Words by HARRISON JOHNSTONE Art by CASSIE STEVENS
When lame was cool, punks played trumpets and edgy teens expressed themselves through a dance called skanking – third wave ska headlined a decade, checkered suspenders and all.
Only the mystical innocence of ska music ever possessed the power to bring artists like Drake, Nirvana, Rihanna and Amy Winehouse together – whilst simultaneously tearing itself apart. Ska is much more than a musical genre, it’s a cultural movement that since the mid-nineties has been cannibalised by artists for its unique sound, sifting through the pieces to suit their new wave brand and leaving the rest to vanish before the pre-digital music revolution.
To pull the layers back, let’s dive into what ska really is. Ska is a beat, ska is a genre – the genre is nothing without its beat. The defining part of the music – what really puts the ska in skanking – is the guitar, keys or predominantly horns hitting the offbeat over a climbing bass line. You’d know it if you heard it, if nothing but by the feelings of cheesy pre-teen nostalgia the goofy sound emotes.
Ska is described in waves; first emerging in late ‘50s Jamaica, spurring on what would become reggae. This was followed by England’s two tone revival era in the late ‘70s. Then the purest form would break into the mainstream for the last time, with third wave or ‘O.C. Ska’ in North America during the ‘90s.
Accompanying the unique ska sound was an even more obscure culture, derived from its Jamaican heritage and adopted from the UK to the USA. Fans were commonly known as rudeboys, rudegirls or rudeys for short. An obsessive fan would wear Doc Martens, suspenders, a narrow-brimmed fedora, some flaunting sharp suits and most wearing black-and-white checkered patterns – symbolic of early ska bands and their multiracial makeup.
The signature move accompanying this attire is known as skanking. It’s a goofy step consisting of a circular running-man whilst fist pumping on alternating sides. But, as audiences matured, tastes shifted towards a more serious sound and ska had to adapt or die – but, it sort of did both.
The pure, cheerful music from the two tone era evolved from its ska-pop roots into something more recognisable, the dancehall sound that artists like Shaggy, Rihanna and even Drake have adapted into their own songs. For example, when you hear Hotline Bling, I hear the death rattles of a generation – maybe that’s a bit extreme.
As for ska-punk, well, that died in 1996.
On what was to be the final frontier of ska’s third resurgence, Sublime’s sombre-serious tone, juxtaposed with that plucky ska-influenced offbeat, lead frontman Bradley Nowell to push too hard, too fast and the curtains fell too soon.
Sublime confronted serious themes in their own ska-punk style: youth, drinking, relationships, selling out for success, racial divides, friendship, date rape and prostitution. Nothing escaped their lyrical scope – it was an education in life for fans of Sublime’s ska-era.
But their empire, and indeed the promise of ska-punk’s future, died alongside Bradley Nowell in that grimey San Francisco motel in 1996 – a day after their final show. Nowell’s heroin overdose after a night of intense partying is depressingly reminiscent of how quickly his music rose, and was subsequently silenced in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
Sublime was survived by a band in ruins, but others rose to help ease the burden of a Brad-less new world – groups like Streetlight Manifesto, Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones worked to fill the void. In the end, those happy-go-lucky days that Sublime thrived in had ended and the era of third wave ska ceased to exist.
But, the real killer of ska was not the death of iconic artists or the collapse of crucial labels like Moon Ska Records – it was our post-irony culture that killed the offbeat.
We were so busy arguing between ourselves over whether ska was really dead, that we didn’t notice it had lived its final days in the ‘90s.
Festivals emerged in the early 2000s, hoping to revive the genre and initiate what would be a fourth wave of ska; the most notable of these to be part of that post-irony movement was the Ska is Dead tour in North America. Ska is Dead survived for nearly a decade, empowered by the nostalgia of rudeboys and rudegirls across their US and UK tours. But, their major tours ended in 2009, splintering into smaller groups and events scattered across the map in places where ska could still draw a crowd.
As Canadian punk rockers Propagandhi announced, “Ska revival isn’t cool you stupid fuck, the bands are only in it for the bucks and if you don’t believe me you’re a schmuck. But, the trend will die out with any luck”.
I tried to prove them wrong, but the harder I searched to find a pulse, the more the idea of ska’s expiration gnawed at my hopes.
I eventually came to the conclusion that, if you have to ask if ska is dead… it probably is.