While I sat in the front row during the History of L.A. Ska at the Grammy Museum, I reflected on my career as a musician…better yet, a ska drummer. I guess enough time had passed—roughly 30 years, in my case—for people to start saying Hmmm. Ska has come quite a ways in L.A.. I think it’s worth discussing now.
That’s the thing. I looked at all the people selected for the panel discussion—all key members of the ’90s L.A. ska scene whom I knew well, personally—and realized that each and every one of them, like myself, did it all out their love for the music. Ska music.
Each of us took risks. We dared to go where nobody else would. We ignored what was “in,” what was popular, and we went against the grain. And it took awhile for others to latch on, yet over the years, our fan bases grew. People started to get it.
And now, 30 years later, we were officially given the chance to discuss it, at a popular DTLA landmark in a mood-lit, comfortable auditorium…in front of an audience who paid to get in and see and hear history being made. It was a surreal feeling. It felt great to know my band was being represented, and that we were considered something prominent enough to be discussed in the history of L.A. ska. Yet, at the same time, I looked back and chuckled to myself. If I’d gone back to 1989, to Alex’s old house off the Venice Canals, and walked into one of Hepcat’s first rehearsals—where we didn’t even have a name yet—and tapped my 19-yr.-old self on the shoulder and said “Hey. In 2017 you’re gonna be at the Grammy Museum downtown at something called The History of L.A. Ska,” my younger self would’ve laughed and thought I was crazy.
It’s funny ‘coz when we started, we weren’t looking for fame and fortune. We just wanted to play what we loved…stuff that only DJs played in between live sets. It was the old stuff, that rickety, hiss-and-pop laden funky Jamaican groove that started trickling in to the small indie record shops on Melrose and other specific places where L.A. mods, rudies and skinheads shopped for tunes. It was the Trojan, Studio One and Treasure Isle reissues that started appearing in the stacks in the late ’80s like needles in a haystack. One had to really dig for them, but when these gems were found, the first big—no, huge—revelation was:
Holy shit. Ska didn’t begin with 2-Tone.
And for some of us, that in itself was a beginning. Some of us took a chance with these records, brought them home and fell in love, instantly. Others…well, others either took awhile to appreciate it, or maybe they just weren’t ready for it. This old ’60s stuff really wasn’t for everyone. But from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, it slowly began to garner a faithful following, through both DJs who began their prized collections, and a handful of bands that began to take on the old ’60s sound: Hepcat. Ocean 11. Mobtown. See Spot.
At the same time, ska in L.A. progressed in a different manner, through the likes of bands influenced by the 2-Tone sound and its contemporaries: No Doubt. Aquabats. Save Ferris. Reel Big Fish. Less Than Jake. Buck-O-Nine. For them, it became increasingly faster and more aggressive, snowballing with distorted punk riffs and frantic horn sections. And this sound was the one much more readily absorbed by L.A. and O.C. youth who showed up at shows ready to skank ’til they dropped.
Oh, and believe me, they showed up in huge numbers, easily outweighing the smaller, “traditional” crowd who stuck with their guns, insisting that these new “ska-core” (as the new ska genre became unofficially named) kids knew nothing about ska and its humble origins.
As a performer onstage, I could see and feel that split in the crowd. It was an awkward phase, the early ’90s. The friction was obvious from the crowd and from other bands. It was the only time where I could see people smiling and grimacing as we played. Then these opposites would turn towards each other, acknowledge their differences, and it would get ugly.
Yes, ska got complicated in the ’90s.
And that’s another thing I thought of as the History of L.A. Ska event got underway. There’s absolutely no way we could cover this subject in one night, much less in the 2-hr. time period we were given. Why? Because ska was, and still is, complicated. The panel would have to be at least double, if not triple, the amount of people and representatives just to get a better glimpse at the several different facets of the L.A. ska scene.
Put it this way. If you were to randomly survey a cross-section of L.A.’s population and ask them what “ska” was, you would get an equally random array of answers. There really isn’t a simple answer to the question.
But nevertheless, this epic event was a good, and essential, start. In that small period of time, I both nodded my head in solid reaffirmation, and widened my eyes to enlightening anecdotes that filled in the blanks and missing links in my recollection of L.A.’s ska evolution over the years.
So where do we go from here? I’d suggest a continuing series of panel discussions, each sampling from the several different ska scenes that L.A. had to offer over the past 3 or so decades. And if that’s easier said than done, I’d then be willing to work on creating a weekly podcast where we can interview one or two people individually to get an intimate, more concise perspective on the origins and progression of the L.A. ska scene.
What do you think? Comment below.