The Return of the DJ

The Return of the DJ

“Hunting season is now open, and all DJ’s are fair game…”

With those words, Jeff Baker, better known as King Django, sent out “an invitation to all self-proclaimed ska dons,” to join in “a DJ competition.” The song was “Open Season,” the title track from the Stubborn All-Stars’ classic debut album. Three years later, the competition is in full swing.

To a lot of people, this was something completely new: boastful, challenging lyrics delivered in a fast-paced dancehall/rap style over a simmering ska beat. What those people didn’t know was that not only was Baker offering a challenge, he was offering a bit of a history lesson. “Open Season” wasn’t a brand-new idea, just a long-overdue return to greatness. In the early days of Jamaican ska, sound systems, or mobile DJs, traveled the island spreading the ska, playing records for huge dance parties. These DJs started to rap over the records in a style that became known as “chatting” or “toasting.” Eventually, the DJs started making their own records, and the battle was on. No sooner would one DJ record his boasts than another would come back with an answer about how he was better.

You can draw a direct line from the Jamaican dancehalls through to hip-hop and to today’s gangsta rap. In fact, since the original rude boys were gangsters, you could even call some of this old-school stuff the first gangsta rap, long before NWA, Tupac, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the like. The response record even used to be a big theme in hip-hop – our older readers will remember UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne,” and the slew of responses it inspired, enough to fill a whole album.

When ska went through a revival in the 2Tone era, this call and response business was largely forgotten. While there were some strong toasters (most notably, the [English] Beat’s Rankin’ Roger), by and large the challenges were to political belief and not to each other. With 2 Tone’s chummy outlook (most of the bands started on the same label, and were friendly with each other), it almost would have seemed wrong for the bands to challenge each other.

It seemed that the third wave, American ska bands that sprang up in the 80’s and early-90’s had all but forgotten the DJ – even while bands like Public Enemy were giving the first glimmers of truly following in his footsteps. Bands like Operation Ivy were preaching unity, and while the toasting element was around (the first third wave band, the Toasters, were even named for the style), nobody was issuing any real challenges. “Open Season,” then, hit the scene like an atom bomb.

It took some time to generate a proper response, but when it came, it was a doozy. Late in 1997, Hepcat released Right on Time, complete with the instantly controversial “Open Season… is Closed.” Alex Desert got the message, and ran with it. “By proclamation of the steady-rock easy-groove council, Hepcat presiding, `Open Season’ is officially declared closed,” Desert exclaimed. He advised listeners to “Live not in fear of the braggadocio no-show dingo from the east coast who likes to puff up and boast as if he is the most, because if he comes to my town, he’ll burn like toast!” Ska fans went nuts! Word spread that Desert spent more time on that one song than the rest of the album combined, making it just perfect. Rumors spread of an east-west rivalry to compare with the Tupac/Notorious B.I.G. feud. More importantly, people were paying attention.

Baker wasn’t one to leave the challenge unanswered, though. With his full-time band, Skinnerbox, behind him, he’s just released a 7-inch titled “Hepcat Season.” If Hepcat’s record was a fiery response, “Hepcat Season” is downright scathing! The record starts out right off with a slam, with a meowing cat over someone saying “psst, psst, here pussy, pussy, pussy.” “Hey Hollywood,” Baker says, “you have forced me to shame you in public.” “You write one song in two years, and it’s about me? Well they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he accuses, before pointing out “that’s why you are the Desert, and I am the Oasis.” Even the music seems to be working itself up into a fit of hellfire and damnation as Baker declares himself the “alpha and omega” of ska DJs.

The punch line here is that Baker and Desert are actually good friends. They simply both wanted to bring the tradition back, and both had the skills needed to do it. People paint them as rivals and even enemies thanks to the records. The Stubborn All-Stars have been performing an even more venomous version of “Open Season” on their most recent tour. It’s all in good fun; unlike gangsta rap, don’t expect to see Baker or Desert killed in a drive-by.

Other artists are starting to pick up on the style, too. Dr. Ring-Ding & the Senior All-Stars new record, Ram Di Dance, starts out with the rambunctious “My Sound,” which the good Doctor declares “goes out to all self-proclaimed dancehall dons” before he goes on to stake his own claim to the DJ throne. Certainly, someone (Baker? Desert? The Pilfers’ Coolie Ranx?) will have a response.

Baker himself couldn’t be happier. A few months back, he told Ink Nineteen “the reason I wrote the song was to try to haul the DJ aspect back into the ska. Anytime that we can do something that brings some part of the roots of the music back into it, especially at this stage in the game, it’s our duty. I felt there wasn’t enough DJ style in the music, and that was really the intent of that track, to try and stir something up.” He certainly seems to have succeeded, and the ska world is a little richer for it.

The Stubborn All-Stars’ Open Season and Skinnerbox’s “Hepcat Season” are available from Stubborn Records, 504 Grand Street #52, New York, NY 10002, http://www.stubbornrecords.com. Get Hepcat’s Right On Time from Hellcat Records, 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026, http://www.hell-cat.com. Pick up Dr. Ring-Ding’s Ram Di Dance from Moon Ska Records, PO Box 1412, New York, NY 10276, http://www.moonska.com.

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