The story of Long Beach's most successful band rarely emphasizes its multicultural roots, its ability to seamlessly blend disparate genres or its importance in creating a globally appealing pop sound out of a mass of local musical influences. Instead, most considerations of ska-punk outfit Sublime focuses on the cruelly timed death of frontman Bradley Nowell, a herion-death cliché-of-the-times that left his image lumped in with countless others associated with the drug-addicted alternative rock mainstream of the 1990s.
This perspective of the Long Beach-bred three-piece, however, unfairly sweeps the band away from critical study, leaving its contemporaries in grunge and hip-hop to the theorists and relegating Sublime's gritty dub-rock hybrid albums to the lowly pantheon of bro music. But Sublime is more than the beach-inspired stylings of a heroin addict and its legacy far greater than the cottage industry of white-boy reggae-punk fusions that continue in its wake (Slightly Stoopid, anyone?).To understand the musical impact of Sublime, we break down five songs that exemplify the reasons this band--love them or hate them-- still matters.
5. "What I Got" (aka where pop, reggae and hip hop collided on American radio)
Like most other Sublime songs, what landed on the radio in 1996, "What I Got" was not entirely original music. Instead, the song is an amalgam of several important songs with roots spanning from West Kingston to Liverpool to Oakland. The melody and pacing of the verses is identical to Beatles' "Lady Madonna" while the chorus is an exact cover of "Lovin'" by Jamaican ragga singer Half-Pint. In addition to aligning itself with Britain's quintessential rock band (and all of the whiteness that goes with it), the song plants Sublime in an opposing world of working-class black music, not only through the Half-Pint cover, but also with its lyrical references to Oakland's Too Short and Haitian-American act, The Fugees. And yet Sublime's first foyer into mainstream music was not making a mockery of African rhythms and racialized beats, but instead taking the parts it needed and mixing with other resources along the way to make "What I Got" a sincere and universally appealing pop ballad.
4. "Badfish" (aka where British two-tone found a new working-class American home)
Though "Badfish" is one of the more sonically original of Sublime songs, it still cites influences from two bands--The Specials and the Ziggens. The Specials were one of the most important bands of England's 2 Tone ska-revival scene and the Ziggens were local contemporaries of Sublime, releasing surf-punk albums on Skunk Records. "Badfish" combines the introductory "field recording of a bar" aesthetic and several lyrics fromThe Specials' 1979 song "Nite Klub"
and a loose melody fromthe Ziggens' 1991 "All The Fun That We Missed."
Written several years before the civil unrest of the L.A. Riots, "Badfish" takes this anti-partying party song approach to Long Beach's drug-and-alcohol scene, which Sublime members were off-and-on members of. Using blatant metaphors to shed light on the realities of working class life in the industrial port city, the song is uncommon poetry for the usually straight-forward Sublime. And for those who ran in these hard-times circles in Long Beach--which boasts other famously tormented alumni such as John Fante and Charles Bukowski--lines such as "Ain't got no money to spend/I hope the night will never end" and "Ain't got no quarrels with God/Ain't got no time to get old" define the experience.
3. "April 29, 1992" (aka the Long Beach CNN)
Chuck D of Public Enemy once famously said that "rap music is the black CNN," but in the case of the Los Angeles Riots' spillover in oft-forgotten Long Beach, it was local band Sublime's song "April 29, 1992 (Miami)" that became the city's most important news network.
Released on its 1996 multi-platinum self-titled album, the song reports on the burning buildings and criminals of the band's hometown in the days after four L.A. police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. Using actual Long Beach Police Department radio transmissions and descriptions of personal involvement in the pillaging, the song gives the only localized account of the Long Beach riots.
To some, it might seem inflammatory that pseudo-reggae white boys would write a song about their participation in racially motivated violence and looting (our friends at the SF Weekly accused them of "piggybacking on a riot"). But the rioting Sublime writes about is not the iconic Normandie-and-Florence chaos that continues to be written about. The song is about how the riots affected them and others in Long Beach, a city nearby yet worlds apart from neighboring South Central (so when Nowell sings, "'Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here," he's not only talking about disenfranchised blacks or mistreated Hispanics; he's also talking about the rest of the people in the city that were pissed off at "this fucked-up situation and these fucked-up police"). The song remains important as both Long Beach's riot-time CNN and the only cultural text that gives a white person's participatory perspective on the entire L.A. Riots. Yeah, apparently they stole some shit too.
2. "Caress Me Down" (how Jamaican riddems found a second life in Southern California)
There are two versions of "Caress Me Down" that exist in Sublime's repertoire--a studio version released on the band's 1996 self-titled album and a different live version released on 1998's compilation albumStand By Your Van
. The main difference between the two--aside from production and recording quality--are the lyrics, with the studio version containing entire verses that are sung in Spanish. Both songs contain the exact same underlying Jamaican riddems and are on the whole, covers ofClement Irie's 1991 song "Caress Mi Down,"
which has the exact same chorus as Sublime's versions.
Riddems are a term for popular Jamaican rhythms, which have been reused as the base for multiple songs throughout modern Jamaican music history. Irie's version of "Caress Mi Down" uses a popular riddem called the "Cherry oh Baby" riddem, which Sublime combined with another riddem called the Sleng Teng. For Jamaican producers and musicians, the use of riddems is one way to make a song sound familiar to those who may have never heard of you before, similar to the way that popular guitar melodies are reused in mainstream songs of today (Kanye West's entire career may be reliant on this technique).
1. "Roots of Creation" (aka when reggae became the new punk, then it became the new pop)
"Roots of Creation" is a Sublime super-b-side that though hard to find, sums up a large part of the band's aesthetic by explaining Nowell's affinity for both reggae and Jamaican music as a whole.
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"Roots of Creation" can best be described as Sublime's SoCal-punk ode to reggae. The song starts in with a pretty standard floor-and-bass drum rock rhythm and accompanying electric-bass riff that begins so many other punk songs of the time (see Fugazi "Waiting Room" and Dead Kennedy's "California Uber Alles"). But instead of the guitar coming in after the intro and starting the main melody of the song as ears have been trained to expect, "Roots of Creation" flips the predictable beat on its head and tears in with a syncopated reggae beat that accompanies an upstroke ska guitar sound. With this, the band musically rejects the simple punk songs on which Sublime was raised and replaces it instead with head-bobbing reggae aesthetic, an idea that is echoed throughout the song.
The title of the song itself is taken from a term within the Jamaican community that refers to reggae music as "the roots of creation." And Nowell--after being introduced the sounds as a young teenager while on a trip to the Carribbean with his father--latched on to this idea of reggae as the purest form of music. But reggae began as resistance music, a politicized voice for the working class in Kingston. And while Nowell at times did use music as a way to speak out against oppression and injustice (see "April 29, 1992"), he makes it clear in "Roots of Creation" that it is not reggae's political meaning, but its musical aesthetic that he is most attracted to.
Instead of using music to imagine a different political world as many early reggae artists did, Nowell was using it as a way to escape the trouble-and-strife-filled "boring nation" that he is living in. With its emphasis on the emotionally affecting power of reggae ("It's the sweet kinda music make me feel okay," Nowell sings), the song explicitly demonstrates why Sublime is so sonically different from all of the other similarly experimental reggae-punk fusion bands that came before.