David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska Part 11

A little intro. David Hillyard is well known to general readers of this blog. He’s a very long standing OG member of The Slackers, founded his own Rocksteady 7, played on the now classic Hepcat album Out of Nowhere and even before that he was playing in San Diego as a founding member of the Donkey Show. It’s an understatement to say he’s had a long music career let alone one devoted to the likes of Ska. He of course has a distinct and passionate perspective on music in general and pointed thoughts on the state of Ska in the U.S. having toured here for over 20 years.

So it was a couple of years ago he decided to write down those thoughts and publish them to his Myspace blog for the world to read. As that social network has fallen out of favor and the feeling that his discussion should be read by more people than might see it now I reached out to him with a question. Would he be interested in having those comments being republished on our blog? Did he want to change or update anything? Nope – still holds true.

EDITORS NOTE: Nothing was changed except a little clean up on punctuation and such.

READ: PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 8 | PART 9 | PART 10

Originally Published on by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.

So I’m writing this on a break before a show, so I better be more concise than I usually am.

I want to make clear that these blogs are about music that is called “Ska” in America and don’t comment more than in passing on the UK, European, Japanese, other Asian, Australian, or Latin American scenes. Ska is a world wide phenomenon. Its something that started small and modest but somehow has grown into something larger and more long lived that its Jamaican inventors could have imagined.

So back to 1998 and the fall of Ska.

Here are some of my memories from the late 90’s when Ska was “dying” or “dead.”

The irony is that 1998, the year that Ska died, is the first year that the Slackers really had any sort of significant success. Its the year that The Question [album] came out. Also, in early 1999, I think it was, we had a video for Have the Time coming out and it got 4 plays on MTV. Each time it played we sold 1,000 CDs. That was the first thing we had resembling a “break.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=do0iB79mgBk

But for the most part, outside of California, Chicago, and a handful of other places we were playing to really small audiences. Lots of shows to 100-150 people.

Less Than JakeWe weren’t alone in this. Between 1998 and 2001, bands like Less Than Jake, Catch 22, or Big D and the Kids’ Table bucked the trend and actually grew in popularity. They did lots of touring both big and small and still found lots of receptive audiences. Let me point out that these bands have almost nothing in common musically with the Slackers. Absolutely fucking nothing. But….they were also bands that were associated with “ska” and were growing during what was supposed to be a downtime.

But we were swimming upstream. It was tough to book anything associated with “ska” during this time period.

It got even tougher after the Slackers booking agent, Ariel, now of Ariel publicity, unceremoniously dumped us.

It was probably for the best but I was pissed at the time. Ariel had picked us up during when we did the Ska Mob tour. She came up booking during the ska package days and still thought that way. She booked us, Skavoovie, and King Django for a tour down south and that bombed. It took us years to get some of those promoters back.

She told me ska was finished and it was too much work for too little money. I think she got annoyed when I would point out how much we drew at shows, and how come we weren’t getting more money the next time around? I saw growth and she saw stagnation.

So I started booking the band myself.

PiestompI didn’t see the Slackers as part of the “third wave ska movement.” We were out on our own. Especially as bands like Hepcat broke up and the Pietasters touring slowed down.

So I thought that since we were out on our own, why not do our own shows. Focus on having personal relationships with clubs. Try to play with any sort of band, punk band, rockabilly band, reggae band. Avoid any ska package tours like the plague. That’s why I was pissed that Ariel talked me into doing the tour with Skavooive and Django, even though they are my friends. It just made for bloated overhead on a tour that the Slackers alone could probably draw about the same amount of people.

Perceptions are crucial.

People might think that “ska is dead” but they needed to know that Slackers can still draw. They can still have good shows. We needed to make our own history.

The basic assumption is that the music we were playing was good. If people heard it they would like it.

Of course, this was a constant struggle with local promoters and club owners. There is this one fucking guy that still pisses me off when I think of him. He’s a fucking douche bag. He was booking Lupo’s in providence. Whenever I called him, he would tell me how we did a show there and no one showed up. WELL…HEY ASSHOLE…WE NEVER FUCKING PLAYED THERE…IT WAS THE FUCKING SKOIDATS WHO OUR OLD BOOKING AGENT ARIEL USED TO BOOK….but it wasn’t the Slackers. Nothing against the Skoidats. They were pretty good. But that guy. We didnt play providence for something like 5 years because of him. Piece of shit. I hope he has a miserable life.

But that guy was typical. I had to constantly fight to keep our money even. Constantly fight to get into new venues. We used to do a lot of southern tours between 1999 and 2002 and wow, those southern bar owners are stingy, cheap, annoying, ignorant…did I say cheap? motherfuckers who want to charge you for water. Think they are doing you a favor if they give you a warm pitcher of flat bud lite at the end of the night. Piece of shits.

Yeah, so I did a lot of booking in the US. The other thing that kept the slackers going was that we had a foothold in Europe. Europe was different in that we weren’t so much in the “ska ghetto” like we were in the States. We could play festivals like Lowlands in Holland or Pukkelpop in Belgium where we could play to diverse audiences that were coming to see the bigger bands at the festivals like the Stooges or Franz Ferdinand.

But yeah, so we developed a basic strategy it just took a while for it to pay off.

One of the most annoying things about the “dark days” after the fall of ska, was having to listen to motherfuckers talk about about back in the day…when things were great…when ska was big…etc. etc. I think one of the reasons that Im writing this blog is to point out that its not so cut and dry. There were small shows in the mid-90s and huge shows in the late 90’s. The individual trajectories of bands varied a lot.

The funny thing about “back in the day” talk is now I hear talk about a Ska show that was “back when Ska was big” and it was in 1999 or 2001. I think also individuals perceptions of ska vary a lot. To a 16 year old kid in 1999 at a big ska show, this was what was happening.

And one more kick in the balls, was that fucking “Living la Vida Loca” song by Ricky Martin. Its a fucking 3rd wave song. There’s even checkerboards in the god damm video. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a Toasters style skank hidden underneath the synths. Fucking horrible song. But I remember trying to book the Slackers. Being told that Ska wasn’t popular anymore. And at the same time, those small minded fucking promoters with stone deaf ears, were oblivious that the MOST POPULAR FUCKING SONG IN THE USA AT THE TIME WAS A 3rd WAVE SKA SONG! I dare anyone to prove me wrong on that count. Ricky Martin had the most popular ska song on the US charts!

So I guess I’m getting towards the end of my blog. I don’t want to be repetitive. So I’m just gonna write 2 chapters about American ska post 2001.

I've been involved in the Los Angeles music scene since at least 1995 going to shows, promoting, spinning records and running labels. Ska and Early Reggae are my passion among other things of course.