When I first discovered that ska was — in fact — its own genre, I was shocked. I had no idea that there was a word for this type of music; to me, it was simply the angsty music that my dad would play when he threw pool parties. How could it all be one genre? What is it? Why is it so British? Is it punk? Is it reggae? What are rudeboys? For a genre with so many huge names: Sublime, Toots and the Maytals, Madness, No Doubt and The Clash, to name a few, ska is often left out of the conversation when discussing these bands.
What is Ska?
Merriam Webster defines ska as a combination of “traditional Caribbean rhythms and jazz.” Musically, it is characterized by its walking bassline and rhythms on the upbeat. Most often, ska bands are composed of bass, drums, guitars, keyboards, saxophones, trombones and trumpets.
In the 1950s, Jamaican music was dominated by traditional mento and calypso. In the early 1960s, electricity became more widely accessible, and global music distribution was increasing rapidly. Mento and calypso were eventually phased out as American R&B became increasingly popular among Jamaicans. Access to electricity meant portable sounds systems, and discos became the new craze because mento and calypso were too slow to dance to. Musicians took mento and calypso and added elements from American Jazz and blues to increase “danceability.” This all led to the birth of ska.
The First Wave
Ska dominated Jamaica through the 1960s. Artists, such as Toots and the Maytals, The Skalites, Bryon Lee and the Dragonaires and the Melodians, became immensely popular. Toots and the Maytals are often credited as the creators of ska, as well as being responsible for its popularity. Ska’s accompanying dance, “skanking,” also originated in 1960s Jamaica. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever — In the late sixties, Jamaica was on the verge of civil war; violence and poverty ran rampant. Dancing was on its way out, and rocksteady was in. Rocksteady is essentially ska slowed down with nostalgic 50s-style love song lyrics. As political unrest grew in Jamaica, ideas of revolution, peace and love were much needed. Thus, from the ashes of ska, reggae was born.
The Second Wave: 2 Tone Era
Due to political turmoil in Jamaica, the 70s brought a massive influx of Jamaican immigration to the UK. Jamaican immigrants faced racism in working class neighborhoods. Teens in the UK faced a massive economic depression in Thatcher-era Britain, and subsequently birthed the punk movement. As the movement grew, punk and Jamaican immigrant youth began to form a sense of togetherness, as they were both victims of the same system. In protest to racial tension, 2 tone era-ska emerged. 2 tone ska took traditional ska and added punk-esque aggressive lyrics and guitar. 2 tone ska is named after 2 Tone Records, which was founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials in 1979. 2 Tone Records’ logo includes a black and white checkerboard, which, within the movement, was a symbol of racial unity. The label distributed music for The Specials, The Beat (known as The English Beat in the U.S.), Madness, The Selector and The Bodysnatchers. These bands are among the most popular ska bands of the era. 2 tone era bands consisted of members of different races, wore traditional rudeboy fashion, and, of course, they skanked. This era is what pushed ska toward the mainstream and popularized it worldwide.
During the rocksteady era in Jamaica, the term “Rudeboy”, or Rudy/Rudie/Rudi for short, was coined. In late 60s Jamaica, rudeboys were profiled as “young gangsters, hoodlums or delinquents”, who listened to rocksteady music. They wore sharp suits, thin ties and hats. When Jamaicans immigrated en masse to England in the 70s, they brought rudeboy culture with them. Similar to ska, rudeboy culture resonated with English youth in the 70s and 80s.
Wearing their working class socioeconomic status as a badge of pride, some punk youth in England began to call themselves rudies. They felt that the hippie movement reflected a middle class worldview; they needed their own — much angstier — movement. These Rudeboys were known for their extreme attitudes, swagger and, again, they skanked. Both The Clash’s 1979 hit off the iconic “London Calling” album, “Rudie Can’t Fail” and The Special’s classic song “A Message to You Rudy” are about rudeboys.
Unfortunately, one cannot write about the history of ska without mentioning skinheads. The skinhead movement, surprisingly, had a very different beginning than the connotation it has today. The word skinhead, similar to rudeboy, was used as a label by the working class youth. Then, The National Front Party, a far-right political party known for avidly supporting racism and fascism, began to target racist propaganda at skinheads. They did this in an attempt to break unity among the working class to destroy any possibility of revolution. Ska and punk’s association with skinheads stuck historically, which is unfortunate due to ska’s objective of tolerance and unity.
The Third Wave: Ska Revival
The ska revival emerged in Southern California in the late 80s as a part of the Californian punk revivalism movement. Third wave ska bands’ majority consisted of white members, unlike their predecessors. The first mainstream ska band with a female lead surfaced during this era, No Doubt with lead singer Gwen Stefani. Some of the most popular 90s ska bands include The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, Fishbone, Less Than Jake, Save Ferris and The Aquabats. The band Rancid, and their predecessor, Operation Ivy, is commonly acknowledged for the revival of punk in the US, as well as being the first, by some musical historians’ definition, mainstream ska band. Third wave ska had more elements from rock and punk than 2 tone ska, as well as the addition of classic 90s pop-punk style vocals. Generally, songs lacked the strong anti-establishment attitude of 70s and 80s ska and often were about interpersonal relationships.
Is Ska Dead?
In the mainstream, many would argue that ska is as dead as disco. However, many modern rudies would disagree. Remaining bands from all three eras still tour on a massive scale and have millions of listeners today. Toots and the Maytals’ only song to reach the Billboard Top 10 was released in 2004, 30 years after their heyday. In addition to the continued success of artists from past decades, amazing new music is being created by new ska bands. Some new bands worth checking out include The Interrupters, Popes of Chillitown, Loin Groin, Resignators, Pirateska Rebellion and The Bennies. This opens the door to a possible fourth wave of ska in the near future.
Searching for some ska this weekend? Check out DJ Rhinestone’s Ska-turday special on Feb. 26th, 2022 from 4-6pm on KCPR 91.3 FM or via streaming on KCPR.org.
Emily Duncan is a member of KCPR’s marketing team and a DJ trainee for KCPR. Ollie Lamkin is a designer and DJ trainee for KCPR. Mairi O’toole is a designer and DJ trainee for KCPR.