photo & text by nacrowe
i know that SUBLIME get a bad rap due to the fact that their fans are by and large assholes. and by that i mean oafish frat boy meatheads and their adjacent WHITE PRIVILEGE and warped sense of ENTITLEMENT that use the band as an entry point into REGGAE without having to understand thorny issues like JAMAICAN / AFROCENTRIC politics, history and culture. in essence SUBLIME get tagged for WHITE-WASHING REGGAE and DUB in a similar fashion to how ORANGE COUNTY third-wave SKA did for that genre.
i get that. i really do. the number of times ive been to a beach somewhere stateside or even in SOUTH AMERICA, SOUTHEAST ASIA or the MEDITERRANEAN where AMERICANS are vacationing and inevitably listening to "BADFISH" off of their 40oz. to Freedom (SKUNK, 1992) is to many to count. its cringeworthy.
however, that being said i dont question the intent or integrity of the late songwriter BRAD NOWELL when he released his string of records in the mid 1990s. in a sense he was able to bridge the gap between SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUNK ROCK and ROOTS REGGAE, which he got into after a childhood trip to JAMAICA with his family. SUBLIME was one of several bands (311, RANCID, etc.) playing with this sort of hybrid but in my estimation they had more of an edge. they re-contextualized it for the work-class white inhabitants of the SOUTH BAY in greater LOS ANGELES.
their eponymous, and final, record SUBLIME (MCA, 1996) was the high-water mark of the band and their sound. even now it sounds unique and hasnt really been co-opted and aped as was the case with other influential bands of the era, namely NIRVANA (which begot bands like PUDDLE OF MUDD, SEETHER) ALICE IN CHAINS (NICKLEBACK, GODSMACK) or RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE (NU-METAL in general). songs like "SANTERIA," "WHAT I GOT," "WRONG WAY" and "DOIN' TIME" were all well-constructed hits on ALTERNATIVE ROCK radio at the time, but for me this record is really about the skanked-out bliss of songs like "PAWN SHOP," "APRIL 29, 1992 (MIAMI)," "SAME IN THE END," "BURRITOS" and especially "GARDEN GROVE." for me those songs successfully crossed PUNK ROCK with REGGAE in a cohesive, seemingly organic manner while lyrically providing commentary on issues of ECONOMIC INSECURITY, SUBURBAN BOREDOM and RACIAL INEQUALITY.
just kind of sucks that the band is associated with FRATERNITY culture. i think NOWELL deserved better.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
its funny, i was always under the impression i was anti-third wave SKA. i saw LESS THAN JAKE and REEL BIG FISH at WARPED TOUR years ago with the crowd skanking in unison and thought it was all beyond corny and lame. both bands were like awful, parody versions of THE SPECIALS or MADNESS, bands i liked, respected and grew up listening to. also seemed that the political roots of the genre were replaced by silliness.
just running through in my mind all of the bands i like that i now realize were part of the wave included quite a variety of bands like OPERATION IVY, THE SLACKERS, DANCE HALL CRASHERS, THE AGGROLITES, THE SUICIDE MACHINES, FISHBONE, THE AQUABATS, SAVE FERRIS, THE INTERRUPTERS, GOLDFINGER and, of course, SUBLIME and NO DOUBT. guess i have to thank the recent documentary PICK IT UP! - SKA IN THE 90s (POPMOTION PICTURES, 2019) for setting me straight on that. so maybe i was a fan all along and didnt know it.
the documentary not only chronicles the history of SKA from its JAMAICAN roots, but also conveys how its adoption by the PUNK ROCK community created a hybrid genre that bridged two communities who both had similar pre-existing self-sufficient, DIY ethos. many of the SKA bands refused to play shows that weren't all ages, over time changing how book agencies dealt with PUNK bands in general. most venues and promotes make their profits on alcohol and the fact that all these SKA bands had 8-10 players didn't make for a financially rewarding touring situation, especially with the decision to play all ages shows. just indicative of how inclusive the scene was initially and the ethos to nurture a supportive community. when it blew up in popularity everything changed (as expected).
i found it interesting that some bands saw the rise of NO DOUBT and SUBLIME as an answer to the psychological heaviness of GRUNGE and a reaction of sorts by the public to the death of KURT COBAIN. it's a similar rationale to the rise of bands like OASIS and BLUR in ENGLAND during the concurrent BRITPOP movement. i just never associated NIRVANA with paving the way for the rise of SKA bands, but now i have that connection.
like any bubble, it had its peak and then the market got saturated and the bottom fell out in the early 2000s. its the same old record industry story. the scene had effectively cannibalized itself as the fad grew in popularity. the public was SKA'd out. the documentary does a great job of showcasing global bands that have risen in the interim years in places like MEXICO, JAPAN and VENEZUELA among other places.
part of accepting this music is being open to it and its message of positive mindset and self-empowerment. at WARPED TOUR i obviously failed in that regard. but whats funny is that in college at RUTGERS i knew lots of classmates who were obsessed with this local band called STREETLIGHT MANIFESTO who werent silly or outrageous, but wrote upbeat songs about real-life. and what is not to like about that. all the bands i listed before, especially ones like THE AGGROLITES and THE SLACKERS, use the form as a means of expressing a wide range of emotions rooted in personal narratives and social realities. there is a core message there that is accessible. it also helps that their musicianship and song-craft are all top notch, but my feeling is that they are tapping into what SKA music historically was all about: messages of self-empowerment and community. for me that is the future of the genre, as much as i love the extreme cartoonish-ness of THE AQUABATS and their DEVO-inspired visuals.