Brooklyn Dodgers

The Slackers fight to keep ska free of pop nonsense.

The city that brought us Lou Reed and the Ramones is the heart of a new scene: back-to-roots ska, if you believe The New York Times. The ska revival is being played for all it's worth on every alternative station throughout the country, but unconventional wisdom says that the only real thing is in Manhattan.

This Saturday, Bossfest '99 will host one of the major ska bands credited with bringing the vintage Jamaican sound to the underground, back where it belongs. The Slackers, a seven-piece band out of Brooklyn, are experimenting with the genre, blending it with Latin rhythms, '60s garage rock, jazz, R&B, and even some George Harrison-tinged psychedelia, while remaining faithful to the basic format.

"Ska is a deep, powerful music like the blues," says tenor saxophonist David Hillyard, formerly of Hepcat. "It will last forever."

The Slackers formed in 1991 as a quintet, playing ska in the British two-tone style of the late 1970s. But as they added horn players, the sound drifted west, to Spanish Harlem. The Question, the Slackers' latest CD, is the band's most daring, says Hillyard. "We pushed the envelope more on this one."

Their name has something to do with the fact that it took them five years to put out their first album, and that they were late for gigs in their early years. One of the highlights of their career was playing the Beastie Boys' Tibetan Freedom Concert and being well received. "I got to meet Chuck D from Public Enemy and shake his hand," Hillyard says.

The Slackers see the mainstream as being a little too "overtly wack," full of ska bands being eagerly offered to retro enthusiasts. "It's sad the way [ska] gets marketed so that somehow the audience is mostly white." Some of this, he says, is because young Jamaicans tend to look at ska the same way Hillyard views the Eagles--his parents' music; but most has to do with a lack of sensitivity to the genre.

"I think a couple of years ago, ska was a buzzword that meant a new sound. But a lot of the bands--Smash Mouth, Rancid--are really more punk," he says.

"I saw No Doubt in California back in the '80s. They started out as a ska band, kind of two-tone mixed with Red Hot Chili Peppers, but gradually became more pop. They've been around for years, and I don't begrudge them their success."

He's much less polite about the industry that exploits underground genres. "There are people who have no idea what ska really is. If the mainstream powers-that-be don't give us a chance, fuck it."

The Slackers feel at home in Manhattan, although Hillyard says that they can no longer afford to live there. Brooklyn does just fine. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, though, is a source of strife. "He's out of his mind. Now he wants to give people tickets for drinking coffee on the subway. Come on, that's a New Yorker's right!"

Hillyard says the Slackers save their political views for on-the-road squabbles (he goes as far left as socialism, while singer Victor Ruggerio is an out-and-out anarchist), but have some deep feelings about racial unity, which they feel they can make the best statement about just by playing together.

"I've got issues with rock and roll," says Hillyard, quickly disclaiming his opinions as not necessarily those of his bandmates. "It's overrated music. A lot of the best music of the 1960s wasn't the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Coltrane and Sun Ra, for example. It's this macho, white suburban thing. When I think of rock, I think of doing construction in California when I was younger. I think of it as my parents' music. But I do have a soft spot for the Doors. They listened to a lot of Coltrane, and you can tell."

Although it's considered retro, Hillyard thinks ska is more in sync with the times than rock music is. "The rock quartet has lost its primacy. The rhythm sections are square; they don't groove. Nowadays rock quartets have to have a funk sound."

This won't be the first time the Slackers have come to Cleveland, and they are expecting to see a loyal band of twenty who seem to show every time they play here. "Cleveland is really hit-or-miss; it's sad," says Hillyard. "We played the Grog Shop once and it was packed, and then next to no one. Maybe it depends on the weather."

The Slackers. Saturday, January 16, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., $15, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.