Hmm. How to describe Fishbone?
First off, you’re gonna have to use some hyphens. What about Punk-funk? Ska-jazz? Avant-R&B, perhaps?
Then again, maybe the best thing is just to avoid that dilemma altogether. Because whatever label you use, there’s always some element of the music left ignored, some ingredient in the mix that refuses to be pegged. Fishbone’s members themselves, tired of the wordy inaccuracies, have come up with a name that works as well as anything:
“We call it ‘nuttmeg,'” says Fishbone founder and bass player Norwood Fisher, from his home in L.A. “Because it’s ‘nutt’ anything in particular.” And he’s right: Fishbone’s music is so distinctive, so infectiously odd, that the members have also developed a singular live act — a mix of high drama and low scatology — to match their musical vernacular.
Since the mid-’80s, Fishbone has released five furiously funky CDs, none of which has taken the band over the top into the Brotherhood of Mass Acceptance. And, while publicly lauded by celebrities as varied as Spike Lee and Tim Robbins, they continue to tour without even the support of a label. Their on-again, off-again relationship with Columbia Records ended more than a year ago, with the release of 1996’s Fishbone 101– Nuttasaurusmeg Fossil Fuelin’ The Fonkay. Nevertheless, the band remains confident about its prowess. When asked about the upcoming Asheville show, Fisher laughs: “Aw, man, it’s gonna be a party. The theme of this tour is “We’re Nutt Going Out Like That.”
No one familiar with Fishbone would expect anything less. Their influence over the 1980s-’90s tectonic musical shift, alone, places them in a unique position: They were ska before ska was cool; they slammed with white audiences at Lollapalooza, back when alternative still lived up to its name; they enjoyed a brief stint performing decidedly twisted Beach Boys cover tunes; and today, they remain staunchly funky, even after the gangsta rap zeitgeist has infused and then departed the nation’s impressionable youth.
The popular story goes that the kids who would one day become Fishbone — drummer Philip (“Fish”) Fisher, lead vocalist and saxophonist Angelo Moore, trumpeter “Dirty Walt” Kibby II, keyboardist Anthony Brewster, and early guitarist Kendall Jones — lived in Watts, but were bussed into the more affluent San Fernando Valley for school, and that’s why their funky sound is so cross-cultural. But Fisher’s quick to set things straight.
“People think the bussing thing is why we got into different music, but that’s not right,” he explains, his voice raspy with the last vestiges of a cold. “The first thing that happened was that I heard Funkadelic when I was 5. That stuff knocked me out. Then one of my relatives gave me her record collection, with some white artists’ records in it. And that’s basically how it was.”
Formed back in the days when the Sex Pistols were making a (not so) joyful noise, Fishbone took soul and reggae rhythms and sped them up to a more aggressive pace. “All of us thought we had invented something new,” Fisher remembers, “but then Walt said, ‘No way,’ and he brought in some of his ska records. Then we knew we were just doing what other people across the Atlantic were doing.”
Fishbone’s first break came in 1985, when — as they were reinventing the L.A. punk scene alongside those other rowdy funksters, the Red Hot Chili Peppers — they released the Reagan-Era Cold War ditty “Party at Ground Zero.” For a few interesting years, the band made the music industry seem almost color blind, filling the ever-narrowing chasm between such rock and rap luminaries as Jane’s Addiction, Run D.M.C. and Living Colour. But mass acceptance never came, and now these musicians’ musicians are having to settle for being merely ground-breaking, as such contemporary platinum darlings as No Doubt, Rancid, Sublime and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones cite Fishbone among their forebears.
But don’t expect any bad feelings from these guys. “Man, I love the Bosstones,” Fisher says. “[But] if [their] record never went big, people would be complaining and wondering why.” As for his take on the current state of modern music, Fisher remains enthusiastic: “I love Missy Elliot. I think she’s doing some wonderful things, original things. I like the Goody Mob, too, but especially I like this old-school L.A. bunch, the Jurassic Five. They’re killin’ me right now. We’re gonna try to get them out on the road with us.”
And that’s just the way these guys are: Despite the splintered music industry, Fishbone has always been more interested in similarities than differences. That’s what happens when you see yourself in much of what now passes for good music. “See, ska rhythms are really the same beats as a lot of the rap guys are doing nowadays,” Fisher declares. “If you take apart the music, it’s all black beats. Ska really ain’t nothing but a bunch of white guys trying to sound black, anyway.”
For now, Fishbone members wait their turn for their moment in the light, meanwhile rocking the world one town at a time. Fisher’s seen his heroes — James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins — spin in and out of fashion, and in again, and he knows the same fate awaits his band. The only problem is getting the fickle public to come around. But while band members wait, they can savor the fact that, if today’s music is truly a crossroads, Fishbone’s standing firmly in the intersection.