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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: The Sun-Soaked Magic of Sublime’s “Santeria”

Exploring the history of Long Beach’s favorite sons with our friend Yasi Salek

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60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for its final stretch run (and a brand-new book!). Join The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 110 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering Sublime’s “Santeria.” Read an excerpt below.

All the way up to the mega-huge self-titled Sublime record in ’96, the album that comes out two months after Bradley Nowell dies, Sublime are never famous in real time. When you listen to Sublime, the dudes singing and playing for you, those dudes aren’t famous yet. They don’t know that they’re gonna be famous. They don’t know that the ’96 Sublime record is gonna sell 6 million copies in America. It’s a little heartbreaking, listening to Sublime, what you know that they don’t. Sublime’s first official-official album comes out in 1992. It’s called 40oz. to Freedom. We got a super-important Sublime collaborator, Marshall Goodman, a.k.a. Ras M.G., playing drums on a lot of it because Bud Gaugh’s got his own problems. This record’s famous—it sells 2 million copies in America—but it doesn’t blow up right away. Or, really, it doesn’t blow up fast enough to do Bradley Nowell any good.

This song is called “Badfish.” This is a top-tier Sublime hit, actually. This is maybe, probably, presumably a song about Bradley battling heroin addiction. “Badfish” is also the song that makes me think, if only for a split second, of Jimmy Buffett. Bradley and Jimmy. The clown princes of Margaritaville. Two barefoot bards of good-time partying, all libido and id and conspicuous overconsumption, but with a not-so-hidden soulfulness, a grace to them even at their bawdiest. Shrewd songwriters with hidden depths. Bradley and Jimmy—and Jimmy’s still present tense too—they don’t specialize in super-sad songs that deceive you by sounding all happy; they write happy and anthemic songs where the shrewd undercurrent of sadness somehow only amplifies the happiness, the anthemicness. The pain, the struggle driving “Badfish” doesn’t make it sound painful. The struggle just makes it sound better.

Yasi really likes that line: Ain’t got no quarrels with god. The use, the deployment of the word quarrels there. Yes. Great word. But don’t skip over Ain’t got no time to grow old. That’s—OK, that one’s a little painful.

Despite the fact that, again, Sublime are very much not huge or even “successful” yet—they’re not even on a major label yet—even so, 40oz. to Freedom has Greatest Hits energy. It feels monumental if only in retrospect. “Badfish” and “Ball and Chain” (love that one) and “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “Don’t Push” are all back. Sublime’s covers of “Hope” by the Descendents and the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” are here, and this is the only record I’m aware of that covers both the Descendents and the Grateful Dead. “Smoke Two Joints” is here. “Smoke Two Joints” is a cover, also. “Smoke Two Joints” was written and recorded by the Toyes, a reggae band that started in Hawaii but later moved to Oregon. Tough break. Great song, great cover. When Bradley Nowell sings, “I smoke two joints before I smoke two joints / And then I smoke two more,” you believe him. But then again, you believe him when he sings anything.

This might be my favorite song on 40oz. to Freedom, if you want the truth. Ask him how he knows about hamburgers and Elijah Muhammad and the welfare state. Go ahead, ask him: He wants you to know why he knows. The song is called “KRS-One.” It is probably the best quote, unquote rock song about a rapper, ever. Just the delicacy of this song. The sweetness. The earnestness. Bradley just loves listening to KRS-One and wants to shout out everything he’s learned about by listening to KRS-One. And I love listening to him talk about why he loves listening to KRS-One; I even love when Bradley slips back into reggae patois while he does it.

He knows. He knows you know he just sang the words, We don’t want to pay no money fi hear the same old sound. He sells the fi there, somehow, maybe. Or maybe not. Or maybe you could also ask, Who’s “we,” Bradley? in the line Watch and we’ll take hip-hop to a higher ground. But even here, there’s a difference between wrapping yourself in the flag of KRS-One, so to speak, and simply waving KRS-One’s flag on KRS-One’s behalf. Not that this is the song on this record that unnerves everyone. At first, 40oz. to Freedom isn’t a disaster, exactly, but it doesn’t sell a ton. It doesn’t push Sublime to the next level. It doesn’t work, really, and it especially does not help Bradley Nowell in his very public battle with drugs. The next Sublime record is called Robbin’ the Hood. It’s from 1994, it’s four-track recordings, it’s lo-fi in the extreme, it’s experimental, it has a theoretically visionary sample-heavy beat-tape vibe, it’s got Gwen Stefani for less than two minutes, and it features several interludes from a schizophrenic gentleman named Raleigh that unfortunately last way longer than two minutes. There’s a lot going on, and pretty much all of it is baffling, but it’s all more intriguing than maybe you remember. Here’s a little throwaway tune called “Lincoln Highway Dub.”

Huh. That sounds familiar. I may actually not get around to “Santeria” here today. Is that OK? Are people gonna get pissed at me? They might. Sublime’s biggest songs are so huge, are so ubiquitous, that I never need to hear them again, externally, because they’ve been stuck in my head for 30 years. In a broader sense, I’m never not listening to Sublime. I don’t know if there’s any point to elaborating on that, but—OK. So, look: Robbin’ the Hood is not designed to push Sublime to the next level, to put it mildly. What pushes Sublime to the next level, in August of 1994, is that a famous DJ named Tazy Phyllipz plays “Date Rape” on the famous L.A. rock station KROQ, and the phone lines blow up, and soon “Date Rape” is the biggest song on KROQ, which means that rock radio stations nationwide pick up on it, which is how I hear it in fuckin’ Ohio, and that’s what pushes Sublime to the next level. Yeah, this is a story of a single DJ at a single radio station plucking a random song from obscurity, and that song blows up in a manner so absolute that we even remember the DJ’s name now.

Sublime get signed to a major label, to the MCA subsidiary Gasoline Alley, but also Bradley goes to rehab. Sublime start recording in Redondo Beach with David Kahne, who’s worked with Fishbone and Tony Bennett (separately), but that flames out, so they also record with Paul Leary, he of the Butthole Surfers, at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studios in Austin. Sublime nail down their biggest, most enduring hits—“Santeria,” “Wrong Way,” “Doin’ Time,” “What I Got”—but they also leave a trail of destruction and consternation. Sublime’s self-titled album comes out in July 1996, and those songs slowly but surely make Sublime super-famous, finally, but Bradley is already gone, and we’ll spend the rest of our lives listening to Bradley singing about himself in the present tense.

To hear the full episode, click here. Subscribe here and check back every Wednesday for new episodes. And to order Rob’s new book, Songs That Explain the ’90s, visit the Hachette Book Group website.