David Hillyard: His Story of U.S. Ska Part 4

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 havcing 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.

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His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 4

Originally Published on March 23, 2008 by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog – Republished here with permission.

Well here we go again.

So I’ve written about the Ska scene up to around 1990. Why is this year important to me? This is the year I quit Donkey Show and started playing with Hepcat. But more on that later.

I’ve been talking to some people from different parts of the country about ska in the 80’s and its interesting how different perspectives are about what bands are important. There seems to be lots of local prejudices. People from Boston think the Bosstones and Bim Skala Bim are important. People from California think about Let’s Go Bowling. There is a big divergence between the east coast and west coast as to who was important and popular.

Here is what my opinion is of it. By 1990, there were a lot of ups and downs in individual bands histories, but in the larger picture, ska had become established as a music genre in the US. By 1990, most major cities had a handful of bands playing something called Ska. Some of them were very successful locally. Ska shows in the late 80’s in LA would draw up to 700-800 people. When Donkey Show opened for Bim Skala Bim in 1988 they were playing the Paradise which I think has something like a 1200 capacity and it was packed.

For the most part, most people in the scene were only tangentially aware of scenes outside their cities. California bands were known mostly in California. New York bands in New York. Boston bands in Boston. etc etc.

There were bands that were touring outside their home areas in the late 80’s. Donkey Show did 2 US tours. Let’s Go Bowling did some touring. Toasters toured. Bim Skala Bim toured. Fishbone toured.

The Skatalites got back together in the late 80’s and began to play around. I think I saw them for the first time in 1990.

There were also some UK bands that did tours of the US in the late 80’s. Bad Manners was one. I think the Potato 5 did one around 1990.

Plus there was beginning to be a bunch of releases. LA bands for whatever reason had some major label releases. Fishbone was on Columbia. No Doubt got signed to a major too, but it took them years to make a success of it.

There were also a lot of indie releases. English labels like Link and Unicorn. The first Donkey Show 45 we put out by ourselves but then we put out the EP on Unicorn. Bim had their own label and put out ‘Mashing Up the Nation’ compilations which got around. The Untouchables put out their first ep on Twist records and then later went to Stiff (?) i think.

Here is where Moon Records came in. I don’t think that the Toasters were ever the most popular Ska band in the country. They probably weren’t the most popular ska band in New York City except for the late 80’s. In 1988, when Donkey Show opened for the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim in New York, we played at CBGB’s and there was maybe 150 people there.

But the Toasters were Bucket and Bucket had the bright idea to start Moon records. First he was putting out Toasters stuff but then he did compilations that included NY bands. The Hit and Run comp got around. It set the standard for what was going to become the generic ‘ska compilation’ album. It was one of the first. There must be hundreds of those things out there by now.

Then as he toured he kept inviting bands to be part of moon records releases. They would get their stuff out and he would send them Toasters cds to distribute locally.

The quality level of Moon Records was never very high. When I first heard the Hit & Run compilation I was excited that someone was putting out new Ska. I was disappointed that only about 4 tracks ended up being any good. So what’s that? about 25% of Moon’s initial stuff was any good? This rate only went down over time.

But that didn’t seem to matter. There’s something about the American Ska of the late 80s. Its exciting when you first listen to it but after about 6 months to a year, you listen back to it, and you go…”what the fuck was I liking about this?”

So what was this music? “Ska” meant a lot of things by 1990. There was the world beat influenced ska of Bim Skala Bim or the Beastie Boys meet Bad Manners of the early Toasters. With both these bands you could hear the 2 Tone influences and the occasional glimpse of the older Jamaican stuff. With Let’s Go Bowling you could hear even more of the older Jamaican stuff, older rnb, swing, and a suave late 80s Ritchie Valens-style vocalist in Dave Molina.

With Fishbone you heard glimpses of 2 tone but you were just as likely to hear heavy metal or funk. Their eclecticism was to become the model for most later American bands.

Eventually the bands playing at a late 80’s “Ska” festival would be following a formula. The song with the slow reggae intro followed by the hyper fast main part of the song. The song with the “jazzy” intro followed by the hyperfast main part of the song. Maybe a reggae song that talks about smoking weed. Some heavy metal funk with a reggae break down.

The “Ska” bands were getting so far away from the source it was hard to tell what was “Ska” about them?

At a certain point in the late 80’s I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was listening to the Skatalites, Prince Buster, Count Ossie, Alton Ellis, the Upsetters, Jackie Opel, Toots, Justin Hinds, Desmond Dekker, and the Wailers. I didn’t like the new Ska. I still liked 2 Tone but older Ska was more important for me. I was also digging Rocksteady from the mid-60s. I was digging all the early reggae up to around the mid 70s.

After I quit Donkey show, I was back at UCLA finishing up my degree. I put out a flyer saying that a saxophone player was out trying to form a band that mixed together Reggae, Jazz, and Ska. The only person that responded was Joey, the original bass player of Hepcat. He got me a tryout for Hepcat and it wasn’t exactly what I was aiming to do but it was fun. Real fun. And it grew on me.

When I joined Hepcat was playing a bunch of covers and a couple of originals mostly written by Alex Desert and Deston Berry. There were some 2 tone influenced songs around “rude boys” and the ubiquotous minor key “jazzy” instrumental but this was getting eclipsed by a focus on mastering the older Ska sounds of the 60’s.

I think it was Greg Lee that told me that Hepcat started because the guys were going to shows in the late 80’s and they started liking the old Ska that was being spun in between sets more than the new Ska of the bands that were playing at the shows.

We weren’t the only guys returning to roots. A bunch of bands had tried to make music that was more Jamaican influenced. The Potato 5 from the Uk was one of the first I heard. They did some songs in a Skatalites style. There was also this band from Santa Cruz called Liquidator that did a lot of old Ska and Reggae covers. I even sat in with them for a show once. It was fun.

Jump with Joey King KingJump With Joey was playing every week at the King King. They were playing a lot of Jamaican influenced stuff and mixing it with old latin and swing.

Its a well known fact that most of the Skatalites set is the same as Mongo Santemaria’s set. Same songs. One’s ska. One’s latin. They’re musical cousins. The Jamaicans got a lot of their stuff from Cuba.

So Joey basically remade these connections and thus began a whole stream of latin ska through LA bands like Yeska.

I went to see Jump With Joey a bunch of times. I was amazed by their swing, the quality of the solos, the suppleness of the rhythm section. That they could mix stuff up, put in funny quotes, seque between different songs within the same song. It was really influential. They were much more musically advanced than I was at the time.

I’m sure there were more but i cant remember who.

With Donkey Show we played a couple of Skatalites covers. Let’s Go Bowling played some too. We were all listening to the stuff.

The ROIR casettte of the Skatalites playing live, ‘Stretching Out’ was really important because you could hear Lloyd Knibb’s drum parts clearly. Whereas they were hard to hear on a lot of the earlier recordings. So in my circles, that cassette was getting passed around a lot.

Hepcat Hellcat PromoI think Hepcat just took it to the next level. The band was on a mission to master the older style of Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae. Basically everything from 1960 to around 1975. Its funny. We weren’t aiming to change the world or anything. We were just playing music that we really liked.

So it didn’t matter to us that no one got what we were doing. I remember this one show at the Country Club where we were opening for some other more popular “Ska” bands. The crowd was dancing for the band before us. When Hepcat hit, the dancing completely stopped! We just got stares and an almost completely empty dancefloor. I think maybe a couple of our girlfriends were dancing but they weren’t even brave enough to go the front of the stage. Then once we stopped and the next band came on, Citizen X from San Diego, it only took 2 songs for the crowd to hit the floor and start dancing again!

But eventually, people were gonna get it. Mostly after I left the band. Only at the very end of my time in Hepcat did we get a positive response from crowds.

The thing with Hepcat is that we were aiming to play old style ska but along the way other influences came in as well. The band was listening to lots of soul and rnb. We were digging salsa and the boogaloo. Plus the swing and jump blues that was getting around LA at the time. So we ended up creating another hybrid style that was just as mixed up as the “new” ska bands but it was a different mix. It was a mix of music that everybody in the band dug and that’s all the mattered.

Til next time!

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.