"Ska is an organic product with deep cultural roots that is far better for you than major-label chemicals," notes Rob "Bucket" Hingley, founder of the Toasters, a seven-member multiracial combo that unleashed its catchy, up-tempo ska strains onto U.S. shores for the first time fifteen years ago. "You'll never see ska created in a test tube."
If anyone has helped to preserve ska's integrity, it's Hingley, a transplanted Brit who landed in New York City in the early Eighties -- once settled in, he found no trace of a ska scene. "One night I went to see the English Beat play at Roseland and there was nobody in the audience," he recalls. "At that point I realized something had to be done. I felt like John Belushi in The Blues Brothers when a light literally falls from a ceiling and hits him on the head."
Hingley's epiphany resulted in the formation of an eight-piece pop/reggae/ska outfit called Not Bob Marley, which he put together with several of his co-workers at a comic book store. The band played at various New York clubs, including CBGBs, eventually changing its name to the Toasters. But when the septet shopped a demo (the Recriminations EP, produced by Joe Jackson) to record labels, doors were routinely slammed in their faces. "We got laughed at by every record company in the city," remembers Hingley. "They said we would never get anywhere playing 'circus music.'"
So in 1985 Hingley made it his mission to introduce ska to the United States. He started Moon Ska Records as a marketing and distribution tool for his own band, unaware that the label would become the petri dish for a viral ska culture from which would spring notables such as Let's Go Bowling, the Skofflaws, and approximately 30 other artists. The seminal New York Beat sampler (1986) was the first compilation of what is now known as "third wave ska."
Ska first surfaced in the early Sixties in Jamaica, where it was practiced by legends such as the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, "Prince" Buster, and Laurel Aitken. Although most people think reggae preceded ska, it was actually ska that spawned reggae. As Jamaicans heard the strains of R&B, swing, and early rock and roll being broadcast from the U.S. on their radios, they incorporated those sounds into their indigenous Caribbean musics (such as the folkie mento) to create ska. The result: brisk, syncopated backbeats overlaid with punchy, offbeat guitar strokes and tight horn harmonies. Though the music was bouncy and uplifting, the genre's lyrics addressed serious political matters such as Jamaica's independence from Britain in 1962.
Ska resurfaced in England in the late Seventies (having traveled to the U.K. via Jamaican immigrants and musicians, notably Dekker) as the two-tone movement, named after the British record label formed in 1979 by Jerry Dammers, keyboardist for the Specials. Bearing a strong antiracist message, two-tone was spearheaded by the Specials and like-minded groups Madness, the Selecter, and the English Beat, all of whom revved up the music with a punky, rock approach.
The two-tone craze arrived late in the U.S. -- it was pretty much over in the U.K. by the time most people here ever noticed -- but began to take root and bloom in the mid-Eighties with acts such as Fishbone, the Untouchables, and the Toasters. Since that time the U.S. scene has been growing steadily and mutating into ska-core, punk-ska, swing-ska, and pop-ska.
These days Hingley says it's irritating to watch as major labels fall all over themselves to sign bands about whom they know virtually nothing. "They think that if you throw enough money at something, then you can buy it even if you're ignorant of the culture from where it came," he sighs.
As anyone who's ever seen a ska show can tell you, the genre is a predominantly live phenomenon, with audiences closely integrated into both the music and the sociocultural scene swirling around it. Perhaps it's Hingley's incessant touring with the Toasters that keeps him in touch with rudies, skins, punks, frat boys, moshers, and rastas from Caracas to Berlin: To date the combo has knocked out 2,500 gigs.
The Toasters' sixth and most recent album, this year's Hard Band for Dead (the title is a nod to ska pioneer "Prince" Buster, who wrote "Hard Man fe Dead"), serves up lilting, old-school Jamaican-style ska and the more upbeat two-tone variety. "Two-tone was influenced by punk rock and was a mirror of the political unrest in Britain in the Seventies when people were rebelling against Margaret Thatcher," explains Hingley. "It was a backlash against the racist National Front, and it demonstrated that people of different races can play music together and work together."
Hard Band continues the sentiment. On "2-Tone Army" Hingley sings, "Don't need no map to let yourself in/Don't need no language, color, or skin/Don't need no money to make a contribution/Be a part of the two-tone revolution."
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"We take a fairly jaundiced view of society," Hingley continues. "There's a lot of social commentary, but we mainly tell people to be responsible for their own lives and don't make excuses. It's like a working-class ethic." In fact the title song on the band's out-any-second-now new CD, Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down, is a direct missive to the blue-collar masses. "It's about digging down within yourself and finding the resources you need to live a meaningful life," says Hingley, "even if the world is bringing you down to your knees."
Although Hingley's a true ska veteran, he's hardly one to shun new bands, including the pop-influenced No Doubt and Dance Hall Crashers, both of whom started out on Moon Ska before dashing off to major-label stardom. "Both of these bands started out far more ska-influenced, and now they're more pop." Hingley observes, "But either way they have a really refreshing sound and people are ready for that after the grunge fiasco."
As Hingley told a reporter this past summer, "A lot of people are scared and they say, 'Ska music's gonna get commercialized and popular, and it'll get ruined.' But I don't think so, 'cause ska's really a mutational beast. When the music started, it took various types of African rhythms and American R&B, jazz, and calypso and stuck it all together into this funky ball called ska. Since then every generation has changed the music to fit the needs of the kids."
The Toasters perform on Friday, November 7, at the Chili Pepper, 200 W. Broward Blvd., 954-525-5996, with Bim Skala Bim and Double Agents. Cover charge is $10.