Oh, 1997. What a year. Dolly the Sheep was cloned, making New Zealand farmers everywhere salivate. The Heaven’s Gate Cult suicide pictures made black Nike’s look strangely appealing. Good ol’ Mike Tyson showed the world that Evander Holyfield’s ears were tasty enough for a second helping.
And a musical style called ska was storming the airwaves. But let’s just pretend like that didn’t happen.
There are few styles of music that have weathered worse than 90s ska. It was punk rock for band geeks. And it didn’t help that the names were just atrocious. They were a bit pun-happy: Monica Lewinska, Skabba The Hut, Mr. Skatato Head, Ghenghis Skahn. Those names are real. Real people sat down with their trumpets, trombones, Jing Tinglers, Flu Floopers and Tar Tinkers and decided that these names were acceptable. And nobody stopped them.
Just to clear things up, ska was around long before the 90s. And it was good. Ska was invented in Jamaica in the late 50s/early 60s (depending on who you ask), with artists like Desmond Dekker, The Skatalites and a young Bob Marley being early stars. Then it moved with the Jamaican immigrants to the UK and became popular in the late 70s/early 80s. This style of ska, called Two Tone because of the mix of black and white band members, was a hybrid of original ska beats mixed with punk attitude like The Specials and The Selecter. Mainstream America caught on at last in the 90s with “third-wave” punk ska, (i.e. Reel Big Fish, The Mighty Mighty BossTones and Goldfinger.)
And boy did I love ska. Back in college, I used to wear a scally cap with a dog collar and a NBA logo ska shirt. One time I was wearing that outfit and a random girl walked up to me, looked me up and down with disgust and said “No.” Then she just walked away. People just didn’t understand, maaaannnnnn. I wanted to skank all night and ska-core every day. Where’s my Vespa? Pick it up, pick it up!
Now that it’s 2012, it’s impossible not to look back on all of this with extreme embarrassment. But I still have a lot of those bands on my iTunes and occasionally they’ll pop into a shuffle mix. Bands that I used to love like Buck O Nine, Mustard Plug and Voodoo GlowSkulls sound about as good today as the annual prostate exam I’m getting close to needing.
However, not all of the ska bands from that era sucked. In fact, some of them were damn good and still are. Here are three ska bands from the 90s that I enjoy just as much today as I did during the Clinton years.
Hailing from Los Angeles, Hepcat is without question the best ska band of the last 20 years. If you weren’t paying attention, you’d think they were straight out of the 60s Kingston. These guys had serious, serious chops both vocally and with their Tar Tinkers. And check out the video in the link below. Does the singer on the left look familiar? He was the blind guy on the TV show “Becker” as well as the fellow who says “This place looks dead” in the movie “Swingers.” That officially makes him the 2nd most successful member of a ska band post-ska. Number #1 is the singer from the Aquabats who invented “Yo Gabba Gabba.” Last place is every surviving member of Sublime.
Suggested Hepcat Listening:
I Can’t Wait
The Slackers –
Nothing says Jamaica like a bunch of white guys from Brooklyn. But they made it seem as natural as DeNiro in Raging Bull. The Slackers started in 1991, mixing ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, soul, garage rock, and jazz and they haven’t stopped since. They made album after album of solid tunes for two decades. No fads, no goofy songs about food, just old school ska debauchery with a New York punch to the face.
Suggested Slackers Listening:
Okay, okay, yes, their name is Mephiskapheles. It’s a ska pun on Mephistopheles (i.e. The Devil.) Their first album was called “God Bless Satan” and their gimmick was that their songs were about Satan or Hell. Well, they had a couple songs about food, but it was evil food. So yeah, they had a schtick. But holy smokes, these guys could play. They had a Fishbone-like energy to their music. Sometimes they were super-fast and sometimes they brought it down real low. But they were always evil. “My bologna has a first name, it’s S-A-T-A-N!”
Suggested Mephiskapheles Listening:
So go ahead and listen to some fun ska music. Nobody needs to know. Just leave the Hawaiian shirts, Dickie’s shorts and wallet chains in the storage space where they belong.