Some peg Sublime as a product (or casualty) of the mid-1990s ska-punk and Warped Tour world. To others, they’re a No Doubt-adjacent band that had a moment, fueled by the tragic 1996 death of frontman Bradley Nowell. And while in many fans’ soft-case CD binders Sublime was filed alongside 311, Incubus, Slightly Stoopid and Everlast, these three Long Beach, Calif., surfer bros stood apart with true authenticity and musical genius.
Their self-titled third and final album — released 20 years ago today (July 30) — nailed their anachronistic union of Rasta love with hard-scrabble ’hood tales, all over a diverse blend of sounds: punk, ska, metal, dancehall, rock’n’roll, soul, R&B, surf rock, hip-hop, dub-step and more. Sublime invented a genre of music and they perfected it on their final release. Many have imitated it, but it’s just fact: No band will ever sound like Sublime.
From the beginning, the band cut quite an image. There was Nowell, tattooed and seemingly always shirtless in board-shorts and flip-flops, with his guitar slung over his protruding beer gut. Then there’s drummer Bud Gaugh, who always wore sunglasses, both indoors and out, and who has a distinctive style of playing, raising his left drum stick high and pointing its tip to the heavens, before casually slapping it down on the snare in perfect rhythm. And then there’s Eric Wilson, the bassist and underrated musical genius of the group, who was the quiet giant in a backwards newsboy cap, towering over the two hoodlums below. They were all high on [insert hard drug here] and marijuana. The band’s mascot, Nowell’s dalmatian Lou Dog, would often wander free backstage at shows and festivals biting record executives’ daughters. The band was even booted from Warped Tour in ’95 for unruly behavior. Sublime brought the wild party with them and it was, at first, manic magic.
The trio’s first two albums — 1992’s 40oz. to Freedom and 1994’s Robbin’ the Hood — built Sublime a decent following along the California coast. The single “Date Rape” was picked up by KROQ in L.A. and received regular play. But by now, Nowell was deep into an on-again, off-again heroin addiction. In ’94, as his girlfriend (and later wife) Troy Dendekker gave birth of their new son, Jakob, and talks began with major labels, Nowell wanted to clean up for good. It worked, for a while.
In February 1996, with a deal inked with MCA Records, the band got to work on its third album at Willie Nelson‘s Pedernales Studio in Austin with producer/former Butthole Surfer Paul Leary. By this time, Nowell had relapsed hard. The sessions were tense at times, and Nowell was once sent home to Long Beach to get himself together. But in those sessions, the band and Leary brought Sublime’s genre-smudging sound and tales of drugs, addicts, prostitution, jail, surfing and bong hits to a pop polish ready for ears outside their skateboarding fanbase.
There’s reggae and beachside-stoner-brah vibez and hip-hop samples (“What I Got”); wailing surf-punk madness (“Paddle Out”); dub-style tales of the L.A. riots and Rodney King beating (“April 29, 1992 (Miami)”); and sing-along ballads (“Santeria”). But there are also musical nods, samples and collage work everywhere. “What I Got” lifts a melody from The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” “Under My Voodoo” hat tips to Jimi Hendrix. “Jailhouse” is, essentially, a mish-mish cover of Bob Marley‘s “Jailhouse” and Tenor Saw’s “Roll Call.” “The Ballad of Johnny Butt” is a loose cover of a tune by early-1980s LBC punks Secret Hate. “Get Ready” is based on a single of the same name by dancehall singer Frankie Paul. Elsewhere, Sublime samples Doug E. Fresh, The Ohio Players and The Specials. And “Doin’ Time,” one of the album’s biggest radio hits, is a dub rendition of George Gershwin’s jazz standard “Summertime.”
The tragedy is, of course, that the frontman died two months before its release, hunched over in a hotel room in San Francisco from a heroin overdose. He married Troy, the mother of his son, a week earlier, and was preparing to launch a tour in the U.S. and Europe in support of Sublime.
When the album dropped, it peaked to No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and “What I Got” went to No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart. And in 1997, “Santeria,” “Wrong Way,” and “Doin’ Time” owned the airwaves. It eventually spent 122 weeks on the charts, and today remains a solid catalog seller.
Very few bands return from the death of the core member. For a while after Sublime’s dissolution, Gaugh and Wilson played as the Long Beach Dub All-Stars with other fringe Sublime rappers, producers and contributors. In 2001, Gaugh joined Eyes Adrift, a supergroup also featuring Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood. Then, in 2009 — like Alice in Chains, Queen and even Nirvana before them — Sublime’s living members drafted in a new frontman, Rome Ramirez, a young So Cal native and longtime Sublime fan. After a few shows as “Sublime,” Nowell’s estate stepped in. Lawsuits ensued. Soon, the group continued as Sublime with Rome.
So, why do bands with the unfortunate conditions of Sublime reunite with new members, at the risk of damaging their existing legacy? Popular demand. People love these songs and want to sing them together. It’s that simple.
And what made Nowell and Sublime’s songs special is their authenticity. Admittedly, Sublime’s music influenced many lesser imitators. But Nowell and the band lived this. Nowell was a gifted musician at a young age — his dad played guitar and mother taught piano and flute. So were Gaugh and Wilson; Wilson was first a trained trumpeter and his father, Billy Wilson, was a drummer who toured with big bands in the 1920s and was later Gaugh’s drum teacher. An 11-year-old Nowell once spent a month sailing through the Caribbean with his father and became obsessed with the local reggae music. All three were raised in the eclectic port town of Long Beach, where punk, hippie, hip-hop, funk and skate/surf cultures blended into one. This wasn’t a band consciously combining many sounds. This was a band expressing their real cultural inputs, which is what makes Sublime so irreplaceable.