A Force of Life: The Scofflaws Keep Ska’s Rhythms Alive

The Scofflaws perform during the 2018 Sag Harbor American Music Festival. Michael Heller photo

It’s all about that ska beat.

Richard Brooks first heard it in high school — the evolving mix of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. It was the soundtrack of his favorite dance nights in the 1980s, letting loose to The Specials, The Selecter and Bad Manners.

It is also the bedrock of the third wave ska band he founded over three decades ago, The Scofflaws, who will give an encore performance at the Sag Harbor American Music Festival on Saturday, September 28, at Bay Street Theater, following last year’s blowout.

“The big thing of it — and it really has been since its inception — it’s all about getting that beat going so people can dance. It’s a dance music,” Brooks said. “When people are dancing and having a good time, that’s hard to beat. It’s a real escapism thing when everybody’s dancing. That’s really the primary thing.”

What is known today as “American ska” actually originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s — long before reggae and rocksteady — birthed by the streets as a reaction to R&B picked up from New Orleans- and Miami-based radio stations after World War II. Jamaican producers pulled local musicians into their studios, incorporating mento, or Jamaican folk music, and calypso, an Afro-Caribbean style, into the recordings.

Their attempt to imitate American music created a new genre entirely: ska.

In the late 1970s, following a massive emigration from Jamaica to Britain a decade earlier, ska had a resurgence — now known as “2 Tone” — that combined the first wave of ska with punk rock. The Specials led this more up-tempo and high-energy movement, which would soon make its way across the Atlantic.

“A bunch of groups over here picked up on it, and that’s when we got on with it, which was the late ’80s,” Brooks said. “It wasn’t all that different, in that we were all playing out of the same bag, as far as the drum styles are Jamaican drum styles. We had a slight American spin on it.”

While the Scofflaws gravitated toward the first wave, American punk bands spearheaded the third wave, fusing the two genres together and further removing themselves from original Jamaican ska — punchy guitar riffs and all. Think No Doubt, Sublime and Reel Big Fish.

That is not the road Brooks decided to take with his Huntington-based band — “I don’t compare myself, really, to anybody. I just do what I do,” the frontman said — and to this day honors the roots from which they came, despite a fractured ska scene on Long Island.

“It’s a perennial thing. It waxes and wanes,” he said. “And depending on what’s going on, there’s die-hard people like me who live it, and then there’s other people who take it along with a lot of other music. It’s not entirely what I listen to. It would be like eating the same food all the time; it would get to be a drag. Music’s a lot like that. You’ve got to mix it up. It’s very good to do that.”

For Albany-based guitarist Greg Bucking, playing with the Scofflaws is just one of his several musical projects, though perhaps the longest. He joined the group in 2009 while he was living on the East End, the Sag Harbor native explained, where he first picked up a guitar as a child.

“Man, I was probably 10 years old, taking lessons from Bosco Michne. He was my rock and roll guitar teacher when I was that age,” he said. “I played, but when I was in high school, I was more into sports and girls and drinking.”

He interrupted himself with a laugh. “I always played music, but it was when I was in college when I was like, ‘Yeah, I really like this and I really want to do this,’” he said.

Bucking did not find his way to the ska scene through the 1990s-defining third wave, but rather by listening to old reggae.

“It was the original stuff that got me, which is really what the Scofflaws do,” he said. “It’s very rootsy ska. I grew into it and, honestly, the Scofflaws were one of the bands I got into from seeing them live at the time.”

From their debut in 1988, the Scofflaws quickly became known for their rambunctious live shows, technically proficient horn solos and tight arrangements. Each concert is a true performance, Bucking said, exploding with “super fun, fast, crazy ska.”

“I’m just happy to be doing it and happy to be doing shows like this up on a good stage,” he said of the upcoming Bay Street concert. “I think we really thrive on a bigger stage. We do a lot of club shows and different things, but when we’re in a good stage with lights and it’s a show, I think it really brings out what the band is about. It has the dramatic frontman performance that Rich brings, along with the energy of the band. Rich is just a character to back up, and I love it.”

While the band has certainly evolved over the years — with over 30 musicians coming and going —Brooks is the anchor, the original “rude boy.” Times may have changed, but his passion for ska is just as vital as it ever was.

“I live in a different world than I did back then,” he said. “Music, it almost keeps me alive, it gives me a reason to live. Music is a wonderful force in life and in nature, and it’s such a vast topic that you’re never done with it, which is really kind of cool. There’s so many different levels of ability and you never know where you’re going to take it next, or where it’s going to take you.”

The Scofflaws will perform on Saturday, September 28, at 9 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor, as part of the ninth annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit sagharbormusic.org.