No Doubt about it
An hour before Denton's Grown-Ups are set to take the stage at Emo's in Austin--the second show of their three-date reunion tour of Texas--an episode reminiscent of the "mods vs. rockers" scene from Quadrophenia breaks out. Two rival packs of kids square off, but instead of beating each other senseless, they use quarters and a jukebox. At one end of the bar, two girls who could pass as runners-up in a Gwen Stefani look-alike contest are bobbing up and down on their barstools, happily miming the words to their selection--three cuts off of Losing Streak, the album by punk-ska band Less Than Jake.
At the opposite end of the bar, two girls and a guy dressed in traditional ska get-up--bomber jackets (suitably covered with band patches), Doc Martens, suspenders, and close-cropped haircuts--are fuming, shooting "go to hell" looks at the Gwen-girls and anxiously waiting their turn at the jukebox. As soon as the last song from Less Than Jake fades from the speakers, one bomber-jacketed girl rushes over to the machine and punches in tunes by Madness, the Specials, and the Selecter. She rejoins her party, smug with their apparent victory. Ten minutes later however, another three-song salvo of punk-ska lets loose, and the battle continues until the Grown-Ups take the stage.
Two years ago, none of this would have happened. Ska music was still largely an underground phenomenon, and all comers were accepted. As long as the band played ska music in some form, it was welcomed with open arms. The scene was friendly and supportive. With major labels pushing bands like Smash mouth, Sugar Ray, and No Doubt as ska bands, and magazines like Spin, Rolling Stone, Details, and countless others blindly following suit, ska has a new generation of fans that wouldn't know a real ska band if it walked up and kicked the pendhi off their foreheads. The genre--which has a long and detailed history that dates back to 1960s Jamaica--has splintered and been divided into separate camps by major label cash and empty promises.
Like many previously underground communities--punk rock, for example--ska music has suffered from an infusion of attention. The public resurgence of punk rock at least had a credible starting point in Green Day and Rancid, veterans of the East Bay's Gilman Street punk scene. The latest ska craze was watered down to begin with, centering on a band (No Doubt) that had long ago given up playing ska music.
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At this point, the genre has been so bastardized that magazines can tout 311, Sugar Ray, and Smash mouth as "ska" bands and nary an eye is batted. It's not only a farce to refer to 311 as a ska band (it's too stoned to muster much more than pitiful white-boy reggae), it's a slap in the face to bands that have championed the music in sweaty clubs for years.
Bands that cheered on No Doubt's success--figuring that a trickle-down effect would eventually reach at least a few authentic ska bands--were sorely mistaken. What could have been a good situation for all involved--the labels get a proven product and a chance to reach an untapped market; the bands get better distribution, radio airplay, and money--has turned into a bust. Instead of taking a chance, the major labels merely stuck a toe into the kiddy pool, content with their pseudo-ska bands. The upshot is a "revolution" without a single real participant. The only residual effect of No Doubt's success is a lingering distrust of major labels and the media, and confusion over just what constitutes a ska band these days.
"I think the word 'ska' is beginning to be used as a big gimmick by a lot of the record companies and bands and stuff," says Adam Phillips, drummer for the Kansas City ska band, The Gadjits. "There are some good ska bands that are signed to big labels, and people write off those bands as not ska because they're on a major label, even though they might be ska or have ska influences--like Less Than Jake. They're a real good band. They're real tight...Or Sublime. If you listen to their stuff, they're a ska band, but people just kind of dismiss it."
Contrary to what the major labels and alterna-rock radio stations would have people believe, there are alternatives out there. The New York-based indie label Moon Ska Records has been putting out fine albums--virtually undetected--since 1983. Hellcat Records formed last year as a joint venture between Rancid's Tim Armstrong and Epitaph Records' Brett Gurewitz--aimed at giving a platform to up-and-coming ska bands.
Hellcat is one of the brightest hopes for ska music, a vanity label more along the lines of the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal imprint than Madonna's Maverick label. Bolstered by the name recognition of Rancid, the label has a chance not only to change the status quo, but also to stick around when the ska craze inevitably bottoms out. Armstrong and Gurewitz have set about creating a roster of no-bullshit ska and roots-punk bands that harken back to the high-cotton days of England's influential 2-Tone label. Hellcat has already released albums by the Pietasters and the Slackers, and recently issued discs by the Gadjits and Hepcat. Those last three acts are currently on tour together, showcasing the label's wares.
The Slackers and Hepcat feature experienced musicians, adept at playing a wide variety of styles: everything from soul and R&B to calypso and Latin-flavored ska. Their recent albums--Redlight and Right On Time, respectively--are virtual encyclopedias of the genre, taking the listener on a tour of the studios of Jamaica, the tiny clubs of London, the streets of New York, and the barrios of Los Angeles. Both albums are important documents of ska history, and are excellent musically. As good as those two bands may be, however, The Gadjits are the most engaging act on the bill.
A trio of brothers--Brandon Phillips on guitar and vocals, Adam on drums, and Zach on bass--rounded out by keyboardist Heidi Blowbaum, the band plays a mixture of blue-eyed soul and 2-Tone ska that forsakes the punk-ska hybrids so prevalent these days. The Gadjits--considerably younger than their two tourmates--succeed by going where many bands of their youthfulness are afraid to go: past punk-ska convention and into the roots of the music they love. In the process, the band has become one of the future stars of ska music. The quartet's debut album for Hellcat, At Ease, is not a classic now, but will be in 10 years. Standing on the cusp of stardom, with a foot in the future and a foot in the past, the Gadjits are the first of the Fourth Wave ska bands and a guiding light for a genre that has become muddled lately. After No Doubt becomes the answer to a trivia question, the Gadjits will still be making records--good records. The rebirth of ska begins now.
"The way I see it, throughout history--since ska became a music--it has come and gone in waves," Adam says. "It was big in Jamaica, and then it died out when reggae was born. It was big in England, and then it died out. Now it's coming to America, and it's getting big, then it will die out and come back. And the future will be different."
Hepcat, the Slackers, and the Gadjits play the Galaxy Club Tuesday, February 10.
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