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The History of Ska and Its Association with Subcultures

Throughout music history, music genres have always been associated with subcultures. The rock genre was associated with youth culture in the 50s, hair metal played up on the glam aspects of 80s culture, and emo became known for its overzealous fans wearing makeup in the 90s. Ska as a music category is no different. However, its association with many subcultures in other societies makes ska an exciting music genre for scholarly study. Ska, as a genre, is a little over 60 years old and known in Jamaica, Great Britain, and the U.S., and is associated with three different subsets of groups that have their differences. However, these differences, while minor, helped form the so-called three waves of ska and the subcultures. In the history of the genre, there was a connection between the "Rude Boys" of Jamaica, the skinheads of England, and the punks of the U.S.

The identity of ska is an evolution of other musical formats: Mento and R&B. Originating out of Jamaica, the genre became a combination of Jamaican folk music, mento, and a fusion of R&B from the U.S. (Kauppila, 2006). Early R&B brought together the elements of jazz and blues by associating itself with brass instruments. The staple of ska, even to this day, is brass instruments, with bands such as Less Than Jake utilizing the trombone and saxophone in most of their songs. In addition to these brass instruments, the beat's style differs from other genres. The main emphasis of ska, and one of its spin-off genres, reggae, is the "offbeat," which emphasizes the second and fourth beats in a regular 4/4 time well known to R&B, rock, and country (Keyes, 2003). With this differentiation in music, the new style started to take root in Jamaica.

Figure 1. Dance Hall Patrons Dancing to Ska Music From the Era of the "Rude Boys"

The first introduction of ska in Jamaica happened in the early 1960s. The name came from Cluett Johnson, a member of the Blues Blasters, who greeted patrons at shows with the call of "Love Skavoovie" (Kauppila, 2006). Thought of as a passing phase of music, which would become a recurring theme for the genre, the "rude boy" subculture latched onto the music. This societal sect saw ska and its musicians as a review of the injustices of the socio-economic issues of the lower classes in Jamaica (Boxill, 1994). In addition, they also became disillusioned with the ruling classes (White, 1967). One example of their disenchantment with the ruling system was the Duke Reid Group's song "The Rude Boy," which espouses lyrics regarding eviction and living in the ghetto. The music spoke, and this subculture listened, chanted the lyrics, and made people such as Jimmy Cliff national folk heroes for their inclusion of the economic struggles of "rude boys" in their songs (Boxill, 1994). The idea of the "rude boy" continued in Jamaican culture, but their ideas transferred throughout the world, along with the ska genre.

While the common identification of skinheads is now more known for racism, the subculture itself did not start as such. The skinhead culture surfaced in London's East End roughly around 1968 and revolved around traditional working-class values (Calluori, 1985). Due to similar disillusionment with the status quo and social changes, there was a connection between the skinheads to the rude boys of Jamaica. They found a similar expressive tone to Jamaican ska music (Back, 2000). Immigrants brought the Jamaican sounds to England, which helped usher in the so-called second wave of ska. The new ska sound that made the airwaves in the 1970s and 1980s with quicker beats separated itself from the original first wave of ska, formalized into the name Two-Tone, named after the music label (Brown, 2004). Bands like The Specials, Madness, and The Selector infused the skinhead culture into their look with Doc Marten boots and the two-tone checkered black and white (Brown, 2004). However, the skinhead culture changed from accepting these bands to demolishing them for their lyrics. Two-tone bands sang about racial unity, while the skinheads turned to racial differences and became known for their race elitism (Brown, 2004). While their association between the subculture and the genre lasted for a while, the deep-seated racism developed by the urban skinheads drove the two apart (Back, 2000). As the skinheads stopped listening to ska, the music genre did not have an associated subculture until a few years later in the form of a fusion with another genre.

Figure 2. Skinheads From the Original Two-Tone Era

Punk was a music genre and a subculture of people from its inception. Like the "rude boys" and skinheads before, punks created their culture outside of the larger commercial world and capitalist ruling classes (Turrini, 2013). In England, the subculture and music directly responded to Margaret Thatcher's policies of the Conservative party (Martínez, 2015). There was a significant base in youthful anger toward past generations and society (Bennett, 2006). Punk bands such as The Clash emphasized past subcultures such as the "rude boys" in their song "Rudie Can't Fail" (Gelbart, 2011). In the late 1980s, the ska genre found a home within the walls of a punk venue on Gilman Street in Berkeley, California. One band that ushered in the U.S. ska-punk scene was Operation Ivy (Bennett, 2006). The band kept to the ideas of the urban sensibilities of the "rude boys" and the early skinhead movement, with songs such as "Unity" and "Freeze Up." This new blend of punk and ska became known as the third wave of ska. In the U.S., ska punk became popular in the 1990s with bands such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, and No Doubt. Each of these bands continued to use ska's past in their musical elements through looks, sound, and lyrics.

Figure 3. Third Wave Band, Green Day Performing at the 924 Gilman Street Punk Rock Venue

While the ska genre retreated to the background after its success in the 1990s, it is around today still infused with the punk subculture. Examples of this in today's punk subculture are Bomb the Music Industry!, Streetlight Manifesto, JER, and The Interrupters. While there is debate on whether these bands are considered part of the fourth wave of ska, which itself lacks any scholarly study to differentiate it from the third wave, their messages return to the "rude boys" of the first wave of ska. Ska's attachment to these subcultures makes the genre different from others. Members of these groups, on the surface, do not have much in common. However, when one looks further, they are bound by dissatisfaction with the ruling classes. Ska's history weaves itself around its association with the working-class mentalities of the "rude boys," early skinheads, and punks.

Bibliographic Sources

Bennett, A. (2006). Punk’s Not Dead: The Continuing Significance of Punk Rock for an Older Generation of Fans. Sociology, 40(2), 219-235.

Back, L. (2000). Voices of Hate, Sounds of Hybridity: Black Music and the Complexities of Racism. Black Music Research Journal, 20(2), 127-149.

Boxill, I. (1994). The Two Faces of Caribbean Music. Social and Economic Studies, 43(2), 33-56.

Brown, T.S. (2004). Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and “Nazi Rock” in England and Germany. Journal of Social History, 38(1), 157-178.

Calluori, R.A. (1985). The Kids Are Alright: New Wave Subcultural Theory. Social Text, (12), 43-53.

Gelbart, M. (2011). A Cohesive Shambles: The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ and the Normalization of Punk. Music & Letters, 92(2), 230-272.

Kauppila, P. (2006). “From Memphis to Kingston”: An Investigation Into the Origin of Jamaican Ska. Social and Economic Studies, 55(1-2), 75-91.

Keyes, C.L. (2003). The Aesthetic Significance of African American Sound Culture and Its Impact on American Popular Music Style and Industry. The World of Music, 45(3), 105-129.

Martínez, R. (2015). Punk Rock, Thatcher, and the Elsewhere of Northern Ireland: Rethinking the Politics of Popular Music. The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language, 48(1), 193-219.

Turrini, J.M. (2013). “Well I Don’t Care About History”: Oral History and the Making of Collective Memory in Punk Rock. Notes, 70(1), 59-77.

White, G. (1967). Rudie, Oh Rudie!. Caribbean Quarterly, 13(3), 39-44.

Visual Sources


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Nathan Hepp

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