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Ska: Know your roots

A brief history of the rude and reckless genre of ska
Ar 170909706
David Holub/DGO
Ar 170909706
David Holub/DGO
Ep 170909706
David Holub/DGO
Ep 170909706
David Holub/DGO

You walk into the dancehall and everyone is dressed to the nines. Gal in a checkboard pattern dress? Yep. Fred Perry polos everywhere? Check. Pork-pie hats, skinny ties, and slick suits? Hot damn and hell yes, everywhere. A band playing a beautiful bounce and bop that people are doing a graceful kick-stomp to? Blessedly, yes. It’s called skanking, and you’ve strutted into a ska club. All those folks, they’re rude boys and rude girls who keep the rocksteady world alive.

Still stuck in the rat race and don’t know a dang thing about roots reggae meeting modern culture and punk-rock attitudes? Well, well, pull on your Doc Martens and buckle in for a brief history of ska.

First waveSka is a musical genre that originated in Jamaica in the 1960s. DJs would play records on portable sound systems. At the time, a sound system was a generator, speakers, and turntables piled on a truck then used to throw street parties – American rhythm & blues records mixed with calypso, jump blues, reggae and jazz. DJs started by playing other folks’ tunes but swiftly turned to writing their own music that blended all those genres together.

It’s said that the word ska originated from the “Skat! Skat! Skat!” scratching noise that came from the guitar riffs being played. What we do know is that the first ska recordings were created at Studio One and WIRL Records in Kingston, Jamaica, and a mega-defining label was Trojan Records.

First wave ska bands you gotta hear: Desmond Dekker, The Skatalites, and Toots and the Maytals

Second wave, aka 2 ToneBy the late 1970s, ska had chilled out in Jamaica, but rocksteady records heated the hell up in England. The second wave of ska, known as Two Tone (or 2 Tone), was a frenetic musical force of DIY ethics, which blended the new punk-rock attitudes with reggae, ska, and new wave music.

If you wanna see the frontlines of what this underground scene looked like, you must check out the live-footage documentary “Dance Craze” released in 1981 at the height of 2 Tone’s popularity. To double down on nerditude, check out the back catalogs of 2 Tone Records and Stiff Records.

2 Tone ska bands you gotta hear: The Selecter, The Specials, The Bodysnatchers, Madness, and The (English) Beat

Third wave, ska punk and beyond In the late 1980s, America got on the ska train with the rest of the world. Hardcore punk kids took ownership of ska and brought an even faster influence to its boppin’ beats. The 1990s brought ska’s brightest, longest spotlight of mainstream success.

This is also when ska went wild with sub-genres. Ska punk, satanic ska, acid ska, it keeps going. The hella fab record labels you need to know about are Moon Ska Records, Hellcat Records, and Jump Up Records, and heck yeah, all three are still putting out sweet tunes today.

Third wave ska bands for your record player: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Operation Ivy, The Toasters, The Slackers, and the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.

What about now? Ska’s not dead! It’s going hella strong. Because of the way that news and social media cycles work, it’s doubtful that ska will ever smash the forefront of mainstream culture again with a dozen or so bands all gaining popularity at once. BUT. Ska is here. Ska is good. Rudies are dancing all over the world to the old and to the new.

The new kids killing the ska scene: The Interrupters, The Skints, The Steady 45s, and Skapeche Mode

Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer

David Holub/DGO

David Holub/DGO