David Hillyard & His Story of U.S. Ska The Final Chapter

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 | PART 12

His Story of U.S. Ska By David Hillyard Part 13
Originally Published on by David Hillyard (of The Slackers & Rocksteady 7) on his Myspace Blog. Republished here with permission.

So its come to this.

I got to write about the state of “ska” in the present day and where its likely to head.

Two Tone Tour PosterI’ve been arguing throughout these blogs that you got to look at ska as meaning a lot of different things in the USA. That it started as a small mostly 2tone inspired movement but then these small beginnings in the early-mid 1980s grew into a diverse musical universe by the mid-90s. That it wasnt just one band or one record label that broke things. That it wasn’t just moon records, it was also Jump Up, Asian Man, Hellcat, Steady Beat, and countless others. That there were hundreds of musicians all over the country working with their own definitions of “ska” that brought us to where we are today.

I think that its also clear that I hold great ambivalence about the musical quality of much of American Ska. I really dug the first Fishbone ep when it came out. I used to listen to their unreleased demos that were being passed around southern California. I really liked the Untouchables first ep. I still like Lets’ Go Bowling, music to bowl by. I like all the Jump With Joey albums. There are a lot of songs that I still dig by various american ska bands.

At the same time, the great majority of American Ska I cant stand. The happy clownish vapidity of the lyrics. The on-ze-beat march of the basic rhythms with this spastic off beat in contrast. The John Philip Souza squaresville horns. The wonderful heavy metal breaks. The fact that I’ve had to hear it day in and out on every other gig I’ve played for the last 15 years.

Its not that I think all my albums are golden either. I have my favorite songs and musical moments but a lot of it I cant stand listening to. Im usually not happy with the tuning, the songwriting, the editing, the execution, and a million other reasons. I guess I can live with about half of the stuff that I’ve been involved in recording.

It’s frustrating being in the minority opinion on stuff. I was just playing in Victoria in British Columbia (Yeah, I know this is in canada, I have deliberately avoiding writing much about Canada’s scene primarily because I dont know enough about it, but also cause I think canada’s ska history is distinct and more anglophile than the american scene. so just indulge this anecdote)

So anyways, I was playing in Victoria. I was hanging outside by the bar. Killing time before my set. These 3 guys walked by. One asked what kind of show was going on. One of the others replied, “ska….its like punk” and crinkled his nose.

Dave HIllyard & The Rockteady 7Now I don’t know what kind of music these guys were into but its clear to me that once again my music was not being given a chance to stand on its own. But those are the breaks. There’s probably many more people who took a chance listening to my instrumental Rocksteady 7 record, playtime, because I had played with Rancid, a punk band. Shit, Tim Armstrong gave me the money to make the record.

Without punk, I probably wouldn’t have a career. It was the punk movement that paved the way for 2 Tone and to a lesser extent for people being interested in ska in the United States.

So I dont want to come across as being ungrateful to punk, its just that it gets old when every show is a “punk” show. That when you are playing mellow reggae somebody wants to stage dive and kick the other members of the audience in the head. That you can only play so many upbeat ska songs without watching a 5 foot girl get elbowed in the head from behind by a 6 foot slam dancing guy.

Its not that I don’t want anyone to ever slam dance or stage dive. Its just that every show doesnt have to be a punk show. Doesn’t anyone want to get groovy anymore?

Its also like I feel like I never got to present my musical vision to people cause their minds were already made up before they heard it.

So the current state of the ska scene? Well, there are still hundreds of ska bands kicking around the states. Do a Myspace search with the name of an American city and the word ska by it and you will find a local band.

There are still only a handful of bands that play anything influenced by 60’s ska and 2 tone. Most bands play some version of 3rd wave ska that comes to resemble 2 Tone less with every passing year.

For the future of those bands that have serious roots in Jamaican music like Westbound Train or the Slackers or the Aggrolites? I think that there is always going to be a cult following for this music. Now that labels such as soul jazz have released a bunch of ska there will always be nerdy musical cognoscenti hipsters that try go back to refer to it.

Its possible that a song could get wider exposure but it would take some luck. it would require a song in a film or a popular you tube skit. Hey, you never know.

Ska and reggae are standard parts of the soundtracks of kids TV. Same with commercials. You hear it all the time.

As for the 3rd wave stuff its likely that as we go along through the years and the gathering “90s” revival is likely to gain more steam that music by No Doubt, the Bosstones, Sublime, and Rancid is going to get played once again. This will probably inspire some new bands to reference it. It will be similar to what the 80s revival has done in the UK. In the states, 80s revival meant new wave pop. In the UK, the 80s revival included ska.

The bosstones are already back together and have put out a nostalgic song about “Desmond Dekker is just fine” or something. So the storm clouds are gathering.

There are also likely to be bands playing some sort of mix of reggae and punk that refer to ska as well. I know they’re canadian, but a band with a style along the lines of Bedouin Soundclash could probably get somewhere. Bands like the Police that mixed rock and reggae had huge hits in the US and probably could again.

There will probably be ska influenced songs that aren’t recognized as such cause the lyrics are in spanish. There’s a big punk explosion in latino communities through the USA and ska/reggae is occasionally thrown into the mix.

There was a lot of ska that was made in the 90s, most importantly by Jump with Joey, and later by Hepcat or Yesska that mixed in cuban and puerto rican rhythms with ska. Ska is partly cuban in origins to begin with and these songs just took it in different directions.

But I suspect most of the stuff that is gonna become popular in the future is gonna be spanish lyrics with a punk/ska rhythms similar to Rancid or the Voodoo Glow Skulls, or a band from Spain like Ska-P.

There will probably also be ska songs that arent recognized as such because they are played by rock bands. American audiences never really recognized the Beatles’ Ob-la-di-ob-la-da for what it was. Thought Eric Clapton wrote I “I shot the sherrif.” Never noticed “werewolves of london” 20 years later or “La Vida Loca” ten years after that. So the general public, whatever is left of the major labels, and the critics wont notice the next ska song coming down the pike unless the band is clearly labeled “ska” for them.

For some people the title/ classification of the band is more important than the beat obviously.

Its like the scene in Pulp Fiction when they find out that a Cheeseburger is called a “royale with cheese” in France. Y’know what is the most important thing….is it that a piece of meat with cheese and bread is called by different names in different places? or is it more profound that its the same damn crappy meat, cheese, and bread all over the world? acccchh!

Regardless…..

We’ve basically gotten away from 8 years ago when there was outright hostility to ska bands from a lot of sources. There is still some of that but for the most part the new generation of under20 somethings has an open mind about ska.

So what am i gonna do?

Im gonna keep on hustling. Trying to make music that I will still want to hear a week after I record it y’know? Trying to get people to listen to it.

And yeah, while I have ambitions about making American Jazz, Boogaloo, and RnB albums and tunes, I’m still gonna write ska/reggae tunes too.

I’m like the old Saturday Night Live skit, “ska music been very very good to me.” So I’m gonna try to be good to it.

So there you are.

THE END……. for now.

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.