Published Oct 01, 2000Born in the ghettos and shantytowns of Kingston, Jamaica in the late 50s, ska has had three consistent characteristics: the emphasis on the guitar offbeat, the skank, making its sound instantly identifiable; the danceable qualities, from the Jamaican rudeboys' menacing dancehall posturing to drunken frat boy mosh-pits; and its dynamism. Ska has always adapted according to the times, a factor that has kept it vibrant and alive, despite the ebb and flow of its mass popularity.
Bluebeat ska grew out of the R&B and mento fusion popularised in late 50s Jamaica. The tempo is upbeat, and horns, another consistent ska staple, back up the harmonies. Prince Buster is generally credited with being the first artist to have put the emphasis on the offbeat, shaking Jamaican music out of its reliance on American pop. Rock steady slowed the beat down in the mid-60s and changed the tone of its content: it became more jaded, brooding and political, and eventually spun off into reggae.
Essentials: Desmond Dekker and the Aces Isrealites (Uni, 1969); Prince Buster Ten Commandments (RCA Victor, 1967); Skatalites, Ska Authentic (Studio One, 1967); Ethiopians Let's Ska and Rock Steady (Jamaican Gold, 1968); Toots & the Maytals Funky Kingston (Mango, 1973)
Revitalising the waning interest in ska's earlier, purer form, bands like the Specials, the Selecter and the English Beat added speed and British pop/punk sensibilities to the traditional Jamaican sound. Horns, organs and rhythm were key factors in all the late 70s/early 80s British ska scene. The Caribbean calypso texture was much more pronounced, especially by the English Beat, but the anger and frustration of Britain's youth added a sharp edge to ska's relatively inoffensive nature.
Essentials: The Specials s/t (2Tone, 1979); The Selecter Too Much Pressure (2Tone, 1980); Madness One Step Beyond (Sire, 1979); The (English) Beat I Just Can't Stop It (IRS, 1980); Bad Manners Gosh It (Magnet, 1981)
Fusing the offbeat skank with the sound and fury of punk rock and hardcore, in the mid-90s ska began conquering commercial sensibilities as band after band, primarily from Southern California, began incorporating it. The result was not often pretty, as the well-defined skank dance degenerated into mosh pits. Nevertheless, the results worked remarkably well in certain instances. Ska became less political, more party-oriented in effect, more American. The horns lost their vitality, becoming back-up window-dressing to punk speed, adrenaline and distorted guitar.
Essentials: Mighty Mighty Bosstones Question the Answers (Mercury, 1994); Rancid Let's Go (Epitaph, 1994); No Doubt Tragic Kingdom (Interscope, 1995); Mustard Plug Evildoers Beware! (Hopeless, 1997); Less Than Jake Greased (No Idea, 1997)
Struggling against, but occasionally collaborating with the ska-punk movement are the offspring of the 2Tone scene that eventually made its way world-wide. These bands have kept their sound similar in beat, structure and tempo to the Jamaican bands of yore while maintaining a contemporary feel and production value. Generally more sophisticated in arrangement and song structure, trad/roots bands play a mellower, multi-layered form of music than their punk cousins.
Essentials: Hepcat Right on Time (Hellcat, 1998); Slackers Redlight (Hellcat, 1997); Toasters This Gun for Hire (Moon Ska, 1990); New York Ska Jazz Ensemble Get This! (Moon Ska, 1998); Intensified YardShaker (Grover, 1997); Busters Ruder Than Rude (Unicorn, 1988)