Miguel Happoldt's Un-Twisted History of Skunk Records
Miguel Happoldt on stage with Perro Bravo
Courtesy Miguel Happoldt
The name Mike "Miguel" Happoldt probably doesn't mean much to the average Sublime fan. Not even when you throw out a reference to Skunk Records, the label made famous by the band's iconic releases 40 oz to Freedom,Robbin' the Hood, and 1996's landmark self-titled album. The label itself is a bit of a mystery, one that's even further diluted by uncredited Internet lore and bands who have hi-jacked the label's logo over the years for their own purposes. It also probably doesn't help that Happoldt, founder of the label and longtime friend of Sublime's late frontman of Brad Nowell, is one of the most low key dudes on the planet.
After the death of Nowell in '96 and the dissolution of Sublime--the label's main bread winner--the band's label head and producer basically let go of the reigns until the mid 2000s when he began to fight to reclaim the revive Skunk and reclaim its legacy. After 25 years of creating a sound synonymous with his Long Beach stomping grounds, Happoldt is celebrating his persistence with an anniversary show at the Observatory, featuring artists and bands who've been an integral part in his life as LBC's most underrated musical mastermind. "This show isn't about people's perception of Skunk Records," he says. "It's about basically me trying to do music a certain way against the grain for 25 years. I realized that if they're confused, that's not my problem. I'm not confused. Far from it." We recently caught up to Happolt-- who now fronts his own band, Perro Bravo--to retrace what he says is the the real, un-twisted history of Skunk Records.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): What was the real inspiration for you to start a record label in 1989? Miguel Happoldt: I was in a band called the Ziggens at the time and really I just wanted to make our Ziggens cassette that we released look more fancy. When I met Brad [Nowell] and I handed him the tape, he's like "what's this Skunk Records thing all about?" And I told him I just bullshit people, it's bullshit, it's just me. So then he's like "Well then Sublime's on Skunk Records too, fuck it." And we were pretty much buddies since then. When Brad was still alive, he'd say "Mike started Skunk Records, but it didn't mean shit until he met Sublime." And I'll back that up because it's true [Laughs].
But at that point you were actually producing and recording music on your own? The was the aspiration. I was at Cal State Dominguez Hills, that's how I met the Ziggens and that's how I wound up in that band, the bass player Jon Poutney was my running buddy over there, we were both in the engineering program and their guitar player Dickie Little quit for a while and then I got in the band and being a recording student I just went into recording us. We were supposed to turn in one recorded song at the end of every semester. I turned in a whole album. So my aspiration was to play guitar and produce and that's when I met Brad. He thought I played guitar well and he needed somebody who could record him and understand the ideas we was trying to do. He'd go into local studios and people just didn't understand what he was trying to do. And when we worked together he was like "Ah, fuck, finally someone who gets it." Eventually he found out I was a freestyle rapper and I'd rap at the backyard parties with Sublime.
So you knew what he was looking for right away because you had similar tastes? We picked apart a lot of music, I didn't really understand at the time either but I was determined to find out. We had that kind of time to hang out, listen to a million records and experiment. I had mixers and mics all set up, we had all this shit in the house and we just tried to nail down what it was about the sound--the two-tone reggae movement in England and the dub reggae movement of the 70s. Those were the two main things. And rap! Anything and everything that had to do with rap. That was an endless science, anything we could learn about hip-hop production, we would kill somebody for that info. When we met Marshall Goodman, he had turntables and understood programming. And he was a huge asset and another part of making things more groundbreaking.
Over the years, it seems as though you guys put out a ton of artists on Skunk since it started. Is that accurate? Not really. I'm glad you want to do a retrospective because there were marketing companies who get paid to market certain records and they would try to promote their bands using the Skunk label, so the legacy has gotten a little twisted. As far as the acts that I personally said "This is who I'm backing," it's very limited. It was the Ziggens, Sublime, Slightly Stoopid, Juice Bros, Philieano, Toko Tasi, Paulie Nugent and he has another project called the Burn Unit. Those are the records where I woke up in the morning and said "I gotta put these records out, the public has to hear this." Certain other things got a logo. I did a record for Long Beach All Day, they had a record and nowhere to put it out so I said I'd throw it on the label, everything else it was like the record was done and the bands needed us to market the record or other marketing forces just high-jacking the logo without even telling me. That was a big problem we had after Brad died. All the sudden people just acted like it wasn't my deal anymore, it was weird. I mean, after I lost Brad I didn't really give a fuck, so it kinda seemed par for the course. Like if there's gonna be rain, there's gonna be lighting. In the end, I always thought I had my producing to fall back on. So I just went to doing that.
And in the years since that, the style you guys created with Sublime ended up being something that a lot of Long Beach bands borrowed from or just blatantly ripped off. You're right, except that was only one part of it. Having that up beat party vibe was only one side of Sublime. Brad opened the door for bands to do a hodgepodge of stuff, to do a rap track, next to a reggae track, next to an acoustic track. But nobody does that anymore. They've got their dub album, or their acoustic album, the regular album...well shit, we did all that in one song, we did all that in 30 seconds. But people went straight back into the box when Brad was gone--it pissed me off. So that's why I really tried to push Philieano, Toko Tasi and Paulie Nugent because the music on those records was the real deal. A lot of other bands were stuck in one gear on the Sublime car, it's kinda funny. Maybe it's harder to do than it is to talk about.
See also: Examining Perro Bravo's Oral History of Sublime in 'Last Ska Song' In the wake of Brad's death, what happened to Skunk? Was it dormant? Once Brad died I did try to do it. It's a complicated story, but there was a marketing company that Universal music group had employed to make it look like records we'd done on Skunk, Robin the Hood and [Sublime], were being pushed harder than they actually were on a level of Epitaph, they felt like that little deception would sell more records, but I don't think people really gave a fuck, good music's good music. In that little marketing company, people started getting weird. They owed me like $70-80,000 dollars at that point. And then they went bankrupt and I never really got any of it. But it just made me realize that it's not a game you can do halfway.
So I let it all crumble to I could go back to doing acts like Philieano and Paulie Nugent who people didn't know from Adam. So if we could sell 3,000 CDs it be back to a certain level of success and it could just be me again. Like, I don't need your help. I got us here, you guys all ruined it, no go away and I'm gonna start over from scratch, I don't need your big budget, I don't need your projections, I need a couple grand and we're gonna start over.
Was it hard trying to make a comeback with Skunk at that point? Honestly I felt like the pause was too long. All those years I was gone I was making records and producing, but the label wasn't staying current and bands weren't really flying the flag anymore so by the time got into it on a creative level around 2005, the general public had moved on to the more rock reggae sound. Around 2008 I decided I was gonna go back to what I was doing before I met the Ziggens--write the songs, sing, produce...so I just started doing everything I used to do when I was 18. That's how Perro Bravo started, kind of as a vanity project. I got Mike Long on bass and Greg Lauder on drums to play and we started doing gigs, we're doing pretty good we're two albums in. So Skunk records was me, then it was me and Brad, then it was me, then it was on hold and how it's just me. It's 25 years of me not quitting. I never went a whole calendar year without making a record. That's the continuation. The Glory years are behind us. They were for sure between 1990-2000, but for what it's worth I held onto the label and the rights and took care of everything., fought off weird kinds of people who want to put it in a box and make it synonymous with Sublime forever. That wasn't the plan.
So you feel like you basically are a victim of the digital age? All my life's hard work was based on the simple fact that when you bought a CD there were credits on there. So now it's all gone, like ancient ruins on a wall that someone just wiped away. As the years go by, the next thing you know it's like "Who is this guy again?" I never had a manager or any type of go-between. I never signed to a label, never signed to a manager, never signed to a merch deal. It was all me the whole time. When it's not someone who can pay a lot of money for publicity to gas themselves up, why are they gonna tell my story? So I'm glad you are. [Laughs].
The Skunk 25th Anniversary Show with Kyle & Miles Stoopid, Unwritten Law, Opie Ortiz and Aaron Owens, Free Moral Agents, Big B, DJ Product and more happens on Thursday, February 27 at the Observatory. 8 p.m. $20. For full details and ticket sales, click here.
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