Sublime’s legacy is more complicated than the bros (and the haters) would have you think

Photo: Steve Eichner/WireImage (Getty Images), Graphic: Libby McGuire

One Sunday last February, seemingly apropos of nothing, Pitchfork ran a review of Sublime’s 1992 debut, 40 Oz. To Freedom. It was, let’s say, not chill in its assessment of the Long Beach band’s merits. Although he credits singer Bradley Nowell’s rich voice and the band’s forward-thinking hybrid of reggae, hip-hop, punk, folk, and whatever else you can play in the tape deck of an Econoline van, writer Evan Rytlewski argued that the album’s casual misogyny and Nowell’s caustic personality were causing its already dubious legacy to fade, and that one-time fans who have moved on to other musical things will sheepishly confess it to be “the most embarrassing album they’ve ever loved.” It was a perfectly reasonable conclusion that seemed to close the critical and popular case on Sublime.

It’s amazing what 15 months can do. For reasons that are about as clear as the chamber on a 25-year-old Graffix bong, Sublime has creeped into a position in the cultural consciousness that it hasn’t occupied at any other point since, oh, 1998. The recent premiere of Bill Guttentag’s documentary Sublime at Tribeca surely has something to do with this, as does Lana Del Rey’s cover of the band’s “Doin’ Time” and the flurry of press that’s followed it; and Post Malone’s shaggy cover of “Santeria,” we’re forced to concede, is part of this story, too. It’s all enough to move The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs to declare summer 2019 the “Sublimaissance”: “Sublime is corny stoner bro music—and that’s a good thing!” she writes.

But I’m not so sure that either of those statements is true. As Rytlewski writes in his 40 Oz. review, the corny stoner bros—or at least the culture these archetypal bros are standing in for—are the ones who shout cheerfully along to the chorus of “Date Rape” and, as he puts it, are “guffawing at a joke you find appalling.” Like “Date Rape” itself, this is horrific. But, also like “Date Rape,” Sublime’s loudest, dumbest elements shouldn’t be the only axis along which we judge them. Knibbs is mostly pro-Sublime, Rytlewski anti-, but they’re both allowing the bros to dictate the terms of the conversation.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—you can learn plenty about a work of art by studying who’s attracted to it and why—but it’s possible that the dudes who leave “What I Got” blasting out of their Jeeps when they run into the beachside liquor store don’t really grasp the nuance in what Sublime was doing, and in some ways have made it nearly impossible to understand Nowell’s context and motivations as an artist. That’s unfortunate, because when he wanted to, Nowell could be a wildly innovative musician and songwriter of great subtlety, and not just when he was writing about the heroin addiction that would ultimately take his life two months before the release of the band’s self-titled album in 1996.

“Santeria,” Sublime’s breakthrough single, served as most people’s introduction to the band. It’s a blue-beat reggae song on its surface and a classic country song in essence, something its Wild West video tacitly acknowledges; consider it Willie Nelson’s “Red-Headed Stranger” with the chassis turned upside down. More than anything, it’s a song about frustration—with other people, with yourself, with the way things are going. There’s a resignation in Nowell’s voice that’s echoed in the virtual stammer of the chorus (“What I really wanna say I can’t define”), and for all his bluster, the protagonist of “Santeria” never tracks his unnamed hyna and her Sancho down; instead he moves on, thinks about finding a new love interest, and ultimately gives himself over to a sighing, “My soul will have to wait.”

Nowell was drawn to this kind of writing, as you might expect of a fun-loving guy addicted to an immensely antisocial drug. On “Garden Grove,” which might be the band’s best song, he’s dopesick and diagnosing his unsound soul, which is aching from maladies both temporal and existential while a sampled Ohio Players synthline hangs uncomfortably in the air like smoke in a hotboxed car. “Wrong Way” is a cipher of interlocking bad decisions, each of which tightens the coils further, which is something the song acknowledges every time the chorus comes around; wriggling through “April 29, 1992” is the idea that the Riots were fueled by a sudden collective sense of power that disenfranchised people in L.A. felt regardless of race.

It’s inarguable that some of Sublime’s music celebrates the acts it depicts, and that a bass-booming sound system jam isn’t really the clearest mode of delivery for a message like the one Nowell is trying to sell in “April 29.” He could be a clumsy writer. But it’s incorrect to view Sublime’s music as purely nihilistic posturing. Through his lyrics, Nowell was trying to make sense of the incredible disorder he was surrounded by, much of which he created for himself. As Meaghan Garvey writes in her Fader review of Del Rey’s “Doin’ Time,” Nowell’s storytelling at times mirrors “dirtbag greats like Denis Johnson or Raymond Carver.” He was a junkie from a well-off family who found himself living in squalor; it’s not surprising that he’d be drawn to characters unable to free themselves from ugly situations of their own making, or that he’d see shades of his own life in that of, say, fellow Long Beach Poly alum Snoop Dogg.

The whiff of impostership that seems to follow Sublime is understandable, particularly as regards the group’s association with reggae, a genre that seems weirdly good at attracting dopey, faux-sincere white boys. But Nowell was a lifelong devotee of Jamaican music, and he understood ska, rocksteady, reggae, and dancehall as an evolutionary form that was just as malleable as rock ’n’ roll. By the time he put his band together in 1988, Nowell had already spent a decade absorbing everyone from Jimmy Cliff to Yellowman—not to mention being schooled by Long Beach’s Jamaican population. He understood that the music was capable of carrying complex, difficult messages, even if his audience didn’t.

From the band’s first demo (the wonderfully titled Jah Won’t Pay The Bills) to its final recordings, Sublime’s music is overflowing with references to classic reggae and dancehall cuts. Some of these are obvious—40 Oz.’s cover of the immortal Toots And The Maytals song “54-46 Was My Number”—while at other times the trio quotes, rewrites, and versions reggae classics, a practice essential to Jamaican music since at least the advent of ska in the late 1950s.

Like Lee Perry at the controls, Sublime relentlessly scribbled over its songs, figuring out ways to pivot to Too $hort and back again, swapping hand drums for 808s on the sly, liquifying entire tracks in puddles of echo and reverb. The music often feels crowded and a little disorienting, with drummer Bud Gaugh and bassist Eric Wilson’s relentless timekeeping the only thing mooring us to solid ground. Just as Beck would do a couple of years later with folk on Mellow Gold, they were using dub principles sharpened on hip-hop’s flinty edge to reimagine their own source music. From the start, they were crafting consciously experimental pop songs, using reggae’s traditional elements to push it in directions it otherwise wouldn’t have gone.

Nowell, Gaugh, and Wilson knew that the genre’s inherent flexibility meant it was strong enough to hold all of their interests, nearly all of which emanated from L.A. County: gangsta rap spilling out of nearby Compton (and, later, from just up the street in Long Beach); the jazz-derived punk of the Minutemen, who had lived just across the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro; the libertine sampling philosophy of Paul’s Boutique, recorded in a ratty Hollywood apartment; the exploratory good-times jamming of the Grateful Dead; confessional folk; hardcore; thrash; sound collage. As Jeff Weiss points out in the Famous Original L.A. Weekly, Long Beach is one of the States’ most diverse cities, a place where house parties are stuffed with everyone from “blond surfers and magnet-school actresses to Long Beach Crips and first-generation progeny of Mexican, Cambodian, and Caribbean immigrants,” everyone united, at least as far as the music’s concerned, by the beat.

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 black 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.

They didn’t always do this—or anything—well, and to be sure, some of their music can be painful to listen to regardless of how you frame it. Sublime was not a perfect band, whether musically or ethically, and the same can be said of the scene that’s carried the thai stick for them these past two decades. But at its core, the trio’s music testifies to the abundance they found all around them, and to their exuberance in sharing it all. They understood that the music they loved was born out of compromised living conditions and an intermixing of societal alienation and joyful self-sufficiency, and they set out to forge the exact same kind of sound for themselves. To listen to Sublime is to hear transmissions beamed in straight from its Long Beach party pad, live from a city whose most prominent sports team calls itself the Dirtbags. Some of it is repulsive. Some of it is gorgeous. Some of it is virtually incomprehensible. But it was always a motherfuckin’ riot.