Ska Lives: American Skathic Celebrates 20 Years Tomorrow At Metro
By Katie Karpowicz in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 2, 2014 5:30PM
Until 1994, Midwestern ska music was overshadowed by its scenes on either coast. Chicagoan Chuck Wren took things into his own hands in 1993 by founding JUMP UP Records with the intention of releasing a compilation series that highlighted some of the regions best rudeboys (and girls), past and present. His first American Skathic release came to be somewhat of a classic in the genre and brought first-time national attention to many of the featured bands.
This Friday, Wren celebrates the 20th anniversary of the American Skathic series at the Metro along with a heaping handful of the original bands heard on the disc: The Exceptions from Detroit, Chicago southsiders Hot Stove Jimmy, The Eclectics, Greenhouse, Skapone and Chicago ska and reggae '80s legends Heavy Manners. Wren will DJ at the show between sets.
In advance of the what's sure to be a hard skankin' party, Chicagoist had a chance to catch up with Wren via email to look back on ska history in Chicago both in American Skathic's era and today:
CHICAGOIST: First, give us a brief background about yourself, both before American Skathic and since.
CHUCK WREN: Well, I was one of those '80s kids from the Northern suburbs that always pretended to borrow the car to go to a friend's house...but instead would pile three or four friends in the car to see show at the Metro. Naked Raygun, Wax Trax acts, the typically "alternative" Medusa's teens. My friend's older sister was into the 2-Tone ska and it eventually seeped into my brain by the mid-'80s, all the English bands (Specials, Beat, Madness) mixed in with the few modern acts around like Fishbone, Untouchables, Toasters, etc. By the time I had started at Northwestern, I was already a steady listener of their station WNUR 89.3 FM, so early on I had a goal of not only working at the station but launching an all-ska radio show. Summer of 1989 it started and I never looked back, still on the radio (now on WLUW-FM 88.7 FM 23-plus years later. The radio show lead me to get in touch with all the regional bands, and when I realized in 1993 that Midwest bands were being overshadowed by East and West coasts scenes I decided to do something about it. I compiled the American Skathic compilation on my newly launched indie label JUMP UP. Here I am 20 years later with over 100 releases to date, still going strong!
C: How was Chicago musical landscape, specifically its ska scee, changed since American Skathic was originally released?
CHUCK WREN: After the '90s rise, then "crash" of the larger "scene" in general, the people who stuck with the music (not trendy bandwagon jumpers) did go back and discover the wealth and history of the music's island roots. The fans that stuck with it wanted to stay as far away from the "ska/punk" hybrid that was prevalent in the boom. Traditional based ska by modern bands actually could now take the lead and you saw bands like The Slackers and The Aggrolites become the "new" scene leaders, touring hard and keeping ska alive and bring in a whole new generation of fans that wanted "the real stuff." Jamaican ska. Chicago bands like Deal's Gone Bad, The Drastics and our Northern Indiana neighbors Green Room Rockers helped host countless shows with out of town traditional ska acts and also helped build the foundation for me to begin bringing the original '60s singers to the Mayne Stage for Jamaican Oldies shows.
C: What do you think it was about the compilation that created enough of a legacy to warrant its celebration 20 years later?
CHUCK WREN: It was the high school soundtrack to thousands of fans in the Chicagoland area. It was their scene, something they truly felt a part of and changed the way they thought. Yes, the shows back then were huge but the scene was still very inclusive, supportive and special. You become a party of it when someone brought you to a show. One show and you were hooked. And ska fans in other cities networked with each other in a truly organic way that this Facebook generation simply can't grasp. For the bands, the most magical shows were on the stage at Metro. You never knew how amazing it was to be on stage until you couldn't go back. This is their moment to shine on that stage one last time! I know it sounds cliche, but that fact is the main reason why six bands reunite so quickly. As I told [Metro/Smart Bar founder] Joe Shanahan, I wouldn't do this show anywhere else.
C: What are some of the most notable releases that JUMP UP has put out since American Skathic?
CHUCK WREN: how you define notable. Many would point to the "Still Standing" 4xCD compilation that was released in 2003 as being a catalyst in rejuvenating a U.S. scene that had crashed really hard from 2000 onward. For me, I still am most proud of discovering new bands and exposing their music to the world. In the past few years I have championed The Fundamentals from Montreal, Soul Radics from Tennessee, Prizefighters from Minnesota, The Debonaires from California and countless European acts like Moon Invaders, Mr. T-Bone and an all mento/calypso series that includes King Pepe from France and Count Kuto from the Philippines.
C: Right now, who are some ska/reggae acts in Chicago that you're really digging?
CHUCK WREN: Of course, you music support Deals Gone Bad - that's without saying! More on the roots reggae side are The Drastics, who have been a big part of backing brand of our Jamaican Oldies series. I consider Green Room Rockers a Chicago band since they play here often and truly call Chicago one of its official homes!
C: To this interviewer, ska has always seemed like an underdog genre, at times being on the brink of crossing over into the mainstream but never quite getting there. Do you agree or disagree?
CHUCK WREN: I would have to disagree. Ska crossed into the mainstream big time in the late '90s. It was everywhere. Ska-infused bands like No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, Goldfiner, Mighty Mighty Bosstones could not have gotten any bigger ... honestly. I would say that 1998 was the first year that I didn't have to explain to people what ska was. They might not have known much about the music's rich history, most people didn't even realize (or care) it was a Jamaican music from the '60s. But, as people said back then, "I know it when I hear it."
Tickets to American Skathic's 20th Anniversary show at the Metro on January 3 are still on sale for $12. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and is open to anyone 18 or older.