Pick It Up: The Evolution of Ska
By Nat Szczepanski
During the time of baggy jeans, flannel, and muted colors, Ska was claiming spots on the Billboard Hot 100. The mid to late 90s saw an explosion in this genre—there was an obvious love for its seemingly-goofy culture and distinct musical style. But today, this does not seem to be the case.
The once mainstream genre now finds itself in underground punk and alternative communities. Brushed to the wayside due to ever changing popular music tastes,which is inevitable,many view Ska as a relic — a flash in the pan. That is simply untrue. Instead of being a product of its time, this fusion genre has a habit of reappearing in the public eye in waves.
In order to understand Ska as it stands today, one first has to dissect its roots. Ska came from Mento — a style of Jamaican folk music that is a combination of African rhythmic and European elements. It had its beginnings in the 19th Century and eventually grew to have a multitude of different styles under its umbrella. Traditional Mento, often referenced as the “classic rural sound”, consists of a multitude of instruments: clarinet or flute, banjo, acoustic guitar, hand percussion, and a rumba box. Surprisingly, it is not guitar that leads and solos, but instead the banjo — sounding somewhat like a mandolin.
There is another form of this, however, called Urban Mento. The subgenre was mainly played in dance halls and utilized the electric guitar for its tinny sound. Both styles emphasized the up-beat or ands,, which in itself was offset by one beat, as compared to calypso—a style of Afro-Carribean music from Trinidad and Tobago—found in the rest of the Carribean. The latter form of Mento would later influence popular American Jazz and R&B throughout the 1950s, when American soldiers brought Jamaican records back to the United States..
This would be the beginning of Ska.
The first wave of Ska would come about thanks to the further introduction of R&B and American Jazz through Miami and New Orleans radio stations. The Golden Age of radio and of disc jockeys, the 60’s were heralded for bringing Ska to the mainstream.
Jamaican producers would combine traditional Mento with new R&B in order to create something entirely new. The hallmarks of this first wave were classic-Ska up-beat strokes on guitar, a walking bassline or instance in which the bass simulates a ‘forward’ motion in the song by climbing up and down the scale, and a melody mainly stemming from the brass section. The vocals during first wave Ska are varied —some artists were influenced more heavily by American R&B and carried over the soulful and melodic approach into Ska, while others sometimes made use of shouts or chants.
Ska in its inception was meant to get people to dance — so much so to the point where it developed its own moves called ‘Skanking.’ It’s essentially the ‘running man’, but with the addition of your arms punching the air as you kick in time to the guitar.
First wave Ska grew in popularity and soon became the dominant genre of music in Jamaica during the 60s, however rock-steady and reggae would form and go on to overtake it on the charts. Ska eventually would fade from popularity but pop up somewhere else entirely.
Second wave Ska rejuvenated the scene, but not in its home country. Instead, in the U.K. during the late-70s and into the 1980s. Another important musical revolution was happening at this point in time too —the arrival of a harsher, grittier form of rock.
Punk was the new fad in Britain and these rockers were beginning to discover older, first wave-Ska brought over by Jamaican immigrants. Both genres would fuse to create Ska-Punk, and mark a change in the way Ska is traditionally played.
The tempo is, therefore, increased to accommodate punk's preference for faster songs. Even traditional elements such as brass would change, as second-wave, or Two Tone (in reference to the studio that produced these records), limited their role slightly through use of the electric guitar.
Ska was meant to get you dancing after all —and skanking would accommodate the tempo change. Two Tone also took on political issues of the day, as these bands were heavily left-leaning. The songs carried themes of unity and anti-racism, with bands themselves being compromised of musicians of color most of the time.
Despite the importance of such topics, Two Tone liked to wrap their punches in goofiness and catchy beats. Notable acts included The Beat, The Specials, The Bodysnatchers, and many others. The song “The Skinhead Symphony (Medley)” by The Specials perfectly encapsulates the sound of the Two Tone era. It should be quickly noted that Skinheads were first British leftist punks with shaved heads, rather than the facist connotation the term carries today.
The chanting in the beginning followed by the lone trumpet in the beginning seems at first hauntingly empty, but soon the rest of the band follows in: the bass is punchy, the guitars still very much tinny. It’s an easy song to lose yourself to, but below the fun and energetic surface the lyrics very much call for Skinheads “to get up on [their] feet” and “start stomping!” Two Tone Ska became popular to the point where it started to influence bands across the pond in the United States.
Bands of third wave-Ska largely pulled their influences from the Ska-Punk scene during the Two Tone era and would, ultimately, go on to expand the genre in both popularity and style . Third-wave Ska brought back the brass section in full force, and upped the tempo even more — especially, as the sound of 90’s alternative became noticeably more distinct.
The walking bass found in the 1960s wavered in-and-out as certain bands preferred fuller, more rapid bass parts. The unmistakable danceability between all three eras, however, never left — skanking even morphed to fit the mosh pit. 1990s Ska, like its predecessors, had a streak of goofiness to it that other alternative bands of the decade despised as they sought to be taken more seriously by the industry.
Kenneth Partridge, author of Hell of a Hat: The Rise and Fall of ’90s Ska and Swing explains, obviously, the goofier you get, the more you run the risk of being dismissed by ‘serious music fans.’ A lot of American bands in the 90s were very comfortable with this risk.”
Funnily enough, Ska took over the charts. Bands like No Doubt, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Goldfinger and Less Than Jake — with their shouts of “Oi” and “Pick it up, Pick it up” were just a few of the third wave’s best acts.
But, once the next century hit, the critics won out. Ska crashed and burned. After all, the early 2000s were defined by Pop-Punk and Emo rather than the goofy sounds and brass instruments that brought Ska to fame.
Ska had ushered in a musical flash-in-the-pan of optimism that followed the heavier sound of Grunge, but the pendulum had begun to swing back to the unrefined. It was a huge commercial success — appearing in movies and commercials. But perhaps this is also part of its downfall. After all, punk was the antithesis to capitalism and, with Ska becoming mainstream, while also simultaneously outwardly dopey and optimistic, it seemed to anger popular critics and others in the alternative community.
A Canadian punk band by the name Propagandhi publicly dissed Ska with their song “Ska Sucks” and it seems that sentiment would go on to grow as the decade progressed. It could also be surmised that Ska’s main demographic of young 20-somethings simply grew up and onto better things — decidedly, leaving behind the party.
It is also important to note the cultural implications of Ska and its possible appropriation by mainstream white audiences and bands. Jamaica received independence from the U.K. in early August 1962 at the same time Ska was beginning to take off, and so this subgenre routinely covered topics of colonization and liberation. Even the roots of Ska, as discussed before, are directly entangled with that of slavery — with its rhythmic style, derived from African drumming styles — and is thought to have been passed down from Jamaican slaves who worked on plantations until their emancipation in 1834.
After Ska crossed over to the U.K in the 1970s, white working class and Jamaican immigrants found common ground in the music’s themes of unity and social issues of the day by sharing the same political hues that the First Wave was founded on. That being said, an issue arises when Ska and similar genres are taken out of their original context —meaning, when white bands take the music and leave behind its cultural implications. A notable example is that of popular eighties new wave act The Police and their use of reggae, being heavily influenced by the style, but left its context to the wayside. This almost detaches the music from its original intent as a subgenre and instead inserts a new narrative.
The biggest question for Ska enthusiasts now is whether or not a Fourth Wave is upon us. It seems like more bands in recent years have been cropping up and proclaiming themselves as part of Ska’s fourth-wave. We Are The Union, Kill Lincoln, The Interrupters, JER, and perhaps Just Friends are a few that come to mind as pioneers of this still malleable era.
Skatune Network, a popular channel on Youtube, has produced Ska covers of popular songs or T.V. show themes, and seeks to expand Ska to those who were not aware of it before. They champion the Fourth Wave, despite cries that it has not yet arrived. For many, they are their first introduction to this genre that has such a rich history. They were personally mine and led me to fall in love with Ska.
To me the Fourth Wave, as it exists in its current form embodies, much of the third-wave’s Pop Punk influences. But, rather than being a giant party, it feels much more like a hangover or perhaps a realization that the world isn’t exactly as it seems. More experimentation is definitely in fourth-wave Ska’s future as Just Friends themselves demonstrate the possibilities with including more R&B, funk and rap influences. If history does indeed repeat itself, then hopefully the 2020s will see a resurgence of such a goofy and catchy genre.
First Wave: https://youtu.be/4RYaMH9wB84
Second Wave: https://youtu.be/lgCZN1rU5co
Third Wave: https://youtu.be/AEKbFMvkLIc
Fourth Wave: https://youtu.be/FxJ4sp7nMQY