When Sublime leader Bradley Nowell tragically passed in 1996, a new generation of reggae music was just germinating. Now, 15 years later, the seeds have matured into a field of sun-drenched, sticky-icky, party-happy bands based mostly in Southern California and Hawaii.
"Bradley was like the Elvis of reggae," says Ron Eisner of Deerfield Beach reggae act the Resolvers. "He basically borrowed a lot from traditions that already existed and took it and applied it with a new life to it."
In doing so, Nowell turned a whole new generation on to reggae and inspired countless followers, beginning with Slightly Stoopid, whom Nowell discovered and signed to his Skunk Record label just before his death. Sublime's influence on this new generation of bands is not lost on Rome Ramirez, who has taken over Nowell's vocal and guitar duties in the new incarnation of the boozing, tattooed good-timers, Sublime With Rome. Filled out by original members Bud Gaugh on drums and bassist Eric Wilson, the band kicks off this year's SunFest in South Florida — a surf-loving hot spot where Sublime's self-titled album remains in steady rotation to this day.
In Ramirez's view, other third-wave ska-descendent bands that combine pop, rock, hip-hop, and punk into a core reggae sound could be a subgenre simply called "Sublime-style." This subgenre could also technically be called "postthird-wave ska pop reggae" but has also been referred to as "white boy reggae," "SoCal," "dub rock," and "surf reggae." Here, we'll refer to the popular, chill-affirming soundtrack of young surf culture as "wave reggae" so as to avoid being gender, race, or region-specific and to give a nod to its roots and demographic.
Like pied pipers — er, bongers — national touring wave reggae acts like Slightly Stoopid, Iration, and Dubconscious have pulled more bleary-eyed, sandy-toed surf stoners than local venues like Revolution and the Culture Room have been able to handle. And with each incoming swell, a raging party has ensued. The same can be expected for Sublime With Rome at the West Palm Beach waterfront.
But after a decade and a half in the public consciousness, are these popular wave reggae bands doing anything with artistic merit and cultural significance or just mindlessly riding Bradley Nowell's sound?
Generally, such shows have a prep-surf keg-party vibe to them. Attendees sport the latest, logo-toting threads from the racks of local surf shops over their sun-baked, youthful skin while they work on baking the rest of their beings with expensive weed and Miller Lite. "[The] shows have a little more of a party, get-drunk vibe," says local reggae artist and promoter Lance-O of Kulcha Shok Muzik when comparing the wave shows to more traditional roots reggae shows. The roots shows, he says, have "a deeper vibe, a vibe that takes you to a higher place."
While Lance-O attributes wave reggae's popularity in South Florida to the area's past as a rock market until the '90s, Ramirez puts the emphasis on the South Floridian lifestyle. "I'm gonna probably say that it just fits in with the perfect demographic," he says. "It's the culture, you know? Good times at the beach, fuckin' sand in your shoes, fuckin' vodka breath, and just havin' a good time."
With that statement, Ramirez not only confirms a reason for wave reggae's local popularity but also nails a prominent feature of the subgenre: a celebration of laziness and complacency. In contrast, roots reggae — popularly exemplified by a guy whose face graces name-brand T-shirts at wave shows, Bob Marley — set out to light fire under the asses of '70s Jamaica with calls to "Get up, stand up!" and effect social change. In wave reggae, the message is typically, "Sit down, smoke a bowl," especially in the Expendables' "Bowl for Two": "Oh I, I packed this bowl for two/And I'm gonna wanna smoke it with you/Yes, you know it is time/For us to sit down and unwind."
There are far more destructive messages that have come out of reggae than "relax." Take the antigay messages of Buju Banton and others, for instance. And not all reggae throughout history has been political or message-heavy; lots of it celebrates partying, being in love, and chilling out. Furthermore, wave reggae's background ethos certainly seems to be one of unity, consciousness, and love. Still, there is something irksome about the music itself.
Brand-new Iration tracks, for example, display little to no artistic advancement from where wave reggae sat in the mid-'90s. Recycling the creative contributions of Sublime and feeding it to those who delight in it is fine but rather lame considering the growth of countless rock and pop styles over the same time period. The ingredients are all in there, but the dish has been baked into a flavorless loaf, been left on the sofa, and has long gone stale. For better or worse, this is exactly the point of Sublime With Rome. "We've got the old Sublime style," says Ramirez of the band's forthcoming album, "the old recipe all tied in."
Ramirez and countless others grew up with Sublime posters covering their bedroom walls, but today the band serves as the musical equivalent of a comfort dish to many of those now-grown teenagers and their children too. For a Sublime fan base larger than any Nowell ever witnessed alive, a trip to SunFest is a good plan for reliving wave reggae's beginnings. Already have plans? Rest assured, opportunities for a comparable wave experience — including incessant visits by Sublime tribute act Badfish — in South Florida aren't going away anytime soon.