Buster Bowl Me Over

When I belatedly heard today that ska legend Prince Buster passed two weeks ago, I felt the need to offer up a little tribute, but didn’t know what to say. Especially since his music had mostly come to me second-hand through second-wave (“2 Tone”) British ska bands, whose rose to prominence playing covers of his material, I didn’t know if I had a close enough connection to his music to offer up anything meaningful.

Why, then, did it seem so important that I say something? Well, to me, those ska bands from the 70s that ripped off the Prince weren’t just any old bands. When I was 14, those bands — the Specials, Madness, English Beat — were central to my identity (yes, even as a white, suburban Midwesterner in 2004). Musically and politically, that music shaped who I was in a big way, and I knew that Prince Buster played a big part in that.

I’ll admit that at a superficial level, 2 Tone ska doesn’t sound that special: It’s white people cashing in on Jamaican music, right? Well, no. While I don’t think these bands are above criticism, 2 Tone really was value-driven music. Even the name nods to its emphasis on racial solidarity, while also referencing the classic rude-boy look of Peter Tosh that would become the movement’s icon. These bands knew what they stood for — and their roots, too.

The bands were biracial, international, and cross-genre, mixing white and black, British and Jamaican, ska and punk — all in good measure. They weren’t at all shy about their explicitly anti-racist politics, brought to the fore in songs like the Specials’ “Racist Friend” (“Now is the time for your friendship to end!”) and “Free Nelson Mandela.” If the politics in these songs were occasionally underdeveloped, in both the racially tense circumstances of late-1970s Britain and the politically naive mind of my teenage self, a head-on condemnation of racial prejudice was a big deal.

Meanwhile, the bands seemed to center themselves musically around the figure of Prince Buster. The Specials’ first single, “Gangsters,” interpolated the Prince’s “Al Capone,” while Madness’ famous “One Step Beyond” is a straight-up Prince Buster cover (Madness’ name also comes from a Prince Buster track). It’s easy for the uninitiated to miss this, as especially in the U.S., Prince Buster never gained the recognition he deserved. But this isn’t to say that it was a secret, either: consider Madness’ homage track “The Prince,” which begins, “Buster he sold the heat / with a rocksteady beat…”

For the impressionable, ska-obsessed young me, Prince Buster came to take on a sort of mythic status. At the time, his music was very hard to find in the U.S. (even online!), but so many of the 2 Tone classics I loved ended up being Prince Buster covers. There were other Jamaican ska classics in the repertoire, too, but Buster always loomed large. At the time, I’d barely heard his music, but I still saw him as a huge second-hand inspiration.

Later on, I followed up and snatched up the couple Prince Buster albums I’ managed to come across. While the original tunes have a strong measure of goofiness (which, after all, was also a part of 2 Tone ska), they’re anchored by heavy grooves and roots in American soul. He acknowledges these roots, too, covering Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember,” albeit in a thoroughly upbeat fashion. But whether he was covering American classics, shouting sketch-like toasts, or singing about sex — hear, for instance, “Rough Rider” — the Prince made jams that could found a tradition. It’s pretty clear, anyway, why 2 Tone bands chose him as their forebear.

In a way, what I felt when I listened to ska was that I, too, was making myself part of a tradition. Removed from late 70s England by almost 30 years and a few thousand miles, I nevertheless came to see 2 Tone values as my own. I suppose I could done a lot worse than wanting to stand up to racism and skank to Jamaica’s “Freedom Sound.” For this, I’ve got to thank the Prince.