The following is a guest blog by friend and fellow skamrade Jef Delvaux. If you have a topic about which you would like to opine beyond a Facebook post, please let me know–I’m happy to provide a space for inquiry and discussion!
Recently Aaron Porter – whose name is somewhat prominent in the online digital ska-world but otherwise unknown to me – asked how the hardcore community relates to so-called skacore. Is it maligned or is rather seen as another subgenre such as metalcore? I needed a bit space to comment on that, so I took it upon myself to write a bit about it here.
An earlier version of myself hung out quite a bit on the message board of the (now defunct, I believe) hardcore label Sober Mind Records. There the owner of the label and singer of Liar, Hans Verbeke, once posted ‘Ska is de Vijand’ which immediately translates to ‘Ska is the Enemy’. The statement did not come with any qualifiers, so we can safely assume that it applied to any kind of ska. And much more recently when someone, who is in the process of mapping those who do and don’t like ska, put that question, via Twitter, to Converge. They answered, without qualification: Fuck no.
Obviously the samples on offer here are limited and will not speak to each and every hardcore kid. But, I do think that they are tracking a sense of low key hostility that is felt by many who identify with the hardcore scene. Below is how I account for it, but it requires that I first say a bit more on where to situate skacore in the broader family of genres.
The name is, obviously enough, a compound of ska and hardcore. I won’t be so foolish to give a comprehensive definition of ska here, but at the very least part of a meaningful conception of ska, is that is Jamaican dance music that was born from fusing, distilling and re-ordering musical elements that are found in indigenous Caribbean music, African rhythms, classical R&B, soul, jazz, … If you could only give one paradigm example for it, it would have to be The Skatalites. The music travelled from there and when it took hold in the UK, it gave rise to a faster interpretation of the genre known to the world as 2tone. Here the paradigm example would be The Specials. And although the origins of a later development of the genre are much harder to track, it is clear that at some point in the late early nineties a new norm had established itself, bands would play ska verses that were followed by punk choruses or vice versa. That particular interpretation of the broader ska genre became, intuitively enough, known as skapunk. A fitting paradigm example would be the band Less Than Jake.
Within this development skapunk occupies a distinct position. The earliest incarnation of ska, in Jamaica in the late fifties and early sixties of the previous century, was a unique blend of a wide variety of musical traditions and 2tone was very much a development that, for the most part, operated within the framework that traditional ska had given to the world. (If this sounds all too mysterious, I encourage you to compare Prince Buster’s One Step Beyond with Madness’s rendition.)
Skapunk bands made that legacy their own by adding punk elements to ska music. They did this, for the most part, not by fusing punk into the already rich mosaic of musical layers, but rather by juxtaposing ska and punk in one and the same song. A consequence of this is, is that one can treat ska punk both as a subgenre of punk and as a subgenre of ska.
You may be inclined to think that if it became common to write songs in which ska alternated with punk, then it was only a matter of time before bands would start juxtaposing ska with hardcore. And thus it stands to reason that as much as skapunk is both at home in the world of ska and punk, there will be skacore that is as much part of hardcore’s history as it is part of the ska legacy.
There certainly are examples that fit that scheme. The Struggly Continues by Link 80, for example. Especially a song like Right Hook. And as I already said, despite such musical affinities, they don’t seem to be embraced by the hardcore community.
One factor, I think, is how the term skacore is used in practice. It’s not easy to differentiate between punk and hardcore, but a – I hope – fair first approximation would be to see hardcore as a radicalised version of punk. The songs are written with an eye towards more aggressive dancing. Melody is less central to the music and the vocals tend to be more of the shouting and screaming kind. The already mentioned Link 80 checks those boxes, but the vast variety of the bands that are associated with the term skacore are in fact – given the criteria that I introduced –more akin to punk than to hardcore.
An honorary mention goes out to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whose 1993 Ska-Core, the Devil and More may very well have coined the term.* But it’s worthy to note that even though The Bosstones are routinely taken to be a paradigm example of the genre, their covers of hardcore classics on that EP are hardcore songs enriched with horns, but that is not an instance juxtaposing ska and hardcore, and neither is their interpretation of The Wailers’ Simmer Down. I will leave it to the judgement of the reader if Someday I Suppose, the opening track from that album falls on the side of skapunk or skacore.
(For further illustrative purposes I encourage everyone to take a look at a list that compiles skacore bands such as this one over at last.fm. I am confident that even the most casual perusal through these bands’ discography will yield that the overwhelming majority fall short of being skacore bands.)
Another factor, I think, is that the hardcore world embodies a broader misconception of what ska is and is not. When I talk to people outside of my own musical community, I tend to avoid the word ska, because for many it only means skapunk. And this in turn has become associated with juvenile humour, a severe lack earnest, wrapped in an excess of hysteric offbeats, and so on.
It’s my sense that the hardcore community makes a dedicated effort to distance itself from that kind of frivolity. Needless to say, that that assumption is, at best, if at all, only true of a very specific subset of bands. It doesn’t begin to do justice to the wealth and depth of ska’s history.
My final suspicion has been articulated a long time ago in the lyrics of New Noise, one of the most famous songs of the Swedish hardcore band Refused. There they articulate that on the one hand the punk and hardcore world commits itself to a variety revolutionary hopes and ideals, but that on the other hand that very same world is remarkably conservative when it comes to its aesthetic values. Refused’s critique of a certain kind of reactionary attitude within their own aesthetic community came to mind as I was wondering why so few hardcore bands are welcoming to the rare specimens of skacore bands.
* Heather kindly pointed this out to me.