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What is Ska Music? Full Explanation With Examples

Most musical genres come from humble beginnings but few have the immense impact of ska music. While you may have never heard of it, this style of music gets sampled for modern pop, punk, rock, hip hop, and dance songs. 

In this article, we’ll define exactly what ska music is, how it became a genre, and go over some of the most critical and influential ska artists. 

What Is Ska Music By Definition?

Ska became Jamaica’s first indigenous style of pop music. It blended the Cuban mambo with Jamaican dance music and the rhythm and blues styles of New Orleans. It fuses many unique musical elements to create its own genre that has defined major elements of 1960s music in Jamaica, 1970s dance music in Britain, and 1990s punk music in the United States. 

The ska chop is a technique typically reserved for the guitar used when playing reggae, ska, and rocksteady music. It’s used on the offbeat to add more or a jarring flavor to the rhythm. 

In total, ska combines the elements of Caribbean and Jamaican rhythms with punk rock energy and horns that help drive the beat. The main goal of the genre is to provide uptempo, high-energy music that’s easy to get up and dance to. 

Almost every ska song you’ll hear keeps a 4/4 beat and is uptempo. Slower tracks do exist, but the main point of the genre is to provide a good dance background to Caribbean dances like the mambo and the mento. In most cases, if you can’t dance to it, it isn’t ska music.

Bass guitars get plenty of work in ska music and typically play a lot of quarter-notes and eighth-notes. Drummers put extra emphasis on the backbeat, hitting harder for beat two and beat four. Guitarists typically use a ska chop to force their instrument to make a percussion-like stabbing sound on beats two, three, and four. 

Typical rock instruments like guitars, basses, and drums are almost always joined by a jazz horn section that can include saxophones, trumpets, and trombones. The horns are the ones that usually get an instrumental solo in the song, unlike the guitars getting it in rock music. These instrumentals typically replace lyrics on a verse or two, alternating with the vocalist. 

With most ska bands, you should expect to hear some sort of political or social message in the lyrics of their songs. At the beginning of the genre, the groups largely focused on the racism experienced by members and advocated for both racial equality and integration—at the time, integration was an ongoing process. 

Later on, you’ll find groups advocating for and against all sorts of political ideas. Ska bands forming in California in particular, especially in more recent years, heavily advocate for the legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational purposes. At other times, groups have advocated for and against specific presidential regimes, as well as in opposition to the many wars countries find themselves in. 

It’s also not surprising to find that artists involved in ska music have gone on to become activists. A few bands broke up simply because the members wanted to get more into activism and decided to pursue that instead of continually producing music.

Next: The best ska bands of all time

The Four Characteristics of Ska

  1. Pretty much every ska band will use a lot of rock instruments and horns in their music. These will include bass, guitars, saxophones, drums, trombones, and trumpets.
  2. The singers and the horn section will often trade off on the melody. Many songs will feature instrumental verses or sections done entirely by their horn sections. Think of those banger saxophone solos you would normally hear in a jazz concert but done in a different style. 
  3. Ska is almost exclusively written in a 4/4 time signature. This genre is a fast-paced, dance style of music that’s meant to be played quickly. Typically, you’ll hear drummers emphasize the backbeats at beats two and four, and guitarists make stabs at beats two, three, and four. 
  4. A focus on social justice. Early ska music was focused on racial integration and equality, but social justice and freedom are still themes that follow this genre to this day. There may be a wide range of topics that artists tackle, but ska music will always contain some sort of message in the lyrics.

Next: Our list of amazing songs about social justice

The History Of Ska Music

The history of ska music is best divided into three waves when the genre soared in popularity and the elements of the music were defined or redefined. 

The first wave of ska music came on around the same time as the Jamaican Independence movement in the early 1960s. The first ska bands started popping up after building sound systems to play the rhythm and blues styles of New Orleans.

During and after the war effort, American forces stationed in Jamaica made it possible for them to hear American radio and were able to get their hands on records that included artists like Fats Domino, Barbie Gaye, Rosco Gordon, and Louise Jordan. 

The Jamaican musicians that pioneered the early days of ska music took their experience with American jazz, calypso, and mento, blending them with Caribbean influences and experimenting with new types of rhythms. 

Early Jamaican ska bands included the Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Toots And The Maytals, and Byron Lee Ad The Dragonaires. By the late 1960s, reggae and rocksteady music would become the most popular genres in Jamaica, pushing ska music to the backburner. 

It’s hard to directly credit any one person or group with creating the original ska music. Jamaican tradition is typically an oral one, meaning nobody has who was first written down, so of course, there are plenty of arguments over who to give credit to. 

The likeliest scenario is that ska grew as a movement instead of a singular person or group, though it’s also likely that ska chop was created by Ernest Ranglin.

The second wave of ska began in Britain—Jamaica had just gotten independence from Britain—in the 1970s. The record label 2 Tone brought the Jamaican sound to the British Isles and became popular for lyrics pushing back on the conservative policies of Margaret Thatcher.

English Beat, The Specials, and Bad Manners were all published during the late 1970s and early 1980s by 2 Tone, with lyrics focusing on fighting against racism and supporting integration in addition to pushing against the conservative government. 

It’s also important to note, most of the ska bands in the second wave of ska music in England were mixed groups. Not only did they write lyrics in support of integration, but they were also mostly integrated groups themselves. These bands walked the walk for the things they were preaching in their songs, making their voice that much more powerful and contributing to their popularity because it resonated with so many regular folks.

In the 1980s, an American wave of ska also caught on. Groups like Toasters and Bim Skala Bim incorporated the music and social justice messaging of Jamaican ska music to create a popularity wave in the United States. 

The third major wave of ska music was a major influence in the United States music market. Punk groups that had already carved out their place in the world began integrating ska music into their own pop-punk styles. These third-wave ska bands used distorted guitars and used horns less in their music than previous incarnations of the genre decided to.

Sublime, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone, and Operation Ivy were all popular acts with a huge influence on the third wave of ska music. 

The third wave of ska slowly went out of fashion as nu-metal and alternative rock grew in popularity. That doesn’t mean the late 1990s were the end of ska music though, as many of the original bands from the first two waves are still active and releasing music. 

Each wave of ska music created a slightly different sound that contained the key elements of the music that came before it. Each wave also generated a style of ska that can be grouped and followed by bands today. Historically traditional ska, 2-tone ska, and ska-punks groups all tend to have relatively solid followings. 

Each wave also mostly had different political and social commentaries infused into their lyrics. 

The earliest days of ska focused heavily on the oppression of people of color and racism. Jamaica had just recently gained its independence from the British, however, that didn’t change the fact that the wealthiest Jamaicans were still inherently leftover British families. 

The 2-tone wave had much more of a focus on integration. The late 1960s and early 1970s were still the early days of integration, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. People were still used to having races be separated legally and in public, so many of the ska bands in that wave highlighted the troubles in society and advocated for (for lack of a better way of saying it) more equal equality. 

Later groups, especially modern ones, have less of a focus on race issues, though those themes are still both present and important. The larger themes you’ll find in modern ska are pro-marijuana and anti-war.

It’s important to note that ska doesn’t really have a home. Its popularity has always fluctuated as it went in and out of style and competed with other similar styles of music. People from all kinds of backgrounds and numerous countries have contributed to what we know as ska music today. 

Important Ska Artists

The Skatalites

The Skatalites - Dynamite

The Skatalites played and recorded most of their popular songs between 1963 and 1965. They were a Jamaican ska band that was among those responsible for the birth of the genre, producing hit tracks like Guns Of Navarone. In addition to their own music, the group backed other popular acts like Bob Marley & The Wailers on their song Simmer Down.

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires

Byron Lee & The Dragonaires - Classic Soca Medley

Byron Lee And The Dragonaires played ska music, but they were also famous for soca and calypso. They were originally formed in 1950 and played mento, performing in the local college’s common room. The group prided itself on playing any type of style, with many of their earliest hits being ska adaptations of American hit songs. 

Their band was the first in Jamaica to use an electric organ, another one of the rock elements brought into ska from the United States that ended up being key to their success. The group had many hit singles including a ska version of Over The Rainbow, Joyride, and Fireflies.

The English Beat

The English Beat was formed in England in 1978 and brought a unique mix of Latin, ska, pop, soul, punk, and reggae to the British Isles. In the early 1980s, the group released three studio albums which were part of the 2-tone wave of ska music in Europe. Best Friend, All Out To Get You, and Doors Of Your Heart were all notable hits for them. 

They toured both the United Kingdom and the United States during their short stint together. They eventually disbanded in 1983 with members joining other groups or going after solo careers. 

The Specials

The Specials - Gangsters (Official Music Video) [HD]

Another one of the biggest English ska bands was The Specials. They were formed in 1977, combining a rocksteady beat and danceable ska with a punk attitude and a pushback on English conservative politics. Their single Too Much Too Young ended up at the number-one spot on the United Kingdom charts in 1980, then hit number one again in 1981 with their song Ghost Town.

Between 1979 and 1981, the group produced seven straight Top 10 hits before the main vocalist left to pursue another band. They continued until 1984 before their founder, Jerry Dammers, left to pursue political activism. In 1993, the group reformed and has been playing and performing ever since. 

The Selecter

The Selecter - On My Radio (1979) (With Lyrics) (HQ)

Along with The Specials, The Selecter co-released the first ska single of the 2-tone era. Their name was based on the Jamaican word for disc jockey, and they would go on to become one of the top bands in the second wave of ska in England. 

The group formed in 1979, and though they continued to release music under the same name well into the 2000s, the original lineup of The Selecter was only together for a single year. 

Sublime

Sublime - Santeria (Official Music Video)

Sublime is an American reggae rock and ska band that formed in 1988 and would stay together in their original form until 1996. The group released three studio albums, five compilation albums, and three EPs during their time together. After their breakup, singles including songs you might recognize like What I Got, Santeria, Wrong Way, and Doin’ Time were released in 1997. 

Worldwide, the group has sold over 20 million combined records with over 10 million of those sales being in the United States alone. While they no longer perform under the name Sublime, the band still has a cult following to this day, and it isn’t uncommon to hear their later releases on the radio.

Next: Our list of the best American bands of all time

Desorden Público

Desorden Público - Allá Cayo (Video Oficial)

Desorden Público formed in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1985. They mix Latin, ska, Latin rock, and reggae together to create a true signature sound. The group was highly influenced by the 2-tone movement, focusing most of their songs on promoting social and racial tolerance and embracing other languages. 

The band was named the ska artist of the year at the Pepsi Venezuela Music Awards five times, reached platinum sales and Top 10 on the charts with their twelve releases, and was nominated for a Grammy Award

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs - Matador (Official Video)

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are another ska band outside of the United States in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They were formed in 1985 and released their debut album in 1986, producing a total of 14 albums in the years since. Over time, their fusion of ska, salsa, reggae, sambo, mambo, and funk has made them one of the most influential ska groups of the third wave. 

Rancid

Rancid - Ruby Soho [MUSIC VIDEO]

Rancid is an American punk-ska band that formed in 1991 and was partly responsible for the elevation of underground punk music in the United States. They started as an underground group but have gone on to have a successful mainstream career of over 30 years. 

Other Artists That implement Elements of Ska Into Their Music

Ska music has gone on to influence the rock and hip hop scenes, especially in underground, alternative, and punk versions of the two. Some groups like The Clash and Madness were punk bands that incorporated ska into some tracks or dropped full-on ska songs along with their other tracks. 

Other groups like Fishbone, The Interrupters, and Less Than Jake embraced ska as their main focus, finding quite a lot of success throughout the 1990s. She’s Kerosene by The Interrupters broke into the United States charts while getting into the Top 10 of the United Kingdom charts. 

Most of the modern pop genre borrows from the tempos and rhythms of the original ska music. Haim, Shakira, Lana Del Ray, and Rhianna have all released ska songs that have charted and done well. 

Other indie bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers have brought elements of the ska genre into their tracks.

Ska Music Today

Today, ska looks about the same as it always has as a mixture of Jamaican mento, calypso, rhythm and blues, and punk rock. While there are key elements that make ska music what it is, there’s a lot of wiggle room for creativity and it tends to stay outside of the mainstream definitions for the genre. 

Some of the original bands are still at it, releasing music as recently as 2021. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and The Specials are still active today and still putting out songs that make it onto the music charts. 

The Specials album Encore made it to the top spot on the United Kingdom charts, all the while ska music continuously drifted in and out of mainstream music popularity. If you’re looking for a recording label to help find modern ska music, check out the catalog from Moon Ska Records. Though they haven’t been active for years, many amazing ska artists chose to sign with them during their time, and researching their names can bring up quite a lot of great albums.

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