The Music History of: 2 tone and Ska

Ben Broyd
4 min readFeb 5, 2021

2-Tone is a genre of music originating from the 1980s that embraced two different cultures and two different genres in Punk and Ska. Its name derives from 2 Tone Records, a record label founded in 1979 by Jerry Dammers of The Specials, who will later be discussed. BUT, before getting into the musical aspect of 2-Tone, it is vital to look at the history surrounding it, and the state of Britain during the 1980s.

The first point of conversation starts with the Windrush Generation. In the 1950s Caribbean immigrants arrived in Britain and were faced with immediate prejudice. It was made incredibly difficult for the Windrush Generation to find housing due to being priced out of accommodation, whilst they were also ineligible for council housing due to not being in Britain long enough. During this time, there was no anti-discrimination legislation to prevent landlords from refusing to accept black tenants. As a result of this, many black immigrants were forced to live in slum areas of cities, where the housing was of poor quality and there was problems of crime, violence and prostitution. The same people that were a major driving force for Britain in WW2, and contributed heavily to the rebuilding of Britain after the war. All of which they have still not received full recognition for. What a way to say thanks.

In 1980s Britain, the social injustice showed no signs of improvement, racism was rife. Black people in Britain were the victims of racist violence at the hands of far-right groups such as the national front. During this era, it was even common for black footballers to be subjected to racist chanting from crowd members. Although sadly, recent events show this still happens in modern day.

However, out of the darkness that was 1980s Britain, shone a light in the form of 2-Tone. Originating in the West Midlands of England, came three major 2-Tone bands: The Specials, The Selector, and The Beat, all of which featured members from the Caribbean who had migrated to England, and members who originated from England. this fusion of Punk with Jamaican Ska formed together, to what we know today as 2-Tone. Jerry Dammers of The Specials described 2-Tone as a “modern Motown – a hit factory with a diverse roster united by a common but aesthetically flexible sound.” It was named after the two-tone tonic suits worn by mods and skinheads in the late 1960s, when the first wave of Ska music was enjoyed in Britain, and the name also captured the multi-racial nature of the bands.

Whilst recognising 2-Tone as being funky and fun to listen to, consisting of Reggae beats, Punk guitar riffs and brass instruments, the genre fully acknowledged the social injustice in 1980s Britain that reflected itself through the lyrics. Jamaican patois was used as a technique by all three mentioned 2-Tone bands, most notably; Pauline Black. Black has a Southern English speaking voice, but adopted a heavy Jamaican accent in parts of songs such as ‘Three Minute Hero’. Ranking Roger who has a heavy Birmingham accent did similar, using Jamaican patois in songs such as ‘Tears of a Clown’ and ‘Ranking Full Stop.’ This technique provided a sense of authenticity for the Ska sound and an acknowledgement by the bands to the earlier roots of Ska music and Jamaica.

Moreover, in 1979 Britain was faced with a general election. The same year that 2-Tone started gaining public interest. Many of the lyrics of the 2-Tone bands reflected what was happening politically during the lead up to the election, and what was shown on the news. The Specials’ song ‘Ghost Town’ not only reflected what was on the news, but was used at the time as an accompaniment to news footage of the riots in 1981. The political messages also extended beyond Britain. In 1984, The Specials released “Free Nelson Mandela”, a song written in protest against the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela (RIP) by the apartheid South African government, and is considered a notable anti-apartheid song. Unlike many protest songs, the track is upbeat and celebratory, to reflect the musical influences of South Africa.

1980s Britain was a place full of social injustice, racial inequalities, and far-right bellends believing they are more influential and important than others. Have we really seen much improvement in 40 years? It remains to be seen. But if one good thing came from the 1980s, it was the emergence of 2-Tone, and the way it promoted social equality, and positive political messages.

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Ben Broyd

I write about music, amongst other things. Hope you enjoy.