In defense of ska music

Huge news from Bill de Blasio this week. The New York City mayor and 843rd declared candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination “loves ska.”  So while he’s likely not to be the nominee, we can all feel well assured that he is special.

I wasn’t surprised to see some snickering and derision about de Blasio entering the 2020 fray (people… don’t like him very much) but I was surprised to see some anti-ska sentiment tossed in when this mini-moment (mini-meme?) went down.

For example, Brian Koppelman, co-creator of Billions and a really thoughtful and interesting guy (his podcast, The Moment, is great), surprised me by proclaiming the following:

  • I love ska is bro talk for “i don’t really like or understand music very much.”

I was a little miffed when I read this, and started to think about why I love ska so much myself, and why ska sometimes gets a really unfair wrap.

A little background. Ska can mean all kinds of things, which can lead to some confusion. The style dates way back to the Jamaica of the 1960s, capturing a mix of “Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues.”  Most Americans likely associate ska with “thrid-wave” ska and particularly the stuff that came out when ska became kind of trendy for a little while in the mid-’90s. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones appeared in the movie Clueless at the peak of this period, for example. Reel Big Fish capture the moment nicely too with a song that ironically/not ironically became a hit, called “Sell Out.”

The signature sound of ska is the “ska upstroke“:

  • Most ska music is played in 4/4 time, and a big part of getting the ska groove right is playing on the off- beats – this creates that bouncing rhythm that ska is famous for. This rhythmic pattern is also known as the ska upstroke.

A lot of times you get horns with ska music, but not always. The ska upstroke works really well with all kinds of styles, and typically upbeat or aggressive music ranging from jazz to rock to punk to hardcore. I’ve always loved its energy and ebullient spirit when applied correctly. While the Pixies are credited with bringing a signature quiet-loud-quiet sound to alternative rock, the Bosstones brought a fabulous hardcore-grooving ska sound, particularly on their early records (tons of examples right from the jump on their debut LP, Devil’s Night Out).

I came up with a ska starter kit, and admittedly went a little nutso with it, but why not?

  • “54-46 Was My Number” – Toots and the Maytals
  • “Too Much Too Young” – The Specials
  • “Skankin’ to the Beat” – Fishbone
  • “Rudie Can’t Fail” – The Clash
  • “Recimination(s)” – The Toasters
  • “Draw Your Breaks” – Scotty
  • “William Shatner” – Scofflaws
  • “Sound System” – Operation Ivy
  • “Drunks and Children” – Mighty Mighty Bosstones
  • “Got the Time?” – Perfect Thyroid
  • “Super Rad” – Aquabats
  • “On Mercury” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • “Walking Contradiction” – Voodoo Glow Skulls
  • “Pyramid Scheme” – Mad Caddies
  • “Keasby Nights” – Streetlight Manifesto
  • “How’s My Driving, Doug Hastings?” – Less Than Jake
  • “I Wanna Riot” – Rancid
  • “Dry Spell” – Pepper
  • “Tight” – Murphy’s Law

I think ska gets a bad wrap because being “into ska” became associated with being a poseur during its brief trendy phase. In theory, such a person wasn’t really into a highly expansive style that covers laid back Jamaican ska to the brilliant ska punk of the Flatliners to the eclectic innovation of a Perfect Thyroid (an incredible band that I had the privilege of seeing many times during my college years).  And I guess the stereotype would enjoy talking about being “into ska” while really just enjoying wearing a pork pie hat and skinny tie or something.

I think the first time I heard anything related to ska was by way of a show I saw in Albany, New York in late 1992 or early 1993. The lineup was pretty incredible, including such acts as Cracker and They Might Be Giants. The headliner was the Bosstones themselves, and at that time in my life it was the loudest and hardest rocking band I had ever seen live. I’ve seen them many times subsequently, and they are always insanely good (Live From the Middle East is one of my favorite live albums of all time).

That spring, another live show forever altered my outlook on music. This time it was in Ithaca, New York at a small venue called The Nines. The Skaoovee Tour featured three legendary ska bands: Scofflaws (from my homeland of Long Island, New York), The Pietasters, and The Toasters. Those experiences, coupled with my friend Dave Birnbaum later turning me onto bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls and Sublime, made me a card carrying member of the “I’m into ska” club.

Anyway, if you have never sampled ska or haven’t given it a listen in a while, check out The Specials, technically a “second wave” ska band. Their self-titled album, which you can listen to in full on the YouTube, kicks off with something of a ska anthem, “A Message To You Rudy.” The album in full holds up incredibly and may well be your gateway drug into sounds further afield.

So if that makes me a “ska bro,” then fine. There are worse things!

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

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