Sublime: It's Complicated

2020 was a slow-motion disaster, the result of decades of steady decline and instability and contradictions within the American empire before a fuse was lit anew in January of 2017, and so far 2021 seems to be a time-lapse video of melting, twisting plastic curdling in a pit of oppression and anguish. I don’t know what to do or what to say, my thoughts and feelings about the state of the world colliding with inevitable post-holiday malaise to produce a profound feeling of lost and lonely confusion. So in lieu of offering any insight or comfort, I will instead divert my attention to the band Sublime, because the only way I know how to cope with this much restlessness and chaos and uncertainty is to talk about the trashy dregs of 90s pop culture.

You may be asking, “Ellie, of all the garbage 90s bands to flirt with social rehabilitation, why pick the flag-bearer of white-boy dreads and bong-smoke-smothered dorm rooms? Why not write about Eve 6? The chap in that band has been making the rounds on twitter dot com and the world is surely begging for a lengthy thinkpiece on his internet presence.” Unfortunately, I only have so much attachment to the heart in a blender song and I can’t pretend like I spent any of my formative years delving deeply into the back catalog of that particular band (although I’m sure it’s packed with power pop gems!). I would much rather talk about a band whose discography I actually know in detail, and better yet, one that presents a greater challenge to my critical faculties than literally any of the bands I wrote about in the Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like series.

Make no mistake, talking about Sublime is messy. Thorny conversations abound here, whether they be about artistic intent, misogyny, homophobia, sexual assault, addiction, the nature of cultural exchange vs. cultural appropriation, writing realistic fiction from a first-person perspective without making any clear moral judgments, or “Are you seriously telling me they made that dog go deaf?” So consider yourself warned. I’m neither the first nor the most qualified person to wade into any of these waters, either— Philip Cosores excoriating the band for Consequence of Sound, Evan Rytlewski’s scathing Pitchfork piece on 40 Oz. to Freedom, Kate Knibbs proclaiming a Sublimaissance for The Ringer, and Marty Garner’s response to the latter two in the AV Club should all be synthesized within the Sublime Dialectic, as it were.

But when I was in sixth grade, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. Although my cousin Rachel has told me that she was bumping Sublime in the car with me as an infant, my first conscious memory of Sublime is hearing “Date Rape” on the radio between Cake’s “Sheep Go to Heaven” and Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything” (I don’t know what that particular radio programmer was thinking, either). This was before I really knew what ska-punk or third-wave ska even were, let alone before I became horribly burned out on them (although in recent years I’ve softened my stance on the subject considerably, mostly because now that I live in the Real World— where people stop being polite, and start getting real— I no longer have the painful associations between Reel Big Fish and annoying marching band kids in high school, or between Tomas Kalnoky and fedorable Reddit atheists in college). I had some vague awareness of Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Specials, and Madness via reading books about punk rock but was still mostly ignorant to the rich history of ska, reggae, rocksteady, dancehall, dub, and all that good stuff, even though it was a huge touchstone for much of the hip-hop I was also into at the time, like Busta Rhymes and KRS-One (see where this is going?).

Another thing about being eleven years old and hearing “Date Rape” for the first time is that neither the explicit homophobia (“I can’t take pity on men of his kind, even though he now takes it in the behind”) nor the implicit misogyny (there’s literally a pause for laughs between “If it wasn’t for date rape, I’d never get laid” and the guitar solo) really registered with me the way it should have. I just took it at face-value as a well-intentioned anti-date-rape song— and it is, even if it is extremely clumsy and misguided in execution. If anything, the bits of smarmy humor only made me pay more attention to the overall message, and to be fair, of all of Sublime’s storytelling-scumbag songs, “Date Rape” is the most straightforward in intent. What I was hearing was the skittering drums, the subdued yet impossibly flexible bass, the addictive rush of the horn section, and a singer with a gorgeous voice telling this extremely compelling story at a rapid-fire pace. It was just begging for repeated listens.

What else do you do when you’re a middle-schooler and you hear a song on the radio that you like? You attempt to consume as much of that band’s material as possible. Several burned CD-Rs and broken pairs of Walkman headphones later, I was about as intimate with the catalog of the defunct Long Beach band as you could reasonably expect a kid to be. Much like with my Nirvana obsession, which had sprouted shortly prior, I was realizing that I had been hearing songs like “What I Got” and “Santeria” and “Smoke Two Joints” on the radio for my entire life, but without them being background music, it felt like I was hearing them for the first time. Also like Nirvana, I was struck by the tragedy of Sublime’s singer, a punk-scene-rooted talent whose life was cut short by poor decisions and heroin addiction. (Man, even when I was a little kid who claimed edge, heroin seemed like the absolute shit and pop culture never even attempted to dissuade me of that notion, instead making it seem like heroin was the key to creative genius, an everlasting legacy, and a sad yet beautifully neat and clean narrative arc. There should be a lot more pop culture that talks about not being able to take a shit or cum to save your life.)

At a time when I was listening to the most aggressive music I could get my hands on, Sublime fulfilled an important function in that, while they did absolutely have hip-hop and hardcore in their DNA, they were probably the first band in my formative years that told me it was okay to listen to something… chill for once. I wasn’t smoking weed or drinking, but listening to a Sublime album offered me the chance to lay back and, like, just vibe, man, even amidst the ADHD approach to influences and sequencing as well as the faster or heavier moments.

On the level of pure musicianship, Sublime were also nigh-unimpeachable: Bud Gaugh never indulged in anything too flashy behind the kit, instead controlling tone and tempo with a careful finesse; Eric Wilson’s bass lines never strayed too far from the band’s reggae influences, but with his supple touch, he managed to make it sound appropriate no matter what other genres the band was throwing into their stew, in addition to occasional moments of inspired melodic improvisation; Marshall “Ras MG” Goodman’s turntable work was essential to the band’s sonic identity, applying splashes of texture wherever necessary and helping to flesh out the band’s wide array of influences with ace choice in samples; and of course, no one would have given a fuck about Sublime if it weren’t for Bradley Nowell, whose deeply sincere and elastic voice— powerful yet vulnerable, stained with hints of both gritty pain and haunting beauty— and magnetic charisma grounded all of their songs in an arena of affability (even if it wasn’t always warranted) and realism (for better or for worse), while his guitar work soaked up the widest array of sonic influences in popular radio history, snaking through them all with both a voracious appetite and a level of competence and natural fluidity that would border on virtuosic if not for his inherently charming sloppiness. In fact, I’ll just say it: Sublime with Brad Nowell at the helm was better at mashing genres together than Mr. Bungle could ever hope to be. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that their obvious love and respect for all the genres they mixed and bent comes off far more honest and lacking in cynicism than, say, Vampire Weekend doing the same and getting critically acclaimed for it.

And while I keep harping on influences and genre fluidity, it’s worth running down the vast list of genres that Sublime’s three LPs dabbled in at one point or another: early 80s West Coast hardcore, post-punk, reggae, rocksteady, dub, dancehall, hip-hop, trip-hop, funk, blues, country, surf, lounge, jazz, Latin rock, folk, folk-hip-hop fusion (!), lo-fi, psychedelic rock, ska (although in my opinion their ska influence is a lot smaller than is usually attributed to them, and although they rose to fame on the back of the late 90s third wave ska movement, they encompassed much more than that), and even post-hardcore and noise rock. With so much going on, it’s no wonder that they were never able to make a cohesive record at any point— even with major-label backing— but we’ll get to that in a little bit. From an aesthetic standpoint, there’s so much to love in their anarchic, carefree approach to genre and stylistic variation, even if that very strength is part and parcel with one of their most striking weaknesses.

Sublime is one of those weird bands that have somehow gotten both better and worse with time in my estimation. At some point— sometime in high school— I took an extended break from listening to them that lasted for years. I was getting really into contemporary and past DIY hardcore/adjacent music, of course, but I also made a concerted effort to expand my sonic palette and get into music that I didn’t really have any background in. In particular, using early hip-hop as a springboard, I did a lot of research on Jamaican sound system music and culture, and exploring the surrounding world led me to a lot of places I wasn’t expecting— I knew Fugazi was deeply indebted to reggae, for example, but I didn’t know know, yknow? Similarly, while I knew that Sublime’s love for Jamaican music and culture ran deep (their track “Thanx” on 40 Oz. to Freedom does a lot in the way of shouting out specific artists and songs that they referenced or covered throughout that record in particular), I didn’t realize just how much they versioned and interpolated classic tracks. (This is your weekly Ellie-is-painfully-white alert.) Websites like SublimeSTP went to great lengths to run down every single reference and melodic inspiration, but it wasn’t until I was really exploring that world on my own that I was hearing stuff like Half Pint and Barrington Levy and I was like “Oh, so that’s where they got that from.”

On the one hand, such a diverse world of music to pull from makes for an exciting game of spot-the-reference— much in the same way as their covers of Bad Religion or Descendents, or their Just-Ice or Mobb Deep or Eazy-E samples, gave the listener a lexicon to work within and a road map to explore, their shout-outs to Alton Ellis or Yellowman or Tenor Saw offered an inroad to music that I was less familiar with. It’s one thing to notice samples of the Minutemen and the Beastie Boys, or lyrical references to Ice Cube and Public Enemy, but Sublime showed love to Chuck Turner, Joe Higgs, Toots & the Maytals, the Toyes, the Melodians, Aswad, the Wailing Souls, and Frankie Paul among seemingly hundreds of others. They’d bounce from alluding to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” in “Don’t Push” to blatantly aping the horn section from “Tequila” by the Champs just a few songs later in “What Happened?”; they interpolate, reference, and partially cover George Gershwin multiple times; they quote Smokey Robinson; they crib from and shout-out classic rock artists ranging from the Grateful Dead to the Doors to Steely Dan to the Jimi Hendrix Experience to the Beatles; they name-check (and, in an unreleased song, cover) Bad Brains in the same breath as Eek-A-Mouse; they’ll throw samples of Primal Scream next to samples of Guru; they’ll quote fucking Jack Owens and then cover or reference peers like the Ziggens or obscure Long Beach punk forbears like Secret Hate and Falling Idols with the same mix of reverence and playfulness that they approach all the other musical legends listed here (again, among many others).

So, with all this mind, it follows that Sublime are, essentially, a really famous cover band. They avoid this characterization by blending everything together with unceasing fervor, enthusiasm, and unpredictability— and when I say everything, I mean everything. For instance, in Robbin’ the Hood standout “All You Need,” they pivot from a barely-controlled ska-centric verse to a stomping punk chorus before the bridge regurgitates a guitar line from their own cover of “Smoke Two Joints,” which pivots into a quote from “Fight Like A Brave” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, before the song barrels towards an implosive end. And against all odds, this frantic post-modernist approach to composition works admirably a lot of the time.

Less admirable is their complex relationship with cultural appropriation. It’s not that Sublime ever treat their source material with anything less than respect and affection— it’s that their faithfulness and deference to the source material, even amid the genre-blending and wild arrangements, is a literal fault. Like I said, “Don’t Push” references Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier,” but it wasn’t especially necessary to hear the lily-white Nowell croon about being “stolen from an African land,” let alone claim to have a “face like Bob Marley.” Worse still are the occasional moments early in Sublime’s discography when he evinces a Jamaican patois— in the 90s, it was probably read as a play at authenticity (and it does not come off as mocking or malicious in any way), but in 2021, it reads as a not-particularly-tasteful play at imitating the quirks and style of an entire culture and history that the members of Sublime had no claim to. Similarly are the mixed results when Nowell sings in Spanish— it comes off genuine and soulful in, for example, “Chica Mi Tipo” (even though the lyrics are basically chock-full of dirty jokes), but the results are much more hit-or-miss in “Caress Me Down” (the beginning of the song is borderline-caricature before Nowell integrates it much more smoothly later on— it’s still a measure less grating than when Black Francis of the Pixies does it).

These aren’t things that Nowell was simply unaware of— Sublime’s home base of Long Beach is, as Marty Garner points out, one of the most diverse cities in America. Garner goes on:

Cultures tend to blend when people come together like this. Nowell was well aware of that, and of how it looked for someone who looked like him to sound the way he sometimes did. “I have a lot of self-criticism when I sound like a [B]lack person or when I accidentally find myself singing like a damn Jamaican,” he told an Orlando alt-weekly in 1995. It’s noteworthy that that didn’t always stop him. But Long Beach’s cultural melee, and the band’s genuine proximity to the streets and depth of appreciation for reggae history, make Sublime’s style-shifting feel less like a pose and more like the natural outflow of three guys who were absorbing their surroundings.

Sublime rides the line between cultural exchange and appropriation uncomfortably and often slide onto the wrong side of it, even in spite of their Beastie Boys quote in, once more, “Don’t Push”— “Racism is schism on a serious tip.” On this subject, as on so many others, Nowell comes off as good-faith in intention but misguided in execution. No one doubts his love for KRS-One for even a second— and the band’s tribute to the legend is one of the brightest, most sincere, and most sonically-inspired moments in their entire discography— but many would doubt if it was a good idea to crib his signature “Bo! Bo!” shotgun ad-lib, and Pitchfork’s Evan Rytlewski isn’t wrong to scrutinize it. Is their use of the word “overstand” or the decision to name their demo Jah Won’t Pay the Bills a genuine paean to the culture that informed so much of their musical identity, or flippant jokiness? The answer, as it is with so many questions you can ask of Sublime’s intent, depends on the person— it could be one, or the other, or neither, or both all at once.

One of the messiest questions to ask of Sublime is the question of class— Nowell grew up middle-class with solidly blue-collar parents (in an admittedly dysfunctional family), his first exposure to reggae music coming from a sailing trip to the Virgin Islands that his father took him on when he was eleven. He even went to college for finance before eventually dropping out (one semester short of graduation) to pursue music as a career. But before long he was using crack, meth, and heroin, getting in trouble with the law, living in a tweaker pad, getting yelled at by his dad— it’s up to individual interpretation whether this downwardly-mobile trajectory constitutes annoying poverty tourism, but either way, Nowell was living a pretty roughshod life and embedded himself deeply in the people and culture surrounding him in economically-depressed neighborhoods. (For clarity’s sake, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying drug addiction, problems with the law, and living in dilapidated circumstances are things that are inherent to people in poverty— they are just issues that systemically plague the underclass with far more statistical likelihood, because capitalism relies on the punishment and exploitation of said underclass.) He lived poor and, having overdosed two months before the release of Sublime’s breakthrough album, died poor as well.

Sublime’s 1996 self-titled album is, by traditional standards, their least inchoate and most mature record. It’s also home to one of the most divisive Sublime songs in ethical terms, “April 29th, 1992 (Miami).” The song is about the 1992 LA riots— hopefully my readers are aware enough of the Rodney King verdict for me to not have to explain that. The first half of the song is mostly a description of various crimes that the band purports to have participated in during the riots (including robbing a music shop that they actually shouted out on 40 Oz. to Freedom) and leaves a bad taste in the mouth, with visions of white boys capitalizing on the uprising of the Black and Latino Los Angeles communities to materially enrich their own lives. But midway through we get hit with this switch-up:

Cuz everybody in the hood has had it up to here
It’s getting harder and harder and harder each and every year
Some kids went in the store with their mother
I saw her when she came out, she was getting some Pampers
They said it was for the Black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man
But if you look at the streets, it wasn’t about Rodney King
It’s this fucked up situation and these fucked up police
It’s about coming up
And staying on top
And screaming 1-8-7 on a motherfuckin’ cop
It ain’t on the paper, it’s on the wall
National guard
Smoke from all around

And then the song proceeds to call for more riots everywhere in America— from Eugene, Oregon to Cleveland, Ohio to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Let it burn.

So which is it? Is this erasure of the racial oppression that led to the riots? Or is it a call for cross-racial solidarity and class-consciousness in the face of extreme economic inequality and an abusive, authoritarian police state? Again, it’s one or the other, or neither, or both. That’s up to you. Sublime had no interest in walking you through it, and though Nowell was very clearly a smart and well-read guy if you go off interviews, his lyrics very rarely allow the listener to arrive at clear, pre-prepared clean moral judgments.

(That same intelligence is also what loses Nowell a pass on his treatment of Sublime’s de facto mascot, Lou Dog the Dalmatian. By all accounts Nowell loved that dog with every fiber of his being and he lived in comfort after Nowell’s passing, but allowing the dog onstage while they played drove him to go deaf, which caused him to become aggressive and bite at people. Depressing, arguably abusive, at the very least objectively negligent, and something that Nowell absolutely should have had the sense not to do.)

So I’m not saying there aren’t valid reasons to dislike Sublime— there’s clearly several. But they’re very rarely the reasons that people choose to hate Sublime. I like the AV Club and I like Jonah Ray, but one of my least favorite things I’ve ever seen in a major publication is their Hatesong feature where Jonah Ray talks about “What I Got” (well, the idea is that he’s supposed to talk about “What I Got” but mostly he talks about how much he hates Sublime fans while simultaneously being self-aggrandizing over the most mundane bullshit and also being bizarrely and needlessly cruel about Nowell’s death). Jonah Ray’s remarks here are actually a pretty decent overview of the stock reasons people use to shit on Sublime (Brian Posehn also has a Hatesong about “Santeria,” but it’s a lot less obnoxious), so I’ll go over them here:

1. THE FANS

This is actually the criticism I understand the most because shitty fans can definitely have a negative impact on your enjoyment of any piece of entertainment, and there is absolutely no shortage of, in one of the only actually funny remarks Jonah makes here, the type of people in Sublime’s fanbase who think that Bob Marley’s Legend is an actual album. The problem with this particular instance is that Jonah is not in high school anymore and therefore has no reason to interact with these people ever again, so relying on some weird sense of nerd-superiority for having been into Minor Threat and Black Flag instead in high school is, well, kind of embarrassing. I was into Minor Threat and Black Flag and I was straight-edge in high school too, dude. You weren’t an oppressed minority on the basis of your music taste then and it sure as fuck wouldn’t make you one today.

2. “DATE RAPE” IS A REALLY OBNOXIOUS AND MISGUIDED SONG

The other understandable criticism, and one the band themselves actually agreed with; KROQ decided to put it into rotation a few years after it actually came out and Sublime had retired it from their set lists by then. When they play it on their live album it’s because they allowed the crowd to hector them into it— there’s a few bootleg live recordings where the hecklers ask for it, Brad starts to play it, and then he just abruptly switches to another song. I think to be actually outraged or offended by this song almost a full 30 years on you probably don’t have a lot going on in your life, but I’ll grant that there is a leery quality to some of it and that taking umbrage with the prison-rape-as-karmic-justice trope is a more than fair criticism.

3. BRADLEY NOWELL DIED OF A HEROIN OVERDOSE

This is just kinda shitty. “He died in San Francisco, which is pretty cliche.” If even Brian Posehn will acknowledge that Nowell’s death sucked then you’re gonna come off as even more of an insensitive prick. Sometimes the straight-edge mentality turns into this disturbing disdain for addicts, which I find to be one of the most unproductive attitudes in society. Don’t be a cunt, Jonah.

4. THE NARRATOR OF “WRONG WAY” MAKES HIMSELF OUT TO BE A HERO

There are a lot of questionable narratives in Sublime’s storytelling songs, but “Wrong Way” makes its intentions and social commentary more clear than most of them in its repeated refrain, which also happens to be the name of the song. This isn’t shitty and insensitive but it is deliberately lazy and misleading.

5. THEY OPENED 40 Oz. TO FREEDOM WITH A MINUTEMEN SAMPLE

How lame do you have to be to try and protect your little pet band from being an influence on a band you don’t like? This is ahistorical because, as the interviewer points out, the Minutemen were from San Pedro which isn’t very far from Long Beach, so the geographical proximity makes the influence pretty easy to understand. This is silly because the dudes in the Minutemen weren’t shy about their deeply “uncool” love for then-cliche classic rock acts. And this is dumb for the same reasons it’s dumb to shit on nu metal bands for being influenced by Rage Against the Machine.

6. THEY PLAYED REGGAE WHICH IS UNCOOL AND UNPUNK

This is just rockism, which will always come off as just a smidge racist to me. Heaven forbid someone takes influence from something besides the Rolling Stone or Creem canon of white-as-fuck “alternative” guitar acts. Plus even just a mild understanding of punk’s history and social milieu would give you insight on just how many punk bands, especially the first wave of English punk bands that dudes like this jerk off over all the time, were heavily influenced by ska and reggae. Get over yourself— Peter Tosh and Mikey Dread are just a click away and you can look up all the records that King Tubby did work on in about 15 seconds, so there’s really no excuse.

7. THEY ARE INDIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR JACK JOHNSON AND A MYRIAD OF OTHER INDEFENSIBLE ACTS

Too fucking bad. Correlative to the point I made earlier, it’s also not Rage Against the Machine’s fault that they led to Disturbed. One thing that I find particularly funny about this is that Jonah remarks that he heard that Jack Johnson went to a Fugazi show once which makes him cool— for one thing, neither me nor Jonah nor Jack Johnson are special for enjoying Fugazi, an act that has been played at major sporting events for decades now; for another, Sublime also specifically name-checked Fugazi as a major influence, which makes sense especially because Fugazi were also heavily influenced by reggae, that super “uncool” genre that Jonah hated on earlier in this piece. His opinions are literally incoherent at this point.

8. IN “WHAT I GOT” HE SAYS THAT LIVING WITH HIS DOG IS THE ONLY WAY TO STAY SANE, SO WHY DOESN’T HE CRY WHEN HIS DOG RUNS AWAY?

It’s the interviewer who makes this point, but I wanted to zero in on it because this is something I hear a lot, and the reason it’s so annoying is because here is the context for that line:

I don’t cry when my dog runs away
I don’t angry at the bills I have to pay
I don’t get mad when my mom smokes pot
Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock
Fuckin’ and fightin’, it’s all the same
Livin’ with Louie Dog’s the only way to stay sane
Let the lovin’, let the lovin’ come back to me

This verse is about not being able to feel emotions the way that you should because you are numbed by being knee-deep in depression and addiction. This is pretty damn obvious (although to be fair, Nowell expounds on this theme much more explicitly in both “Garden Grove” and “Burritos” on the same album). Aren’t writers and comedians supposed to have an understanding and command of language and narrative techniques? But Sublime is a dumb stoner bro band, so taking them seriously juuuust long enough to analyze a set of lyrics would be giving them too much benefit of the doubt.

So, again, while there are myriad understandable reasons for someone to dislike Sublime, these are some of the most prominent ones, and they are all pretty bad and dumb. I am also sure that very few people who count themselves as Sublime fans do so because it nets them any sort of goodwill or credibility. There is also a very specific subset of Sublime fans (in modern parlance we would refer to these people as “old”) who followed the band’s live shows and regard them as a regional phenomenon that should never have ascended to national fame. This is a pretty selfish and reductive take on any band, let alone one whose appeal is as broad as Sublime’s. Las Vegas, where I grew up, is closer to Sublime’s base of operations in both demographics and proximity than a lot of places in America, but it’s definitely not the stretch from Long Beach to Costa Mesa that defined Sublime’s early borders. Still, by the time I was in, like, seventh grade, I had discovered an entire cult of Sublime fans in my age group— I specifically remember a loud girl named Grace because we both called each other “Badfish” as an inside joke, and she moved away after middle school but we ran into each other at a show years later and yelled “Badfish!” and embraced in joy, which is a pretty treasured memory for me and an example of how loving Sublime brought (and, I don’t know, probably still brings) extremely disparate people together in appreciation for, yknow, chill vibes and whatnot.

So with all this speechifying out of the way, what we’re left with is the music. Sublime, despite only existing for eight years, produced a metric fuck-ton of music, much of which is compiled in posthumous collections like Second-hand Smoke and Everything Under the Sun. Getting into all their poorly-recorded demos and bootlegged live performances is kind of like finding a water-logged and ripped-up copy of the Silmarillion— for hardcore fans only— and I’d prefer not to even touch the Sublime with Rome fiasco with a twenty-foot pole, so let’s go through the “main Sublime canon,” which consists of three albums released between 1992 and 1996.

40 Oz. TO FREEDOM

This is probably considered the definitive Sublime album, which makes sense: that iconic sun on the cover, designed by tattoo artist and friend of the band Opie Ortiz and later tattooed on untold millions, captured the band’s slightly cholo-influenced, post-punk-post-hippie-SoCal aesthetic— sunny in spite of, or perhaps because of, the grim reality of their surroundings— perfectly. The music on 40 Oz. to Freedom is also some of the band’s best-known, and there is a marked difference in feeling when comparing 40 Oz. to their later albums; they hadn’t yet bottomed out on drugs and misery like they would on Robbin’ the Hood, and they also didn’t have the pressure of writing a hit record to recoup expenses like they would when crafting their self-titled. 40 Oz. sounds like the culmination of the four years the band spent playing parties and touring just to make beer money and skate in new places— jokingly misanthropic in some places but vibrant all the same, and sonically it seemed to be scooping everything into its maw with little discernment.

Still, good-time party sounds aside, 40 Oz. does have a blackness to its soul, a tint of hurt that finds its way into every song. Sometimes it hovers at the edges, nudging its way deeper into the song’s heart— “What Happened?” appears on the surface to be about over-the-top partying, but the implication that every day of Nowell’s life feels like this as well as sneakily dark references to the fact that “all my friends hate me” darken the celebration. Other times, the self-destructiveness is made far more explicit, as in the title track’s off-handed remark that “a 40-ounce to freedom is the only chance I’ll have to feel good even though I feel bad,” “Don’t Push”’s assertion that “If rhymes were Valiums I’d be comfortably numb,” and the entirety of “Badfish,” an original reggae composition that sounds all jolly and good until you realize it’s entirely about the toll that addiction was already beginning to take on Nowell. In fact, “New Song” is blatantly about the beginning stages of Nowell’s addiction to heroin— here, he’s telling himself that he does it because it’s his job as leader of the band to boost his creativity and maintain a larger-than-life persona, but by the end of the song, an acknowledgment that he’s “used too much” starts to creep in. Listening to “New Song,” in contrast with the directions his drug use would take his songwriting and personal life on later records, is genuinely unnerving in ways that more explicit admissions of drug problems in song form rarely are.

40 Oz. to Freedom runs for over 70 minutes and contains some of Sublime’s most-inspired musical moments, but although it’s never a difficult listen, it also feels somehow less complete than their other two albums (even the erratic and challenging Robbin’ the Hood). Maybe it’s because of the inclusions of songs like rappity-rap “Live at E’s” or the redundant, half-experimental, half-intense-as-fuck “New Thrash” that feel like they were haphazardly constructed and left unfinished; simultaneously, they also add to the “group of friends jamming” aesthetic of it all. Even some of the more coherent and accessible tracks— “Waiting for My Ruca,” “DJs,” “Chica Mi Tipo”— often throw in amateurish jammy elements, which actually often works to their benefit. The title track (which also features an absolutely overwhelmingly emotional chorus) and conversational closer “Thanx” in particular thrive on the intimacy and occasional interjections of Seinfeldian discussions into the mix.

40 Oz. is also the Sublime record with the highest quotient of explicit covers; in particular, their combined arrangement of “54-46 That’s My Number” and “Ball & Chain” feels inspired and rangy, and the live recording of the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” sounds as genuine and reverent as anything else they ever did, while their cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” feels like their dirtbag SoCal take on trip-hop, fuzzy 808s and impromptu rap and all. There are also two hardcore covers— while their cover of the Descendents’ “Hope” is the most straightforward of all their covers, their breathlessly maximalist version of Bad Religion’s “We’re Only Gonna Die” is fascinating. Perhaps it was unintentional, but the incorporation of reggae, a genre born of anger and rebellion against colonialism, adds weight to the song’s themes of imperialism and humanity’s greed, while the gradual introduction and give-and-take of more traditional punk elements are excellent dynamic decisions that build tension quite well.

40 Oz. to Freedom is a pretty good litmus test for whether people will be into Sublime— if you can stomach their Hendrix-ified version of “Smoke Two Joints,” you’ll be treated to “Right Back”’s potent mixture of reggae, thrash, and melancholy wit, or the exuberant garage-lounge-surf-jazz-punk indignation of “Ebin,” or the turntablism-by-way-of-acoustic-folk-tribute “KRS-One,” which are three of the strongest songs in the band’s entire catalog. Similarly, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” rewards the patience of the listener as the hazy weed vibes give way to a full-on psychedelia freakout that made me, a kid who had never done drugs, feel high as fuck. Either way, listening to 40 Oz. is rarely a boring experience, if only for the band’s ravenous appetite for new sounds and seeming inability to stay in any one lane for too long.

ROBBIN’ THE HOOD

If 40 Oz. to Freedom is the litmus test for if people will be into Sublime, then Robbin’ the Hood is a litmus test for if you can love Sublime for what they actually were. Sublime was an inherently grimy and gross band, and while the glossy production of the self-titled record or the cheeriness of 40 Oz. can serve to mask a lot of their dark core, Robbin’ is an album that is an hour straight of nothing but that grit and effluvia. Mostly consisting of four-track home recordings made in the crack house that the band was living in at the time, Robbin’ is poorly-produced, poorly-sequenced, and consistently aggressive in its antisocial tendencies. This is an album where not once but three times the flow is interrupted by fuzzy and uncomfortably candid recordings of an institutionalized paranoid-schizophrenic’s ramblings. If you’re predisposed to hate Sublime, I’m sure this can come off as exploitative and in poor taste, but if Robbin’ the Hood clicks for you, then it becomes part of the band’s mission to be as authentic to the surroundings that informed them as possible, regardless of if the ugliness of society’s ignorance of those living on its margins is too upsetting for most to sit with and consider. Perhaps too high-minded an approach to give Sublime the benefit of the doubt on? Again, Robbin’ the Hood is so relentlessly scuzzy and confrontational, wallowing in its own dark vibes, that it’s the only approach I can think of to apply.

Robbin’ the Hood is definitely the Sublime album that I was most taken with upon returning to the band after several years of making poor, self-destructive decisions that only served to make me a sadder person. Robbin’ the Hood is a snapshot of the absolute nadir of that particular sine wave. Cleaner production might have made a song like “Greatest-Hits” or “S.T.P.” (which stands for Secret Tweaker Pad) sound far more palatable, but the suffocating squalor and claustrophobia of the situations described bleeds in through the bottom-of-the-barrel production values, making them sound like the tragicomedies they are.

The self-perpetuating obscurity also extends to decisions like their cover of Falling Idols’ eponymous instrumental jam, which is actually one of Sublime’s more arrangement-faithful covers and succeeds in placing them within the legacy of micro-sized SoCal acts with little upward trajectory. It’s of a piece with many of the original compositions on the record as well, which often alternate between foreshadowing later developments (like the “Santeria” prototype that surfaces for a minute or so) and reflecting the band’s state of arrested development (their “reworking” of “Don’t Push” that descends into sampledelica and jamming).

A significant portion of the album is dedicated to lengthy jam sessions and loops that presage much of the modern lo-fi hip-hop movement, if indirectly, and the approach peaks in focus and creativity with the bleak and acidic “Cisco Kid.” This makes the more focused and traditionally accessible songs stand out more, giving them weight and substance that they might not have otherwise had if the album was shorter, and making the whole experience as rewarding as it is eerie. The stand-out songs themselves also have a wide range— for every burst of unabated energy like “All You Need” or the Gwen Stefani-assisted “Saw Red” (one of the finest ska-punk tracks of the 90s), there’s the gloominess of their arrangement of “Steppin’ Razor” or the near-suicidal blues of “Freeway Time In LA County Jail.”

Robbin’ the Hood is also home to some of Nowell’s most intimate acoustic recordings— “Mary” is the weakest of them, which is saying something when considering that song’s pained portrait of a dysfunctional relationship feels so authentic and evocative. The catchiest is, of course, “Boss DJ,” which sounds like if Jack Johnson was a poor person with an actual soul, but even people who hate Sublime with every fiber of their being will often extend an olive branch for “Pool Shark,” by far the most open and resigned Nowell has ever been about his heroin addiction. There are two equally-strong versions of “Pool Shark” on the record— the acoustic version and the hardcore version that functions as the first “real” song of the album— and its power lies not necessarily in Nowell’s declaration that “one day I’m gonna lose the war” (since most addicts are pretty conscious of the dire consequences their vice can have) but in its transparent, almost to the point of being graphic, description of the moment where you realize that you’re no longer using to get high but just to stay well. It’s a remarkably humble and self-possessed moment of clarity, and is part of what makes Robbin’ the Hood such a poignant and personal listen.

SUBLIME

Sublime’s self-titled record, and their posthumous breakthrough, is both their most accessible and their most frustrating outing. While both 40 Oz. and Robbin’ felt like you were peering in on a group of friends making music out of their sheer love for it, mish-mashing their original ideas with their inspirations in unique ways because of the freedom and privacy granted by obscurity, Sublime is a record that both flourishes and collapses under the weight of its own ambitions. Gone are the for-the-fuck-of-it stylistic detours and lengthy anti-song digressions of the previous records— Sublime does have its tangential moments, but it is for the most part a record focused on songcraft, to both its detriment and its success.

You have Sublime’s best-known, and most-mocked, songs here: “Caress Me Down” is a garish approximation of 311 white-boy-groove that succeeds (if it does for the listener) on Nowell’s charm and the clean production obscuring the noxiousness of the subject matter, in contrast to earlier songs which would both revel in and interrogate it; “Santeria” is a riff on Don Quixote (perversely appropriate, as I can think of few bands more quixotic than Sublime), more melancholic and self-aware than it’s given credit for, whose prettiness and catchiness has resulted in criminal over-saturation; “April 29th, 1992 (Miami),” which as previously discussed is extremely messy and potentially offensive, even beneath its darkly addictive alt-rap trappings; and the speedy Specials homage “Wrong Way” rides woozily on the dividing lines of irritation, pitch-black comedy, and delirious, blissful catchiness with little regard for the listener’s comfort level.

However, even constant airplay can’t smother the two best singles on the record: “Doin’ Time” reimagines George Gershwin’s jazz standard “Summertime” for a new, scummier milieu and succeeds wildly as it careens between the blurry, trippy soundscapes and Nowell’s incongruously gorgeous voice and sleazeball storytelling; both versions of “What I Got” capture the skate/surf/smoke lifestyle with such veracity and verisimilitude that the sleazy fun and abject depression blend together into a singularly compelling and compulsively re-listenable brew. Granted, though, the band’s bid for commercial viability suffocates some of their experimental approach to genre-mixing. While “Under My Voodoo” does manage to psychedelic rock and even a bit of metal into a pretty powerful concoction, the surf-isms on “Paddle Out” actually water down what could have been a pretty dynamic and propulsive hardcore song, which is unfortunate, considering how often the band shined when they committed to the hardcore punk approach. Even the two most (relatively) straightforward interpretations of reggae standards, “Jailhouse” and “Get Ready,” stand as two of the weakest in the band’s history, ambling around even more aimlessly than usual.

I must admit, what the album lacks in casual recklessness, it has a tendency to make up for in Nowell’s refined approach to lyricism and sharpened sense for song structure. “Same In the End” and “Seed” form a pair of fiery ska-punk powerhouses containing some of Nowell’s most-convincing screaming, both of which analyze white-trash dysfunction with a mixture of anger, desperation, and empathy that still feels relevant in 2021, while “Garden Grove” is a haunting self-diagnosis of emotional atrophy and sickness of both the dope and soul variety that eventually oozes into an Ohio-Players-by-way-of-Butthole-Surfers-by-way-of-reggae swampy finish. “Burritos” fuses bluesy guitar licks and ska into one of the most fun dissections of depression this side of Less Than Jake, and “Pawn Shop” is a distorted deconstruction of “War Deh Round A John Stop” by the Wailing Souls that also functions as a self-deprecating admission on Nowell’s part that he would often pawn the band’s equipment for drug money. Speaking of covers, Nowell also rearranges Secret Hate’s Clash-aping jam “The Ballad of Johnny Butt” to include new lyrics that frankly examine his own struggle to get clean— one which rings especially sad in retrospect when you know that he had actually gotten damn close right before his death.

Overall, the most difficult thing about Sublime isn’t that it feels like a missed opportunity— it’s that there is still so much potential here, and it will never be fulfilled. All of Sublime’s records hover around the hour mark and are absolutely stuffed with ideas, and I fully believe that a fourth record— written by a sober Nowell, with the confidence of a hit record behind him— could have been the best thing the band ever did. Alas, we’re left with a record that’s as Sublime as they come: messy, sometimes misguided, but absolutely brimming with fresh inventiveness and catchy melodies, even if it doesn’t all quite cohere like it should.

CONCLUSIONS

Above all, I apologize for forcing you to read this treatise on a band that, by rights, shouldn’t matter at all in The Current Year. Still, I don’t write anything without feeling like I absolutely need to, so I hope this was as cathartic for you as it was for me. I made some bold claims and assertions here, so I also welcome any negative commentary. It will only make my already-conflicted adoration of this band feel stronger.

TOP 10 SUBLIME SONGS

10. “Saw Red”
9. “Garden Grove”
8. “What I Got” (either version)
7. “Greatest-Hits”
6. “40 Oz. to Freedom”
5. “Pool Shark” (either version)
4. “Right Back”
3. “All You Need”
2. “Same In the End”
1. “Ebin”

-xoxo, Ellie

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