Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Phil Esquire - NYC SKA Icon & Cable Access TV Pioneer

Phil Esquire (AKA: Checkerboard Phil) is a New York City ska icon. There is no denying that along with a number of key bands, he has been responsible for keeping the ska flame burning in the Big Apple since the mid 1990's courtesy of his long-running and entirely entertaining Manhattan Neighborhood Network cable access TV show "The Checkerboard Kids" which he describes as " A ska influenced variety show with funny skits, interviews and music videos." If there was a nightime Emmy for cable access variety shows with a ska theme, then Phil would have a mantle full of them.

If you've been to a big NYC ska show then you've seen Phil. He's hard to miss with his checkerboard creepers, NHS glasses and slightly modified take on Don King's hairstyle. He recently was the MC at a show my band played with The Pilfers at the Knitting Factory. He knows just about everyone in the NYC Ska scene and everyone knows him.

Unfortunately you need to live in Manhattan or Queens to see the show, but if you ever visit our fair city make it your business to tune into channel 34 at Midnight on Tuesday's to see what you are missing. Just about every major U.S. ska band has paid a visit to perform on Phil's show. He is a true treasure of the scene here and I have nothing but love and respect for the passion and energy he puts into keeping his show going. Its not all that different from the hard work that ska bands put into playing out.

Without further ado, here is an e-mail interview I conducted with Phil recently.

At a time when most Americans teenagers were listening to Duran Duran or Motley Crue in the 80's, you were discovering ska music. How did this happen?

Before Ska I was very big on new wave music. I listened to a lot of WLIR (which became WDRE) They played a lot of English Beat and Madness I think they also had a little ska show that was like an hour long. I think it was "One Step Beyond" This was my main indoctrination towards Two Tone Ska. Add Ska friendly Comics like Evan Dorkins Pirate Corps and Hewlitt and Martins Tank Girl I was off and running!

You grew up in NYC. Do you remember the early days of the NYC SKA scene and those Sunday Matinee Shows at CBGB's?
*Sigh!*It all mushes together in my mind, Yeah, There used to be a lot of cool shows in the vil. Things dwindled around the time they started cracking down after the Thompkins Square Riots (1989-90). I remember a lot of combination shows that had Ska hardcore and punk! Toasters, NY Citizens, Bigger Thomas (of course!) 24-7 Spyz, Murphys Law, SFA, 2 Minutes To Hate, Sic & Mad, Agent 99, Skinnerbox, Scofflaws, Second Step and Urban Blight! Bushmon, Casualties, Gamma Phi Acme etc, There were a lot of Venues too!

Tell me about The Checkerboard Kids show? How did it start?
Lol! In the mid to late 80's I used to really be into watching NYC Public Access television. Not just Robin Byrd and Midnight Blue with their plethora of humorously titillating 900 number commercials (those shows were actually "leased cable" meaning they were allowed to sell commercials). I dug Public Access, the free stuff! Shows like Beyond Vaudeville, Love Cats/ Weather Report/ Mystical Realm, Vole Show, Rapid T. Rabbit, Tend To Offend, G Street Live, So in the mid 90's when MNN stated giving classes and teaching people how to get their own show for free I jumped on it. My motto was if it's for free it's for me! Originally it was just a video show with some live performances. I used to edit it it at home for vhs to vhs and it showed. The hosts were My High School Pal Mike as the Masked Mutant, my homegirl from Rocky Horror, Cinnamon and I. Originally it was a cool way to get free cds, merch and access to guest lists but my main goal was to always get ska music to the masses that wasn't getting a lot of airplay (at this time the only Ska in commercial radio was Bosstones and No Doubt, a lil' RBF). I especially liked putting live footage on the air! This was for the peeps who couldn't go to shows. Kids trapped in bedsit land, their only home.

How long have you been on the air?
Since round 96 ish maybe even a bit further back?

How does it feel to be a cable access TV star?
Fame without fortune sometimes has perks. I got moved to the front of the line at some club thingy. I got in for free but all my friends had to pay. Sometimes someone will stop you on the street or offer to buy you a drink at a club. As long as people dig the show. If somebody sees a band they dig on the show and they turn around and go to a show or buy a cd of the band then my job is done. I hipped em to something new. That's important.

Note: to have your own public access show is still free in the NY area anyway I highly encourage everyone to get your own show! This was the real REALITY TV before it was cool!

How much work is involved in getting an episode of the show on the air?
It's a lot different from when I was going from VHS to VHS in my living room with a stack of tapes. Now I gotta book the studio, get the crew , book the band make sure everyone shows up and doesn't flake out. This is public access and people will front because they aren't getting paid.

Who are some of the ska bands you've had on the show?
There are so many different flavors of ska from The Skatalites, The Toasters, to Reel Big Fish. So much footage I have to transfer to mini dvd and put on the internet! Kevin Batchelor (trumper player from The Skatalites), Tri State Conspiracy, The Miasmics, Johnny 9 and the Racers, Unlikely Alibi. Green Room Rockers, Bomb Town, Spider Nick and The MadDogs, Save Ferris, Spring Heeled Jack, Skankin' Pickle. I'm just throwing off names I think people should check out!

There is one band who has NEVER performed on the show. YET! (glares at Marco tapping his foot)

Any memorable or strange shows that particularly stand out?
I am very proud of my Interview with Desmond Dekker. Feeling Selecter's Pauline Black's muscles, she's mad brolic! Angelo and Norwood of Fishbone right at the time Prince sampled Fishbone in the song Billy Jack Bitch. They ran into Prince at party and it was on and popping! The first video we ever received was "Doomsday" by Mepeheskapheles.

Who are your favorite ska bands?
I've got love for so many bands. In no particular order: Plifers, NY Citizens, Hub City Stompers, Slackers, Stubborn All Stars, Rudie Crew, Venice Shorline Chris, King Chango (who did Reggaton before everybody!) Defactos, Metro Stylee, Skavoovie and The Epitones, Tokyo Ska Paradise, The Insteps, Toots & The Maytals, Dubistry, English Beat, Specials, Ruder Than You , Bad Manners, Dave and Ansel Collins, The Valentines, Inspecter 7, Bim Skala Bim, Ocean 11, The Specs, Mustard Plug, Op Ivy, Rancid. My guiltiest listening pleasure: OC Supertones "Supertones Strike Back" What?! It's a fun little cd!

As a high school art teacher you are well aware of the musical tastes of today's teens. Are they into ska the way we were when we were their age?
Kids are prone to rebellion. Stay Rude, Stay Rebel like the song. In school the mainstream is the rap flavor of the month so the alternative kids are more into HIM, My Chemical Romance but I'm sure those bands are done by now. A fickle bunch the youth. Any smart ska related kids listen to Slackers, Aquabats, and reach back to a lot of old roots stuff.

You are a true renaissance man. Tell me about your interests outside of ska?
If you do a search it will turn me up in many places. I've done some animation voices. I'm rather amused by and illustrated some cd covers as well as working on some children's book illustrations. I'm also currently co-authoring a book and working on a comic book venture that I am especially proud of.

What is your connection to Underdog Woman?
Me and the performance artist Suzanne Muldowney (who is famed for her dance interpretations of the super hero Underdog ) go back since the early 90's. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a live performance of the Beyond Vaudeville after that we became friends and I would escort her to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade every year since then without fail! (We'll be there Saturday June 21st). For the lowdown on this amazing personality try also there is a fantastic documentary about her called "My Life as an Underdog" (yeah I'm in it..) any search will turn it up.

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates.
"Come on in Phil my boy, We've been expecting you…"

Here is the show intro and promo featuring Phil and some videos of band performances:

The Slackers with Coolie Ranx

The Rudie Crew


Steve from Moon said...

Great interview with Phil! Thanks for featuring him--he's been an AMAZING supporter of ska music through feast and famine.

We were always grateful when he played the music videos we sent him from Moon Records...

Checkerphil said...

Right on Steve! It's that positive vibration that kept me coming back to the shows and wanting to share Ska music with anyone who was looking for an alternative to the "corporate hand picked alternative". Nuff respect to you, Bucket and the Moon Massive! Thanks for everything!