David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska Part 6

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

His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 6
Originally Published on March 25, 2008 by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.

So in 1992, I left Los Angeles for New York City. I thought I was gonna stop playing saxophone seriously.

For whatever reason, I had got it in my head that it was time to grow up and take school seriously. That music was just a hobby that wasn’t going to get me anywhere in life.

I got a scholarship to go to grad school at the new school for social research so that’s where my head was at. I found New York City to be fascinating anyways, so basically I was focused on that. I studied urban sociology officially but my real major was New York City – its geography, architecture, history, society – everything.

I was still listening to a lot of reggae and ska. Plus jazz, blues, jump, boogaloo.

I was vaguely aware that stuff was happening in the Ska scene. Mephiskapheles was probably the biggest NY band at the time. The Toasters, Skinnerbox, and the Scofflaws were also banging around. It wasn’t very exciting to me musically.

When I went back home, I could see that Hepcat was just starting to blow up. The first time I came back they were playing a packed show at the Palomino. There were actually people coming out to see them. What’s more over the next couple years is that a whole scene of bands was coming up in the wake of Hepcat and Jump with Joey. Bands like Yeska, Ocean 11, the Allentons and Mobtown.

Jump with Joey had more of this Hollywood scene and didn’t play as much in the “ska” scene. They were almost a Ska influenced version of the swing scene that was also happening at the same time with bands like Royal Crown Revue. But Hepcat ended up creating its own Ska scene around it. There was now a “traditional” or “old school” scene in opposition to the “third wave” ska scene.

In New York, there wasn’t a traditional scene at all yet. This is 1992.

Bands like Skinnerbox would do an occasional nod to older Ska but for the most part they were strugglin with the funk virus and other maladies of the time. The Scofflaws played Skatalites and Jackie Opel material, but they always had this “paaar-teeee” vibe that made the music speed up. I think they ended up re-creating Bad Manners style instrumental songs by default. I got a soft spot for the Scofflaws though. When I first saw them in 1989 they were killer and I have always enjoyed their live show since.

In the meantime I started hearing about this band called Op Ivy. I had never heard of them when I lived in California but when I moved to New York, they were the first California band I was asked about. They were creating a new “ska” scene which paralleled the 2 tone bands in that it came out of Punk. It wasn’t very influenced by the US ska bands of the 80’s but more the Clash and English punk of the 80’s. Probably a bit of Minor Threat and American hardcore like the Descendents too. Y’know, that earnest, its all about “the kids” and “the scene.” Bringing the “d.i.y” ethic to the ska scene.

Here is an interesting question for me….

What kind of influences would a “ska” band have around 1992? What kind of music would you expect a “ska” band to play?

Well, 2 tone would still be present but it would often be filtered through the local anglophile bands that had come up in the 80’s. Depending what part of the country you were in that could mean the Untouchables or the Toasters or Public Service or whatever…..

Outside of LA, you would only have occasional glimpses of the original ska like the Skatalites or Prince Buster. (although it was much easier to find old Jamaican records in NYC cause of the huge Jamaican community.) So possible but unlikely.

More likely would be a Fishbone style rave up ska. As fast as can be played with as many flailing limbs as possible. Maybe with a slow reggae part in the middle or at the beginning?

Reggae was also part of the typical “ska” bands repertoire. In NYC, this meant the “dancehall” break where the toaster would breakout and rhyme. Donkey Show was guilty of this. It goes back to Neville Staples, Rankin Roger, and Gaps Hendrickson of the 2 tone bands. The dancing toaster guy who chats/talk sings. For the most part, in my opinion, the 2 tone bands did it best. By the early 90’s, it was usually horrible enough to make you cringe.

Regardless, reggae in general was a major influence. The Wailers of course. Pop-reggae like Jimmy Cliff. Steel Pulse. Dancehall. Dub. I played for about 6 months with an effects pedal. There it is. I said. So did Raul from Hepcat. Sorry Raul. It had to be said.

As I’ve mentioned before, funk would be a major influence into the mid-90’s. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Oh how many ska bands did you guys ruin?

Lots of English rock from 80’s. Elvis Costello’s ‘Watching the Detectives’ was only the tip of the iceberg. The Redskins were a common source of bites. Someone in the band would get the bright idea, “hey I could just play on the onbeat instead of the off and we could add that jaunty beat and voila….” I remember hearing the NY Citizens towards the end of their career going through a Redskins inspired sound a like song. I also think someone in the Bosstones probably listened to the Redskins…”If I could knock on wood….” Check out the onbeat part of that song sometime. Then listen to the Redskins “neither washington nor moscow” album.

The Jam especially “A Town Called Malice” also pervaded through the scene.

And of course, punk. The Clash were easily as strong an influence of most American “ska” bands as any 2 Tone band. But overall, they took a back seat to American hardcore. A lot of people came to ska from the punk scene and were versed in Minor Threat, Bad Religion, Circle Jerks, Black Flag…. Bad brains was big, especially cause they went through a couple of reggae phases.

Occasionally, Oi would pop up but outside of a few skinheads I don’t know how influential songs like “plastic gangsters” were. Then again, via Rancid, some of those 4 Skin sounds have made it around. Now that I think about it.

And of course the metal influence. I’m not sure who was the first guy who thought, “wow, I could mix Metallica and ACDC with 2 Tone and it would be a wonderful thing” but I would sure love to meet him. The metal and punk influences were often entwined. The late 80’s and early 90’s were a good time for metal guitar solos over punk.

I guess the result is that if you went to a “ska” show in 1992, you could hear this crazy mix of everything from Dancehall to Heavy Metal. Someone would tell you this was “ska” and you would just accept it.

That’s always the problem with names is that once they are used so much. Why were we still calling it “ska” when Jamaican ska was only a small small part of most of the bands influences?

Was that it was ‘white’ versions of black music? Well, all of Fishbone definitely wasn’t ‘white’ and they started the 3rd wave sound. I dont know if that disproves anything though. Hmmmm. People say hardcore is ‘white’ music too, but what about Bad Brains then?

Maybe it was because Ska was less identified with Jamaica than Reggae. It was held less tightly and thus it was more easily borrowed without a lot of the cultural baggage? You didn’t have to have dreadlocks. You didn’t have to sing in patois (although fakin jamaican is another blog i guess).

At the same time, you could have dreadlocks. You could sing in patois. You can play a polka beat with a metal solo in the middle and still get called ska.

You can play a song with a quiet upbeat and goofy horns and have it called “latin” cause you’re Ricky Martin.

Names and labels can be so frustrating. But most people dont listen with their ears, they listen with their eyes. They listen using labels and names first. So much they don’t hear the notes.

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.