David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska Part 12

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 | PART 11

His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 12
Originally Published on by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.

It’s sad and pretty funny that I can sum up most of the ska scene for the last 7 years in 1 chapter.

Basically, the “ska” scene hit bottom between 1998 and 2002. “Ska” was a 4 letter word to many booking agents, nightclubs, local dyi promoters.

But the networks that had been built up in the previous 15 years took a long time to disintegrate. Even in the most rock bottom years for Ska there were still “ska” bands playing gigs in almost every American city.

Slowly. Starting sometime around 2003 things began to change. The irrational hostility towards ska began to dissipate and it began to be a normal kind of music again. A lot of people still talked about “back in the day” but that time became more and more irrelevant for most of the bands kicking around. They were making their own history.

No DoubtSome bands who had come out of the Ska scene like No Doubt had crossed over so much that they were able to continue having hits. Although most of the stuff they do is rock, pop, or dance music they occasionally referred to ska/reggae with their Rocksteady album a couple of years back.

Vic came up with a great improvised version of that “you’re really lovely underneath it all” by No Doubt. Just sing to the same melody…”You’re really ugly underneath it all…you’re really nazis underneath it all…George Bush is a nazi underneath it all.”

Most of the ska bands playing over the last 6-7 years play some version of the sound put together by Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish increasingly crossed with Emo, pop-punk, and the various alternative rocks of the day. Bands like Streetlight Manifesto, the RX Bandits, and Catch 22 continued to draw decent crowds and put out cds.

I just flicked through these bands MySpace’s. Many of them proclaimed themselves “rock” bands. I could hear no traces of 60s ska and only vague references to 2 tone. We truly are in a brand new era.

Speaking of 60’s ska….

aggrolitesThe “traditional” scene of Los Angeles floundered for a while after Hepcat broke up. There weren’t any bands that could fill rooms until The Aggrolites came along. Calling the Aggrolites a “ska” band is a misnomer. What they play is reggae from 1968 to around 1971. The uptempo reggae that was exported from Jamaica to England via the Trojan record label. Some people call it ‘skinhead reggae’ because a lot of its white fans were (and still are) skinheads.

Like most labels that’s a bit of a misnomer. It makes is seem like the skinheads were the ones creating the music when in fact it was the Jamaicans exporting it to england. Its the same with ‘northern soul.’ Its american soul music not english. But it was english fans who discovered and kept these lost obscurities from the American R&B era from disappearing from the earth.

In the wake of the Aggrolites there has been a wave of bands trying to play some sort of ‘skinhead reggae.’ Most of them have been European but some bands like the Uplifters from San Francisco have popped up in the US.

But regardless, a lot of people group Aggrolites into the ‘ska’ scene either through they dont know the roots of the music or its because the Aggrolites are getting the “well, they are playing reggae of some sort, but they dont have dreads, they have short hair…hmmm….must be some sort of ska” treatment.

SymaripThey sound like Symarip, if the group had grown up in Southern California. They are the ‘skinhead reggae’ band that never happened in the 60s for some reason! One of the most important bands to come up in the last 4-5 years.

Another important figure in the LA scene is Chris Murray. by starting the Bluebeat Lounge and having regular gigs every week he helped get the LA scene back off the ground. In addition, his Chris Murray Combo is a formidable band. Sometimes Chris sounds like a folk singer singing over traditional ska rhythms.

There still is a significant la traditional scene kicking around.

Elsewhere, a handful of bands like Westbound Train from boston, Go Jimmy Go from Hawaii, Deals Gone Bad from Chicago, and the now defunct Stingers from Austin, Texas kept experimenting with 60’s ska/reggae mixed with different bits of American soul, rock, and jazz.

I guess in this day and age, through attrition, the Slackers have managed to make some sort of impact on the scene. We were the guys that stayed out on the road and continued to tour when most other ska bands couldn’t or wouldn’t. We were able to build up a network of promoters/clubs that believed in us or simply just saw that we could make them some money. So we got our own circuit together.

I think we still feel like oddballs in most scenes. Most of the time, we are grouped with 3rd wave ska bands whom we dont feel much in common with. At the same time, we aren’t so traditional that we dont incorporate rock, rnb, and soul influences into our music. I think I pointed out that “Traditional” in this day and age means lack of distorted metal guitar solos. Sometimes I feel like with our mix of jamaican and american elements that the Slackers are recreating 2 Tone.

Regardless, I still notice that most people like what we do when its presented to them in neutral setting. In 2001, when ska was at a low point, people heard our NPR broadcast and the next week we were in the Amazon top ten for pop/rock sales. All pop/rock sales. It shows you that the music has a lot of unrealized potential if anyone ever got the bright idea to put money behind the promotion.

Maldita VencidadAnother area where ska continued on was in the latin/ska area. In the last couple years, it seems like whole scenes playing some sort of ska/punk have sprung up in Latino communities across the country. Flipping through myspace once again, it seems like a lot of these bands take Rancid and some of the other hellcat/epitaph bands as their role models, also Mexican bands like Maldita Vecidad and Cafe Tacuba. Bands like La Resistencia, Viva Malpache, or Matomoska. I don’t know any of these bands personally but there sure seem to be a lot of them. I don’t know who’s big or not.

Its interesting too that the punk/ska/latin bands have developed their own scene in places like Los Angeles that doesn’t really fit into the usual “3rd wave” categories. it wouldn’t surprise me if one of these bands gets big enough to have some sort of ‘crossover’ popularity.

It also seems that there are some punk/ska/latin bands playing out in Queens in New York. In San Antonio, Texas. In Florida. All over really.

A last figure to mention who doesn’t fit into the usual categories of Ska is Satori. He makes this sensitive ska/reggae sound that isnt exactly traditional but also isn’t full of distorted guitars. He sings in a plaintive earnest voice. It has some commonalities with Emo but seems to be less annoying to me. Less whiny. He seems to have found some middle ground between ska/reggae, folk/rock, and singer/songwriter stuff. I got to say he’s one of the more intriguing guys out there right now.

Next installment, Im gonna sum things up. Thanks for reading.

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.