David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska Part 7
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.
His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 7
Originally Published by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.
So right now I am going to write about the years of 1993 to 1994, the last couple of years before ska “went big” and “made it” in the mid-90s.
There was a lot of talk during this time that “this year” is gonna be the year that Ska breaks big in the US. I was a bit jaded cause I had heard this every year since 1989.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Im a negative mother fucker. I can find the dark side of any sunny day. Just give me a minute.
So from my eyes, the NYC ska scene of the time seemed a bit smaller than what I had seen in the late 80s in california. The biggest band was probably Mephiskafeles. Followed by the Scofflaws and the Toasters, who were pretty much the only survivors of the mid 80s nyc scene. I keep on thinking Im forgetting some major band from that time, but I cant think of any.
If I remember correctly, the New York scene of the time was crippled because a lot of clubs didn’t want to book ska cause there had been some fights at previous shows. Club windows broken. I think it was a legendary Meph show at the continental that was the culprit.
There were a lot of bands in the 2nd tier, kicking around New York at the time. The Defactos.
King Chango, a “latin ska” band that basically was playing the same mix of revved ska as everyone else. They went on to do a more latin-rock thing.
Then there was the Slackers.
I was introduced to the Slackers through a friend of theirs who was going to the same school. I started jamming with them. Im not sure exactly why I stuck around. At first, I didn’t really like their music. It sounded like a lot of the sloppy ska stuff with a punk edge I had heard before. I just heard the sloppiness and didn’t hear the pop hooks underneath. Now I was adding horns to a punk/ska mix. Great. Just what the world needed.
But I did really like jamming with Vic. Mush was hanging around and we had similar musical tastes and ideas. After rehearsal we would jam with whomever else in the band would stick around. We would play old ska songs, boogaloo, rnb, jazz, and reggae. These jams became the new slackers’ sound and gradually replaced about 70% of what the band was playing before.
Their warmth started melting my cold cruel heart and against my inclinations I started getting attatched to those lovable louts.
Anyways, the sound of the band changed and we started play stuff with old ska, rocksteady, and early reggae rhythms.
This move towards roots was happening all around the ska scene. Jeff Baker started Stubborn All-Stars and began his King Django persona. The insteps behind the drumming of Eddie Ocampo moved towards roots. Victor Rice started becoming important as both a songwriter and an engineer. Agent Jay was around too and in addition to playing in Stubborn he began recording rhythms.
The center for all this activity was a dirty stinking basement on 3rd street where the Slackers, Skinnerbox, and Stubborn All-Stars practiced. Jeff began buying recording equipment and making recordings down there too. So this is where the whole ‘version city’ and ‘ska mob’ stuff began.
It would be great to say that this scene was popular in NYC in 1994 but it wasnt. It was still small compared to the more “mainstream” ska scene.
Visiting the moon records store at this time you could see that Ska bands were popping up all over the place. The moon plan of getting every band from every part of the country onto a comp had created a leviathan. They had put out discs by Lets Go Bowling, the Pietasters, Hepcat, Scofflaws, and 1000’s of other bands. A lot of ska bands 1st discs were put out by moon. It wasnt that the Toasters’ sound was so influential or that Moon records had a distinct influential sound. It was more that they provided the infrastructure through which “ska” music got around the USA. That different local scenes would become aware of each other through moon.
Of course there was the quality control problem. For every good band, there were 10 horrible bands that made me question what I liked about “ska.” But as we got towards the mid-90s that didn’t seem to matter.
Package tours like Skavoovie and Skapunksnoloozas snaked around the country. At least I think that’s what their names were. I’ve heard so many ska themed festival names it all starts to run together sometimes.
I remember around 1993 or 94 seeing the Bosstones on a converse commercial. This was a sign that ska was closing in on the mainstream.
Mainstream music mags like Billboard began mentioning ska.
So the stage was set for the halcyon days of the mid-90s when ska was ‘big’.