It was 20 years ago this week that Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose at the age of 28. It was a tragic death that ended what could have been an extremely promising career. And yet, in the time since his death, the band has enjoyed an ever-evolving — and somewhat awkward — legacy. To their most dedicated fans, Sublime are the greatest ska-punk/reggae band among their peers. To others, they’re the band that all the most annoying people in high school seemed to love.
To be brutally honest, some bands are judged by their fan base. Lynyrd Skynyrd fans are often stereotyped as rednecks, while Radiohead’s die-hards tend to be viewed as pretentious fanboy types. Then, there’s the Sublime bro: The guy (or gal) who has the sun from the 40 Oz. To Freedom logo tattooed on at least one (but possibly more) place on his or her body, and will constantly chew your ear off about how they are the greatest band. And if you dissent, or tell them that the original version of “Smoke Two Joints” is better than Sublime’s, they’ll lecture you about how you just don’t get it.
But that brings up the big question: Has our stereotyping of the Sublime Bro blinded us to the actual quality of the band’s music? Put it this way, if you and your cloister of friends all believed that the majority of people who liked a given band were some combination of uncool, unintelligent, and generally not a good time to hang out with, wouldn’t you preemptively train yourself to not like that band? And if you found yourself liking one of their songs, wouldn’t you be afraid to go further, less you alienate yourself from the world you’ve built up?
What matters more here is, Sublime actually have a lot of really good songs. Perhaps the band was initially overrated in the wake of Nowell’s death, but the backlash has turned the table considerably, to the point where people forget why they liked the band in the first place. It’s easy to just dismiss the band as “white boy reggae,” but they actually had a pretty diverse bunch of styles within the reggae/ska/punk framework. They had sped up tunes like “Wrong Way,” but they also could handle slow, introspective songs like “Doin’ Time,” and anyone who doubts the band’s musical ambition could should consider the six minute dub ode “Pawn Shop,” a melodic number which features some of Nowell’s best guitar playing. If you’ve only heard the band’s radio hits, digging in deeper is certainly a worthy endeavor, as there was always more to this band than meets the eye.
The band also had an interesting sense of humor. Consider “April 29, 1992,” a track about the rights in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict (despite singing the wrong date in the lyrics). The song takes on a serious topic, but infuses it with a surprising bit of dark humor, as Nowell sings nostalgically about “participating in some anarchy” which included heading to a liquor store and taking “all that alcohol (he) couldn’t afford.” He also claims that the very guitar he’s playing on the track came form looting a music store, which may or may not be true, but is an interesting thought. Later in the song, the band makes it clear that they were in solidarity with those who were protesting what they considered the racist actions of local police. This is where a delicate balance is needed; too much humor, and the song becomes crass, but if it’s too serious, it would risk being heavy handed. The band managed to pull it off, resulting in one of their most enduring songs.
Some of their tracks were more light-hearted, like the Spanglish “Caress Me Down,” which became a radio favorite despite not being released as a single. The song is one of the band’s most sexually explicit songs; when Nowell’s says his girlfriend had “the G.I. Joe kung-fu grip,” it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what he means. There’s a decent chance that if the song had been sung entirely in English, radio stations might not have picked it up (when you consider the translations of some of these lyrics), but in any case, it’s a light hearted number that became another one of the band’s classics.
Of course, taste is subjective. You could listen to every song Sublime ever recorded and still find nothing to like, while still thinking your high school bro who swears by them is out of his mind. But for every goofy alt rock band in the ’90s, Sublime dovetails comfortably right among the best of your most closet nostalgia faves. The point is, they deserve a chance. Sublime, like many bands, has had their fanbase stereotyped to death, and as a result, closed-minded listeners tend to be unwilling to give them a chance and it’s a shame. While the band’s reputation may have initially been inflated by their massive cult following, they still accomplished a lot over a short period of time, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
(You don’t need to listen to the Sublime With Rome album, though.)