Friday, March 12, 2010

Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters reflects on the beginnings of the NYC Ska scene and the N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run compilation

As the reunion to celebrate the release of the iconic ska compilation N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run draws closer, it was high time that we heard from the musician, who by all rights helped to give birth to the NYC ska scene, and who was the brainchild behind the very first American ska compilation. I'm speaking of course of Rob 'Bucket' Hingley, founder of The Toasters, head of Moon Records (RIP) and one of the people most responsible for making ska music an important part of the American soundscape of the last 25 years. Unfortunately, Hingley will be unable to attend the reunion on April 10th at Dusk Lounge in New York City (he will be on tour in France with The Toasters), but he was happy and willing to share some important history about his own early days as a musician in the UK, the start of the NY Ska scene and his thoughts on the NY Beat compilation.

'NY Beat: Hit and Run' was the very first compilation of U.S. ska ever. Released by Moon Records in 1985-86, it captures a snapshot in time of a vibrant New York ska scene that was notable for its musicianship, cultural diversity and its relative youth (average age 17-20 years old). While the music on the record is influenced by the British 2-Tone movement, its a diverse mix of ska, reggae, pop, punk, funk, rock and soul. Artists include A-Kings, Beat Brigade, The Boilers, City Beat, Cryin' Out Loud, The Daybreakers, Floorkiss, The Press, The Scene, Second Step, The Toasters and Urban Blight. Amazingly, many of the musicians who started and played in these bands are still actively playing and performing ska and reggae (including Hingley).

The original issue of the record was celebrated with a big show at Danceteria in 1986 featuring all the major bands who were part of the NYC ska scene at the time. In many ways it was the high point for the NYC ska scene which really exploded both in the New York City area and outside the northeast, particularly in California. I was at the launch party show, and it inspired me to pick up the bass guitar and start my own ska band Bigger Thomas.

Below is the interview Hingley did with me where he shared memories of the NYC ska scene and the NY Beat compilation record. Enjoy!

Before you arrived in New York in 1980 you were in a band called I-Witness in the UK right?. Can you tell me about the band? What did the band look and sound like? Is it true you had a song in the UK charts? Is it fair to say the roots of The Toasters are in I-Witness?
The roots of The Toasters run much further back than that to a band called The Klingons that I played in whilst at York University in 1975-78. It was at that time that I went to see most of the 2-tone bands playing at Leeds Polytechnic, amongst other venues. The song 'Run Rudy Run' was a Klingons song as was 'Social Security'. I was only in I-Witness for a cup of coffee, alongside the late Jimmy Scott (of Bad Manners). Their song 'Portabella Cheryl' did achieve a small degree of commercial success but the band didn't stick together. I'd characterize that group as a reggae band with 2-tone influences.

The Toasters started playing shows in New York as early as 1983. When did you become aware that there were other ska bands playing out? Did any of these bands make a particular impression on you? When would you say that a 'NYC ska scene" took root?
We released our first 7 inch record in 1983. The band was "formed" in 1981 and played out already quite a bit in 1982. By 1983 we already had the residency at CBGB's which allowed us to start putting on the ska nights regularly. That ska night and the scene it created was the basis for the compilation as it assembled the NYC ska posse who were regulars on the ska nights not only at CB's but also Danceteria and other venues. If i had to put a date on it I'd say that late 1984, after the release of the 'Recriminations' EP was when it can be said that there was a nascent ska scene in NYC. The Second Step and the A-Kings alongside Beat Brigade are the first names that come to mind. Urban Blight had been playing a lot of Madness influenced tunes (and covers) earlier than that in NYC but by that time they had moved more into a whiteboy funk/hiphop style that ultimately undid them.

You've mentioned that you were struck by how young most of the other ska bands in New York were at the time (most were 16-19 years old and still in high school). Why do you think young people in New York were drawn to the sound of ska and then to starting ska bands in the mid-80's? Was it a fashion thing or a music thing?
I'd say a bit of both. It takes a while for anything to trickle down and I think that what happened in NYC (and in LA at the same time more or less) was a natural residual effect of 2-tone. There wasn't much else to choose from in the USA if you weren't into hardcore and the hip-hop phenomenon still hadn't broken yet. Since 2-tone was such an attractive mix of style and politics as well as the music then there was a lot to offer to kids in terms of identification and true roots.

How did you experience the punk and post-punk music scene in the UK from 1978-81 and how did that influence your approach to organizing the NYC ska scene in its earliest incarnations?
Well it was true to say that NYC in 1981 was a hardcore city. We shared our rehearsal space at 181 Avenue A with the Bad Brains and the Cro-Mags. Agnostic Front, Murphys Law, and later Warzone were all household names on the lower east side. Jimmy G worked the door at the Pyramid. Therefore there was a huge spill over into the ska scene and we normally teamed up the ska Saturdays with hardcore Sunday matinees at CBGB's. I wasn't into punk music that much in the UK, although i did go to see the Anarchy in the UK tour in '77 and I played in a punk band called The Blades at Uni. I would however certainly say that The Toasters sound incorporated elements of punk into a more aggressive sound built on 2-tone foundations.

You had a decidedly socialist approach to how the NYC ska scene should organize itself early on. Was the NY Beat compilation an attempt to show competitive and independent minded New Yorkers the benefits of banding together?
Well if the INS knew more about my political background they probably wouldn't have let me in. The NY BEAT project was an attempt not only to capture what was going on in NYC from a musical/scene standpoint but also to harness the energy towards working towards a common purpose which was to big up the massive. Of course there was competition amongst bands, after all everybody thinks their group is better than everyone else but in unity lies power and that's what we achieved with the NY Beat comp, which to my mind was the first real 3rd wave ska record released in the USA. That release opened the doors to many greater things.

How did you go about selecting the bands that ended up on the compilation? From The A-Kings to Urban Blight it's an incredibly diverse selection and representation of 80's era ska with some rock and Oi mixed in, but still seems to hang together.
It's a snapshot of what was happening in NYC at the time. Apart from the usual ska suspects we also bought in rockers like Richie Thomas as well as The Press (streetpunk) and The Scene (mods). these were all bands who were appearing regularly on the CBGB showcases. I actually produced The Press demo and I was a huge Melanie Rock fan. She could have been the next Deborah Harry! so there are underlying links to all those bands.

What were the shows at Danceteria like to celebrate the release of the album? Would you agree that the NY Beat comp and those shows kicked off interest in the the larger NYC Ska scene that helped give birth to ska scenes around the U.S.?
I had a relationship outside of the ska scene with Rudolph, who owned Danceteria. I helped organize some art shows there, such as the Liberatore exhibit (he was the French artist who drew The Toasters 'Beat Up' 7 inch cover) and I was his contact at Forbidden Planet sorting out his European graphic art collection. He was always on the look out for an event and so it was natural that we did the NY BEAT launch there as he was very supportive of what we were doing. I think it's absolutely true to say that those happenings kicked off a national ska scene as it were.

What were your expectations for the NY Beat compilation and how did it do in comparison?
I thought we could shoot the moon and we did.

Do you think the record stands the test of time?
Yes I do. There are some great tracks on there

Do you have any favorite tracks from the record?
I like all of it

What are your lasting memories of the NYC ska scene of 1985-86?
The shows at CBGB's which just kept getting better and better (yes that's Joe Jackson on stage with Hingley and The Toasters at CBGB's in the picture above). The NYC SKA LIVE recording (recorded March 26,1990) at the Cat Club was also great and in many ways a much better representation of the NYC scene at it's height. Too bad we couldn't finally get the video component working.

Visit The Toasters Web site for more information about Hingley or the band's extensive tour schedule.

1 comment:

Steve from Moon said...

Terrific interview with Bucket, Marco! I've known Buck for years and have read countless interviews done with him during that time, but I learned several new things in this one!