Ska has always remained at the cultural fringe in North America. Despite its mainstream heyday in the mid-1990s, ska has never taken too seriously by critics and fans alike, the butt of self-deprecating compilations like SKA...Doesn't It All Sound The Same?, and the ironically named Ska Is Dead Tour. Though ska scenes are today still kicking and skanking around North America, including niche pockets in Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, and San Diego, the genre is still very much an underground movement that often remains in the crosshairs of online trolls.
Enter Skatune Network, the one-person band fighting to redefine the possibilities in ska, one cover song at a time. Launched by 23-year-old Florida musician Jeremy Hunter, who uses the pronouns they/them, Skatune Network flips some of your favourite tunes into full-on ska remakes: From 80s pop ballads (George Michael's "Careless Whisper"), to emo anthems (My Chemical Romance's "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)"), to R&B jams (The Jackson 5’s “ABC”), no genre is left un-skanked. Hunter even reworks songs and theme music from popular movies ( The Rocky Horror Picture Show), TV shows ( The Office), and video games ( The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time). Their musical mission is clear: to make every song ever into a ska song.
In the two years since launching, Skatune Network has gone from novelty to niche favourite, with more than 60 ska cover videos that have collectively garnered nearly one million YouTube views. Hunter’s mushrooming online fanbase counts tens of thousands of followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, their YouTube page is flooded with positive and encouraging comments: “Accidentally came across this and I’m so glad I did; this dude is fucking nuts. Much love brother ,” reads one message. The range of genres, and combined with Hunter’s self-aware exploitation of meme and internet culture, like Steven Universe and Adventure Time stan communities, has given Skatune Network exposure well beyond ska and punk circles, with Hunter culling suggestions from fan comments and even bands. (The cover for La Dispute was a request from the band itself.)
The Skatune Network project began as a gag, when Hunter posted “Feliz NaviSKA,” an intentionally “bad ska cover” of the 1970 bilingual Christmas classic "Feliz Navidad," to Facebook in late 2016. To Hunter’s surprise, the cover blew up, earning thousands of shares and views, and hundreds of comments and likes across their social media within a single day. They followed up with a ska version of the New Year’s Eve standard “Auld Lang Syne,” which reached nearly a quarter-million views, according to Hunter. “At that point, I knew this could be a thing, and I made a YouTube channel off of it,” Hunter says, and Skatune Network was born.
Their commitment to the craft is nothing short of impressive: Hunter, who studies music composition at Santa Fe College and works as a freelance composer and musician, rewrites the individual parts of each original song, and then records the reinterpreted version across multiple instruments, including trumpet, saxophone, trombone, keyboard, guitar, and vocals – all from the comfort of their bedroom studio. The resulting creation morphs a simple, dime-a-dozen idea into a meticulously elaborate recording and performance that fall somewhere between bratty punk, dub-tinged ska, and loungey jazz, and often all three in one single track.
For Hunter, who grew up a dedicated band kid and fixture of the South Florida ska and punk scene, ska is more than a novelty genre or viral moment. “I certainly think it's one of the most dynamic genres of music out there; its versatility is incredible,” Hunter says. “You can get all the aggressive, fast energy as you can in punk to all the slow, jazzy vibes in more traditional styles. The genre is very open to fusion, which allows me to mix styles of many other genres and still keep it with the ska sound.”
In a couple of weeks, Hunter is taking Skatune Network on the road with the project’s first shows as a full live band (30 November in St. Petersburg, FL, and 1 December, in Orlando, FL). Ahead of the debut gigs, Noisey checked in with Hunter to discuss their ongoing (and dare we say, brave?) mission, their experience as a black person in a predominantly white music community, and their thoughts on the future of ska.
Noisey: How long does one full video take to create? From rewriting the music into a ska song format, filming and editing the video, and then uploading the clip online.
Jeremy Hunter: If I did it all in one sitting, and it was a song I was 50 percent familiar with, it would all probably take me about seven to eight hours. The longest a video has taken me is two weeks [a melody of The Bluecoats' marching shows], and the shortest a video has taken me is two hours [Blink-182's "Dammit"]. It all depends on how hard the song is. "Space Oddity" by David Bowie was a song I was not super familiar with; that one took me like four or five days to do. It also depends on how much I have to change the song from the original.
Are there specific genres that are easier to convert into ska covers?
Pop punk stuff, like Blink-182 and Green Day, is so closely related to ska; it lends itself very easily to covers. I feel like pop music also lends itself very well to covers, just because pop music is very simply structured. The "Video Killed the Radio Star" [from The Buggles] cover was very easy to transition into ska. My "Emotion" by Carly Rae Jepsen [cover was] very easy to transition into ska. Also, I do a lot of emo covers, because emo people really support my covers. Those are sometimes easy, sometimes tricky. It varies more by the artist and by the song than it does by specifically the genre.
Do you literally believe you can make anything into ska?
I think if I try hard enough [and have] enough time. There's only one song I've ever bailed on, which is "September" by Earth, Wind & Fire. I was going to do that in September, but I was short on time. That's a song I don't wanna fuck up. That song is so iconic. It's like, if it's not done right, it shouldn't be done.
It's OK – Taylor Swift already fucked it up .
Exactly! I saw that. And I was like, "You know what? No." I don't want people sharing it like, "Why the fuck did you do this?" If I'm doing it, I want people to be like, "Yo, hell yeah! That was spot on." I feel like there are two ways to [doing a cover]. There's one way [where] you have to match [the] energy [of the original]. The only other way I could do it is [if] it's so completely different, it's matching the energy or topping it, but in another way. "Bohemian Rhapsody" [by Queen] is another example. People have told me to do that song, but that song has such an energy and such a high performance and intensity, you can't just cover it. It has to match that energy, whether it's in the way Queen matched it or in a completely different way, but still at that level.
Oh man! I don't even know. [Laughs] Sometimes I think about it and sometimes I'm like, "Damn, what if there are just no more songs to cover? What if I just hit that point where it's all been done?" I feel like that'll never happen. That's because new music is always being created; new music is also being written at an exponential rate. Now we live in an age where anybody can upload music through the internet for free, so it's much more accessible. That being said, there's way more music out there for people to listen to now versus 20 years ago. I think because of that, it feels like there's way more music being written and available to people. So I feel like I'm never going to run out of music to cover. Also, I don't make the mistake of covering everything that's a banger at once. People keep saying "Toto" by Africa. That's definitely coming; that's been on the list since day one. But I'm saving it for when the time is right.
You're putting a lot of time and effort into this project. What are you getting out of all of this?
I do make money through Patreon. I do make money through selling merch. And I do make money through YouTube ad revenue. It's not enough for me to quit all of my other stuff and only do [this project]. But it's enough where it's helping me achieve the rest of my expenses and costs through other things. And a lot of exposure came through Skatune Network. Also, it's helping me brand myself and build a social capital. I also have plans to grow more as an online content creator and do more than just covers, but that comes with time.
But also another reason, it's just fun. Ska is something I've just genuinely loved for so long, and people love when you're doing something you love on the Internet. People always ask me, "How do even make money through YouTube?" My answer is always, "You'd be surprised at how willing people are to support you." There are always people out there who are willing to support you. That's what makes it kind of worth [it]...people are willing to support me enough so I can do this thing that I love and people are loving the content that I'm putting out.
The ska community in North America is largely white. You are not a white person. What's your experience been like in the ska scene?
For the most part, it's been pretty good. But there have also been moments of people being rude to me or patronising me, like thinking I don't know anything about punk. There [was] a time where I was at a [punk] show when someone came up to me and asked why I was there. A lot of people [might] be like, "Maybe he was just trying to talk to you." But would a white dude go up to another white dude at a show and ask why he's there? The answer is no; that doesn't happen.
You look at me and you assume that I'm different. I'm wearing a band shirt, I'm wearing jeans and Vans. For the most part, I "look the part," which I think there is no "looking the part" in punk. But if you had to make a part to look, I would feel like I would "look the part." So why are you approaching me and asking why I'm there? And it's not the only time I've had issues with that.
Have you ever felt like an outsider in the ska scene? Or do you generally feel accepted?
For the most part, I feel accepted in the ska community and most punk regions that I go to. Where I live in Gainesville, the type of punk shows that I go to are pretty diverse; they're typically not always all white dudes. But whenever I'm on tour playing ska shows and stuff, typically it's more white dudes. But I've never really felt not included in those situations, which is good. There have been moments where it just feels kind of weird, but not weird because people are making it weird. It's just like a "weird because I'm the only black person at the show" type thing.
There's a lot of diversity in ska, but people don't really realise it. Other genres of music are quick to talk about it and make sure it's a thing. There is something I've heard a lot on tour, where ska people tend to have a mentality of "race doesn't matter, we're all on this planet." Yeah, race doesn't matter as far as capabilities of a person of colour versus a white person. But you can't just say race doesn't matter and erase people of colour's experiences. Not being malicious, and [people] don't realise this all the time, but you're erasing the experiences that people of colour face when you say things like, "There's only one race, that's the human race." OK yeah, but that's not gonna stop a cop from killing a person of colour. Saying there's only one race doesn't change the fact that people of colour have to approach what they say and think and do in public differently than a white person. There clearly is more than one race if that's happening.
Why do you think the ska community is not addressing certain issues, compared to the punk scene or some other scenes?
Back in the 90s, we had a lot of diversity and a lot of forward thinking. You had the whole Ska Against Racism [Tour of 1998]. Ska was always a very anti-racist [thing], tracing back to the second wave. You've always had racial diversity in ska and you've always had people saying "fuck racism" in ska. I feel like as a society, we've progressed more. Back in the 90s, it was kinda just like, "Fuck racism, yeah let's kill it." And now it's kind of like, "Fuck racism, but we can't just squash it." It's not like a bug. You have to find out what the causes of racism are. I feel like the ska scene has kind of dwindled away and hasn't really been present. It's still kind of stuck in like a 90s mentality, where it's just like if you just say "fuck racism," it's gone, but it's not gone. Other scenes have had the chance to progress and grow over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, there's only been a handful of ska bands that have formed and have been successful over the last few years. There are people in ska that I know who are very woke and aware, but I've noticed that they're also connected to other forms of punk, not just ska.
You're other ska band, We Are the Union , just went on tour with Reel Big Fish , who are largely responsible for making ska mainstream in America in the 90s. Do you think we'll ever see another "ska moment" or ska revival in America in the future?
I think it will be popular again at some point. With the whole 90s nostalgia thing popping up, ska, sooner or later, has to come back. I think part of the reason why it never really has come back is because there's never been a new band to take that spot. Bands form and then they get mildly successful and then they break up. No one's ever kept going. I feel like knowing the right people and making the right connection, that's definitely something that could happen again. I feel like it won't be exactly the same as it was in the 90s, but that's fine. Things don't have to be exactly the same.
John Ochoa is a Los Angeles-born, Brooklyn-based editor and writer. You can find him living his best life on Twitter .
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.