Monday, June 27, 2011

An Ode to John 'Brad' Bradbury of The Specials: Prince Rimshot Defines The 2-Tone Sound

Its the calm before the storm for fans of The Specials.  As the band gears up to kick-off the final European and U.K. tour of their three year reunion, I want to pay homage to a key member of the band's vaunted rhythm section: none other than drummer John 'Brad' Bradbury.  While the band has always been defined by its front men and songwriters, as a bass player I have always focused on the fantastic chemistry between Bradbury and his rhythm partner bassist Horace Panter.

I think its fair to say that the timeless quality of The Specials sound is defined by the sound of Bradbury's drums. He plays crisp, clean patterns that combine the energy and power of punk with the technical prowess of ska, rocksteady, reggae and soul. Bradbury's trademark bass drum and cymbal hits, Latin-inspired rolls and hi-hat figures set the standard for the 2-Tone sound and he elevated the 'rimshot' to a musical art form earning himself the nickname 'Prince Rimshot' along the way.

Bradbury has always played Pearl Drums.  In fact, Pearl Drums were so popular with 2-Tone drummers that the company took out a print ad in 1980 at the height of 2-Tone's popularity (see below) that featured Bradbury, along with Jane Summers of The Bodysnatchers and Charley 'H' Bembridge of The Selecter.

Below is a recent interview that Bradbury did with Pearl Drums.

What is it you like so much about playing Pearl drums?
I have played Pearl Drums for on and off for forty years. On a couple of occasions in the past I have tried other makes but have always returned to Pearl. The kits are solid and sound perfect, and let`s face it they have to be a bit “Special” anyway.

Which drummer or band influenced you most into playing drums?
My main influences were Al Jackson Jr. And Sly Dunbar

Who in your mind are the drummers of tomorrow, who has caught you eye?
I am proud to say my son Elliot has a great future ahead of him. It is my opinion that those of us who can combine ethnic styles will be the drummers of the future.

What do you like most about being a drummer?
When playing live I have a ringside seat to the mayhem that goes on around the stage, sometimes it`s like a front row seat at the comedy store. Our band has a sense of humour onstage that is second to none. I find the responsibility a buzz and the need to provide a solid background for the other performers keeps you focused on and off stage.

What is the worst thing that has happened to you during a show?
Fell backwards off the riser once and got sandwiched jack-knife style between riser and wall.

What do you practice and for how long?
I usually practice drums and vibraphone in my home studio day on day off, obviously when you are on tour it isn`t always practical apart from sound checks.

What is your best advice to a young drummer wanting to make it in this industry?
Same as #3 really, move around the styles and try and make the “unusual” the “usual” style of the future.

For those of you interested in the more technical aspects of Bradbury's playing, below is a graphic of Bradbury's custom drum set-up that Pearl Drums included with the interview.

Now watch Bradbury in action on the kit performing 'Monkey Man' during The Specials 2010 tour stop in Toronto, Canada. Its a very unique overhead camera shot which gives you a birds eye view of the man doing what he does best. The secret for me is the timbale like tuning of his snare and the cymbal crashes which are the heart and soul of each and every song.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Story Behind 'Oh Carolina': Jamaican Music Pioneers The Folkes Brothers Reunite!

While most music fans are readily familiar with Shaggy's mid-90's cover of 'Oh Carolina', the story behind the original recording of 'Oh Carolina' by The Folkes Brothers is in essence the story of Jamaican music.

In 1960, Prince Buster (then a relative unknown who was working as a DJ and bouncer for Duke Reid) approached the legendary Rastafarian percussionist Count Ossie, who had established one of the first Rastafarian camps in Wareika Hill, to record for him.  After much encouragement from Prince Buster that he would keep the essence of the Niyabinghi -style drumming intact on the recording, he booked Count Ossie and his drummers along with Owen Gray on piano and Ronnie Bop on bass drum into a small recording studio.  Once there, Buster did handclaps and imitated horn riffs while The Folkes Brothers, a trio of teenagers, Miko, John and Junior, did the vocals capturing it in just two takes.  Until this past week, it was the only recording the group ever did.

The result is arguably one of the most important records in Jamaican musical history and probably the most popular Jamaican dance oldie ever.  According to Kevin O'Brien Chang the author of Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music:
"Early Jamaican recorded music was often just an attempt to duplicate American R&B songs. And the usual result was a third-rate copy on fourth-rate equipment of second-rate tunes sung in a quasi-American 'twang'. It's hardly an accident that not many pre-independence Jamaican tunes are played on the radio."
"But 'Oh Carolina', whether  by design or accident, contained distinctive elements not heard in any previous R&B copy.  Count Ossie's drum group had the most to do with it, but the song's fresh sound wasn't just due to the drumming. What was original was the way the drums played off the other instruments and the singers' voices, trailing just a bit and almost play call and answer.  Combining the energy of R&B with the hypnotic repetition of Rastafarian drumming, the throbbing beat was eminently danceable but not frenetic.  If one song can be singled out as signifying the birth of reggae, 'Oh Carolina' is it."
During a famous court case in 1994 to determine the lawful composer of the song following the success of Shaggy's popular cover version, a judge finally ruled that John Folkes was the song-writer of 'Oh Carolina'.  According to an interview that Folkes did with reggae historian Roger Steffens, the song was the first song in the history of Jamaica to give the Rastafarian movement respectability.  It was also completely unique and cutting edge sound wise:
"'Oh Carolina' is not ska; neither is it calypso or R&B or boogie woogie or mento or even rock n'roll. It is essentially an innovative heritage folk song. But it has echoes of some of the above. It was and still is a party song. Its a powerful thing, not written with any kind of formal tradition, but just powerful feral writing."

Believe it or not, but the The Folkes Brothers have just released their very first album 'Don't Leave Me Darling' (available for sale on Digistation) since the original release of 'Oh Carolina' in 1960. According to an interview in the Jamaica Gleaner, Mico Folkes explained that the brothers went their separate ways following the success of 'Oh Carolina'. Now, more that 50 years later they have decided to give it another go:
(Mico) said he got a scholarship to attend a bible college in the United States, while his brother John Folkes went on to get his PhD at the University of the West Indies and is now a professor in Canada. However, his younger brother, Junior Folkes, "never left the music industry," he said.
"We always sing together like we never left Jamaica. We always sing and write songs. Junior Folkes, he was the one trying to bring us back together, always wanting us to get some songs together. John is not in the group at this time," Mico Folkes said, noting that the album was done by himself, Junior Folkes and Jah D, who was the engineer and made all the music.
Below are all three versions of 'Oh Carolina' including the original by The Folkes Brothers, followed by Count Ossie's (who recorded his own version on his seminal 1973 album 'Groundation') and Shaggy's version from 1993.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gig Alert: New Jersey Ska Weekender Features The Toasters, Hub City Stompers & Bigger Thomas

Here is a heads-up to any adventurous ska fans looking to venture into the wilds of New Jersey this Father's Day weekend to hear ska music.  First up, this Saturday June 18th, The Record Collector in Bordentown, New Jersey features a double-bill of the ska sounds of Hub City Stompers (fresh off a cross country tour) and the old school 2-Tone sound of my band Bigger Thomas (who will be joined by special guests Roy Radics of The Rudie Crew).

The Record Collector was voted the '#1 favorite independent record store in the tri-state area" by Details Magazine. The store also received honorary mention in a Spin Magazine article listing the best record stores in the US. The store offers an immense selection of New, Used, Rare and Collectible music in all formats. At last count the store held over a million LP's, 45's, and CD's.  Its a great space to see a show and do some record shopping.

Sunday's show on June 19th at Asbury Lanes will feature a quadruple bill of ska including The Toasters (who are on the road celebrating their 30th anniversary) along with Hub City Stompers, Bigger Thomas and Silver Dollar at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Asbury Lanes is a bowling alley AND a punk rock club!

Here is a little taste of what you can expect from all four bands performing this weekend:

The Toasters (with Roy Radics) perform 'Ploughshares Into Guns'

Hub City Stompers perform 'WTFIU" and 'Ska Train To Dorkville'

Bigger Thomas perform 'Chaos'

Silver Dollar perform 'We Can't Wait'

These are the first official Bigger Thomas show of the Summer of 2011, so here's to hoping all you Jersey folks who have trouble getting into New York City will come out and enjoy a helping dose of ska music.  If you can't make the shows please consider downloading our latest album 'Steal My Sound' which is available as a pay-what-you-want.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Specials Ghost Town is 30 Years Old! -- The Story Behind The Iconic Song

The Specials released the iconic 'Ghost Town' 30 years ago on June 20, 1981.  The BBC has marked the occasion with a great piece about the song and its place in British music history:
It starts with a siren and those woozy, lurching organ chords. Then comes the haunted, spectral woodwind, punctuated by blaring brass. Over a sparse reggae bass line, a West Indian vocal mutters warnings of urban decay, unemployment and violence. "No job to be found in this country," one voice cries out. "The people getting angry," booms another, ominously. Few songs evoke their era like the Specials' classic Ghost Town, a depiction of social breakdown that provided the soundtrack to an explosion of civil unrest. Released on 20 June 1981 against a backdrop of rising unemployment, its blend of melancholy, unease and menace took on an entirely new meaning when Britain's streets erupted into rioting almost three weeks later - the day before Ghost Town reached number one in the charts.
While it may describe a very specific moment in British history, Ghost Town's popularity has barely dimmed. A re-formed Specials are due to tour later in 2011, with the song as the centrepiece of their set. While the song continues to evoke memories and serve as a harbinger for the current economic decline on both sides of the Atlantic, the genesis of its recording and the back story behind its deserve to be told too.

Here is a trivia question for all fans of The Specials and 2-Tone. Have you ever heard of John Collins? How about Victor Romero Evans? If you haven't you are in good company.  You can thank them both for their direct and indirect roles in the recording of one of The Specials greatest songs.

John Collins, a North London-based music producer and owner of Local Records was drafted in to produce 2-Tone's finest moment after Jerry Dammers lauded his production on Victor Romero Evan's Lover's Rock hit 'At The Club'.  Collins got his start working with local talent, using home made equipment and recording in a front room on a 4-track TASCAM recorder in North London.  He founded Local Records in the late 1970's and it quickly came to the forefront of the post-punk DIY record label boom - making reggae and dance records, selling them through shops and later topping the UK reggae charts and the national charts.

But, it all started with one record - 'At The Club' which Collins recorded with Victor Romero Evans.  Evans was a up and coming UK movie and TV actor and singer, who appeared in the 1980 UK reggae movie 'Babylon'.  The song became a hit quickly, spending five weeks at #1 on the UK reggae charts in 1980.  Part of the reason the track became a hit was production techniques employed by Collins.  It was the first track to use a homemade drum machine sound and the rhythm copied 'Another One Bites The Dust' by Jamaican-based Clint Eastwood making it instantly recognizable.  The song reached a broader audience after Jerry Dammers heard it and later voted it his record of the year in New Music Express, which landed Collins a deal with Epic Records.

Dammers was smitten with the track and in March of 1981 phoned Collins up to invite him to produce The Specials next batch of songs.  Suspicious that it was some sort of joke, he agreed to travel up to Coventry a couple of days later to meet the band and was surprised to find that they were serious. They were surprised to discover that he was white.

After recording two major label records, Dammers had become disillusioned with high tech, expensive studios and liked Collins homemade approach and reggae credentials. Dammers had found a small 8-track studio in Leamington and it was decided to go there to record three songs for the band’s next single. According to Collins, The Specials usually recorded by all playing together live, but he was used to building a backing track bit by bit. It was in this fashion that he got drummer John Bradbury to set up just his bass drum, snare and hi hat; and bass player Horace Panter to plug directly into the mixer, going for a Sly and Robbie sound.

According to an interview Collins did with, 'Ghost Town' may have been influenced by another song.  "I took a 12" of "What A Feeling" by Gregory Isaacs to Woodbine to test the sound of the monitors. It's a Sly and Robbie rhythm similar to Gregory Isaacs' "Night Nurse". I think this influenced Brad's playing, it certainly influenced me in getting the drum sound. Also I had used the idea of fading up a track through a sound effect on "Lift Off", the B-side of "At The Club", and the idea of fading out under a sound effect on "Working Dub", which I had put out on Local Records previously."

Collins has posted a great article on his own Web site about the recording of 'Ghost Town' as well his experience working with The Specials.  I've always been struck by the eerie ghost sound effect at the start and end of the song which makes the track so haunting. According to Collins, the sound was hand created by a home made synthesizer dropped in at the start of the final mix, fading up The Specials from Brad’s drum count-in and fading down the synthesiser under Jerry’s chromatic diminished chord sequence.  At the end, he muted everything apart from bass, drums and backing vocals, dub style, and faded the ghost synth back up just before The Specials come to a halt, leaving the synth on its own again for a few seconds before the final fade. And there you have it - the production of a masterpiece.

You can read more about Collins and Local Records at his Web site where you can purchase copies of all of his music.  You can also hear more tracks recorded by Victor Romero Evans at his Web site.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Madness Appear In Kronenbourg 1664 Beer Ad: Perform Slowed Down Version Of 'Baggy Trousers'

Madness have done it again!  The band who have previously lent themselves to a number of iconic ad campaigns (most notably a series of Japanese TV commercials for Honda in the early 80's and wristwatches in the 90's)  have partnered with premium lager brand Kronenbourg 1664, to record an amazing, slowed down re-arrangement of 'Baggy Trousers' (re-titled 'Le Grand Pantalon) for a music-centered ad for the brand's ‘Slow the Pace’ campaign. The song has been specially re-written by the band for the ad more than 30 years after it was first released. Earlier this year a spoken word version of 'Our House' was used for a Virgin Media television ad.

Set in an intimate and relaxed French bar, we see Madness’ front man Suggs casually leaning over a table, singing the lyrics to ‘Baggy Trousers’ at a much slower pace pace. Mike Barson is seen gently playing along on the piano, someone joins in with an accordion and another strums a large acoustic bass guitar. In a subtle nod to the band’s manic videos, saxophonist Lee Thompson, who is seated at another table, is slowly lifted from his chair by a wire attached to the ceiling fan above him. The other patrons in the bar (including all the members of the band) are seemingly unaffected by the goings on and continue to enjoy their pints of Kronenbourg 1664 in the relaxed, slow atmosphere.

The 'Slow the Pace' campaign has previously attracted significant consumer interest with 20,000 downloads of the Kronenbourg 1664-inspired version of Motorhead’s classic track 'Ace Of Spades' being snapped up in a matter of days of the campaign launch last fall.

Below is a short documentary charting the process of Madness re-writing the track as well as the ad itsefl which features all the members of the band in disguise. The new low velocity 'Baggy Trousers' is now available for download on iTunes.

Here is the full version of 'Le Grand Pantalon'

Friday, June 10, 2011

Interview With Rob Gainfort Of The Steadys: The Lost Band Of The Late 80's NYC Ska Scene

In my continuing quest to document and chronicle the thriving ska bands and ska scenes that existed in the U.S. during the late 80's and early 90's, my journey has taken me someplace completely unexpected: back home to New York City!  Ever since I started this blog I've wanted to tell the story of New York City ska band The Steadys.  After burning brightly for 2 short years during 1989-91, they disappeared just as quickly as they appeared on the scene.  Very little about the band exists online and I've always wanted to remedy that somehow. Lucky for me the band's lead singer and guitarist Rob Gainfort stumbled upon my humble blog a few weeks ago.  I jumped at the chance to finally get his story.

The Steadys shone brightly for a short time on the burgeoning NYC Ska scene of the late 80's and early 90's bringing a great 2-Tone inspired ska sound, look and energy.  Starting out just a few months after my own band Bigger Thomas, I remember them fondly for their youthful enthusiasm, solid musicianship and friendly manner (which was a bit unusual as there was always a bit of rivalry between New York City ska bands).  We shared a few stages together (notably at the Cat Club during the recording of the long out-of-print NYC SKA Live compilation in 1990).  Like many of the first wave of ska bands that helped establish the New York scene in the early and mid 80's (A-Kings, The Boilers, Beat Brigade, Second Step), most of the members of The Steadys were still in their teens when they started playing out.

The band was founded by a 17-year old Gainfort in early 1989.  After being told by Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters that he was too young to audition as a lead singer to replace The Unity 2 (Sean Dinsmore and Lionel Bernard) who had signed their own record deal, Gainfort was inspired to start his own band.  In short order he pulled together a band of young ska enthusiasts including bassist Ani Schempf (who later as DJ Ani would join Dee-Lite), drummer Chris Woehrle and lead guitarist Arthur Peeples.  As part of the deal Schempf brought along his step-father Joe Ruddick, an accomplished sax player and keyboardist who would become the band's secret weapon.  Having caught the attention of Hingley, Gainfort and The Steadys scored some early big shows and that helped them build a following quickly.

Gainfort was kind enough to share some great stories about the band (including information confirming the reason why the NYC SKA Live show was not filmed by Dance Craze director Joe Massot) as well as some never before released music from the band for your listening pleasure.  Sit back and enjoy the story of The Steadys!


Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I was born and raised in Manhattan. My dad and brother are musicians, so they introduced me to many different styles of music. If I had to choose which bands/artists influenced me the most, they would have to be: KISS, The Specials and Stevie Wonder (I might have to throw Cheap Trick in there too). In some way, each one helped shape my song writing.

Do you remember the first record or single that you ever bought?
I was really lucky to have an older brother that was obsessed with music. He would buy and bring everything home for us to listen to, so I never had to buy records. The first single I remember buying with my own cash was Run DMC's "Sucker MCs" in 1983 at the Record Factory on 8th Street.

What inspired you to start singing and playing music?
Since I was a toddler, I loved performing. Music is in my family, so I grew up hanging around rehearsal studios and venues. I'd sit and watch my brother John and his band mates jam on songs in our apartment in Chelsea. In August of 1979, at the age of 7, I saw KISS at Madison Square Garden , that sealed the deal for me! I started writing music immediately. My first performance, playing my own music, was in 1982 with my brother band at St. Francis Xavier High School on 16th Street.

Do you remember how you were first introduced to ska?
In the 1979, my brother got the Specials' debut album on 8-track , so I guess that was my first real exposure to ska. I remember listening to the the Beat, Madness, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Squeeze during the early 80's and loving them all. I bounced around listening to and playing different genres during most of the 80's, but I rediscovered ska in 1988 when I pulled out the English Beat's 'Special Beat Service and The Specials' first album again. I got into NY ska through an old girlfriend. She gave me some tapes of The Boilers, Beat Brigade and the Toasters. Soon after, I bought the N.Y. Citizens' 'On the Move' LP.

What inspired you to start a ska band?
In 1988-89, the Toasters' front men (Sean Dinsmore and Lionel Bernard) left the band to perform as Unity 2. I saw an ad in the Village Voice for tryouts, so I called and they sent me a tape of some songs from the Thrill Me Up LP. I phoned Rob Hingley (as instructed in the audition letter) to have a conversation before scheduling an audition. Once he heard that I was only 17, he chuckled and told me I was a bit too young. His advice was to start a band of my own and then give him a call. So, I took his advice! (See a copy of the audition letter Gainfort received from Hingley below -- a real piece of ska history!)

Tell me about The Steadys? How did you originally connect with the other members?
I put a flyer up for a bassist in Bleecker Bob's Records in March of 1989. I got a call from a 15 year old guy from Hoboken, NJ named Ani Schempf who told me my search was over. He couldn't have been more right. That kid not only had chutzpah, but amazing chops too. We got together at my mom's apartment and hit it off immediately. Ani had a buddy named Chris Woehrle that played the drums and a step-dad named Joe Ruddick that was a good horn player and keyboardist (good was an understatement). We all got together in June of 1989 at Ani and Joe's place in Hoboken and started laying down tracks for a demo. Later that summer, we added Arthur Peeples (from the ska band the Exterminators) to the lead guitar slot and Laura (her last name is gone from my memory banks) on back up vocals and percussion.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the sound of the band? What were some of your influences?
I think the Specials were the biggest influence. We were definitely influenced by some NY ska, but most of my writing was linked to the Specials, the English Beat and maybe a little Elvis Costello. Joe Ruddick was also a major influence on the band. By the time he started playing with us, he already had 20+ years of experience in music. So, I would definitely say his knowledge and talent played a huge role in our sound. He produced every track we put on tape and was the band's acting manager and mentor.

The Steady's seemed to come out of nowhere in 1989! Tell me about the early days of the band.
Our first ska show was on November 18, 1989 at CBGB's. We were on the bill with Let's Go Bowling, Potato 5 and the Toasters (we went on last at around 1:30 AM). It was our debut and an awesome opportunity. We owed it all to the late Rich Morrisey and Rob Hingley, who had paid us a visit at our rehearsal space a couple of months before that show. Our next gig was about a week later opening for the N.Y. Citizens at the Anthrax in Norwalk, CT. When we did the NYC Ska Live LP in March of 1990, we had only played a handful of shows. So, we moved up pretty quickly.

The band started playing out during the height of ska mania in the U.S. What are your memories of the NYC and American ska scene of the late 80's and early 90's?
I remember having a lot of fun hanging on the scene, especially at Mona's and the Cherry Tavern. It was an awesome time for music. The Lower East Side hadn't been transformed yet, so it still had the old gritty energy and far fewer hipsters. Shows were fun to go to, especially after The Steadys formed. We always had a blast! I remember when the hardcore scene began to fade, some of that crowd started coming to ska shows. Most bands didn't want them, but we saw it as an opportunity to incorporate them into our scene. Naive, maybe, but a bunch of them would travel to our shows. They showed us some serious loyalty. On more than one occasion, they saved our asses from some pretty gnarly, wanna-be skinheads. Some of them would also roadie for us from time to time. Maybe all the lovely ladies at our shows were what really motivated them. Either way, we had more heads at our gigs and that was good for business!

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
We did a matinee show with the Toasters in Philadelphia at the Chestnut Cabaret. We rented a van and drove down there. While on stage, someone broke into the van and robbed us. After the gig, we went through it to see what they had stolen. The only thing they took was our collection of ska tapes. We had equipment, bags, etc. in there, but they only wanted the music. Another was during the NYC Ska Live days.

I remember that Joe Massot was filming each band separately at different venues to later incorporate that footage into the film. One night, we went to CBGB's to see The Citizens. Outside we were all gathered smoking and chatting and then all of a sudden, one of Joe's cameramen got hit by some random skinhead. During the altercation, his camera got damaged. I believe that was one of the incidents that caused the filming to be canceled, however, I am not sure if that was the final blow. I remember it only because we were supposed to be filmed a couple of nights later at the Wetlands and that didn't that really sucked! (Read an excellent review of the NYC SKA Live album posted by the Duff Guide To Ska).

The band seemed to have a tremendous amount of promise. The two songs on the NYC SKA Live comp may the best on the record. Did the band record any other songs? Were their plans for an album?
Thanks. I thought we had promise too. Rob Hingley expressed interest in an album for Moon Records, but he wasn't interested enough. We were, however, very grateful for the opportunities we did have. We did a lot of recording on our own (thanks to Joe Ruddick), but never got a chance to release anything. So, the 2 tracks on the NYC Ska Live LP are the only ones on vinyl.

Gainfort was kind enough to share the results of some of those never released recordings. Have a listen to three of the songs below which are testament to the band's talent. Its hard to believe that most of the band were still in their teens when these songs were recorded. Gainfort has a great clear and soulful voice and the the band incorporates their 2-Tone influences (particularly The dueling guitars of bands like The Selecter) in a unique style. The lead guitar and sax playing are particularly memorable. These are album worthy.  I've also included one of the band's excellent tracks from the NYC SKA Live compilation album 'Just Reflections' which may be the best song on the entire recording.  Have a listen below:

On Any Other Saturday (Unreleased)

Hopeless Case (Unreleased)

Sans Amour (Unreleased)

Just Reflections (NYC SKA Live compilation)

Why did the band stop playing after only 2 years together?
The band's line-up changed. Chris, Arthur and Laura exited the band in 1990. We had a few different drummers sit in, but Andy (I forgot his last name too) ended up on drums and back-up vocals. He was a great, hard hitting drummer and definitely a good addition. Musically we got really tight, but we began to move away from our original sound. Ani and I started working on other projects and found ourselves slowly pulling away from the ska scene. Moon Records had expressed interest in doing an album, but we were one of many. By that point we had the following, but putting a record out on Moon was definitely a pipe dream. In early 1991, we started getting less and less billings with other ska bands. Our last show was at the Wetlands in April 1991 with Mephiskapheles and the Scofflaws. Mephiskapheles was slated to start the show (I think it was one of their first gigs). However, they thought we should open up for them. So, we did, but we took the incident as sort of an insult. As a result, most of our fans came after we played, so they missed our set. I never really understood why that happened. So, between not getting to put an album out and getting the cold shoulder from some of the other ska bands, after that show, we called it quits.

What are you up to musically these days?
I've been mostly writing these days. The sound is more eclectic, but there is a heavy ska influence. Old habits, die hard! I had a great time, musically and professionally, playing with the Steadys. Ska is fun music to perform and I always had a blast doing those shows. I played in several bands after the Steadys, but nothing ever came of those groups. Being a part of a scene really makes the difference.

What are your lasting memories of performing with The Steadys and of the New York ska scene?
The camaraderie has to be the one thing I remember. We lived the ska scene. We followed everything that happened... from Big Steve and the Checkered Demons to the fanzines to all the cute ska girls.....we were in it and loving it! Looking back, I would have to say the NYC Ska Live show was a big highlight for the band. In February of 1991, we played a solo show at the Limelight. We packed the place and played a super tight set. I think it was the best show we ever did. Oddly enough, very few people from the ska scene showed up that night. We were very fortunate to play with bands like the Toasters, Urban Blight and especially the Skatalites. We opened for them at Barnard College. It was a personal highlight for me. Those guys were awesome to hang with. It was an absolute honor!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

12 Year Old Ska & Reggae DJ To Perform At Lily Allen's Wedding

The U.K. media are all reporting about 12 year-old Ted Lavender, who DJ's under the name 'Ted at the Controls', who will be entertaining guests with his selection of ska and reggae tunes at Lily Allen's wedding this weekend. Apparently young Ted only started DJing a year ago and now practices mixing his favorite ska and reggae vinyl on decks in his bedroom.

According to the Daily Mail story yesterday:
He got his first break when he played a slot at the Endorse It music festival in Blandford, Dorset. That was followed by a guest appearance at a benefit gig in aid of the musicians' charity Strummerville, set up by the widow of Clash legend Joe Strummer. Club night promoter Dave Clark, who was in the audience, was so impressed he booked Ted for the Hipshaker tent at the Isle of Wight Festival next weekend.
Apparently Ted has already picked out his top tune for his festival début next weekend - the 1976 classic Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin.

Read more about Ted At The Controls here and here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Interview With Dunia Best: Original Member Of The Slackers Founds Third Wave NYC Ska Band Agent 99

In an early 90's New York ska scene dominated by men, Dunia Best was a breath of fresh air.  Like Pauline Black of The Selecter (who is definitely a vocal influence), Best's voice would help define the many bands she would sing with, going from strong to vulnerable, soulful to sweet, breakneck to languid and then lovely.  Even more impressive was her ability to match her vocal style to the diversity of the songs she was singing, be it ska, reggae, punk, soul or new wave.

While she was there at the founding of The Slackers in the early 90's, she made her name with Agent 99, a seminal but short-lived New York ska band built around a core of musicians who have all gone on to other high-profile projects since their short tenure together in the mid-90's. Featuring Best on vocals (fresh off of singing on The Slackers first cassette-only release -- 'Do The Ska With The Slackers' -- released in 1992) and future Slackers, guitarist Jay Nugent and drummer Ara Babajian and his Leftover Crack co-member Alec Baillie, Agent 99 was notable for their ability to play many diverse musical styles well, and still maintain a consistent ska feel.

In many ways Agent 99 were the consummate mid-90's 3rd Wave American ska band,  but they never got the credit they deserved for the influence they had on the American ska scene. Much of that may have had to do with the fact that the band never released an album, just a handful of 7-inches and a 6-song demo tape. Nevertheless, Agent 99 probably had all the ingredients to be just as big (if not bigger) than another female fronted band from Orange County in California.  Lucky for us, Shanachie Records did collect all that released material, plus a few live tracks and some unreleased material to compile a retrospective titled 'Little Pieces'. Though long out-of-print, copies are still floating around eBay and the Internet.

So what did this band of former and future members of The Slackers come up with? According to a review of the 'Little Pieces' album when it was released in the 90's:
"Stylistically, Agent 99 were all over the map, and Little Pieces gives you a good look at the variety the band was capable of. The disc starts out strong with the peppy, danceable "Get a Grip," which features one of the most charming opening lyrics I've ever heard, "You're dunking milk on my Oreos." It's a sound not unlike that of the Selecter, only funkier. From there the band goes into the beautiful, melancholy "Walk," followed up by "Words," a track that almost sounds like Magadog working with another vocalist. Other winning tracks include the soulful, reggae influenced title track (complete with stunning flute solo), the sweet, poppy, and romantic "You Already Know," the compelling soul and smooth guitar of "Kingston on My Mind," the Minutemen-influenced punk ska of "Little Rude Ridinghood," and the New Wave/reggae flavor of "Happy?."
I was lucky enough to connect with Best, who took the time to share her memories and tell some stories about the New York ska scene of the early 90's that gave birth to Agent 99 and to the role that The Slackers played in inspiring her to start the band.  She would work with Ari Up of The Slits and later found the neo-soul Brave New Girl and later yet the drum and bass-influenced Dubistry.

Where did you grow up and what bands or music influenced you the most?
I grew up mostly in the Bronx. I went to elementary and middle school mostly at Dalton on the Upper East side. When I was twelve we moved to Maplewood, NJ, but the City never really left me. I grew up mostly where hip hop was born and although I didn't like it at the time, it influenced me immensely.

My parents are both musicians and they have equal influence on me stylistically. My mother was very into acoustic African music and dance and played in the groups Women of the Calabash and Ladygourd Sangoma. She was also HEAVY into disco remix 12 inches. We spent a lot of our home time listening to that stuff. My father is much more of a jazz head. Miles Davis is his favorite but he also likes a lot of free jazz like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and all that.

What I discovered for myself and what influenced me first was 80's new wave and ska, though I didn't know it was ska at the time. You know, English Beat, Specials, Madness, Selecter all that as well as early Human League, ABC, Duran Duran and bands like that. After that it was sixties rock rebellion music: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles also the Wailers' Burnin'. In my senior year of high school I heard Fishbone and found my musical home, essentially.

Then of course there was Blomdie and X-Ray Spex and the Slits and Ari Up who I became very close to before she died. She was probably my biggest influence as far as speaking my own mind and things like that.

Do you remember the first record or single that you ever bought?
The first album I bought was Shalamar's greatest hits. It was the only thing I knew I could bring home without any questions. The first album I bought after I stopped caring what my parents thought was the first Fishbone EP.

What inspired you to start singing?
Interesting word choice, because inspire can also mean to breathe in. Ever since I could make noise I sang.

Do you remember how you were first introduced to ska?
Well the first real official intro was with Vic of the Slackers. He ran down the list from "My Boy Lollipop" on. He took a lot of time to play me a lot of records.

You were an early member of The Slackers right? 
I met Vic Ruggiero in 1989 at freshman orientation at NYU.  Two years later he and the infamous Happy of Sic and Mad were selling books on Astor Place where we re-met. It was a few days later day, when I was invited to see the band at Space at Chase that I first heard of the Slackers. At that time, the band was Vic, Marcus Geard, TJ Scanlon and Luis Zuluaga. Later that night I joined the Special Potato crew, but not the band, since there was a strict no chicks policy.

On a whim one night the band decided to roam the streets serenading passersby in the East Village. We passed a storefront on second Avenue and first street that housed a theater company and an open mic. We were invited in.

I have a terrible habit of singing back up all the time, but Marcus seemed to like this and insisted at that moment that I join the band. It was also around this time that Marq Lyn a/k/a QMaxxx 420 joined the band. This is also when I met my best friend Gail.

Gail and I were attending school in Westchester and occasionally sleeping at Chez Slack on 23rd street. I kept playing with the Slackers during all that. But Vic was a boy of fickle taste and despite my obvious boon to the band (chuckle), decided it was in his best interest to let me go.

Fortunately, I had been building my arsenal of angry chick songs and soon came out with what would become Agent 99. That was 1992.

What was it like to be a founding member of The Slackers?
We had good times in those days. We called it the Summer of Love. It seems like I made it up, but it was real and sweet and memorable.

Let's see what was it like? We were all very ambitious. We spent hours and hours rehearsing and playing different instruments. Vic taught himself how to play ska piano over the summer since there was already guitar and a keyboard seemed like a good idea. Marq was brought in because they thought they needed a front man and Marq was vivacious and a great talker. I was pretty good with the vocals, but I was fabulous flirt and was stealing all the groupies.

There was always a posse of lots of different kinds of people. Very open door. Lots of lost souls and stowaways, myself included.

(Below is a version of Best singing on the early Slacker track 'You Don't Know I')

Tell me about Agent 99? How did you originally connect with the other members?
When I was starting Agent 99, I was really pissed off, so I was mostly running around screaming with a crappy electric guitar I bought from a friend at SUNY Purchase. I really wanted an all girl band, but I didn't know any girls who could play. I had my best friend Gail who sang back up and that was all. At the time, the band was going to be called Courageous Cat.

Somehow I ended up at Jay's apartment at a party or something. He had just shaved off a head full of dreads and was getting into reggae musically. He had a sweet Les Paul guitar, so I knew he had good taste. I asked him if he was good (at guitar) and he said yes. I believed him. And he was. So we put together my couple of songs and went looking for a drummer and a bassist.

We had a lovely guy playing bass with us, whose name escapes me. He was very nice, but his timing was off and eventually he moved to Oregon or something. It was the early nineties, after all.

I met Alec at ABC No Rio playing with an amazing band called No Commercial Value with Sturgeon Scott. SUCH a great band. They had this great singer named Olivia who had this great cranky little girl voice that just made her sound pissed off all the time. Anyway somehow Jay got Alec to sit in with us. Alec was awesome. He made us sound like a real band.

The first drummer we found is named John Alvarez. He was an incredibly sweet guy. Not exactly what we needed in a drummer though. I'm pretty sure my brother Ahmed tried to be our drummer, because I always get him to play drums with me. Finally, Jay was like, "I want to ask this friend of mine from NYU but he's really good so he might not want o play with us". Fortunately Ara and Alec had instant chemistry so I got lucky.

Jay thought of the name Agent 99 and so it was born.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe the sound of the band? What were some of your influences?
Agent 99 is what No Doubt has been trying to sound like since its inception. In fact, we're fairly certain they copped a few licks here and there. The Selecter and Pauline Black were influences as well as Bad Brains and Fishbone. the Minutemen are in there and the Clash. I would say the main influence though is pain.

The band started playing out during the height of third wave ska mania in the U.S.

Below are three songs from the 'Little Pieces' compilation -- 'Get A Grip', 'Little Pieces' and 'Little Rude Ridinghood):

What are your memories of the NYC and American ska scene of the early 90's?
Well, it was funny with '99 because we never quite fit into anyone's category. We opened for Sublime and played hard core shows and Oi shows and with the Toasters and stuff. We would draw huge crowds but labels like Moon Records wouldn't sign us.

I remember the scene being somewhat polarized. I hung around a lot of skinheads but they were like peaceful skinheads and Oi skinheads, not white power skins. There was a real divide between ska that was more funk oriented like Skinnerbox and ska that was more frat oriented like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The scenes themselves were different and I would dress for each scene.

I remember that Vic made a conscious decision to be more like the Skatalites and Hepcat around then and I was all f that I'll do what I want. At some point the skinhead girls were all about the '99 so their boyfriends had to come to. That was around when the Oi/Skampilation thing happened.

We kind of broke off from the ska scene somewhat and found our way into the punk and hardcore scenes partially because we as a band couldn't play straight ska and be true to ourselves. I was actually surprised we weren't in that Afropunk movie because we played with all those guys like Bushmon and Funkface and Song of Seven.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable during the early days of the band?
Well there was a day we played at the Tune Inn in New Haven. The first crazy thing is that there were a bunch of those Black Israelite dudes having a go at people around the corner. I was having a "lady day" and since the Tune Inn was a dry all ages club, I brought my own "pain killer". This was also during my whiskey-only diet plan.

Anyway, so my pain had been quelled and thirst quenched and I was wearing this fab long white dress and was just kind of feeling extremely female. I think someone in the audience said something about my dress being a wedding dress and I was like no one's gonna marry me and some kid said "I'll marry you!" That was pretty cute.

There was also the night River Phoenix died. We were playing in New Paltz with Perfect Thyroid. I was so bummed. I kept talking about it. It was Halloween. I was pretty devastated.

Tell me about the process of compiling Agent 99's only release 'Little Pieces'? It was a post-humous release right?
We basically just put together our first tape release of 6 songs, out subsequent recording with my brother Ahmed which was never released, and a recording we released as a 4 song vinyl EP. Then we tacked on a couple of live recordings. We released it after the band was dead, yes. I think that was mostly Jay.

How did you end up in Los Angeles in Dubistry? How would you explain the Dubistry sound? Was it the next step musically down the path from The Slackers and Agent 99?
The move to Los Angeles was a combination of the aftermath of September 11 and my husband getting into a PhD program at USC. We left behind our current band, Brave New Girl and still felt the need to play. Fortunately, my brother Ahmed, my default drummer lives in LA, so we kind of knew we'd at at least have a drummer. In a confluence of good fortune, Matt Urbania who played with the Easy Star All-Stars among others also moved to LA. We were introduced by our mutual friend Noah Schachtman who plays bass with Emch Subatomic and writes for Wired Magazine. Matt's musical path was extremely compatible with ours and Dubistry was born.

I thought of the name Dubistry because the music we were making came out of dub more than anything else. "We do things with dub" was my motto for us. My main idea was to have a live dub 'n' bass/jungle band. At some points we also had a DJ onstage with us. My brother would sing and play drums, which was pretty bad ass. I'm trying to revive a version of Dubistry in NY since we're all here pretty much.

Musically, it probably was a further step along, after Brave New Girl.

Tell me about your current project is Brave New Girl?
My husband Aram and I basically started Brave New Girl in 1995 because we were going insane and realized it was because we weren't playing music.

I initially hired Aram to play with Agent 99 while I thought it was going to survive. It didn't, but at least I always have a bass player when I need one. Anyway, while I was mourning the untimely demise of the '99, we built this new band with Todd Nocera who had played with the Boston bands Thumper and Groove This.

Once again, we have trouble fitting into a single category. We can play some killer dub, thanks to the recent addition of Matt who moved back to New York shortly after we did. We can play wicked jazz and some of our sounds venture into neo soul. We basically play music we like, rather than what some genre dictates, much like Agent 99. It really takes into account the songwriting skills of the whole band. It is greater than the sum of its parts.

I usually describe the sound as Erykah Badu meets Steely Dan, but it can sound like Paul Simon, Sade and even Agent 99.

Below is video of Brave New Girl with special guest Ari Up of The Slits:

What are your lasting memories of performing with Agent 99 and of the American ska scene of the 90's?
Lasting memories...I was so wasted...

I have this great memory of doing a little mini tour with the Slackers to Penn State. Ara was so sick of hearing ska that he could no longer take it. He just kept repeating "I'm in the mood for ska" with this maniacal grin on his face.

One night of scene solidarity: I was on line with my brother Khalid at a club with a dress code. I was all about f dress codes of course because deep down I'm actually a punk. Anyway, my brother is a very good looking guy and he was dressed very well and the a-hole at the door turned him away because they said his pants were too baggy. I went off on the idiot, my brother actually went home to change and I stormed off to CBGB, where I found some of my skinhead sisters playing pool. They helped me cool my head. Such a great group of friends.

It was always nice to walk into a show and see everyone dressed so nicely and behaving so well to each other. The ska scene, in my mind, was ultimately about fun and respect and good dancing.

My favorite memories are all about hanging out with the other musicians in my band and in the other bands and feeling very normal. I've spent a lot of my life being the freakiest person in the room and kind of being withdrawn and shy. I felt like I was my true self in those days in a way I had never been before. I used to invite people over for dinner and be very about the house and the home. I was clueless about most things, but I was really all about love and the power of love in this very fundamental way. I feel like we were all very innocent in this way and some of that innocence is still there. But we've definitely grown up.

Best has re-formed Brave New Girl and they play out around New York City often. Visit the band's web site for more information and details about upcoming shows.  Word has that Dubistry is also back in actiion.  Visit the band's Facebook page for more details.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Selecter Are Your Selecter!: Pauline Black & Gaps Hendricksen Pick Their Favorite Ska & Reggae Songs

Here's a treat!  As part of the promotion for the release of The Selecter's brand new single 'Big In The Body, Small In The Mind' this past week, original lead singers Pauline Black and Arthur 'Gaps' Hendricksen shared a list of their top 5 favorite ska and reggae songs.  While the song selection is great, the stories that Black shared behind each of the selections are even better.

If you haven't had a chance to pick up a copy of the new single (watch the official video here), please consider doing so.  The song is available for download via in the U.S. and in the U.K. Without further ado, let the music and the stories begin....

1. Hill and Gully Rider by The Charms - Gaps selection

This was one of the first reggae songs that Gaps heard. Until then he had largely listened to English 60’s pop music in Luton, where he lived. He remembers listening to Cilla Black, The Stones, The Who, The Hollies- a favourite of his was Winchester Cathedral by the New Vaudeville Band. He says that his favourite singer was James Brown- he’s always had an eclectic taste.

2. Barb Wire by Nora Dean - Pauline's selection

I love the feistiness of Ms. Dean’s delivery - her faux naïve vocals are at odds with the lyrics of the song- there is a certain knowingness- this is a woman who knows exactly what she is doing -'lick him hard ‘pon him head'- such a good lyric & the best method I know for keeping a band in control!

3. Phoenix City by The Skatalites - Gap's selection

Gaps learnt to shuffle listening to Phoenix City, when he entered a dance competition in a club, Burtons in Cricklewood- he didn’t win, some guy won who did a cartwheel shuffle - but undeterred, Gaps went away and mastered the art of the cartwheel shuffle, winning shuffling competitions, at the 67 Club in Bilston. In fact he is still working on getting that particular move back in the current Selecter set. BTW He can also still do the splits.

The Selecter toured with the Skatalites in America in the early 90’s. Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Knibbs, Lloyd Brevitt, Lester Stirling were all there. We shared a tour bus with them. As old as they were, they liked to watch soft porn videos on the TV at the front of the bus. The Selecter occupied the back of the bus. I would often surprise them by going up the front of the bus to get a soda or something and they would immediately switch off the TV as soon as I appeared and try to not look guilty. It was my favourite game of the tour. Not a lot of people know this.

4. Ten Commandments Of Man - Prince Buster - Pauline's Selection

I adore Prince Buster. My father who was from Oshogbo in Nigeria, owned this record in 1964. I have a copy of it with a ‘made in Nigeria’ imprint. Apparently ska was enjoyed in Nigeria in the early 60’s. My father obviously practiced what he preached, because he had 8 wives and I am the oldest of his 17 children.

Prince Buster can be forgiven for his unreconstructed male musical offering, because The Selecter had the opportunity to work with him on two separate occasions in the 90’s, in Japan and in Miami. We also recorded a version of Madness with him, with Neol Davies on guitar.

Prince Buster is a generous man, with a mesmerizing stage presence who welcomed the band into his home and cooked us chicken, rice & peas (well his wife did). He is currently not very well, so I’d like to take this opportunity to wish him better and it would be wonderful to see him back where he belongs - on stage.

5. The Boiler by The Special AKA featuring Rhoda Dakkar - Pauline's Selection

This song is all about the abilities of the wonderful Ms Dakar to make a work of art out of something so harrowing. She is one of the bravest ladies I know. She had the guts to perform this song (originally with The Bodysnatchers) in 1979 to a largely male audience, who were mostly waiting for The Specials or The Selecter to perform. The song speaks for itself and is still the lot of too many young women. By the way I consider that Special AKA never get the accolades that they should- they made some brilliant music- wish they would re-form!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hollie Cook Releases Self-Titled Album: Could It Be The Reggae Album Of 2011?

Just in time for the start of the summer of 2011 comes the release of the self titled debut album by Hollie Cook (daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook) on Mr Bongo Recordings. Her self-coined 'Tropical pop' sound is a bit of a misnomer since the album is really an homage to British Lover's Rock reggae singers Janet Kay and Phyllis Dillon crossed with the sound of classic 60s girl soul and pop groups. In a summer that promises to be chock full of great ska and reggae releases, Cook's album could end up being one of the best of the year. Don't believe me?  Read the glowing review the BBC gave the album today. 

The album is produced by Cook's collaborator Mike Pelanconi, better known as Prince Fatty who has roped in the talents of of the Father of the Lover's Rock sound Dennis Bovell along with Jamaican singing icon George Dekker (Desmond Dekker's brother) of The Pioneers and dub reggae drummer Style Scott to assist. The debut single 'That Very Night; garnered significant attention and radio play in the U.K. with leading British DJ's Steve Lamacq (BBC Radio 2/6 Music), Rob Da Bank (Radio 1), John Kennedy (XFM) and David Rodigan (Kiss) among her many fans and supporters.

The album is released on June 6th but you can stream five of the tracks below, including Cook's second single which is a cover of the Shangri-La's 'Remember (Walkin' In The Sand)' which has been transformed from a dark song into one filled with hope (buy a copy of the single on iTunes). Originally released in 1964 as Shangri-Las’ debut single, it went straight to number #5 in the US Billboard charts, catapulting the teenage girls from Queens, New York into a household name. Here's to hoping Cook's cover can do the same for her in the U.K.

Milk & Honey by Hollie Cook

Walking In The Sand by Hollie Cook

Shadow Kissing by Hollie Cook

Body Beat by Hollie Cook