In 1993, when Luis Correa started Steady Beat Recordings, ska was the life of the party. From backyard shows to barrio clubs and big-time venues, the revived sounds of 1960s two-tone were the soundtrack of most of Southern California. At the time, old-school island soul found favor in the Latin community from OC to LA and the South Bay where Correa grew up. The San Pedro label was a beacon of light for diehard SoCal ska fans, cultivated in a dark corner that much of the outside world barely knew existed.
Nearly 25 years later, the sound of Steady Beat continues to echo through the streets of San Pedro. On a recent Wednesday night, behind the door of a nondescript studio next to a neighborhood corner store less than a mile from the graffiti-painted Sunken City trail overlooking the coast, shards of light from a rotating disco ball illuminate a dark recording space. The Colombian grooves courtesy of East LA band Spaghetti Cumbia form a cocktail of rolling rawhide gumption spiked with the blood of Celso Piña. As amazing as it is, it doesn't sound like the traditional ska that built the Steady Beat brand. For Correa, that's exactly the point.
The expansion of the label's repertoire over the years encapsulates a broader cross-section of Latin-infused music from traditional ska acts such as the Steady 45s to soul-inspired bands including Chicano Batman and psychedelic Cumbia punks Thee Commons, all of whom have recorded or done live shows with Correa in recent years.
"Every band I come across is a little different, but within the same type of vein, the Latin hispanic thing—but it's more than that," Correa says. "It's music of the early '70s, the same vibe." The common thread to these various throwback sounds is the growing Latin- alternative scene, which created a passport to the future for Correa and Steady Beat Recordings.
Correa says he wasn't much of a ska fan during its second wave; growing up, most of his friends were sporting fedoras and listening to Madness while Correa was obsessed with Prince. But by the start of the '90s and the third-wave ska punk movement, he was more receptive to the sound and even started booking bands with a business partner, Ray Perez, under the name Blackpool Productions and working gigs as a sound man.
"I didn't plan to start a label," Correa says. "I just wanted to be a sound man and be a producer. But what happened was all the bands I was doing sound for, I would ask if they had anything recorded, and most of them would say no, and I said, 'Lemme record you tonight.'"
He would record bands in a backroom apartment studio after or sometimes during a gig, a style that captured the raucous sweaty atmosphere of a live show.
Eventually, his partnership and Blackpool Productions fell by the wayside, but Correa continued throwing shows and producing bands under the banner of his DIY label, Steady Beat Recordings. His reputation as a promoter preceded him, and with the help of fellow promoter Jason Faulk, he made the right connections and began throwing sold-out shows at spots such as Hong Kong Café, Las Palmas Theatre, the Whisky a Go Go and the Roxy Theatre.
"I think I hit it right on the spot because when I started doing these packed shows, I was like, 'Where are all these people coming from?'" Correa recalls. "You don't get those crowds now. You only get those crowds when Hepcat plays or some big show happens."
Correa enjoyed a solid run with Steady Beat, putting out records and throwing shows, until about 1999, the year he says live music and ska in particular started to take a nosedive. Between the the birth of Napster and the death of record-store chains such as Wherehouse and Sam Goody, the label owner couldn't move his product the way he used to. He had to go back to working a day job. "Through all this time, I just kept putting records out," he says. "It was a good run until the late '90s and things started getting rocky."
By the early 2000s, Correa was out of the record business entirely. After a string of significant life events, including a second marriage, the birth of his daughter and the death of his father, he started to re-evaluate his life, he says, and decided to revive his dream job. He began booking bands and deejaying ska records at a local bar.
Now, the label has acts playing shows all over SoCal, including Alex's Bar and the monthly Barrio Funky night at Grandstar Jazz Club in Chinatown.
Around the time he restarted the label, Correa's friend Donald Lewis, the sax player for ska kings the Allentons, opened 1Take Studios near Sunken City. "Before I was here, it was already a music studio, like 20 years previous," Lewis says. "But the guy's mom passed away. . . . If I didn't take this over, it would've turned into a toy store."
Lewis and Correa now record most of Steady Beat's roster there, making Spaghetti Cumbia sound like a million bucks or fine-tuning Thee Commons' new songs until they strike the right balance between a sonic revival and revolution.
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By incorporating a more eclectic flavor, Steady Beat has the ability to cultivate a local band such as the Altons, a five-piece from Maywood that blends soul and rock with a Latin twist, and put them on tour. "Through Steady Beat, we've gotten to meet a bunch of bands with Latin influences," says Bryan Ponce, the band's lead vocalist and guitarist. "We've all come together and had a chance to work with one another, and the label provided that for us."
What started as a strictly ska label has made a comeback with bands that are more likely to play with the borders of their sound. Just last week, Correa had a band perform "A Message to You Rudy" in a cumbia style on one side of their record and a reggae version of an old rancho song called "Sabor A Mi" on the other.
As he sits back in his home office, which now doubles as Steady Beat's headquarters, Correa is surrounded by vinyl he has put out for the past 25 years. But he's focused on where he wants the label to go in the future. "In the next couple of years, I'd like to see my catalog expanding into all kinds of music, and hopefully, I get some distribution and no more working for the man," Correa says. "That's everyone's dream."