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Why I love Sublime, the Dirty Heads, Rebelution and other progressive reggae bands

Sublime started a new movement in the American rock and reggae scene that has continued well after the death of singer Bradley Nowell.

Sublime started a new movement in the American rock and reggae scene that has continued well after the death of singer Bradley Nowell.

Anyone who has ever been a true fan of a band can recall the pivotal moment when they heard the music for the first time.

For me, discovering my favorite band happened in the most cliché of ways. In my romanticized memory, my best friend and my 14-year-old self snuck into her brother's bedroom and infiltrated his album collection while he was out doing cool older-brother things, like driving. She ran her fingers across the rows of CDs on his bookshelf before stopping on Sublime and snatching up 1998's Stand By Your Van.

"I've never heard anything like it before, Amber," she said. "You have to listen. I'll put on this song called Date Rape first."

It was circa 1999 and we were listening to a lot of Mariah Carey and Usher at the time, so I remember thinking date rape seemed like a semi-scary choice in subject matter.

As we sat on the floor around her little black CD player like it was a bonfire, the song opened and the drums started to thump, rolling into the guitar skank. I was immediately enamored with the gritty musical style and the fact a bunch of surfer guys were singing about date rape and sticking up for the rights of young women.

Then came the karmic climax at the end, in which the victim is vindicated because the perpetrator is sent to jail and butt-raped. It left an impression. At the very least, I've kept a rule of thumb not to intermingle with strange men at bars.

Like so many fans, I tried to keep Sublime's sound alive after singer Bradley Nowell's death as I went through high school and college, then forayed into the real world. All along, I was going to obscure appearances by Sublime bassist Eric Wilson, getting the 40oz. to Freedom sun tattooed on my shoulder blade and visiting Nowell's grave in Long Beach, Calif., high-fiving fellow fans all along the way.

Apparently, while I was having these experiences, so were others on the east and west coasts, including many with actual musical talent. For more than a decade, bands were forming under the voodoo of Sublime — Pepper, Ballyhoo!, the Dirty Heads, the Expendables and Rebelution, to name a few. By late 2010, the swelling sea of American progressive reggae bands had revived what died with Nowell, creating a culture draped in green, yellow and red revelry.

Attend a show by any of these bands, and you will experience an island vacation, complete with flip-flop fashion and carefree sensations. The energy of the music creates an effect that allows the loving of life to take hold of everyday stress and deliver you to the church of positive vibrations.

I find the music has always been validated by a message of embracing diversity and looking on the bright side, of traveling one's own path versus the path of the stressed-out, materialistic masses. When done successfully by acts like SOJA, musicians are able to find a lyrical sweet spot between hippie idealism and hipster pretension.

On Courage to Grow, Rebelution sings: "Well, you can gain the world / But for the price of your soul, yes I know ... But I hope you take the road less traveled / and I hope you find the courage to grow."

Mixed in with the deeper messages are simpler themes of romance, sex and love, as well as letting loose with friends. And, yes, let's get it out of the way: There is a heavy cannabis infusion within the scene. The music is derivative of reggae, after all. But while marijuana has come to be a defining trait, fans of the genre know it is in no way central to loving the music.

The bass- and drum-infused "riddims," combined with guitar skank, horn and percussion sections and bouncy keyboards, are what provide the free-flowing vibes that lead to much swaying and booty-shaking, something worth noting about the lively concert experiences.

With the metal of the Expendables, the hip hop of the Dirty Heads, the roots reggae go-go of SOJA and pop-rock tendencies of others like the Supervillians, there is a lot of genre-mixing in this world. Even the bands themselves have trouble describing just how it all pulls together.

For this reason, I chose to write this column without using the label "reggae rock." While I don't have an actual problem with it, I am a diehard fan. It is hard for me to slap a label on such a diverse musical style.

For many of us "reggae rockers," Nowell said it best: "The bottom line is I love good music and I try to shy away from all these labels that people think are so necessary to slap on music. … Good music is good music, and that should be enough for anybody." — amcdonald@tampabay.com

Why I love Sublime, the Dirty Heads, Rebelution and other progressive reggae bands 06/18/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 4:22pm]
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