lucdarling asked: Would you make a mixtape that highlights the variations in the ska genre?
Sure, I can do that! Although I’m not sure “I was a teenage rudeboy” really qualifies me to make educated commentary on the evolution of ska. Still, though, it would be great if more people were familiar with what’s out there and where it came from and what it generated.
Here’s the mixtape; feel free to skip the commentary if you’d like.
Let’s talk ska, as a concept in its entirety, for a second. It came from a fusion of Jamaican traditional music with American dance, rhythm and blues, and jazz of the 1950s. It evolved as rock’n’roll began to take over the American market, because the heart of the Jamaican music scene was dance, and the new American music was aimed at middle-class white people and didn’t much lend itself to dancing. As a result, the “sound system,” a stack of turntables and speakers generally hosted in the bed of someone’s truck and travelling around to create mobile street parties, became popular in Jamaica as DJs tried to keep the waning rhythm and blues scene alive.
Eventually, there weren’t enough new records coming in from America to satisfy the locals, so sound system operators began producing their own limited-edition cuts (usually just enough for them to play on their own machines), and eventually the American sound gave way to local fusion music. Traditionally Caribbean sounds like offbeat guitar, notes on the upstroke and walking bass merged with attempts at copying the rhythm and blues shuffle, and what came out of that was the first wave of ska.
That lasted for about a decade, but as American music evolved past rock’n’roll, so did ska – into rocksteady, a slower, more rhythmic sound with more ornamentation, and reggae, even slower and with more syncopation. It’s practically impossible to disentangle ska from rocksteady from reggae, and so you’ll often (unfortunately) find it all grouped under the reggae label. It’s worth exploring the differences!
2-tone, the next wave of ska and decisively the one that first got me hooked, didn’t arise until the late 1970s and started in England (chiefly Coventry) at about the same time as the punk scene was getting underway. The music was a fusion of everything from ska to punk to mod to pop, and the subculture had its own mode of dress (tonic suits, ties, loafers, pork-pie hats). 2-tone bands were crazy prolific during the time they reigned supreme and are still some of the most popular and best-known ska out there.
In the 1980s, ska took off in the rest of the world, notably continental Europe and Asia, and kicked off the third wave, a more punk sound than anything had ever been before it; that spread to Australia, South America and, eventually, the United States. At that point, “ska-with-punk-leanings” gave way to actual ska punk, and paved the way for other punk fusion bands in the 1990s. The underground ska and punk scene exploded; several hotbeds of ska-core arose in America (most notably in New York and California), Canada became a notable producer of third-wave ska (particularly out of Montreal), and the revitalized genre enjoyed nearly a decade’s popularity before being beaten out by other styles of music (some of which, like punk and pop punk, it had helped to launch).
The underground scene is still pretty big if you know where to look. Better yet, a lot of the bands that created and changed the face of ska, including plenty of the ones on this mixtape, are still together and touring. Ska is some of the best live music out there; it’s always worth going if you have the chance to attend. (If you do go, be aware of skanking – it’s a particular style of dance that arose along with the genesis of ska itself in Jamaica in the 1960s, and it can get pretty hardcore, especially at more punk-oriented shows. Know the dance, know pit etiquette, and stay safe!)