After Two Decades, LA's Latino Ska Scene Is Still DIY as Hell
Born in the early 90s, the local ska scene of inner-city LA has evolved from its origins in grassroots backyard gigs into a cultural youth movement still alive and skanking today.
Los Globos, the two-story nightclub in northeast LA’s gentrified Silver Lake neighborhood, is packed with hundreds of sweaty Latino youth. Their faces are oily, pimply, and awkward—what you’d expect from your average horny teenager with no sexual outlet for release. It’s only 4 PM on this Saturday in November, and already their shirts are drenched in sweat from hours of moshing and skanking, the rhythmic dance originating from the Jamaican-born ska genre, across both the upstairs and downstairs dance floors at an all-ages show with a stacked lineup slated to run for over eight hours.
Their look is all over the place, showcasing various cultural influences of the past and present. Dudes wear red flannels under ripped jean vests, reminiscent of the Seattle grunge era of the 90s. There’s also a younger teen rocking a classic, All-American 50s greaser look: a slickly coiffed and blindingly shiny pompadour, a wallet chain attached to his cuffed jeans, and a pair of heavy black biker boots. The ladies sport a classic rude girl ska style, with red bandanas hugging their updo buns and holding their jet-black bangs in place.
But mostly, the look is punk to the rotten core: gauged ears and torn fishnet stockings with thick creepers and filthy Chuck Taylors at the feet covering the floor. The most important items proudly worn on display, however, are the wide rainbow collection of band pins, buttons, patches, and T-shirts. And on them, you’ll find everyone, from punk royalty—Crass, The Misfits, The Adicts, Rancid, Dead Kennedys, Subhumans—to 2 Tone ska godfathers The Specials.
These artist associations are your identifiers, what sets you apart from the rest of the crowd and what indicates your musical allegiance. Are you a hardcore punk kid looking to thrash in the mosh pits? Or do you lean toward the rhythmically pleasing, brass-based melodies of ska? Luckily, the day’s lineup heavily features a sound that’s a loud, hammering amalgamation of the two genres.
Ska-punk. Skacore. Whatever you want to call it, it’s as self-explanatory as it sounds. The ska and punk worlds first came together via the 2 Tone movement of the late 70s in England, when bands like The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, and Madness adopted a punk rock attitude to the traditional ska sound. It later birthed the skacore movement, highlighting a more hardcore punk appeal over a ska framework.
In Los Angeles, legendary act Fishbone is credited for pioneering the city’s ska-punk scene in the late 80s.
But beyond the English-speaking bands, there lies a ska movement that’s been brewing for over 20 years within the greater eastside of Los Angeles and is still going strong, encompassing a wide city limit inclusive of East LA, South Gate, Lynwood, Boyle Heights, South Central, and a number of inner-city hoods. It’s uniquely Latino and uniquely LA, with a roaring sound powerful enough to drown out a fully loaded tank squad.
The characters and sounds of the scene are as diverse as the city’s ethnic population, a direct result of the social exchanges experienced in LA's cultural melting pot. Its progression, too, from backyard gigs to shows on the Sunset Strip and beyond, carries over two decades rich in socio-political history and cultural identity.
The scene’s origins date back to the early 90s, when two of the most influential groups first made impact. Largely considered the godfathers of the Los Angeles Latin ska movement, Los Olvidados, formed in 1991, and Las 15 Letras, who formed in 1993, laid the framework for the citywide movement to come years later. While both acts featured a heavy ska style—complete with the standard jangly guitar bounce and blaring horn lines on which the genre builds its entire sound—they were more closely associated with the rock en español movement sweeping Latin America as well as the United States at the time.
Los Olvidados and Las 15 Letras, both groups composed of older and immigrant musicians, planted the seed and launched the first wave of local Latin ska bands. It was at the tail end of the first wave, though, circa 1996, when the punk and hardcore kids stormed in and took control. These later groups, now composed of first-generation Latin American teens, mostly of Mexican-American descent, were the first to implement elements of punk and hardcore into the scene, which then subsequently launched a citywide ska revolution.
The latter groups of the first wave came from all across Los Angeles, mostly via the poorer, Spanish-speaking Latino immigrant suburbs, or “the hood,” as the locals dub it. Each had their distinct sound and their unique flavor, with three of the core groups setting the bar high.
Chencha Berrinches, the most professional sounding of the lot, formed in South Gate in 1997. Their Spanish-language brand of Mexiska is heavily influenced by Mexican ska bands from their neighbors down south. The deafening blares that launch “A Lo Que Te Truje Chencha,” the opening track off their 2002 debut album, Lo Que Te Truje Chencha, sounds like the marching band celebrating the arrival of damned souls at the gates of hell. The lower registers of a tenor saxophone, a trombone, and a trumpet combine with double-pedal drums, metal guitar riffs, and the creepy keyboard chords of an evil circus. It’s the sound of a revolution and the genesis of it all.
Viernes 13, also formed in South Gate in 1997, are considered the kings of “evil ska,” which sees them borrowing rockabilly and surf influences mixed with a touch of cholo swag. To this day, their early recording of the mosh pit-inducing “Tu No Sirves Para Nada,” off their self-titled debut EP in 2000, still pierces the skull with force.
Left Alone formed in Wilmington in 1996, and follow a trek and sound often compared to American bands Rancid and Operation Ivy.
These three acts, who all remain active to this day and are considered the “OGs” of the scene, gave birth to the second wave of Latino LA ska bands of the early aughts, including Matamoska from Montebello, La Resistencia from central LA/Lynwood/South Gate (2000), South Central Skankers from South Central, Raskahuele from downtown, and dozens more now-defunct acts.
Led by hungry, younger bands, the second wave kicked the scene into high gear. Their aggressive approach saw bands performing week in, week out, on any given day at any given venue. They literally played anywhere that would host them, from makeshift gigs at the Ali Baba pizza parlor in East Los Angeles to a family rec center in Huntington Park.
A lack of governmental infrastructure and city funding within these inner-city neighborhoods limited the accessibility to proper venues in which to host shows. With nowhere to go and nothing to lose, they took things into their own hands. Invoking the DIY spirit of punk rock, these up-and-coming ska and punk bands took to the backyards of East LA and South Central as their central stage.
“If no one was gonna do it for us, fuck it, we’re gonna do it ourselves,” proclaims Clemente Ruiz, a founding member of local band La Resistencia and owner of Evoekore Media, a multifaceted events and production unit specializing in promoting skacore culture.
This DIY ethos proved pivotal for the scene for multiple reasons. The bands comprising the underground took full creative control, even if that meant absorbing the brunt of production costs at a loss. They raided their local Kinko’s to print and produce self-designed flyers for their own shows and album covers. They ransacked nearby Fry’s and Best Buy retailers for blank CDs onto which they later burned their demo recordings and released via their own independent labels. The pre-Internet and pre-social media world serving as the backdrop of this scene in the mid-aughts is hard to imagine today, but the ska movement rapidly blossomed via grassroots marketing, word of mouth, and old-school CD bootlegging. It was DIY as fuck.
South Central Skankers
The flourishing backyard scene served a twofold purpose: providing a makeshift venue hosting bands no one else dared to host, and creating a unique sense of community among first-, second-, and third-generation Latino youth never before seen in Los Angeles.
Most of the kids attending the backyards were underage, meaning they couldn’t get into the 18+ venues surrounding their neighborhoods. Consequently, these backyards became their clubs and the mosh pit their dance floor.
Moreover, these youngsters were often children of laborer parents supporting large families off minimum wages and drastically living under the poverty line. Disposable income for shows and transportation outside of their immediate city limits were more or less nonexistent. Though only a mere 12 miles away, Hollywood might as well be a foreign land for these South Central skankers.
The backyards then became a community-based youth revolution thriving off cultural identity. For once, these outcasts felt at home among like-minded weirdos and punks.
“Ska came to represent that connection to a greater world, and it also allowed Latino youth to create a sense of community,” says Jorge Leal, a former Los Angeles-based music writer, who covered the exploding ska scene and also produced ska shows via his now-defunct company Implacable Ent. As a cultural scholar of Latino LA pursuing a history Ph.D. at University of California, San Diego, and a current history lecturer at California State University, Northridge, Leal offers a deep-rooted perspective on the ska revolution. “Ska came to be such a huge force. Mexican-American youth, or second- and third-generation who grew up in LA, really started following this music because it spoke to them not only in terms of youth angst, but also it connected them to being part of something larger, this Latino-American youth movement.”
Culturally, the second wave ska acts sonically represented the ethnic duality shared among fans: American-born youth of Latino descent, who grew up equally listening to bratty American and English punk and their parents’ native music. On stage, the core elements of punk, hardcore, and metal set the foundation, while the horns, timbales, and percussion drums mixed a very Latin flavor via mariachi, salsa, and merengue influences.
“Our genre is not commercial,” says Ruiz. “It’s a genre that’s very real. The public that’s connected to us is a very special public. It relates a lot to growing up in the hood, growing up in fucked up neighborhoods, growing up among gangs. We share all that with the music. It’s music that was made by our people for our people.”
Beyond a shared ethnic identity, fans from the rougher parts of LA further connected with the lyrics and messages of these hood anthems on a personal level. When the bands sang about drug addiction and societal decay (Matamoska, “El Callejon De La Muerte”) and police brutality (La Resistencia, “Police Brutality”), it was from firsthand experience. These communal episodes of inner-city struggle strengthened the bond between the fan and the artists. The harsh realities of the streets have always been, and will always be, an integral part of this ghetto ska movement.
“We are exact products of what we were surrounded by,” says Juan Pulido, frontman for Viernes 13. “Our sound is a very street sound. Our ska kids, they’re a little bit more aggressive than the ska kids of anywhere else. I’m a product of the 90s. Shit was a lot rougher than it is [now], and a lot rougher on our side than it was anywhere else. That’s why we sing about what we sing, that’s why we love the way we love, that’s why we feel pain the way we feel pain. It’s what we had. It’s real.”
Once word of the backyard scene reached the LA high schools, it spread across the city like wildfire. Ska had hit the market, and the make-do stages at mom’s house could no longer contain the flames. Local promoters and entrepreneurs, along with the bands themselves, saw the opportunity and began to move the shows off the streets and into stopgap venues: pizza joints, quinceañera halls, auto body shops, American Legion halls. Of the more legitimate venues, Our House, a gutted home-like structure in Lynwood now housing a meat market, and the Allen Theater in South Gate, a former movie theater built in the 1920s, became the second home to local artists and show-goers.
Momentum continued into the mid-2000s, and the scene made its biggest professional leap onto the Sunset Strip, one of the more important collective milestones. First met with skepticism from venue owners, ska bands often fell victim to the Strip’s notorious pay-to-play construct, in which headlining and support acts were expected to sell a given amount of tickets in order to perform. Eventually, the shows started selling out, and ska became the next Hollywood craze.
“It was really important for us to move ahead, to have that sense of professionalism, for bands and myself as a promoter,” says Leal, who promoted shows on the Sunset Strip. “It was a way of growing as a music community, and it was a way for bands to envision those possibilities. This is the way we gained our dignity.”
As Hollywood began to lose its luster and with hipsters moving to independent music venues on the eastside during the second half of the 2000s, the scene lulled due to repetitive lineups and the overall shift of genres of the moment. Bands began to disband and rock-based music started to lose its appeal in general.
In recent years, however, the Latin ska scene has enoyed a third wave revival powered by the second wave bands that remained standing and rising newcomers joining in. Today's scene is a mix of young and old that boasts anywhere from ten to more than 20 active bands at any given point. The scene's elder statesment have largely abandoned the amateur sound in their previous lo-fi recordings, taking to better-quality studios to release new music and re-record their classics at a professional-sounding level. Compared to the rough demos from ten years past, this current sound is almost from another world. But it remains raw.
In 2013, Elvis Cortez—founder of the Wilmington-based, first wave ska-punk outfit Left Alone—and his Smelvis Records, in partnership with major indie Hellcat Records, released Dale La Bota, a special-edition version of the internationally celebrated Give 'Em the Boot compilation. The bilingual release celebrates the Latino ska and punk scenes of Los Angeles and beyond, featuring contributions from LA locals and legends La Pobreska, Chencha Berrinches, South Central Skankers, Matamoska, and more.
The younger bands of the current third wave have also evolved, now adopting influences outside of the punk and hardcore worlds, implementing indie and alternative rock elements, and using English lyrics more commonly. Led by newer groups like Happy Drunk Cartel and The Paranoias, the contemporary iteration of the Latin Los Angeles ska sound is truly reflective of the younger, American-born musicians, who are more easily assimilating with mainstream US ideologies: The Delirians from East LA embrace a traditional rocksteady beat with a mix soul, funk and R&B, while Profesor Galactico offers a skanky cover of “Animal” from indie pop darlings Miike Snow.
Local promoters, too, are collectively pushing for a new fan experience. Backyards, for the most part, are a thing of the past. Instead, entrepreneurs like Azael Hernandez and his Concrete Jungle Entertainment regularly host ska gigs at proper LA venues, including the Novel Café, Los Globos, and the Black Castle.
Ska shows have also recently exploded into full-blown festivals, with the annual Los Angeles Ska Wars—a one-day outdoor blowout featuring over 20 bands across two stages—celebrating its seventh year this past February. The outdoor Los Angeles Skacore Invasion, dubbed the original LA ska-punk/hardcore/reggae music festival, hit its ninth edition this year and featured almost 30 acts on two stages. Ruiz and his company, Evoekore Media, have helped propel the jump into the festival market, which has expanded the reach of the LA skacore community beyond the hood. Through these massive gatherings, says Ruiz, the sounds of the city and scene reach new audiences on a national and often international scale.
These festivals mark the graduation of the scene as a whole, solidifying the genre as an independent player in the nation’s growing and ongoing music festival circuit. For the seasoned skanker, the fests represent the scene come full circle, embodying the spirit of the DIY days in the open-air backyards of yesteryear East LA with a touch a maturity and a newfound level of professionalism. The LA experience, then, continues in this evolved state, providing fans a better experience, both in terms of audiovisual production and diverse artist lineups, and in progressing the future of the collective culture.
After more than 20 years of mosh pits, black eyes, bloody noses, dirty punks, and ska, ska, ska, the pit skanks on.
Back at Los Globos, Jaime Hernandez of Orange County-based skacore outfit 8kalacas, which formed in 2003, is chatting with four grimy-looking punk teens from South Central. They’re in the beginning stages of forming their own skacore outfit, Arroz Con Leche. No instruments. No experience. No rehearsal space. Just a dream.
“You see this right here. This is the new generation,” a proud Hernandez says. “You guys better do that shit."
“We've got a lot of practice to do.”
And with that, the new wave of revolution is born.
Check out a sampling of some of our favorite tracks from the second and third wave bands still leading the scene today:
South Central Skankers
Happy Drunk CartelJohn Ochoa is a former trumpet player for Matamoska from back in the “OG” days. He’s now a full-time editor at Insomniac.com. He still skanks on to this day. Follow him on Twitter.