In the 1960s, ska was the preferred music genre of rude boys, although many ska artists condemned the violent rude boy subculture. Ska was also popular with British mods and skinheads, so artists such as Symarip, Laurel Aitken, Desmond Dekker and The Pioneers aimed songs at members of those two subcultures. Music historians typically divide the history of ska into three waves, with a revival in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and another in the 1990s, mostly based in the United States.
After World War II, Jamaicans purchased radios in increasing numbers, and were able to hear rhythm and blues from Southern United States cities such as New Orleans by artists such as Fats Domino and Louis Jordan. The stationing of American military forces during and after the war meant that Jamaicans could listen to military broadcasts of American music, and there was a constant influx of records from the US. To meet the demand for that music, entrepreneurs such as Prince Buster, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Duke Reid formed sound systems.
As jump blues and more traditional rhythm and blues began to ebb in popularity in the early 1960s, Jamaican artists began recording their own version of the genres. The sound was initially characterised by a guitar chop on the back beat, with horns and piano later playing the same riff. Drums kept 4/4 time, and the bass drum was accented on the second and fourth beats. The upbeat sound can also be found in other Caribbean forms of music, such as mento and calypso.
One theory is that Prince Buster created ska during the inaugural recording session for his new label, Wild Bells. The session was financed by Duke Reid, who was supposed to get half of the songs to release, but he only received one, which was by trombonist Rico Rodriguez. Among the pieces recorded were "They Got To Go" and "Shake A Leg". According to reggae historian Steve Barrow, during the sessions, Prince Buster told guitarist Jah Jerry, to "change gear, man, change gear," and the guitar began emphasizing the second and fourth beats in the bar, giving rise to the new sound.
The first ska recordings were created at facilities such as Studio One and WIRL Records in Kingston, Jamaica, with producers such as Dodd, Reid, Prince Buster and Edward Seaga. Ska music was showcased at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Byron Lee & the Dragonaires were selected as the band for the occasion, and Prince Buster, Eric "Monty" Morris, and Peter Tosh performed with them. Prince Buster and U-Roy brought ska from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in the early 1960s.
There are different theories about the origins of the word ska. Guitarist Ernest Ranglin said the offbeat guitar scratching that he and other musicians played was referred to as "skat! skat! skat!". Some believe that bassist Cluet Johnson coined the term ska when explaining the ya-ya sound of the music amd rhythm. This may be because he greeted his friends with the word skavoovie, perhaps imitating American hipsters of the era. Johnson and the Blues Blasters were Coxsone Dodd's house band in the 1950s and early 1960s before the rise of the Skatalites.
The ska sound coincided with the celebratory feelings surrounding Jamaica's independence from the UK in 1962; an event commemorated by ska songs such as Derrick Morgan's "Forward March" and the Skatalites' "Freedom Sound". Because the newly-independent Jamaica didn't ratify the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works until 1994, copyright was not an issue, creating a large number of cover songs and reinterpretations. Musicians such as Clement Dodd's house band, The Skatalites, often recorded instrumental ska versions of popular American and British music, such as Beatles songs, movie theme songs, or surf instrumentals. Bob Marley's band The Wailers covered the Beatles' "And I Love Her", and radically reinterpreted Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone".
As music changed in the United States, so did ska. In 1966 and 1967, when American soul became slower and smoother, ska changed its sound accordingly and evolved into rocksteady.
The 2 Tone era began in the late 1970s in England. The genre was a fusion of Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with punk rock's uncompromising lyrics and aggressive guitar chords. The music is characterized by faster tempos, fuller instrumentation and a harder edge than original 1950s and 1960s ska. The genre was named after 2 Tone Records, a label founded by Jerry Dammers of The Specials. Although 2 Tone bands were respectful to the original Jamaican ska artists, the Specials failed to credit Prince Buster, Toots and the Maytals, Dandy Livingstone or Andy and Joe as the composers of songs on their 1979 debut vinyl release. However, the reworking of classic ska tracks in many cases turned the originals into hits again.
The 2 Tone movement promoted racial unity at a time when racial tensions were at a high point in the UK. Most of the bands on the record label had multiracial lineups, such as The Beat (known as English Beat in North America) and The Selecter. Although only on the 2 Tone label for one single, Madness was one of the most effective bands at bringing the 2 Tone style into the mainstream. Their high public profile was partly due to their videos getting heavy airplay on MTV and the BBC's Top of the Pops.
Third Wave Ska
In the 1980s, bands influenced by the 2 Tone ska revival began to form in the United States and other countries. Three of the earliest American ska revival bands were The Toasters, The Uptones and Bim Skala Bim. The Toasters, formed at the end of the 2 Tone era, were one of the main driving forces behind the third wave of ska. Bands like Operation Ivy, Sublime and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones helped popularize ska punk. This new sound was heavily influenced by various styles of punk rock instead of the R&B sound found in the first two waves. During the rise of ska punk, some third wave ska bands continued to play in the 1960s ska style, such as Hepcat, Skavoovie and the Epitones, and The Slackers.
In 1983, The Toasters' frontman Robert "Bucket" Hingley created Moon Ska Records, which became the biggest American ska record label. It featured many bands that became staples in third wave ska, including Dance Hall Crashers, The Allstonians, The Slackers, Skavoovie and the Epitones, The Scofflaws, The Pietasters and Let's Go Bowling. Moon Ska Records officially folded in 2000, but Moon Ska Europe continued operating in the 2000s. In 2003, Hingley launched a new ska record label, Megalith Records.
By the early 1990s, ska revival and ska punk bands were forming throughout the USA and many other countries. An enormous growth of the ska punk genre occurred after the The Mighty Mighty Bosstones signed with Mercury Records in 1993 and appeared in Clueless with their first mainstream hit "Where'd You Go?".
In 1996, Mike Park of the band Skankin' Pickle officially founded Asian Man Records, which was the biggest West coast United States third wave ska label. Asian Man Records showcased acts such as Big D and the Kids Table, MU330, Less Than Jake and Chris Murray.
In 1997, Brett Gurewitz and Tim Armstrong founded Hellcat Records, which mostly featured punk rock bands, but also presented ska and ska-punk bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls, Choking Victim, Leftover Crack, The Slackers, The Pietasters and Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady Seven. Choking Victim (and their later incarnation Leftover Crack) fused ska, punk and death metal to create what they called Crack Rock Steady.
By the late 1990s, mainstream interest in ska punk bands had waned as other music genres gained momentum. However, several ska punk bands have maintained a steady following in the 2000s. These have included Reel Big Fish, Suburban Legends, Streetlight Manifesto, Catch 22, The Aquabats!, Big D And The Kids Table, Mad Caddies, Spunge and Less Than Jake (most of which have moved away from their earlier ska-influenced sound to embrace various forms of rock or punk). Some third wave bands — such as The Slackers, Hepcat and Westbound Train — remained heavily influenced by the sound and style of first-wave ska and rocksteady.
See You In Jamaica