The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Reel Big Fish. No Doubt. Streetlight Manifesto.
These iconic bands represent the ska music genre with their exuberant horns, off-beat drums, and dance-ready melodies.
In this guide, we will dive into what ska music is and its history, discuss some of its most popular and influential artists, as well as how it came to exist in its current form.
So, what exactly is ska music? A good ska music definition would describe it as a complex style of music with a rich history and a plethora of cultural influences. Ska is best known as an urban-pop style of music that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s and has evolved to have off-shoots in reggae, rocksteady, and punk.
This unique music style was born from a wide range of influences, including American jazz and rhythm and blues, specifically New Orleans R&B, Caribbean folk music, calypso, and traditional Jamaican dance music called Mento.
Mento, which came to prominence just before the emergence of ska in the 1940s, featured acoustic instruments and songs that focused on social issues like poverty.
Calypso comes from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago and features tropical sounds and lyrics about poverty and social issues, all with a humorous slant. It is often confused with mento music; however, the two are very different.
Ska takes elements of both of these distinct music styles, combining instruments like the trumpet, trombone, saxophone, guitar, bass, piano, and snare drums to create its signature sound.
Ska music has an incredibly specific sound, with several key elements contributing.
Ska songs are almost always written in 4/4 time, with an emphasis on beats two and four (the backbeat). It has a fast pace to it, due to its roots as a dance genre.
Ska guitarists contribute by playing on the off-beats. This method is derived from Jamaican mento and Caribbean calypso music, and doing so creates the bouncy rhythm that ska music is known for. This style of playing is even called the ska upstroke, and it is an extremely percussive style of playing.
The horn section in ska bands is heavily featured. Made up of trumpets, alto saxophones, and trombones, they are largely responsible for providing instrumental riffs between vocals, so there is an even trade between melody from the singer and melody from the horns.
Although modern-day ska has lyrical topics that run the gamut from love songs to protest songs, traditional ska songs focused on social justice. Racial integration and equality were also huge topics ska music broached in the first and second waves, which we will touch on momentarily.
Ska, which is a fusion genre, can have different sounds, styles, and instruments. It also can look different from band to band depending on their style.
The Skatalites were a Jamaican band that played during the first wave of ska music, primarily from 1963-1965. They were largely responsible for the genre’s initial popularity. In the instrumental clip above, extracted from the documentary “Deep Roots Music,” we can see the different instrument sections play off one another, from horns and percussion to the piano, to create an upbeat, almost joyful-sounding song.
The Interrupters, an LA-based family band led by singer Amy Allen, is continuing to grow in popularity with their upbeat reggae/punk sound. Their newest song “She’s Kerosene” talks about a volatile relationship with an explosive woman, using imagery of matches, fire, and burning throughout.
A newer example of modern ska can be found with the band The Pirate Ska Rebellion, whose music is a melting pot of style in line with ska’s history as a fusion genre. In their video for the song “Sonic Anatomy”, they showcase their funky reggae roots and soulful horn melody with a song about that feeling of being born to love something or someone.
Mustard Plug, a Grand Rapids, Michigan band, came onto the scene in 1991. Their single “Everything Girl” is a love song at its core. It is an ode to the girl who, just by being herself, takes the sad, introverted narrator and changes his life the moment she enters it.
For a taste of second-wave ska in the UK, we turn to The Specials. Their song “A Message to You Rudy” was one of the most popular ska songs of its time and is an excellent example of 2 Tone ska. It describes a “rude boy” or “rudy” which is a Jamaican slang term for a lower-class teen with a penchant for delinquency and encourages him to get his life together.
A prominent member of the 2 Tone ska movement in the UK, Madness was formed in 1976 and was a huge success in the UK and Ireland. Their single One Step Beyond is a dancey tune carried by the alto saxophone. What lyrics exist are spoken-word, encouraging the listener to get up and dance, while “one step beyond” is shouted occasionally.
A solid example of ska-punk is Less Than Jake, a band from Gainesville, Florida that began performing in 1992. Their song “She’s Gonna Break Soon” is about a young woman struggling to find her place and herself in a slew of fake friends, fake IDs, and partying. She feels empty and on the edge of breaking down.
Let’s take a look at 5 of the top ska musical groups.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are often thought of as one of the initial creators of the ska-punk movement. When the Bosstones came onto the scene, the English 2 Tone ska movement was just coming to an end. They were heavily influenced by this movement, in addition to more traditional rock artists like AC/DC, The Clash, and Social Distortion.
The Boston-based band has released 11 albums over 30 years. Their album Let’s Face It peaked at #27 on the charts in 1997.
Sublime was another popular American ska-punk band of the mid to late 90s. The trio of musicians from Long Beach, California made their debut as a garage punk band, with influences like Green Day and the Beastie Boys. They would later embrace reggae and ska influences to create their popular street sound.
Their third and final self-titled album Sublime would go on to sell more than five million copies, making it one of the highest-selling ska-punk albums in music history.
Streetlight Manifesto was a ska-punk band formed in 2002 in New Jersey and had members like lead singer Tomas Kalnoky who was a popular player in the 90s third wave of ska. Their music style has European influences with nods to the music of the 50s and 60s. They have released five studio albums, their most recent titled The Hands That Thieve in 2013.
Led by popular vocalist Gwen Stefani, the California group No Doubt was formed in 1986. They belong to several genres of music, including alternative rock, pop-rock, ska-punk, reggae-fusion, and synth-pop. They have frequently altered their sound to embrace these different genres, even releasing a rocksteady album that incorporated Jamaican-inspired reggae and dance-rock titled Rock Steady.
Of their five studio albums, Tragic Kingdom peaked at #1 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 16 million copies. They also won a Grammy for their single “Hey Baby.”
Also from California, Reel Big Fish is another top ska-punk band that gained popularity in the mid-to-late 90s. What started as a high-school cover band became a national sensation in the underground ska world when they released their debut album Everything Sucks. Their 1996 album Turn the Radio Off peaked at #57 on the Billboard charts and remained there for 32 weeks.
They have released 8 studio albums, a handful of compilation albums, plus one live album in 2006.
After World War II, an influx of radios available to Jamaicans introduced American R&B music artists to the island. Artists like Fats Domino and Rosco Gordon were popular among the Jamaican public and inspired decades of ska music innovation.
Fats Domino was a pianist and singer-songwriter from Louisiana best known for his song “Blueberry Hill” which was released in 1956. He is largely considered a leader in the rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues movements.
Rosco Gordon was also a pianist and singer-songwriter who pioneered the Memphis blues style of music. He is known for his signature piano playing style, called the Rosco Rhythm, which had an emphasis on the downbeat. This off-beat emphasis would play a large role in the evolution of ska’s bouncy sound.
The name ska has several origin stories, the most popular of which is that the word represents the sound of the guitar chop on the offbeat. While it is difficult to know for sure who is responsible for coming up with the name, many agree that guitarist Ernie Ranglin’s claim that he invented it is plausible enough to be considered true.
The evolution of ska is generally categorized into three waves, the first in the 60s, the second in the 70s and 80s, and the third in the 90s.
The First Wave of ska music can be traced back to the 1960s during Jamaica’s declaration of independence from Great Britain. At this time, musicians were primarily interested in calypso, mento, and American R&B styles of music, as well as some American jazz.
Local artists began to record their versions of these musical styles, and while they originally were emulating the songs they heard on the radio, the result was a unique experimental genre that combined these rhythmic, melodic influences into something brand new.
In 1964, the first international ska hit titled “My Boy Lollipop” was recorded by a teenage female artist named Millie Small. This song reached No. 2 on the UK and U.S. charts and sold over 6 million copies. It was largely responsible for bringing the signature ska sound to a wider audience and would pave the way for popular artists like Bob Marley later on.
Ska music quickly became the most popular style of music in Jamaica and was played everywhere. The first ska bands included Jackie Mitoo, Toots & the Maytals, The Skatalites, and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires.
The second wave of ska music took place primarily in the UK. The English record label 2 Tone was largely responsible for the genre’s resurgence in the country. This label was owned by Jerry Dammers and the Specials and produced music by bands such as the Bodysnatchers and the English Beat.
2 Tone ska music was political in nature. The music addressed issues of racism, promoting integration, and condemning the conservative leanings of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the UK government. It also featured many bands with multi-ethnic members, which was pretty revolutionary at the time.
The 90s saw a third wave of ska music which was primarily focused in the United States. This style of ska built off of the foundations of the first and second waves with their Jamaican and British influences and morphed with the pop-punk and grunge rock that was extremely popular in America–and specifically Southern California–at the time.
Third-wave ska scaled back on the horn sections and amped up the guitar and anthemic melodies most people think of when they think of ska today. The music was still heavily melodic, energetic, and great for dancing, but it had a slightly grungier vibe thanks to its punk influences.
Popular bands of the era include Fishbone, Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish, Rancid, and Mustard Plug.
The third wave of ska petered out of the mainstream consciousness in the late 90s as nu-metal and alternative rock became the more popular genres to listen to. As a result, many declared ska a dead genre.
Today’s ska music looks a lot like it did during previous waves. It is still a blend of Jamaican mento and calypso, R&B, and punk rock that features loud, energetic horn sections and an off-beat you can’t help but dance along to.
Many established second and third-wave ska bands have released music in the past couple of years which were well received by fans. The Specials’ newest album Encore reached No. 1 in the UK, while newer bands like The Interrupters and The Pirate Ska Rebellion are making waves for their unique sounds.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ While We’re At It was released in 2018. True to the genre’s second-wave history, the lyrics focused heavily on the contentious political climate in the United States. In May 2021, they released their 11th studio album titled When God Was Great.
Ska continues to drift in and out of mainstream culture and popular music preferences, as it has done throughout its entire history. It may never see the popularity it did during its third wave, but for those who love it, it will continue to be an important music style that’s close to their hearts.