Sublime: Gateway Music
Which came first: the pot or Sublime? I want you all to think about it very carefully. It’s a hard one, right? For me, I’m almost positive Sublime came first. But nonetheless, the trouble that comes with answering the question shows how inextricably entwined the two are. And not just because tribute to that green good-good was littered throughout all their songs. Sublime was essentially sonic marijuana.
Ugh, I know that sounds fuckin’ corny just typing it, but let me explain. I don’t mean that they were super addictive—they were good, but it’s not as if I could breathe, eat, and sleep Sublime. However, they were my gateway to a ton of other bands and artists that I would’ve never known about if I hadn’t gotten into them. Sublime had permeated the mainstream culture enough—by that I mean, big brothers, older siblings of friends, and even babysitters—that they had lost any intimidating connotation that came with music not heard on the radio. Even with their imperfections, they did us a favor by wearing all their influences on the sleeve: Bob Marley, Operation Ivy, Bad Brains, KRS-One, etc. So while you got the standard ska-punk Sublime, you could also hear dalliances with straight-up punk, rock, reggae, dub, rocksteady, and hip hop. This successful dipping of toes into all of these bodies of water allowed them to stand out as one of the ‘90s most prevalent forces and for a 13-year old Nick, Sublime was the lodestar to a bevy of new artists and sounds.
I can remember my early days of downloading music illegally, on FrostWire! God bless that piece of shit, waiting freakin’ days to download one song. However, they had a ton of Sublime, and their debut, 40 OZ. TO FREEDOM, was the first full album that I could scrounge together in near entirety. Of course it hadn’t downloaded in proper tracklist order, so the first song that I was able to listen to was “KRS-One,” not exactly a rap song, but an outright ode to the titular boom-bapper. And so, coming from Bradley Nowell, Sublime’s frontman, I took this as gospel, and off I was to download KRS-One’s solo debut RETURN OF THE BOOM BAP. While Sublime never totally went down hardcore rap avenue, you could hear the Jamaican-infused rap stylings KRS-One was known for more clearly in other parts of their discography. Of course, this can also be owed to reggae progenitors like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and The Melodians. The latter was another one of the many bands directly paid homage to on Sublime’s debut; covers of The Toyes, Toots Hibbert, Bad Religion, and Grateful Dead were all featured. Other than these, you had the myriad of name-drops peppered throughout the lyrics. There were shoutouts from everyone from Beastie Boys and Public Enemy to Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. And then of course I had to go down a whole other rabbit hole for each of these artists. LICENSED TO ILL? Downloaded. IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK? Downloaded. THE WALL? Downloaded. And we haven’t even gotten to Sublime’s second and third album!
Both releases that followed, ROBBIN’ THE HOOD and their breakthrough, SUBLIME, were really what opened the floodgates of influences. ROBBIN’ THE HOOD alone introduced me to The Wailers, Primal Scream, and Geto Boys. With its heavy sampling and scattered exploration, it was their most experimental and crude, but probably my personal favorite. It’s such an odd album, being recorded in a crack house with occasional diatribes from a schizophrenic mental patient named Raleigh Theodore Sakers, that I truly wonder how it got made. But, aside from the samples or allusions, perhaps the biggest gem gained from their second album was the appearance of a young Gwen Stefani on the track “Saw Red.” Having only known her for her solo work, it was exciting to find her in her initial element: the brief, interstitial moment between nobody and No Doubt. I don’t care what anyone says, TRAGIC KINGDOM is a ska masterpiece.
SUBLIME, the band’s crowning achievement, was also a sonic scrapbook. What I loved about the band’s interpolation or covers of songs is that it was so spread out it became hard to pinpoint what came from where or who, and occasionally you would just have to wait to hear the influence on its own to even realize it was a cover of or reference to something. For a while I thought that “What I Got,” coincidentally the first track I ever bought on iTunes, was an entirely original composition. For the most part it is, but not until years later, when my Dad played his Beatles box set did I hear the “Lady Madonna” inclusion. It was such a pleasant surprise, like when you watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie and then move on to Brian DePalma and you go, “Hey, this looks mighty familiar!” In this case, it’s like sonic Easter eggs, each one containing a different treat to delve into.
That being said, there is the occasional barb of musical appropriation thrown at the band. I still see Sublime’s music deemed as such as homage, and not being touted as anything but. Their endless shout-outs and samples are a testament to that. Certainly there’s artists who need to be called out for appropriation, especially when it’s done in a visually tasteless way, with total irreverence towards the roots of the sound i.e. Lana Del Rey in a headdress, Miley Cyrus twerking, or similarly, Katy Perry’s most recent “bad girl” image overhaul. But I think Sublime managed to successfully walk the thin line between appreciation and appropriation, pointing me in the right direction of their forebears. Just look at the final track of their debut, “Thanx.” There was no concealing or blurring of who they were indebted to and who they could never top. I get scared just thinking about how empty and boring my music library would be without their guidance.