White people steal. In popular music, that's just the way. Whether it's Elvis, Eric (Clapton) or Eminem, history is littered with crackers who made a lot of money ripping off some forgotten black dude.
Like rap was in the '80s, reggae has always been fairly sacred ground. But white musicians have been getting into the act lately, playing out some musical version of Manifest Destiny. There were anomalies along the way (remember Snow?), but what started with the absurd popularity of Sublime in the late '90s has now reached some bizarre epoch with Matisyahu. With the possible exception of country music-the presence of Cowboy Troy does not really qualify-the world finally seems ready for music by any race, in any genre.
"Some people say we look like a death-metal band, or some English hooligans," explains Jesse Wagner, frontman for The Aggrolites, a bunch of white dudes who specialize in '60s-era rock steady. "It's a pretty punk-rock thing to be playing this era of reggae, but when you come out with music like this and you don't care what anybody else thinks, that's the most punk-rock thing to do. We're in love with this music and that's what we want people to focus on."
Vanilla Ice once used that same logic. But when it comes to Wagner and The Aggrolites, the explanation is a lot more palatable. The L.A. band plays a sublimely authentic brand of dirty reggae that could easily be mistaken for some lost record by the Dynamites or Upsetters. Their sophomore album has received critical accolades for both its cleverness and the retro recording techniques that capture that late-'60s island sound. But Wagner sees the band much like George Bush would like to see himself: as uniters, not dividers.
"I've never met anyone in my life that said they didn't like reggae music. It can appeal to lots of different people, from a hippie to a skinhead. That's the goal of the band, to bring all kinds of cliques together."
The Aggrolites formed when members of two ska cover bands-The Vessels and The Rhythm Doctors-teamed up to serve as the backing band for reggae legend Derrick Morgan during some West Coast shows. The guys enjoyed playing with each other so much that they took the act into the studio and, in one day, recorded their debut, Dirty Reggae.
That 24-hour studio session was incredibly fruitful. The band was soon signed to Hellcat Records (run by Rancid's Tim Armstrong) and scored support gigs for Phyllis Dillon, Scotty and even Prince Buster, who proclaimed, "It reminded me of the old days-I can't believe that this young band from America could play my music just as good as the day it was recorded."
But the band knows its demographic-in terms of reggae, Southern California is the U.S. version of Kingstown. The Aggrolites are most popular in places like San Diego and Orange County, even if SoCal's idea of reggae stretches no further than Bob Marley and Bradley Nowell. But Wagner sees their larger mission, much like the reggae icons he emulates.
"We're bringing something back that has been overlooked," he says.
Spoken like a true Elvis.
The Aggrolites play with The Skatalites at the Belly Up on Friday, Nov. 17. Doors open at 9 p.m. $18-20. 858-481-8140.