Ska, in black and white: Screening of ska doc at PhilaMOCA portrays impact on music landscape

It was born in the ghettos of Jamaica in the late 1950s with its walking bass lines and its mix of Caribbean mento.

Later fused with traditional American R&B and offbeat British colonial swagger, ska has forever been the original, fully integrated, multi-racial, rocksteady sound of inclusion. 

While Kingston reggae overlords Prince Buster and “Coxsone” Dodd turned it into sound system fodder on Jamaican home turf, the punks of Britain made ska’s short, sharp, aggressive skanking rhythm an often politicized black-white membership mash-up. The latter was associated with the two-tone label ska revivalists of the late 1970s and acts such as The Specials and The Selecter.   

America’s Warped Tour, the first place where young hardcore punks became acquainted with ska, got a scent of that pulse and welcomed everyone from Fishbone to The Skatalites to its party. Philadelphia added its own ska acts to the ranks with the likes of Public Service, Ruder than You and Santi White’s (now Santigold) Stiffed. Of course, we can’t forget reggae-riffic godfathers Philly Gumbo.

All of the above will be remembered through a new documentary highlighting the origins of ska and it’s underground appeal with, “PICK IT UP! Ska in the ’90s.” Locally, the doc is scheduled for a screening at PhilaMOCA on July 7 with a live gig from Rathskeller.

All rude boys are welcome — black and white.

“Philly has always been a ska town,” said Jere Edmunds, an African-American male old enough to have been young while working at the Hot Club — Philly’s first live punk bar in the mid-1970s — and vintage enough to remember its trajectory. “This city always had a mix of kids from the Caribbean and white and black punks into ska’s rhythm.” 

As someone who lives in West Philly at present, Edmunds was quick to say that ska and reggae are still part of a daily soundtrack in the neighborhood as pockets of Jamaican families inhabit homes in his area.

In June, while The Specials hit Theater of Living Arts for a sold-out run at its 40th anniversary (where we ran into Edmunds), the Warped Tour ends its 25 years of skanking and punking on June 29-30 along the beaches of Atlantic City with its final shows. The Skatalites — one of this fest’s original acts and the ensemble behind the classic “Guns of Navarone” — will be part of Warped 25, as will another 49 acts such as Blink 182 and Andrew WK.

Relying on its usual stiff upper lipped snarky anti-Thatcherism as its lyrical base, the reunited Specials —  special because original, Caucasian vocalist Terry Hall and black-Brit co-singer/guitarist Lynval Golding were onboard — rode ska’s ceremonial rituals for all they could on the languid but dramatic trombone-led sound of “Rat Race” as well as the juke-and-jutting pulse of “Gangsters” and “A Message to you, Rudy.” 

Just as they had in their past, The Specials toyed with ska traditionalism with everything from haunting melody and dense ambience (“Man at C&A,” “Ghost Town”), organ trio jazz (“Friday Night and Saturday Morning”), Latin lover, bachelor pad lounge tones like “Stereotype” and even hip hop on “10 Commandments,” featuring guest vocalist Saffiyah Khan.

It was The Specials’ continued battles against injustice and social disservice that painted the stage’s backdrop with signs reading “Vote,” “Resist” and “Think” that marked their activist, anti-apathy lyrical return on songs such as  “Do Nothing” and “Doesn’t Make It Alright.”

At a time when old bands reunite for nothing more than a paycheck, The Specials are coming with both fresh (their new album “Encore” went straight to No. 1 in the UK) and vintage ska with lyrics as multi-racially focused as its frenetic and soulful sound.

“Ska was a huge part of our roots at Warped, the poetic and the political and the good old fashioned fun stuff,” said Warped Fest founder Kevin Lyman. “Hell, man, I was the manager [for early 1990s ska giants] Less Than Jake before I started Warped, through their peak periods and all that.”

Decisive as he’s been regarding hosting multi-racial ska acts on Warped Fest’s bills was one of punk’s first shows of inclusion. “I never felt as if we were forcing ska on people, but rather exposing such music — music that’s saying something important — to those who might not have known otherwise,” Lyman said.

Bringing young punk black and white audiences together to skank and skateboard promoted racial equality and tolerance long before those ideas became 21st-century buzzwords. Even though 1990s festivals such as Lollapalooza hosted the likes of Ice T, Ice Cube and Public Enemy (“I was Lalapalooza’s first stage manager,” Lyman said), they still drew predominantly white audiences. But Warped Fest has always hosted a mix of black, white and Latino audiences.

“Ice T used to tell me that I was colorblind, that I only saw ignorance,” Lyman said. “I always felt giving all people exposure to the widest array of stuff was healthy and smart. We were very reflective of the communities we’re playing as part of — say, having largely Latino crowds in Los Angeles. Warped was a diverse lineup, still is, and that’s what made me feel best, seeing kids of all colors holding forth at punk rock summer camp.”

Pick it Up! Ska in the ’90s screening | July 7, 4:30-7pm. $12-15. PhilaMOCA, 531 N. 12th St.


  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning journalist who, along with working for the Philadelphia Weekly, writes regularly for Variety, Jazz Times, Flood and Wax Poetics, and hosts and co-produces his own SoundCloud-charting radio show, Theater in the Round for Pacifica National Public Radio station WPPM 106.5 FM and

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