Sure it’s a fun party music on one level, but that’s selling it a bit short.
story by Noah Levine
photo by Soren McCarty / www.musicimagery.com
For a few years after ska got tagged with “the next big thing” label in the mid-1990s, the music’s upbeat sound steadily worked its way into mainstream radio. No Doubt, Sublime and a handful of other bands from the margins of the American ska scene were catapulted to rock stardom, while several other ska bands scored their place in rock trivia as one-hit wonders. While all this shuffling and scuffling was taking place, American ska icons The Toasters remained unaffected. The ska popularity boom was just another wave to crash against the band’s unwavering dedication to the roots of the 2-tone ska sound that they’ve championed for more than 20 years.
Formed in New York in 1981 by Rob “Bucket” Hingley, The Toasters can pretty much lay claim to bringing ska music to the States. Raised in Africa until he was nine, Hingley got hooked on the off-timed rhythms coming from Jamaica in the 1960s. After his family moved back to England, Millie Small’s chart topping ska hit “My Boy Lollipop” became the first record Hingley ever owned.
Hingley followed the British music scene as the 2-tone ska sounds of the Specials, the English Beat and others developed in the 1970s. When he moved to New York in 1980, he was shocked to find that ska was virtually non-existent Stateside. Determined to expose new people to the music he loves, Hingley recruited a slew of talented musicians and taught them to play the off-beat style that gives ska and reggae their unique sounds. Shortly after that, Hingley and the Toasters started playing shows – and they haven’t stopped since.
With an ever-changing line-up of some of New York’s finest players, The Toasters have spent the last two decades playing around the world and releasing a string of albums on independent labels as well as their own imprint Moon Records. Hingley credits the band’s longevity to never giving up creative control and always making music they want to make.
“We started in 1981 and we’re working our way up close to 4,000 shows,” Hingley told Chicago Innerview. “I think, one, we’re a little crazy and two, we love the music.”
The music The Toasters create still sounds fresh after all the years. Rooted with solid basslines and up-tempo drums, Hingley’s guitar mixes with punchy horns and raucous jazzed-up piano to give The Toasters a fun and lively sound. While Hingley knows his music is great at a party, he’s disappointed when people think of ska as all flash and no substance.
From its roots in Jamaica and through the 2-tone era in England, ska music was always as much a music of political protest as it was a soundtrack for dancing and revelry. The Toasters never forget this, and often take on topics such as racial equality and freedom. Still they don’t shy away from other traditional ska music subjects such as stories of rude boy gangsters, relationships and dancing.
“We think of ourselves as a 2-tone band and we come out of that era,” Hingley said. “Sure it’s a fun party music on one level, but that’s selling it a bit short.”
Unfortunately, Hingley thinks the American music audience missed out on this political side of the music when the ska boom hit the airwaves in the ’90s. The way he sees it, the social and economic climates of the time didn’t create a need for protest in pop music. Thus, the music came across as just the next party music fad.
Now that things in the ska scene are settling back down, Hingley sees the boom as a mixed blessing. Sure the mainstream music industry picked up and dropped some bands, while others got a break and eventually morphed their sound to stay on the pop charts. But Hingley thinks there was a major benefit to getting a number of ska-influenced bands onto more mainstream airwaves. This exposed a new generation of music lovers to the sounds of ska. Some of them are sure to want to hear more and learn where that music comes from. Hingley said he’s glad The Toasters are still around for those people, as well as for their longtime fans.
While he knew ska would experience a popularity boom at some point, Hingley said it happened faster than he expected. He’s very glad he and The Toasters were able to exit the boom in the same place they entered. He believes their musical independence is the reason they were unaffected.
After their early demos were spurned by major labels in the 1980s, The Toasters stuck to a strictly independent route. Calling all their own shots, keeping their live show exciting and making the music they want – instead of following the industry trends – kept the band vital.
“Musically you find something you like and you stick to it. You can’t play catch up in the music business,” Hingley said. “The bands that are going to survive are the bands that can go out and play gigs,”
The bubble of ska popularity produced a number of good and bad effects on the scene, but Hingley still wishes it could have earned the originators of ska the respect and acclaim they deserve. For their part, The Toasters have always done their best to pay their respects to the sound’s creators such as The Skatalites, Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker and Laurel Aitkin. Still, the boom helped revive some of their careers to a small extent, and Hingley hopes that The Toasters’ contribution to continuing the legacy of ska music helped with that too.
“To a certain extent there’s a trickle up effect,” he said.
Bringing a new style of music to the U.S. and helping it grow for more than two decades is a major accomplishment, but for Hingley it’s always about playing good shows and creating good music. The band has gone through a number of line-up changes over the years, but Hingley and energetic performances have always been constant parts of The Toasters. Whenever there’s an open spot in the lineup, Hingley draws new Toasters recruits from the pool of musicians in the New York ska and jazz scenes.
“The Toasters is not so much of a band, it’s more like a baseball team with a deep bench,” he said. “Being in New York there’s never a problem finding people who can play with The Toasters.”
After just wrapping up a six week European tour, the band is now in the middle of a U.S. tour which will probably be followed by even more touring as The Toasters approach show 4,000. Hingley said he is looking forward to more of the same in the band’s future.
He still wants to see another boom in the American ska scene, but if it happens again, he wants it to be a boom The Toasters would actually like to take part in. “I’d like to see something a little more under the control of the bands and the scene,” he said.
The Toasters will play at the Bottom Lounge Feb. 8.