Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Birth of the NYC Ska Scene: Interview with Remi Sammy of Second Step

As part of my ongoing quest to document the origins of the NYC ska scene of the early and mid-80's, I am profiling key musicians and bands who played an important part in giving birth to one of the most vibrant ska scenes in the U.S. One of those musicians was Remi Sammy who was an original member of seminal mid 80's NYC Ska band Second Step. She was also one of the very few women to help lead a band during the golden age of ska in New York City and like her earlier 2-Tone counterpart Pauline Black of The Selecter, helped add a look, vocal sound and unique viewpoint to a mostly male dominated scene. Its fair to say that this version of the Second Step helped influence the creation of my own band Bigger Thomas.

The original lineup of the band included:

Lead Vocals: Remi Sammy
Chatter/Toaster: Constant Bernard (whose brother Lionel was in The Toasters/Unity 2)
Bass: Tom Manno
Drums: Clyde Hunt
Guitar: Andrew Lee
Sax: Ross Morgan

By late 1986 and 1987what is now considered the core of the old school New York ska scene had quickly coalesced. Second Step along with Urban Blight, The Boilers, The Toasters, A-Kings and N.Y Citizens helped to create one of the most vibrant, creative and important ska scenes in the U.S. which in turn helped to galvanize scenes across the country. Second Step were always one of my favorite live bands. They were a quintessential New York band with a mix of band members from all parts of the city, who reflected the fast growing and diverse audience of black, white, Asian and Hispanic kids who were drawn to the all ages ska shows throughout the East Village and who embraced the mix of 2-Tone ska, soul and reggae that the band performed.

Though Second Step played over 1,500 shows in the US and Japan during the course of its varied career (sometimes at a clip of 200 shows a year during their peak) and had a variety of different line-ups, they really made their mark playing ska and reggae to sweaty, dancing crowds at clubs and private parties all over New York City in the late 80's. Though their sound ultimately morphed from ska/reggae, to "ethno-funk"and other dance rhythms, it was their earliest incarnation with Remi on lead vocals and Constant Bernard on toasting and chats that I remember best and that helped to define the sound of New York ska.

I recently connected with Remi. Below is the interview she did with me where she shared memories of her days as the lead singer for Second Step. Enjoy!

What was it like growing up in New York City in the 80's?
The 80's were Fresh. Fresh fashion, art, music, attitudes, hang out spots (the East + West Village), all ages shows at The Ritz, matinee's, under age drinking (ha ha), Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge, The Dive,CBGB’s...A lot of fun.

When did you first get into music?
I was always into music. My brother was a big music enthusiast. We use to analyze drum solo's, vocal harmonies and guitar riffs from bands like Pink Floyd, the Beatles,King Crimson, Elvis Costello and Jimi Hendrix. And my dad always played Calypso & Jazz around the house. A lot of times we would just sit and listen to music.

When I was little, my friends and I would stand on the benches and sing 'You got The Best of My Love' by the Emotions. And when I was really little, I’m told I would sing the Star Spangled Banner whenever I saw an American Flag -c’mon, I lived across the street from Yankee Stadium
Then I started to play the clarinet and from there my music education continued with private lessons.

Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
No. Either The Police - Regatta de Blanc, Joan Jett- I Love Rock‘n’Roll or Billy Joel - The Stranger

When did you discover that you could sing? Were you in any other bands before Second Step?
You know when your a kid and your parents make you sing whenever company's around.... I think it was somewhere around then. But later when a friend got into Music & Art, I thought, 'hey, I'm just as good as her..' so I auditioned and my acceptance validated my choice to express myself through music. Second Step was my first band but before that I wrote songs and sang them to my friends.

How did Second Step get started? Where did you meet your band mates?
Tom Manno (bass), Andrew Lee (guitar) and Ross Morgan (sax) and had already been jamming for a few weeks before I came along. I met Tom in High School gym class. After finding out he had a ska band I asked if he needed a singer. He invited me to rehearsal that week.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? Did you make a conscious decision to play ska and reggae?
The decision wasn't conscious but I really loved ska. The early sound of the band had a basic rock song structure, vocal harmonies, reggae influences and a prominent saxophone part.

Were you aware that there were other ska bands forming in NYC at the time? Had you seen or heard The Toasters? What was the time line from the formation of the band to first gig?
I knew about Urban Blight 'cause I used to go to their matinee's. I think it was just a few weeks (4?) after rehearsing that we had our first show. Shortly after that I met The Boilers and The A-Kings and The Citizens (i think that was their name) . The Toasters were kinda last on my radar.

Tell me about the way you and Constant Bernard worked together as co-lead vocalists. I always loved the vocal interplay between the two of you.
Thank You. At first he was just brought in as a chatter / toaster. Everybody loved him and we started using him more and more. Andrew always had a lot of good vocal ideas for us to play around with and we just ran with it. The more intense the music got the more we wanted to wind up the crowd.

As one of the only NYC Ska bands with a female lead singer, Second Step really stood out. Tell me what it was like as the only woman in a scene full of men.
I ain't gonna lie, it was tough defending my ideas at rehearsal with four+ guys. Luckily we wrote a lot of songs one on one. Dating sucked too. Gotta tell ya, the fellas weren’t that into me back then. But later in life a few admitted they ‘..had a crush on me back in the day...’ but were too shy to approach me. I may have been the only female musician in a band but I certainly wasn’t the only female on the scene; My closest friends were Rude Girls.

What was the New York ska scene of the mid-80's like? I always got the impression that it was a very tight knit scene.
The scene was always really open and friendly. It was great. It was great to hang out with people with similar taste, beliefs and values. To have a hang-out spot where you knew everyone and they were always happy to see you. To perform in front of crowds that came specifically to see you. It was a mixture of students from all over the city where race and class were overlooked. I could see how one might think it was a tightly knit scene ... I can't say but I usually went out with some-one from school, my neighborhood or someone close to the band and having that one hang out buddy always made the night a lot of fun.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows that were particularly memorable? Did the band tour at all outside NYC?
We toured a lot. With an ever changing lineup... but I toured with the band for about 4 years. Up and down the East Coast. Until I quit. One time Andrew's guitar got caught in these hoop earrings I was wearing - and I got a little electric shock. One time I got high before a show and forgot lyrics. Never did that again...

What are your lasting memories of performing with Second Step and the NYC ska scene of the 80's?
The very first show left such an impression on me, of what life as a performer could be. The place was packed, the lights were pink and hot and everyone liked us. There was so much encouragement at that first show. After that we had our second gig at CBGB's and FISHBONE came! They got on stage and skanked with us. A Very Cool Memory. I remember Constant telling me that Kendall and Angelo were inside and I said “Can’t you be serious for once, we’re about to play at CBGB’s!”

The scene was growing and everyone in it defined themselves by fashion, music and multiculturalism. I loved how that interpreted our social and political points of view.Another big moment was opening up for Fishbone at Irving Plaza. They played our video right before we went on and the person next to me said "Is that you?" I felt almost famous. Blanche's, (now Lucy’s) was the hang out spot. It was our Cheers, if you will... Vespa's out front, pork-pie hats, Monkey Boots, Pointy Shoes, 2-Tone Outfits, Tompkins Sq. Park across the street had NO curfew for closing...It was the most I have ever been surrounded by like minded people. Our picture is still on the wall.

Another lasting impression is when we won the battle of the bands in Prospect Park. What a feeling knowing so many people like your music! The win afforded us the opportunity to open up for Dr. John the following week. When I walked onto that stage, I saw what seemed like thousands of people, I froze. I had NEVER performed in front of a crowd that big. That was incredible. The only other time I froze like that was when Afrika Bambatta came to one of our rehearsals.

Once we got on the road I saw way too many body parts. Ugh, its burned into my memory -yuk-I’ll leave that one alone.

Tell me about being part of the N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run compilation that Moon Records released in 1986. I think the song 'Opportunity' is one of the best songs on the compilation.
Well, it was a big deal. I think we all felt like we were on our way to being full-time, rich and famous artists.

Did the band record any songs for an album? Are there unreleased tracks?
Yeah, we recorded quite a few songs that never got released.

Why did you leave the band?
So many reasons.
1. There were no original members.
2. The music changed too much.
3. We were doing bad cover songs
4. The horn section was always louder than me...and usually drunk
5. The ego's got way out of hand
6. And it got really tough to be the only female - especially on tour

What have you been doing musically since Second Step?
After Second Step I got into the NY Poetry scene, then formed another band under the name (my name) RemiLeku. I wanted to get back to my rock roots. We were doing really slow, ethereal trip-rock stuff. It was a great band but the sound was ahead of its time.
Nowadays there are tons of emo bands.

Any chance of a Second Step reunion?
I don't know. Maybe. If everyone were on the same page, it could be interesting.

Below is a link to download demo songs that Remi recorded with the original line-up of the band including 'Two Men In Suits', 'Give Us This Day' and 'Alien' which was recorded live at CBGB's in 1987. These tracks were recorded in 1987 by Oliver Rhee ( The Boilers ) in the bathroom of Patrick Dougher's apartment ( drummer of The Boilers / Easy Star All-Stars). You can also visit a MySpace page she created to read and hear more.

Second Step - Unreleased Demos


Kames Jelly said...

I'd love to see a Second Step reunion. It'd be a great followup to the Beat Brigade reunions happening in November.

Also, I agree with you, Oppurtinity is one of my favorite songs from that comp.

Marco On The Bass said...

Post updated with more pictures from back in the day including a great one of Remi with Cavo from The Toasters!

Andrew Lee said...

Great Article!

Would love to hear some more about the early NYC scene.

Lee Chen said...

Would love to know what happened to that fantastic guitarist turned Ph.D. candidate in mathematics named Andrew F. Lee.

One ill-fated ski trip to Banff and that was the last I'd heard.