Today marks the 25th anniversary of Sublime’s iconic final album Sublime’s release. This album was everywhere in the late 90s, and in many ways defined a generation of music and culture coming out of the West Coast. Today, we’re looking at the making of this album, and highlighting some of the most iconic tracks to celebrate the legacy of one of our favorite bands.
Childhood friends Eric Wilson and Bud Gaugh formed the band alongside Michael Happoldt and recent UC Santa Cruz dropout Bradley Nowell. Wilson and Gaugh almost exclusively listened to punk rock, but Nowell opened their eyes to the world of ska and reggae. After their formation, the band toured extensively up and down the California coast, honing their sound and growing a dedicated local fanbase in the process. Their song “Date Rape” became a sensation in the California ska/reggae scene, and their shows grew increasingly larger in their home state each day. By the time they started recording their third album, they’d signed with MCA records, and were receiving radio attention across the country.
But recording the album proved to be a somewhat chaotic endeavor as Nowell had developed a heroin addiction while touring. The band set up to record in Willie Nelson’s Pedernales studio in Austin for three months, working in sessions filled with intense partying and drug use. According to some, the band almost burned the studio multiple times and would often show up with margaritas in hand at 9am. Nowell explores these themes with his signature, sometimes crude, humor throughout the album lyrically, writing about riots, addiction, and strained relationships.
As they tried to record the album, Nowell’s drug use got increasingly out of hand. Members of the band found themselves checking to see if he was alive in the bathroom. Finally, the other members had to eject Nowell from the studio and told him he had to get help. Unfortunately, after a brief stint in rehab, Bradley Nowell passed away due to a heroin overdose in May of 1996, 2 months before the album was set to release.
The band dissolved immediately after Nowell’s death, the tragedy reverberating throughout each of their lives. Thus, they never toured with the album. This didn’t stop the cultural wave Sublime created though. This album includes smash hits such as “What I Got”, “Doin’ Time”, “Santeria”, and more, which became radio mainstays for over a decade. These songs represented a broader attitude that Sublime espoused though, channeling personal pain and hardship into songs that made you want to take it easy. Their sun-soaked sound became synonymous with the California music scene, canonizing them as one of the greatest alt-rock bands to come out of SoCal.
Sublime is an album that could only come from a band trying to push themselves creatively. Sublime not only blends reggae, punk rock, and ska, but also incorporates elements of hip-hop, dancehall, and many other genres. It’s an album that literally ushered in third wave ska, and inspired generations of artists to come. Most of the reverence for this album comes from Sublime’s masterful integration of alternative genres and sonic diversity. To create a record that seamlessly blends all of these musical flavors is no small feat. It takes a tremendous amount of creativity and vision to make sure these different sounds and styles harmonize with one another rather than devolving into chaos. Sublime struck this balance in a way that didn’t feel too polished or pretentious, making listeners fall in love with their laid-back California ethos.
Today, we celebrate the kind of musical innovation and experimentation that artists like Sublime proved could make for chart-topping records. We also celebrate the life and legacy of Bradley Nowell, who though tortured, was a true visionary.