David Hillyard His Story of U.S. Ska Part 5

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 5
Originally Published on March 23, 2008 by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.

Hi again.

My spelling seems to be getting worse and worse, the more of these things I write. So I’ll try writing something during the day and we’ll see what happens.

So right now Im getting up to around 1991.

From my point of view, ska had gone down a bit since the early 90s. With Hepcat we were getting opening slots for a lot of different bands that were coming around. We opened for No Doubt at the Whisky and it wasn’t sold out. We opened for the Toasters at the Roxy and it was a pretty big crowd too but it wasn’t a sell out. One of my last Hepcat gigs was opening for Desmond Dekker in early 1992 or late 1991. That was one of my better Hepcat shows. But that wasn’t sold out either.

The country club in Reseda was getting towards the end of its run as a venue for ska music and those shows weren’t sold out anymore either.

A lot of the bands who had lasted from the late 80’s were stumbling. The whole mod/ska trench coats & suits look of the mid-80s had been replaced by weird striped fat ties over a t-shirt. People trying to look like cartoon characters from 80s alternative comics. The beginning of what they would call the “3rd wave ska” look although I don’t remember anyone calling it that at the time.

It seemed to me that it was in a bit of an eclipse. But at the same time, I was not into that kind of music anymore. I wanted to have as little to do with it as possible. In retrospect, it was probably just a time when the style was re-gathering and re-energizing and all the bands that were gonna make it big in 4-5 years were going through a woodshedding period.

HepcatOf course, from a Hepcat point of view, we couldn’t headline shit. Hehe. We would play little bars in the valley to 20 people. But I didn’t really give a shit, cause I was down on the music industry. Hepcat to me was a hobby. A fun important hobby but I had been burned with Donkey Show, so I always kept a little distance. Thinking I was too ‘mature’ to be a musician. Wow, that was a conceited mistake.

I remember Bucket telling me how we sounded “just like the Skatalites.” This is right after we had just played Skavez, Same O Same O, Prisoner of Love, and our cover of Green Dolphin St. People said that Hepcat sounded just like the old ska but to me this just meant they weren’t listening really carefully.

Basically, what they really meant is that you don;t have distorted guitars, no one is rapping, no bass slapping, no metal solos, no hardcore beats to inspire stage diving. This is true.

But at the same time, we didn’t sound exactly like the old ska. Ska was doing its magic again. It was hybridizing. Mixing. This time we were adding latin touches. Swing. Jump blues. Jazz. The early 90s was a big time for lounges and lounge music in LA so we probably picked up on that too.

We wanted the ska to swing. Not in a goofy ballroom dance kind of way. But in the raw hard way that Lloyd Knibbs swings. In the hard way that Art Blakey swings.

This woman I was talking to at a show in San Francisco put it best. She said that the other Ska band that played that night was like “boom boom boom” smacking her fist into her palm for emphasis. She said that Hepcat was like “uhh uhh uhh”, she raised her arms and shook her ass when she said this. Right on.

With Hepcat, we definitely felt out on our own. There was Jump with Joey. They were a bit older than us. Probably thought we were a bunch of dumb kids at the time. The bands we got along with best were bands like the Loved Ones, a garage band from San Francisco.

In retrospect, I wish I had tried harder with Hepcat. That I had paid attention to my saxophone teacher more. Practiced more. Kept my horn in better shape. Written better horn arrangements.

Recording Out of Nowhere is a blur for me. I cant remember much about it. I knew I was moving to New York but I wanted to finish this cd before I left. So many stupid mistakes. I wish I had a producer. Deston did his best but I was a hard head and wouldn’t listen.

It’s funny cause Out of Nowhere is the best selling cd that I was a band member on. When I listen to it now, the rhythm section is pretty together. The vocals are mostly together except for 1 or 2 songs. The horns are easily the weakest thing on it. I’m always hearing it except for the solo on Dance With Me. That solo came out cool but I owe it all to Deston. He rode me and rode me at a previous recording session until I had a coherent solo. That one wasn’t improvised and as a result it was good. My improvised solos were shit! hehehe.

So anyways, I finished the CD. We did a last gig in Sacramento and I moved to New York. I would visit and sit in with Hepcat when I went “home” to visit but that was it. I didn’t hear the cd until it was mailed to me in New York.


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.