Music labels in New York regularly send talent scouts to places like San Diego and Louisville, KY, to make deals with new cadres of bands hoping to replicate the success of the Seattle grunge scene that spawned Nirvana and Soundgarden and the Berkeley, Calif., punk scene that produced Green Day and Rancid.
What most of these record companies do not consider, however, is that for a dozen years a scene has slowly been expanding right on their doorstep, and it is close to exploding. It is perhaps the only underground musical movement that New York can now call its own. T-shirts in record stores and cover artwork on compact discs proudly proclaim it in large letters: NYC SKA.
Ska is an odd-looking word: short, punchy, almost funny. So is the music at times, a light, bouncy, horn-infused grandfather of reggae. (The word itself comes from the sound a guitar makes.)
Ska has arrived in three musical waves, beginning in Jamaica in the 1950s and '60s as a home-grown version of rhythm-and-blues performed by collectives of former jazz musicians like the Skatalites. The music traveled to England along with Jamaican blue-collar laborers, quickening its tempo as it mixed with punk and working-class youth sounds in the 1970s.
A second wave of interracial ska bands, including the Specials, the Selecter and the English Beat, first appeared on England's Two-Tone label, registering in America as a quick spark on the pop charts.
But that spark slowly ignited an international fire as New Yorkers like Rob (Bucket) Hingley (a veteran of the English movement) and Jeff Baker not only started bands like the Toasters and the Boilers, but also helped to establish a solid underground network, connecting ska groups in New York with ones in Brazil, Japan, Germany, Hawaii and elsewhere through newsletters, fan magazines and record labels.
"It was New York that galvanized the national scene with bands like the Toasters touring," said Hingley, who runs Moon, the premier ska label in the United States, in addition to playing guitar and singing in the 12-year-old Toasters. "The music really hooks people once they finally hear it. First you meet a kid at a concert, next they have a band, then they're opening up for you and the next thing you know, you're putting out a record of theirs."
Five years ago, ska concerts in New York City were strictly underground events, where green-haired punks, skinheads and stylish ska fans known as rude boys danced to the holy triumvirate of New York ska bands: the Toasters, the Scofflaws and the N.Y. Citizens.
Now there are concerts every weekend at downtown clubs like Wetlands, New Music Cafe, the Cooler and Coney Island High, and the audience is a broad, multiracial mix, where hippies meet skinheads and college jocks dance with rude boys.
"You used to know everybody in the scene in New York, if not personally, at least by face," said Baker, a former member of the hardcore band Murphy's Law who now plays in the ska bands Skinnerbox and the Stubborn All-Stars. "Now I look around and I see almost no one I know. It's not exclusively a rude boy and skinhead thing now. There are people from 15 to 50 at the shows. And I know why: It's the only music that makes me dance without thinking about it."
"What we have to do is package the ska shows, turn them into multiband nights with five or six groups," Zahn said. "There just seem to be bands coming out of nowhere. I'm getting tapes from all over the coast that even people involved in the ska community have never heard of. I had a ska band from Venezuela here the other night dropping off their tape, and there's an Argentine band interested in playing here."
"But as popular as ska is getting, it's still surprising how many people don't know it," he added. "On a typical Friday, we get tons of phone calls about what's playing. When we say it's a ska show, there's always a pause and then we hear: 'Ska? What is ska?' We've gone so far as to say, 'Think of it as Jewish reggae: Imagine 'Hava Nagilah' and then put some island rhythms in there.' "
Not every club in New York has such an open attitude toward ska. "I don't book ska shows anymore," said the manager of one club, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "If there aren't fights inside, you have nearby restaurants and neighbors complaining about skinheads loitering around with 40-ounce beer bottles in their hands."
But other club bookers and concertgoers say that fighting at ska shows is becoming a rarity. The attitude of ska music has always been one of having fun in the face of oppression, as encapsulated in a warning made famous by the Jamaican legend Prince Buster: "Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think."
At Wetlands this month, when the New York band the Slackers opened for the English Two-Tone band the Selecter, the scene was peaceful and friendly. With fast, shuffling guitar-strumming, infectious drumming on the offbeat and a horn section worthy of a '60s soul revue, the music had even the most awkward of club denizens skanking, or bouncing from leg to leg and swinging their arms.
Where most rock bands get by with three or four members, ska bands may have as many as a dozen. In addition to guitars, bass and drums, they often have an entire horn section.
These groups sometimes find older players from the jazz or Latin music worlds; other times they recruit young people who have just graduated from their high school jazz band. Either way it makes for eclectic music. At 11 members, the Slackers are among the more diverse and unpredictable bands in New York.
There are many different styles of ska being played today, but the main schism is between the bands that try to blend it with punk and hardcore music and the traditionalists who look back to Jamaica for a purer sound. It is this first style that fans and record executives alike predict will make ska part of the fabric of popular music.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, from Boston, performed this summer on Lollapalooza, the alternative-rock package tour, exposing new audiences to high-energy ska-core, as the group's hard, fast hybrid is sometimes called.
More recently the California punk band Rancid (which was formed from the ashes of Operation Ivy, a ska-influenced band) put out a ska single called "Time Bomb," which has been played heavily on MTV and pop radio.
But the Slackers have their own dream of a slower, rootsier ska finding success. "The more modern stuff is what they're expecting to break through in the wake of Rancid," said Marcus Geard, who plays bass in the Slackers at night and delivers trees during the day. "But I think the VH1 audience is a perfect traditional ska audience. I think they dig the groove and the vibe more; they're more sophisticated and don't get put off by Latin and jazz influences. The beat's infectious, and then the other influences make it more interesting."
The label has also signed the Insteps and is courting one of the New York ska scene's brightest hopes, Mephiskapheles.
"Ska is probably the biggest underground network going right now," said Fred Feldman, the general manager of Another Planet records. "Moon Records has a 15,000-name direct-marketing list, and the Toasters are selling at least 25,000 to 30,000 records now, most of it through nontraditional retail outlets. I think the bigger labels are still waiting to see what happens with this Rancid song and to see how Green Day does with the ska band it signed to its 510 label, the Dancehall Crashers. If any of it becomes huge, then you'll see a feeding frenzy."
Many bands, however, remain skeptical. For a long time some musical pundits have written off ska as creatively defunct without ever having listened to the stylistic extremes of the music, which range from the swing- and bebop-influenced instrumentals of the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble to the industrial electronic ska of World Service.
As Baker said, "One of the strengths of ska is that the foundation is so simple but so effective that it can endure a lot of changes but still maintain a relationship to the original style."
Nonetheless, Mikal Reich of Mephiskapheles added: "Ska is almost the marketing kiss of death. We've been talking to record labels and they're always telling us they don't know how to market ska; they don't know who to sell it to. I used to think people in the record industry were barracudas and would jump on anything. Here you've got Rancid with a ska single in MTV's 'Buzz Bin,' and I still have to spell ska to people over the phone."
Steve Shafer, who is in charge of promotion at Moon, speculates that one reason for ska's obscurity is that it is stereotyped as a revival. "What happened with ska was that the Two-Tone revival was labeled as a rehash of the Jamaican sound, and critics couldn't see it as a re-examination and reinvention of that kind of music," he said.
"There was punk and anger and frustration in it. And now it's still growing and going off in different directions: ska punk, ska-core, rootsy stuff that sounds like it came out of the '60s. We have our 'Spawn of Skarmageddon' compilation coming out, and there are 43 bands on it from all over the U.S., and none of them sound the same."
And for more than a decade, rude boys up and down the East Coast have been buying their Doc Marten boots and Fred Perry shirts at 99X, also in the East Village. Rude boys were originally unemployed youths-turned-gangsters from Jamaica's shantytowns who dressed in the latest clean-cut fashions to intimidate and impress.
Their narrow-brimmed porkpie hats, close-shaven haircuts, wraparound sunglasses, skinny ties and sharkskin suits with tapered legs have survived in ska wear today, as have the checkerboard patterns (symbolizing black and white unity) of England's Two-Tone look.
"Whenever there's a big show in New York, the store gets packed because all these people come into town from all over," said Alex Pietropinto, who works at 99X. "Their style hasn't changed. You can look at pictures of people 30 years ago and see a rude boy now, and they look the same."
Another factor that has helped ska endure is the word itself. The word "ska" can be combined with almost anything. There have been Skalapalooza tours and Skampilation records; this weekend, there's a Skalloween concert in the East Village, and in December, New York is to have its first Skanukkah concert.
"We thought we'd exhausted all the variations we could come up with on the word ska," Zahn of Wetlands said. "But then last week we booked a Skanksgiving show."