Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Birth of the 1980's NYC Ska Scene - The Boilers

The Boilers were the most innovative and influential band to come out of the 1980's NYC Ska scene. Though they burned brightly for only a short time and recorded just one full length album, they were the starting point for a core group of musicians who have gone on to help define, create and perform some of the finest reggae and ska music in the U.S. More than any of the other bands who came out of the NYC ska scene, The Boilers explored reggae as a vehicle for their sound and vision. Their legacy remains that they did it in a way that was authentic and connected with the roots of the music.

The latter day impact of the individual band members on reggae and ska in the 21st century is impressive. Members of the band who included Michael O'Neil (bass), John Patterson (guitar), Jeff Baker (trombone/vocals), Olivier Rhee (vocals), Patrick Dougher (drums), Victor Axelrod (keyboards/piano) have gone on to play key creative roles in the ongoing growth and popularity of reggae and ska music. Jeff Baker (King Django) went on the start Skinnerbox and Stubborn All-Stars before venturing out on his own as a solo artist and ska and reggae producer. Olivier Rhee (Mr Rhee) has been a NYC reggae stalwart performing with the Cannabis Cup All-Stars as well as on his own, while Victor Axelrod, (Ticklah) is the dub reggae producer behind the Easy Star All-Stars project and performs with the Antibalas Afropop Orchestra and plays piano on the new Amy Winehouse album. Patrick Dougher is also a regular member of Easy Star All-Stars.

I had a chance to see the band once at a show at CBGB's in New York City. What I remember is the pure energy and professionalism of their performance (more impressive as most of the band were barely out of high school) as well as the overwhelming response from a sold-out crowd that seemed to know the words to most of the songs. I was unfamiliar with the band but quickly ventured back into New York a few weeks later to pick-up a cassette tape that band had recorded called 'Flotsam' at Bleecker Bob's Records in the West Village of Manhattan. I loved that tape and played it until it wore out. The band had recorded songs that seemed to pick-up where 2-Tone had left off but they included a unique and dynamic mix of reggae, 60's Ska, mento, rock steady and calypso. It was clear that the band had not only studied the genres but clearly lived and loved them as well, because their live shows and recorded output sounded effortless and passionate.

Sadly, the band never achieved its full potential, but the one album they recorded and released 'Rockin' Steady' is a lost classic of the era that should have reached a larger audience than it did. The album captures the band at a creative peak and remains the soundtrack to a NYC Ska summer of love that lasted for a few years in the mid-80's. Some of the band's creativity is captured in short video made in the mid-80's by an early member named Erik Knight who is now a freelance filmmaker who has worked on a variety of projects in commercial and independent productions, including films by Spike Lee, Tim Burton, and Robert Townsend.

I recently connected with band vocalist Olivier Rhee at a King Django show here in New York City and he agreed to talk to me about his musical upbringing and the history of The Boilers and their role as one of the leading ska and reggae bands from New York City and the U.S.

What was it like growing up in New York City in the 80's?
Ahh the good old days of New York City! The true nitty gritty. It was a crazy time, where anything could happen at any time, and usually did.It was a recessive time for the economy, and funding for society's programs for infrastructure was in severe decay. Picture New York City paired with lawlessness and corruption. One of the by-products of such an atmosphere was a spontaneous city, with house parties, functions, art shows, gigs galore, with very little regulation. The limitations of your ability to do what you please was regulated only by the limits of your imagination. Oppression seems to set off rebellion and anarchy, and people wanted to get their message out more than ever, including The Boilers.

When did you first get into music? Do you remember the first record you ever bought? Who introduced you to ska and reggae?
My mother (bless her soul & big respect) was always a Hi Fidelity connoisseur. Music was almost always playing from ever since I could remember. I used to go through her record collection on the sneak (she didn't want me to scratch 'em). She had a wide range of influences in musical styles she liked to explore, from African, R&B, Jazz, 60s Rock and Folk, Funk and Psychedelic, Reggae, Hawaiian to Broadway shows. But the first record that really caught me was one my mother brought back from Jamaica W.I. which I still have. Bob Marley "Jah Live" 7" with the version on the B side. That got some serious play at my house. My mother first influenced me to reggae music, then I just became hooked. I was heavy into dub and Dee Jays chatting over dub plates. So much so, I saved all my cash to get a 2 channel mixer with mic inputs and a reverb effects box built in, to do the same, and record to TDK or Maxell 90 minute chrome cassettes if I could afford them.

How did The Boilers get started? Where did you meet your band mates?
In junior high school, I met up with classmates Erik Knight, John Mathiason and Michael O'Neil who all had some diverse tastes themselves. One commonality was reggae and ska which I had heard before, but never distinctly. I began to focus on the history of reggae music through this peer group and began to be quite fond of Bluebeat, Ska, Rock Steady and the like. Our interest grew with authentic ska from Jamaica W.I. and the London based scene from the late 70s. Nostalgic footage, books and videos was all the rage. We become very engrossed and a band was formed as an outlet to expel the wealth and passion.

Were you in any other bands before The Boilers?
I always sang with the music as far as I could remember, but became serious when I was in Junior High at the age of 15, and I started to sing and chat to dub records and versions on B sides.

The band was originally called The Unseen right? When and why did you change it to The Boilers?
Yes, things evolved, through many players of instruments (particularly a revolving door of drummers and guitar players) "The Ghosts of Men", "The Unseen" (people used to think we were dissing the mod band "The Scene" (not the case)), then "The Boilers". Not quite sure exactly when, but it was a lineup change, where key players who were in "The Unseen" got kicked out. It was a process of elimination by level of talent and contribution. No one wanted the honor of doing it, but I wanted to keep moving with the music, so I gave people the pink slip. This is when I began to take full control of the band by organizing rehearsals, booking shows, recording, and auditions and such. It became my responsibility 24/7. When it came to creative input, all the current members would contribute, and add their flavors, including myself, but when it came to organizing, booking rehearsals, auditions, gigs and such, that was me.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? Did you make a conscious decision to play ska and reggae?
The early sound of the band was highly influenced by the great sounds of mostly non-commercial Reggae, Bluebeat, Ska, Mento, Rock Steady, Calypso. Yes it was our passion to play and adapt and incorporate these styles into our sound.

The band really seemed to be the political and social conscience of the NYC Ska scene with songs about injustice, poverty, corruption. The songs seemed more rooted in reggae though there was a lot of 2-Tone in the mix too.
Well growing up as youth, rebellion is a common theme, so we aimed our anger and sense of injustice and imbalance of the world into the music as an outlet for our frustration. I think attending the United Nations School aided in our thoughts and opinions of the world on a more global scale, therefore reflecting itself in the subject matter of the songs.

Were you aware that there were other ska bands in NYC at the time? Had you seen or heard The Toasters or Urban Blight? What was the time line from the formation of the band to its first gig?
Of course, we always got excited about that, and we often all rehearsed and auditioned players at the largest rehearsal space in New York City, Giant Studios, where I worked and had a monthly room with a recording setup. We prided ourselves on how we influenced many to form their own bands through the years. Yes we knew of Bucket and The Toasters and Urban Blight, but somehow they didn't really capture where we were coming from. We were very serious about rehearsing and were perfectionists. So we made sure music was tight and the rhythm was "in the pocket". Probably 2 to 3 months, rehearsing at least 3 times a week. I always felt we could have played more often, but we always would rehearse at least 5 or 6 times before doing a show.

What was the New York ska scene of the mid-80's like from your perspective? I always got the impression that it was very tight knit scene.
It was a glorious time, all the New York City bands were friendly to each other for the most part. No matter where you went, you would run into a member of this Ska band or that one, and we were all stars for the uniqueness of our passion. Very rarely was there a conflict with other players, except for the wannabees and mediocre players attempting to cause a vexation or competition. It was a tight scene of brother and sisterhoodly Love! I miss it, now that you mention it!

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable? Did the band tour at all outside NYC?
Sure, the time we played with The Toasters and a couple of other local Ska bands (not exactly sure who was on the bill) at CBGBs on a Saturday night and The Boilers mashed up the packed to rafters crowd, hard, clearly and unmistakeably, I always remember tension from the Toasters thereafter, and billing with them never happened again. Yes we played out of state a number of shows, always to a very enthusiastically receptive audience, but not that often. One show, we almost tipped the van when a driver cut us off on the highway, the gig was a hit however.

Tell me about being part of the N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run compilation that Moon Records released in 1986. I think the song 'Brighter Days' (along with Second Step's 'Opportunity') are the best songs on the compilation.
We were told that this compilation "Hit & Run" was being assembled, and we thought it would be right to contribute. After scratching our heads, we decided to book studio time at a pro recording studio in mid town and write a completely new track from scratch that day. Michael O'Neil came up with this cool bass line and the rhythm section just followed. I remember not knowing what lyrics to add, and as the expensive studio time was winding down, I came up with the title, chorus and verse. Whew! No one really liked the tune, because we didn't work on it long enough, I think 4 hours.

Tell me about the 'Rockin Steady LP? Where was it recorded? It has a very diverse and sophisticated production and sound for a group of musicians who were barely out of their teens when it was recorded. Was there a plan to release it on Moon Records? It really is a lost classic.
We wanted freedom from the confines of the parameters of "studio time" (like the recording of 'Brighter Days'). So I looked into renting a 16-Track 2" tape recording machine for a week instead, and Jeff suggested we use his house folks house in New Jersey while his folks were on vacation. We could all crash out there for a week and record until we dropped. I was using a 1/4 inch 8-track reel to reel in my setup at "Giant" and had been recording bands for money (including The Boilers - Flotsam tape, The Second Step and The Skadanks). I took on recording, engineering and mixing the album, it kept me up for 8 days at all hours of the day and night.Yes the plan was to release it on Moon, but Bucket wanted to change the artwork and title of the album, we didn't agree with this.

Why did The Boilers break-up? The band seemed to have tremendous potential.
There was a conflict with the way things were going. Particularly with Jeff Baker. As you mentioned earlier, we had more of a reggae feel to the sound, a rootsier vibes, but as Jeff began introducing his songs, they were more pop ska. Also I found him very adamant on how "his" songs were played, very militant at that. That wasn't how the band worked before. We each brought our elements to form songs, but this was different with Jeff. Some songs I didn't even like much, and as the lead singer, I was'nt going to sing songs I didn't feel or wasn't into. I wanted to do more rootsier material, more authentic Jamaican sound of Reggae. I was not alone with this notion. So I pushed to play more Reggae, conflicts ensued, tempers flared, and I decided not to pursue this band any longer. I just didn't like the militant aspect introduced by Jeff at the time, it killed the vibe for me. I had to get out, so I quit. I think there were 2 gigs without me, and that was it. No hard feelings to Jeff, respect bredren, he was anxious to get things done.

What have you been doing musically since The Boilers?
I worked on film scores with band mate Erik Knight, sang with "The Skadanks", went solo as "Mista Rhee", joined The High Times Cannabis Cup All Stars which is an ongoing gig, and joined "One Vibration" and recorded an album "Our World" and released 2 singles.I currently cameo and do singjay IDs over version rhythms for my bredrens, DJ Chucks & Uncle Paulie on WJFF Catskills Radio 90.5 FM (, also pursuing a musical project in it's early stages, incorporating reggae in the mix, keep an ear out!

What are your lasting memories of performing with The Boilers and the NYC ska scene of the 80's?
It was a memorable time, and I feel in my own way very blessed to have been a part of one of the best ska bands in America in the late 80's. The reception from all the fans and enthusiasts was always very intense, it was an extended family affair that will never leave my heart and mind. It was a mission for us to produce and evoke, and express our feelings in the music during those formative years of our youth, and I am always rewarded for it. Thanks to all the fans who supported us!

Any chance of a Boilers reunion?
It was attempted very quickly, not long ago, perhaps in the near future...

Below is a download of the song 'Brighter Days' which was The Boilers contribution to the 'NY Beat: Hit & Run' compilation. Their album 'Rockin' Steady' is long out-of-print but you can sometimes find copies for sale on-line. You can also visit The Boilers MySpace page to stream a number of their best songs.

The Boilers - Brighter Days


Anonymous said...

nice interview...thanks for shedding more light on the Boilers. their west coast counterpart stylistically speaking would probably be Crucial DBC. it would be awesome if you could do a blog on them.

Chien Kwok said...

Marco - thank you for chronicling the history of the ska revival movement in NYC in the 80s. As someone who was part of that, I'm glad to see ongoing appreciation of those who played in the music scene in that era.

But as history has many perspectives, you should also delve deeper and get accounts from different participants. For example, not sure if you knew that the original drummer for the Unseen and Boilers went on to play drums for the Toasters and to also form a funk/ska/reggae band called Thick As Thieves with former members of the Boilers and A-Kings?

It's also interesting that Mr. Rhee talks about Mr. Baker being militant about musical styles. This is something that Mr. Rhee can be accused of himself when he "fired" some of the original members.

For a sample of Thick As Thieves, check out:

butz said...

the boilers is kinda the soundtrack of my life,big influence for me and one of my most beloved albums, cheers skank on from germany, singer and song wirter butz form the band la-boum