Skank and File: An Oral History of D.C. Ska
Strike up a conversation with 70 percent of this town’s 20- to 30-something punk rockers, and they’ll probably tell you they grew up with hardcore or emo. Talk to the other 30 percent, and they’ll say it was ska.
Most folks probably remember ska from the brief time when trumpet-toting dudes in plaid suits and pork-pie hats briefly dominated MTV—the days of Reel Big Fish and Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ peak fame in the 1990s. But for D.C. kids, ska sounded like The Pietasters, The Checkered Cabs, Eastern Standard Time, The Ratchet Boys, and The Skunks.
Ska skanked into town in the late 1980s when the decline of second-wave British bands like The English Beat, The Specials, and Madness inspired a generation of young rude boys and girls to pick up trumpets and start their own scene. From the late ’80s until the early aughts, that scene kept growing, even while the mainstream moved on to the next big thing.
D.C. ska was a distinctly—but not exclusively—youth-oriented community. That doesn’t mean it was squeaky clean. The Black Cat famously banned ska shows in 1996 after a brawl at a Checkered Cabs gig. Warring skinheads and mods earned a reputation for throwing punches after they’d sucked down enough Guinness to get ballsy. But as high school-age kids picked it up (pickituppickitup, went the refrain), the scene bled into the suburbs, taking hold at now-closed venues like the Corner Kick in Gaithersburg and Phantasmagoria in Wheaton. Those places did to D.C.’s ska scene what d.c. space and the Wilson Center did to hardcore punk. For a lot of kids who spent their weekend nights throwing their elbows to third-wave ska, the small but sprightly scene was an alternative to prom, homecoming, and petty crime.
Here is the story of ska in the nation’s capital, as told by some of the people who started it all.
Steve Jackson, 43, sings lead vocals in D.C. ska band The Pietasters: I graduated from high school in 1988, and growing up in D.C.—well, I grew up in Virginia, but D.C. was where the nightlife was, so that’s where everybody went—the thing to do was catch whatever hardcore or mod band was playing at the old 9:30 Club on F Street, and d.c. space was right around the corner.
Caz Gardiner, 40, sang lead vocals in The Checkered Cabs from 1991 to 2000, plays in Caz and the Day Laborers: To me, venues like The Safari Club, d.c. space, Hennessey’s, The 15 Minute Club, The Metro Café, the old 9:30 Club, [precede] Phantasmagoria. That all came later. The Cabs were part of it, but the early years of our band was a different scene.
Jackson: There’d be a lot of nights where you’d go see, like, Government Issue at the 9:30 Club and then there’d be a rockabilly band or mod band playing at d.c. space and you’d go back and forth between sets and drink beer in the alleys.
Gardiner: You saw so many kinds of people back then. There were a lot of people of different races involved in the scene, but it wasn’t just black kids—there were Asian kids, Latino kids, and maybe a sprinkling of Middle Eastern kids. You just saw a very diverse group of kids that you’d be hanging out with, but you never talked about it. You were just with each other and part of it together.
Toby Hansen, 37, plays guitar and trumpet in The Pietasters: It felt to me that in the early ‘90s it was a very scene-oriented thing, but there wasn’t much community between the scenes. There were your sharps, your skins, your mods, your rude boys, and the rude girls with Chelsea haircuts.
Gardiner: You had the skinheads, the mods, and the rudies. The skinheads and the mods did not get along, but the rudies could kind of bounce between and be friendly with both of them. I always liked being a Rude Girl because you could be friends with everybody, but you definitely sensed the divide between the other two.
Rivalries between skinheads and mods stoked violence at ska shows. In December 1996, The Black Cat banned the genre after a fight at a Checkered Cabs gig.
Dante Ferrando, 45, co-owner of The Black Cat: The ska shows were always a little more on the difficult side. Those and certain hardcore shows. And we did a lot of them. The bulk of the crowds were really good, but for some of the hardcore and ska shows, there was a small faction of pretty obnoxious, easily riled-up people.
Alex Fine, 33, played in The Ratchet Boys, The Ready Steady Go!, and The Alphabet Bombers, and designed flyers for local ska shows: I remember the fight was at a Checkered Cabs show. It was a huge fight that broke out. It started with skinheads throwing bottles at the band.
Ferrando: I’ve found my notes from that show, it just says "Played 2 songs. Fight. Skinheads. Show canceled. Cops." ... I don’t remember the specifics of the beef that was going on, but somebody was pissed at somebody. I wouldn’t say it was skinheads vs. rude boys, exactly, it was just that the ska scene back then used to have a bit of a rough crowd. It was enough of a fight where we had to turn on the lights and kill the sound, and I was like “Fuck this, show’s over.”
Gardiner: We were the show that shut it down. It was the worst night of my life. It’s difficult to speak about. It was a massive riot; the whole place went ballistic. I was standing on stage watching the whole thing explode: chicks punching dudes, people just going at it. It was wild. I am forever disgusted with what happened that night.
When third-wave ska began to go mainstream in the late 1990s, it ushered in a new generation of local ska bands and fans. The scene began to grow rapidly, especially at the University of Maryland, and later on, Phantasmagoria in Wheaton.
Hansen: It was when third-wave ska finally exploded that the underground scene really proliferated into other facets of society. You saw people coming out to shows that weren’t necessarily focused on the local ska scene before that point.
Michelle Chin, 35, founded the website DCska.com and promotion groups Rude in D.C. Productions and BlueBeat D.C.: My first ska show was at the University of Maryland in the fall of ’94 when The Toasters were on tour—Coolie Ranx was singing with them at the time—and The Checkered Cabs and The Allstonians opened. It was a free show on a Monday night and about 1,000 kids showed up all dressed as rude boys and rude girls. … When I was booking shows at [University of] Maryland, I tried to make every show a ska show.
Bob Mezewski (aka Bobby Bobson), 31, played in The Ratchet Boys from 2000 to 2002 and The Ready Steady Go! from 2002 to 2006: I started going to shows at Phantasmagoria around ’98. It was in Wheaton, and it was this weird and awesome combination record store, restaurant, and bar. They used to just book jazz bands and old rockabilly bands, but they started realizing that the punk scene in D.C. was really big and they could pack the place and make some money off of it.
Spoonboy (David Combs), 29, plays in The Max Levine Ensemble: To me [Phantasmagoria] was like this holy place. I couldn’t believe they did a ska show every week. It had such a scene: There’d be punk kids, rude boys, people who were into jazz, people who were into rockabilly, skinheads; just this weird mash-up of people because ska was so popular at the time.
Mezewski: It probably held about 250 to 300 people. It was a decent-sized venue. It had a lot of open space and a perfect checkered dance floor.
Gardiner: We played Phantasmagoria many times and we definitely noticed the change in the scene, but what could you do? You’re getting older and your life is changing and you don’t have that energy anymore.
In September of 2000, Chin founded the website DCska.com, which quickly became a hub, especially for young ska fans.
Jackson: When Michelle Chin came on the scene with DCska.com, she had a monthly or weekly outlet for bands to play together and it became a more cohesive community.
Chin: [DCska.com] was a really basic website, I was on dial-up [at the time]. It had the basics: a list of shows; a list of local bands. We had a message board—it was a really basic message board—but people were posting to it all the time. Along with that came this sense of community.
After Phantasmagoria closed in 2001, the D.C. ska scene was left without a homebase. But Chin and her boyfriend, Dan Hess, ramped up bookings at an indoor soccerplex in Gaithersburg, Md., called The Corner Kick. It would become one of the region’s most active ska venues, aided by Hess’ band The Ratchet Boys.
Spoonboy: When Phantasmagoria closed down, there was this void and Dan and Michelle decided they were going to fill [it].
Chin: Dan and I began dating in early 2000. He was doing some shows at The Corner Kick for probably a year or so before we started dating. [But] we began to put on shows together, and [the shows at Corner Kick] became this thing where it just kept morphing into something bigger.
Spoonboy: It was a young scene and Dan was kind of like the Papa Bear. He was really funny and would be joking around the whole time. The Ratchet Boys got a reputation for throwing out donuts to the crowd. You’d always want to see The Ratchet Boys and grab a donut when he threw one out and share it with someone next to you. [There was] a lot of great energy at those shows. Everybody knew Dan and everybody loved Dan.
Chin: The Ratchet Boys were around for awhile and they sort of morphed out of The Skanker Sores. I don’t really know why they changed their name; I guess to sound more respectable.
Ben Levin, 30, played in The Konami Code from 2000 to 2003, started work on a documentary on the history of D.C. ska: The Ratchet Boys were such an important band for that Corner Kick era. You could always count on The Ratchet Boys to play a show and fill a room with kids. And they’d always book whatever the new up-and-coming high school ska band was to headline the show... I remember there would always be a lot of high school kids there wearing Hawaiian shirts.
Fine: We used to have shows downstairs on the field. I think the most amount of people we got down there once was 600 people for a show. All these kids just showed up. … It was in ’98, it was The Ratchet Boys, The Instigators, and The Shenanigans. It was a Halloween show. It was insane how many people were there, but... a kid got alcohol poisoning at that show. He snuck in a flask of tequila and he got really sick and we had to call an ambulance.
Levin: Those Corner Kick shows were also a sort of catch-all for a lot of other D.C. scenes. You’d go to these shows and there’d also be a lot of other genres of bands on the bill. There’d be The Shakedowns playing kind of garage rock, The Alphabet Bombers playing rockabilly, and often a lot of pop-punk bands like The Gamma Rays. They would all kind of be under the D.C. ska label on the website Michelle was doing, but it was something that allowed a lot different scenes to come together and support each other.
Jackson: After the third-wave hype died down a little, it was weird to no longer be playing big shows in front of a thousand people. But Michelle would still be like, “Hey, come play the Corner Kick! We’ve got 300 kids that will be there.”
Chin: It got to the point where kids would drive up [to the Corner Kick] just to see if there was anything going on.
Levin: I remember Dan had this thing called Make-Out Patrol where he’d go down to the walls behind the soccer field, sneak around, and bust teenagers making out or whatever.
Fine: We called it The Make-Out Patrol, but it was also to make sure kids weren’t sneaking around and drinking.
Chin: Everybody loved serving on Make-Out Patrol. In fact, one of our friends has a Make-Out Patrol D.C. Ska tattoo. Seriously.
Bobson: When I was in The Ratchet Boys, I started meeting a lot of younger kids that reminded me of myself in high school, and it was really cool to be a part of that scene as a kind of elder statesman. Dan and Michelle really fostered that idea, that sense of community.
In early 2002, the Corner Kick was shut down by the facility’s owners, Fitzgerald Auto Malls. For the next few years, Hess and Chin tried out a few other all-ages venues like St. James Church in Potomac and The Warehouse Next Door in Mount Vernon Square. Toward the end of 2006, the D.C. ska scene had lost steam; by that point, national interest in ska had been minimal for several years.
Levin: Those were hard times for the ska scene.
Chin: It was a combination of things. There [weren’t] as many ska bands in the area anymore. Back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s there [were] so many ska bands, but not all of them were good. Inevitably, it all phased out. I feel like emo came in and people started to be more serious.
Levin: There was this big national backlash. At some point people started to sour on it and everyone started turning emo.
Chin: In its heyday you couldn’t throw a dead cat without hitting a ska band. But eventually Facebook took off and it was all different. People no longer had to visit DCska.com to talk to friends or find out about shows anymore.
Bobson: [The Ready Steady Go!, Mezewski’s post-Ratchet Boys band with Dan Hess] got a lot of awesome opportunities toward the end of the band. This label, Workers United Records, released a 4Skins tribute album and asked us to do a track for it. They wanted to sign us and do a full album. We had a tour setup for this web site SouthernSka.com that they were going to sponsor. We had all these big things coming and it was crazy, but then Dan got sick and the whole dynamic changed.
Hess was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease in September 2005.
Chin: He had been suffering for a while, but he was really tough and he wouldn’t let a lot of things bother him and he toughed out a lot of the symptoms. I’m pretty sure he had cancer long before that, but he wouldn’t go to a doctor. It wasn’t until I told him, “Look, if you’re having fevers every night, something is wrong.” He ended up getting diagnosed with Stage Four Hodgkin’s Disease.
Bobson: It really changed me as a person when Dan got diagnosed with cancer.
Chin: It was all very surreal for all of us. He was the center of our social group, so it was a huge blow to everyone when he was diagnosed, not just to me as his girlfriend, but all the rest of the guys in the band and everyone in the community.
Hess died on May 14, 2007, at age 30.
Bobson: He was the first peer in my life that got sick and died. My relationship with the other people in the band kind of changed when Dan passed away.
Levin: Him and Michelle were a really important part of that community. They kept it alive. But when Dan got sick it really changed the scene a lot for everybody. He was so funny, upbeat, and friendly. He was such a great guy, I can’t say enough good things about him. And Michelle too. They both did so much for the scene, and when he passed away the whole thing just kind of fizzled out.
Jorge Bañales, 43, played in The Checkered Cabs and The Ready Steady Go!: He was a great frontman and he was really funny. He was the center of attention, always cracking jokes, and being funny. Playing shows with him and [The Ready Steady Go!] were some of the most fun shows I played.
Chin: Dan never turned away anyone from the scene. If kids needed a ride to a show, he’d go pick them up; if they needed a ride home, he’d take them home. He was just a good, spirited guy.
Spoonboy: This is a story I usually don’t tell: At one of the first ska shows I ever went to—a Skanker Sores show—they had an instrumental song and everybody in the band had a solo except Dan because he didn’t play an instrument. Instead he would pull out some spoons and play a spoon solo. At the end of this solo, he threw one out into the audience and I caught it... A couple months later I went to see The Skanker Sores at The Corner Kick and I was really excited about it, so I brought the spoon to the show. I ran into Dan in the bathroom before the show and I was like, “Hey man, I got your spoon!” And he was like, “No way!” So during the show, they dedicated a song to me and Dan’s like, “This one goes out to the kid with the spoon. This one’s for you, Spoonboy!” And I was like, “Now I have an identity!”
Jackson: Michelle was the queen organizer of everything, and Dan was in a bunch of bands. They were the eternal optimists. There was a point where [ska] was huge nationally and everybody was into it, and then that scene kind of started to fade. But she was right there with the Corner Kick and kept it going. It was Dan and Michelle and all the folks who helped them run DCska.com and Rude in D.C. that kept the subculture alive.
Bobby Bobson put together a special D.C. ska mix for this story. Listen to it below, and see a tracklist on the website for his podcast, Mobtown Ska Sounds.