"Misfits of Ska" changed everything
In 1991, Skankin’ Pickle chose the name Skafunkrastapunk for their debut album because that was literally the mishmash of genres they played. It may seem like nothing now, but at the time, it wasn’t the norm. Skankin’ Pickle played several shows with ska bands that played tight 2 Tone grooves and wore snappy suits. These bands drew skinheads, mods, and rude boys. Much of that crowd hated that Skankin’ Pickle was fucking up ska with all these other genres, and worse, didn’t know how to dress right. It wasn’t uncommon to see a row of skinheads standing in the front row with their arms folded giving Skankin’ Pickle the stink eye, or even pushing around their poorly-dressed fans.
Mike Park, Skankin’ Pickle’s sax player and singer, recalls one show at the Whiskey in L.A. where every other band was ska. Tired of the reaction they got from these crowds, he decided to push back. “All the bands looked really good. I was like, I want to look as gross as possible. I remember wearing giant yellow sweatpants, a California visor that was rainbow-colored. I pulled up my sweats as high as I could and went crazy,” Park says.
So many shows were battles that Skankin’ Pickle decided to stop playing ska shows. Park told the promoter at Spanky’s in Riverside to put Pickle on a bill with absolutely no ska bands. That show had nine speed-metal bands and Skankin’ Pickle. They opened their set with “Asian Man,” which begins with metal, but quickly breaks down to a slower hip-hop-rock beat.
“We are going out of our minds. The crowd is going crazy. I was like, ‘we got it.’ The ska scene didn't like us. We’ll find people that just like weird music,” Park says. “Skinheads wanted to hear 2 Tone and trad ska. If you were playing distortion, they weren't having it. We drew from the metal people, the punks, funk, hippies, and the ska people. It was just random kids who were having a good time.”
They toured relentlessly and found this patchwork of random kids all over the country and built an audience from the ground up. They also met other oddball ska bands in cities they passed through that also felt left out of the normal ska scene, bands like Voodoo Glow Skulls, Less Than Jake, and The Suicide Machines.
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Skankin’ Pickle helped lead this new growing ska-punk scene, and they did it completely without any label support. Though Restless Records offered them a deal, they turned it down and chose to release music on their own label, Dill Records. By 1994, they started releasing other bands’ music too, starting with Hawaii soul-ska band Tantra Monsters. But the most important Dill release was a different early record, Misfits of Ska.
Compilations had been a considerable part of the ska scene the past decade, often compiling bands from specific regions. If California ska fans wanted to learn what was happening over in Boston, they could grab a copy of Mash It Up! Aside from Moon’s Skarmageddon (1994), Misfits of Ska (1995) was the first deliberate ska-punk compilation. But Misfits of Ska was different because it made a statement. It embraced punked-up and stylistically diverse ska, almost defiantly. It proclaimed the music to be its own subculture separate from the ska scene. It was a message to skinheads and rude boys they didn’t have sole ownership of ska.
“I could see the tide turning. Those bands are about to blow up. Sublime and Voodoo. I was like, they're going to pass us,” Park says. “I never did it [mixed styles] because I thought this is going to be popular. We were into Fishbone. Fishbone mixed styles, so we thought let's do the same thing.”
None of the bands on Misfits of Ska had major label deals when Park assembled the compilation. That changed after its release. Bands that landed deals included Blue Meanies, The Suicide Machines, Less Than Jake, Reel Big Fish, Sublime, and Voodoo Glow Skulls. Slapstick was being courted by Epitaph, but the band broke up before it could materialize. “A lot of people think that it was Tony Hawk that did a lot for us,” says Suicide Machine’s Jason Navarro. “Misfits of ska, that shit put us on the map.”
Was it a coincidence that such a large percentage of Misfits of Ska bands ended up getting record deals? Park doesn’t think so. “I truly believe the major labels went down this comp and scouted every band,” he says.
The Misfits of Ska comp ran into some legal issues. The original cover featured an image from Bride of Frankenstein and used the band Misfits’ well-known font for just the word “Misfits” in the title. On the back cover, Park used an image of Godzilla. Dill hadn’t released that many records yet, so Park had no idea you needed permission to use these images.
Around six months after its release, Park got a letter from TOHO, a Japanese company that owned Godzilla. They threatened to sue for using the Godzilla image. A friend of Park’s, who lived in Japan, spoke with them and somehow managed to smooth the situation over. If Park agreed to remove the image, they wouldn’t sue.
Shortly after, Park got a call from Caroline Records telling him to cease and desist using the Misfits logo. He obliged. Afraid that he’d be contacted by Frankenstein’s people next, he decided to go ahead and change that image too. He redid the cover first using a cartoon drawing of the grim reaper. Not satisfied with that one, Park made a third one, using a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers -style drawing.
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Despite these problems, the record sold incredibly well, roughly 50,000 copies, an amazing number for a ska compilation on an indie label. This new, now clearly defined ska-punk scene was on fire. This short time between the release of Misfits of Ska and the soon to be mainstream period of ska is lost to history. The most important thing Misfits of Ska did was frame ska-punk as a growing subculture with a swath of exciting bands that all sounded different from each other, but somehow fit under this new, changing umbrella of ska. The nuances of this scene were lost on major labels who were only interested in making ska the next big thing. But even with that in mind, Misfits of Ska still holds up as an incredible time capsule of what ska in the ’90s actually sounded like.