Ska’s New Generation Is Here To Pick It Up Pick It Up
A look at the new book In Defense Of Ska and a network of artists giving the oft-maligned genre a fresh burst of life
When Aaron Carnes began research for his book nearly a decade ago, he didn’t intend to write from a defensive stance. A former ska drummer turned music journalist, he set out to write a definitive book about the history of the genre when he discovered there were shockingly few books on its history. Back in 2013, “I was really noticing how much music journalism had no interest in ska whatsoever,” he said by phone recently. It wasn’t until he began compiling the hundreds of hours of interviews he did with current and former ska musicians, DIY vets, venue bookers, and music historians that he realized he might have to fight a little harder for his beloved scene. “Why don’t I just address the elephant in the room,” he concluded. “I know you don’t take this music seriously. And I think you should come take the music seriously and have fun with it.”
The resulting book, In Defense Of Ska, is part memoir, part oral history, part musicology, all told with a mix of reverence, humor, and pride. Out this week via Clash Books, it arrives just as ska is witnessing an undeniable resurgence in public consciousness and pop culture. A new crop of labels and bands, with support from some of the genre’s most outspoken proponents, are redefining ska by reimagining its origins as dance music, recalling its roots as an anti-racist movement, and building out the community ethos that once made ska an integral part of local music scenes across the US.
As Carnes outlines in his book, ska is an international movement that traces the growth of its sound across continents: It originated in West Kingston, Jamaica in the ’50s, combining elements of jazz, R&B, and traditional Jamaican folk music known as mento. Some might be surprised, as I was, to learn that reggae actually developed as an outgrowth of ska, with rocksteady as their conjoining linkage. It was easy to dance to, its sound defined by emphasizing the “upbeat” in a measure of music (genres like house, by contrast, hit the “downbeat,” or first and third note, in a 4/4 measure).
By the 1970s, it gained popularity in the UK thanks in part to Caribbean immigrants sharing the sound with local, mostly white countercultural movements. The resulting bands often had both white and Black musicians, and the name “2 Tone” came to define their more aggressive, politically motivated music as a result. It wasn’t until the 1990s that ska really took off in the US. Because it followed the Jamaican and UK movements before it, the new bands that came out during this time were often referred to as “third wave” ska. Carnes’ book focuses primarily on his experience in this period of ska. If you grew up on Reel Big Fish, Mustard Plug, or the Mighty Mighty Bosstones — who, coincidentally, have a new album called I Don’t Believe In Anything out this week — Carnes’ book fills in the grey areas of those massive acts with the smaller scenes and dozens of passionate ska bands that sustained the genre on a local level.
Depending on what era of the genre you imagine when you picture ska, the idea of a new generation of eager fans skanking and moshing to a diverse lineup of young, thriving bands might seem like a Hard Times headline. For many who grew up in the late ’90s and early aughts, the Hawaiian shirts and goofy lyrics of third wave ska were seemingly everywhere: punchlines in Blink-182 songs, background music for Disney Channel interstitials, and fodder for petty inter-band disputes.
Carnes, as promised, addresses the genre’s outward optics head on at the very beginning of the book, opening with an anecdote about the Killers’ Brandon Flowers attempting to tarnish the reputation of rival post punk revivalists the Bravery by “outing” them as ex-ska musicians. In Defense Of Ska is filled with these surprising ska connections; despite bands like Tears For Fears or mega producers like Ariel Rechtshaid shying away from public mentions of their ska past, their previous involvement in the genre actually serves to reinforce its sonic diversity and knack for attracting talented musicians.
To discuss its contemporary revival, it could be instructive to talk about how ska developed such a scarlet letter connotation for the crop of Gen X and millennial fans who grew up on its third wave. To the musicians who were keeping the ska underground alive in the 1990s, ska’s popularity was its ultimate downfall. As major labels began to sign any band that had a remotely ska element, bands that were once proud members of the genre started to distance themselves from the categorization.
“What you really started to see was a lot of bands get embarrassed about being associated with ska, and they tried to wiggle their way around that,” Carnes explained. “They wanted to be ‘rock with horns.'” Jeff Rosenstock, who proudly waves the ska flag as former frontman of local Long Island legends ASOB and Bomb The Music Industry!, also chalked some of it up to parallel movements, like the 1990s swing revival, taking the inherent playfulness of ska and turning it into an out-and-out joke: “One of the beautiful things about ska is that it’s a genre where it’s okay to be a little bit of a goofy dweeb,” he said. “There’s a really fine balance, though.”
For many of the newer bands carrying the torch for ska, the joyfulness of the genre is part of the reason they felt drawn to ska in a contemporary setting. The Bay Area-based musician Russ Wood, who makes music as Eichlers, released his take on ska blended with sounds from hip-hop and hyperpop (what some have referred to as “hyperska”) on the full-length i may b cute, but im dumb af in late 2020. He was inspired to create that hybrid after discovering the emo trap scene in 2018. “The basis of that music is sampling Hawthorne Heights, for example, something that’s super nostalgic, but not that old. And I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this with ska? Why aren’t people making ska beats? That seems like a no brainer,'” he recalled. “So I started revisiting all the bands that I loved and grew up with and got into the new scene.”
Though it might seem like an unlikely combination, Wood is one of several musicians who have seen electronic potential in the infectious upbeat rhythms of ska. “There aren’t a lot of boxes that need to be checked for a band or artists to be a ska band,” he said. “I think the main rhythm having some sort of focus on the upbeat is the factor. There’s a lot of ska bands and artists who aren’t always getting that in every song, but they’re still a part of that scene. So I feel like if you can incorporate an upbeat, upstroke rhythm, whether it’s on guitar, keys, or some sort of percussive element, and there’s a danceability to it, I feel like that makes it ska.” Case in point, later that year hyperpop mavens 100 Gecs released the obviously ska-influenced Christmas ripper “sympathy 4 the grinch,” complete with upbeats and plenty of “pick it up” ad-libs.
Another artist mapping the stylings of ska onto other genres is Jer Hunter, who performs in the long-running Ann Arbor ska band We Are The Union. The 25-year-old musician is perhaps most known for their project Skatune Network, which set out with the ambitious goal to prove that any song can be a ska song. With ska covers of Modest Mouse, Green Day, Mariah Carey, and yes, even the Killers, Jer is expanding the notion of what ska can be and, perhaps equally importantly, exposing an entirely new audience to ska through their extremely popular videos on YouTube and TikTok. “People who don’t know a lot about ska are finding out about it,” they said. “Gen Z doesn’t remember when it was really cool to hate ska. So they find ska and they’re like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I like it.’ They don’t have that preset mindset of hating the genre for no reason. I think that’s a huge part of why it’s becoming more successful.”
Jer also noted that TikTok has given them a platform to correct misconceptions about ska, and reinforce its history as a progressive, politically active movement. “There’s a whole history behind it being anti-racist, and that was never forgotten in the scene,” they said. For many newer ska bands, that anti-racist, anti-capitalist thrust is the animating force behind their whipfast basslines and upbeat rhythms. Bad Operation, a blistering ska punk band out of New Orleans, are in many ways continuing in the lineage of the legendary 2 Tone bands of the 1980s. On their self-titled record, released last year on Bad Time Records, they address issues of racism and raise class consciousness. On the simmering cut “Kinda Together,” they encapsulate ska’s mixture of progressive politics and emphasis on liberation through celebration: “2020 calls the downfall/ Of corrupt capitalism/ Transphobia and racism/ And if you’re not dancing/ You can stay your ass at home.” They even coined a new nickname, “New Tone,” to describe their 2 Tone-influenced sound and political perspective.
Catbite, out of Philadelphia, is another group heavily inspired by the sounds and symbolism of 2 Tone. The band started out doing ska covers of Little Richard songs that quickly gained attention online. Like Jer, they have found social media to be a boon to finding a new audience, especially during the pandemic. “In the last year, everything stopped, shows stopped. I think we knew that we needed to keep the momentum going,” Brit Luna, the band’s lead singer, explained. Tim Hildebrand, Catbite’s guitarist, also agreed that an online presence has made it easier to reach younger audiences that would likely be excluded from traditional tours. “It’s so hard to play all ages stuff and make money, because you need the bar sales,” Hildebrand explained. “But now there’s so many people aged 13 to 20 who are now listening to us because of the internet, getting this constant content that they have access to.”
It’s hard to discuss the American anti-racist tradition of ska without mentioning the seminal Ska Against Racism Tour of 1998, organized by Asian Man Records founder and legendary Skanking Pickle saxophonist Mike Park. To Park, ska’s message of inclusivity and its roots in Black musicians differentiate it from neighboring scenes. “If you look at the hardcore scene, it doesn’t have its history in Black music. Or if you look at punk, the history is not from Black music,” he said. “Ska is from Black musicians.”
Last year, Park, along with Bad Time Records, released a 2020 Ska Against Racism compilation, featuring classic third wave bands alongside newer groups. As Park explained it, the record was a natural response to the growing division, bigotry, and hatred that spread under the Trump presidency. “In the past four years, from 2016 to 2020, I kept getting hit up about Ska Against Racism,” he said. “It seemed like a daily thing.” The pandemic quickly made an in-person tour impossible. But with some prodding from Bad Time Records and the website Ska Punk Daily, the compilation came together and quickly sold out its limited official pressing. For Park, the newer ska bands represent a closer connection to the genre’s political beginnings. “There’s a big difference from newer bands and the third wave bands. Nothing against the third wave bands, of course, because I was smack dab in the middle of it. But it just seems like there’s a lot more emphasis on social injustices, whether it be lyrically or just speaking out against it on social media.”
Catbite, We Are The Union, and Bad Operation all found support from Bad Time Records, one of several indie labels that have started in the past decade in response to the increasing interest and demand for new ska. Run by ska musician Mike Sosinski, who also performs in Kill Lincoln, the label started as a platform for new ska punk. He started the label “because I knew there were bands, and I knew there was a need for a collective community. We’ve been building that community for a long time; it just felt nice to formalize it and say, ‘This is who we are.’ We’re here and we don’t suck.”
Sosinski had been performing in ska bands for a decade when he finally decided to start Bad Time Records in 2018. In the years since its founding, Sosinski says, he’s seen overwhelming support growing for ska punk across the country. “We started noticing that something exciting was really happening. We were selling tickets in advance like we never had before,” he recalled. “[Kill Lincoln] went to Japan and had a crazy experience, with the ska scene over there and how excited they were. We never thought going to Japan was something that we’d be able to do as a band.”
Sosinski and his label represent what the bands in Carnes’ book already knew: there is no ska music without a ska community to support it. Rosenstock brought this community into the mainstream last month with his surprise release, SKA DREAM, a collection of ska reinterpretations of his excellent 2020 record NO DREAM. Like ska itself, the album combines serious musicianship with a tongue-in-cheek outlook, and reads like a love letter to the genre that fostered Rosenstock’s earliest bands. “We all love ska. We’re all still in a ska band, or we’ve been in a ska band in the last five years,” Rosenstock said. “So we wanted to do a good job with it, but we knew that the seed of the joke was funny.” Like the Ska Against Racism compilation, it also brings together musicians spanning the American ska tradition: Jer performs trombone and trumpet throughout the record, Park contributes saxophone, and, much to Rosenstock’s delight, Angelo Moore of the legendary ska band Fishbone even contributed a sax solo on “p i c k i t u p.”
The mutual love and respect within the contemporary ska scene was obvious from the conversations among musicians; Rosenstock asked me to say hello to Carnes, and Park told me that Catbite was his favorite contemporary ska band. Sosinski repeatedly referred to Park as a role model for his record label. There’s a sense of camaraderie across locales and eras that feels increasingly rare in the highly segmented communities of underground music.
Like any self-respecting ska historian, Rosenstock and almost every musician I spoke to balked at the term “fourth wave.” Why? As Rosenstock put it, “[The term ‘wave’] makes it seem like it’s going to pop up for a couple of months and then go away. But there’s bands that, like, are still going and still playing. It’s whether or not music culture wants to demonstrate that it exists. It’s cool to see the newer bands getting some respect and getting coverage from blogs that 10 years ago really wouldn’t have the time of day for anything that has to do with ska.”
Rosenstock, who still writes ska-inspired tunes for the Cartoon Network show Craig Of The Creek, sees the new generation of ska bands succeeding because they’re able to shrug off the mockery of the late third wave. “They’re getting ahead of the criticism. Before anybody can talk shit, they’re already putting out something new that’s good. They’re making it undeniable.”