Keep Ska Alive | A Conversation with Marc Wasserman
October 6, 2021 by Kevin Gomez
Recently, I was fortunate enough to speak with Marc Wasserman, musician, podcaster, and now author. He helped form the first ska band out of New Jersey, Bigger Thomas, during the 1980s while in college. This past July, Wasserman released “Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History.” Through a series of interviews with first wave ska bands from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Wasserman has created a comprehensive history chronicling the early days of ska in America, and how it helped pave the way for artists that we see prevalent today.
Kevin Gomez: Hi Marc. Great to talk to you. First off, I wanted to start by going over your background. Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?
Marc Wasserman: Sure. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, a college town in Central New Jersey. I went to Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. It’s a great place to grow up for music, because you could get into NYC pretty easily, so I was into music from a pretty early age. Once I got old enough to get into shows in New York in the early ‘80s, I would go all the time. Seeing shows became a huge part of my life.
KG: Ska was not as easily accessible as it is today. How did you first get introduced?
MW: Freshman year of high school, a friend of mine played the first Specials album. Hearing that album was life changing for me and started me down this path of being really into two-tone, learning about The Specials, The English Beat, The Selecter, UB40, Steel Pulse. I went back and learned about Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae. I always loved new wave, but ska and reggae became the soundtrack to my life.
KG: So that brings us to your book, “Ska Boom: an American Ska and Reggae Oral History,” released July of this year. How long did it take you to complete this book?
MW: It took three and a half years, from beginning to end. Mostly because as an oral history, I had to track down and interview everyone in each of the 19 chapters. Then I had to go through all the transcripts and put together a narrative that would make sense. That’s what took the most time. I eventually decided to frame each chapter like a narrative story, detailing each band’s beginnings. I was interested why someone would pick up an instrument, how they met their bandmates, and why they chose ska. It was something that was totally under the radar, especially when most of these bands started.
KG: You definitely get into the history of their stories. For instance, I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life and had never even heard of The Boxboys. It was great to read their story and discover the huge influence they had on ska bands. Even Gwen Stefani quoted them as an influence.
MW: I loved writing that chapter for the very reasons you just said. The Boxboys were so important and influential, and for the most part no one knows who they are. They started ska in L.A.; they were patient zero for “infecting” L.A. with ska.
KG: One of my favorite quotes is from Boxboys’ saxophonist, David Burg, when he went to see Reel Big Fish. He said, “They were unbelievable. I felt like we had started this ska thing in L.A… and they had taken it to just totally different heights.”
MW: One thing I loved about writing this book is discovering that everything came full circle. A lot of bands in my book were the inspiration for a lot of popular ska bands today. So, what was most important was to make sure that a lot of these musicians and these bands got the credit that they never got for inspiring for all the bands that we hold up as being sort of “The American ska bands.”
KG: Kind of like the unsung heroes, and you’re finally giving them a voice, which is incredible.
MW: People have written books about punk, metal, hip hop, but ska seems to be overlooked. Even though there was this ‘90s ska wave based in Orange County, nobody ever bothered to write about it. So, I agree with you it’s about time these bands get the credit they deserve. This is a legitimate genre of music, it has a fan base and it continues to live on.
KG: The cover for the book is a wonderful photo of Clyde Grimes, guitarist and founding member of The Untouchables. Unfortunately, with Clyde passing away five years ago, was there any difficulty in getting this photo used for the cover?
MW: Well, I actually had to get permission from (famed rock photographer) Frank Gargani, who took the original photograph. He was initially very resistant because so many people had ripped him off by [bootlegging] that photo on shirts, jackets, and he never sees a dime.
After speaking with him about my intentions and what the book was about, his heart melted a little and ultimately, he wanted to get the photo out there as much as I did, which is why I dedicated a part of the intro detailing why this picture of Clyde was chosen as the cover to represent my book.
And Clyde, of course is a person of color. For me, I worship at the church of two-tone, which celebrates unifying races. For L.A. ska in the ‘80s, you had this mixture of black, white, Hispanic, Asian, diversity gathering together on the dance floor, so it was important for me to find a picture that celebrated that.
KG: That actually leads me to my next question. When white musicians began playing blues music and rock and roll or performing hip-hop, there was and continues to be claims of “theft” or appropriation of culture. How does that play into ska and reggae?
MW: One of the beautiful things about ska music is it’s mutable; it can be mixed with lots of other genres. Which is why you have ska-punk, or skacore, made popular by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
I guess it depends on your point of view – is that a good thing to be celebrated or does it dilute it? I still stick to the belief that it will always be a black art form from Jamaica traditionally, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be played by anybody.
My band played with The Skatalites many, many years ago, and a number of them watched us play. Afterwards one of them shook my hand and told me, “Keep ska alive.” He helped invent ska music, but he understood that it wasn’t always going to sound the way he created it. You have to accept that genres of music are dynamic, and they are going to change. I still love The Specials, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Less Than Jake or Mustard Plug.
KG: The title of the book itself, “Ska Boom” (also the name of Wasserman’s weekly podcast), I’m assuming that’s a nod to The Toasters album of the same name?
MW: No, I’m familiar with that album of course. But for me, “ska boom” is what all these bands coming together created. Pre-internet, you didn’t know there were bands in other cities. So, what was fascinating is you had bands in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, all across the nation that all started within a two-year period of each other in the ‘80s, creating a “ska boom,” or an explosion of ska music.
There are many people who believe ska evolved from reggae. It’s actually the other way around. It was icons like Prince Buster who paved the way for many bands to feel the soul of ska and we are the beneficiaries of that. Marc Wasserman along with other current authors and film makers are owed a debt of gratitude for reminding us of that fact.
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KG: In your book, Lionel Bernard of The Toasters tells a story about seeing Bad Brains at CBGBs that he will never forget. Is there a particular concert that stands out?
MW: There were quite a few, but seeing The English Beat for the first time in April of 1983; I can still see the whole experience in my mind vividly. It was like a master class in performance. (Co-lead vocalist and toaster) Ranking Roger in constant motion from one side of the stage to the other. Watching bassist, David Steele play live, was basically the moment I realized I wanted to pick up the bass myself. He had this weird, unconventional style of playing that I just loved.
Just a few months later I would get to see Madness live, so I consider myself very lucky getting to see two of the most influential two-tone bands in their prime.
KG: In the punk scene, there’s a lot of backlash when a band achieves commercial success, is there that same notion in ska music?
MW: Someone told me yesterday, “I think No Doubt thought they became a better band when they stopped playing ska.” It wasn’t until “Tragic Kingdom” that they got their break, but I dare anyone to find a straight up ska song on that album. And yet, they are still considered a ska band. In that way, they are similar to Madness, who stopped playing traditional ska after their first two albums but are still considered one of the premiere ska bands. I think ska fans tend to be fairly forgiving in that respect.
KG: Your book details the importance that radio stations, such as KROQ in Los Angeles, had in bringing ska to the masses. Now with terrestrial radio becoming less important, where do you see the current media being for exposing young ska artists?
MW: Online. TikTok, YouTube and shows. The older brother bringing a younger sibling is still a great way to turn younger audiences to ska. I have a 14 year old who lives on his phone. There are bands that do a much better job at marketing through social media, and I think that’s where future generations are going to be exposed to all kinds of music, including ska.
KG: With the documentary “Pick It Up- Ska in the 90’s” in 2019, your book and Aaron Carnes’ “In Defense of Ska,” there is a peaked interest in ska, what do you attest that to?
MW: Ska has always been there all along. There’s a fanbase of people. I think it’s just media attention that will occasionally turn its glare to ska. When it turns away, that doesn’t mean that ska goes away, or bands will stop playing or kids will stop listening or going to shows. It just means it’s not getting any attention for a while, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
Ska is currently in its fourth wave. It’s come a long way since that first Jamaican wave. With newer ska bands like The Interrupters, Hepcat and others around the world that are comin to prominence, not to mention more and more ska themed festivals worldwide. The future looks verygood for the genre.
As for Wasserman’s book “Ska Boom!” it’s available now at all major retailers and online. You can also listen to his podcast of the same name, which discusses the social and political backgrounds of ska and reggae music in the ‘80s and their influence on music of today.
What’s also noteworthy, Wasserman will be part of a panel discussion on October 23rd at the Grammy Museum. This is an event you should check out if you can. Not only will it feature a great panel, but there will be two live band performances that will be lights out, The Untouchables and BoxBoys!