For a certain subsection of Millenials, the first 30 seconds of the seminal ska band the Toasters’ biggest hit, “Two Tone Army,” are indelibly printed on their brains.
The song was the theme of the animated sketch-comedy cartoon KaBlam!, an innovative and awkward series that first aired on the Nickelodeon in the mid-1990s. While the tune’s horn-led cavalcade has all of the adrenaline-inducing pep and joy we’ve come to associate with ska, it was sort of an odd, mid-career taste of commercial success for the band, which got its start at the atomic beginnings of the genre in New York City in the early 1980s. The Toasters’ frontman and founder, Robert Hingley, had recently moved to the Big Apple from the U.K., where ska music was experiencing a brief surge of success thanks to the politically motivated work of bands like the Specials and the Selecter.
“When I first came to New York 1980, there had been relatively little exposure to [ska] there,” the singer recalls. “There was almost nothing at all happening, which seemed a little strange to me, because it had been so huge in the U.K. I didn’t really understand why that was until later on when I got into the music business proper, and I understand how marketing goes and how pigeonholing it can be.”
Hingley hypothesizes now that this was largely due to record labels wary of multiracial groups that would be difficult to place in familiar categories like rock or R&B. Nonetheless, he set out to form his own group, although with the modest of goal of “just jamming out after work.”
“I was basically teaching American musicians the style, because they just weren’t familiar with it,” he recalls. “Reggae hadn’t even broken into the mainstream yet in America, and there wasn’t really a way for people wanting to discover other types of music in the pre-internet [era].”
Despite such inauspicious beginnings, the Toasters quickly established themselves as key figures in the American third wave of ska bands, following the original birth of the genre in Jamaica in the late 1950s and early 60s and then the explosion of groups in the U.K. a little over a decade later. The latter two periods led to the “2 Tone” style, which fused the Jamaica roots with punk-rock verve.
This initial wave of American bands was planted firmly in the underground, but ska would reach a commercial pinnacle a decade later with bands like Might Bosstones and No Doubt — the latter even benefitting from the support of Hingley’s record label Moon Ska Records. Along the way, it lost most of its political teeth.
“It has gone the way of being perceived more as party music now, which is OK,” Hingley says. “But it’s important to understand where the music comes from too,” noting that the genre’s Jamaican roots come from their rebellious fight for independence from British colonial rule.
“That’s where the music came from, original rebel music,” he points out. “And that got transmogrified in the late ’70s in the U.K. through bands like the Specials and more particularly the Selectors, who were really writing about the issues of the time, about economic depression and the right-wing, authoritarian, quasi-fascist conservative government under Margaret Thatcher.”
And even in a song as seemingly harmless as “Two Tone Army,” this sensibility shines through. “Take your own system and knock it down/ With a nineties beat and a ’50s sound,” Hingley sings. “You don’t need no member to let yourself in/ You don’t need no language or color of skin/ Don’t need no money to make a contribution/ To be a part of the two tone revolution.”
Hingley is still earnestly committed to the politics of the music, but these days he’s got more ammunition for Spotify and music pirating, which he says crated the business model for his label and is a big part of why the Toasters still play over 200 dates a year.
“It’s not just within that framework either,” he says. “Classic bands from all kinds of genres have gotten back together and gone out on the road playing small venues that probably didn’t expect to at their age, because the dynamics of the music business have changed so much. The public has been conditioned to the fact that music is free now or gratuitous. It’s going to be very hard to reteach them that musicians need to be compensated for their wares.”
Amid talk about market shares and business plans, where he often sounds very much like the 30-year, former record-label runner with two kids in college, though, Hingley still glimmers with the insurgent promise that ska initially offered him all those years ago.
“When the music crashed from its commercial peak in the ’90s, it just filtered back into the underground,” he says. “That sub-culture hasn’t truly been exploited by the music business. Just because people aren’t paying as much attention to it or it isn’t in the mainstream, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”