, Derrick Morgan and vocal group The Clarendonians — who, in turn, draw crowds from Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Following in the footsteps of Jamaica and Britain, Mexico has a strong soundsystem culture which keeps a love of traditional ska alive. Roberto Torres, aka Robbie Studio, runs King Crab Sound System and is an official cultural representative of the Jamaican community in Mexico; he hosts ska and rocksteady events every weekend.
“We bring the speakers, the sound amplifiers, the turntables and my collection of 7-inch old Jamaican records, and we do very large parties in dance halls, backyards or anywhere,” Torres says. “In Mexico the parties are bigger. A lot of people come and soundsystems are a very serious issue. There are many things that have been forgotten in Jamaica, but for us here, they are very important. This music touches your soul; it can make you cry, it makes you change your mood.”
The love of ska isn’t relegated to the western hemisphere, either. The Oldians and The Hypocondriacs hail from Spain, while Australia is home to the 34-piece Melbourne Ska Orchestra, and Japan’s Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra has been performing since 1988 (Japan has long had a fascination with Jamaican music, and may own 90 percent of the island’s vinyl). There are ska bands playing traditional sounds and ska-punk in the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, Germany and beyond.
“We’ve watched ska scenes grow around in countries around the world. You used to go to countries and they’d be so happy that any ska band was playing because they were that hungry for it,” says Reel Big Fish’s Barrett. “Then we saw everybody started growing their own ska scenes and had ska in their own language. I was pretty shocked that it was so big in Russia [and] Indonesia.”
The ska scene is so large that genre-specific festivals have popped up in various corners of the world. Bands from different countries play together at Germany’s Freedom Sounds Festival, the Supernova International Ska Festival in Virginia, The London International Ska Festival, Los Angeles Skawars and the Victoria Ska Festival in Canada. Greg Lee adds that ska bands performing at European festivals like the Netherlands’ Lowlands Festival may not get the same promotion as “mainstream” groups, but they still draw “tens of thousands of people.”
And yet, ska remains an enduring phenom unrecognized. “This isn’t a thing that’s been created by record companies; it’s been kept alive by the people themselves and that speaks volumes. It’s an international language that connects people,” Letts adds. “Just because you don’t understand that particular language doesn’t mean it’s not saying something.”
Morden doesn’t expect that Pick It Up or the current population of ska bands will translate into a ‘90s-esque mainstream explosion. “But I hope that it does what it did for people like us in the ‘90s, which is just expose people to this kind of music,” he clarifies. “We’re 60 years into this genre and there’s so much good music that people just don’t know about. There will always be bands who want to make this music and people who want to listen to it. It comes in and out of mainstream visibility but hopefully next time we run into someone on the street and mention ska, they won’t laugh. They’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah!’”