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40 Oz. to Freedom: Truth and Beauty, Sublime’s masterpiece fought for cultural freedom

by Gavin Heaney

December 8, 1995, Sublime played in Redondo Beach, tell me where were you? Lou Dog roamed fearlessly backstage. This was well before dogs had rights and he wasn’t even a celebrity yet. But no one was going to tell the Sublime crew what was allowed.

They showed up and held court by the keg. If you could pass by Lou, you might get a beer. Luckily, I passed the sniff test. Sublime headlined “Papapalooza” at The Strand Club that night. My high school band weaseled an opening slot and I was thrilled to be billed with my idols. I was a grungy, long haired, punk rock, hacky sack toting, hippy surfer rocking ten hole Doc Martins, pegged jeans, a tie dyed tee and a flannel around my waist. Don’t forget the wallet chain. I was a typical music obsessed teenage dirt bag and Sublime hit my nail right on the head. Hard hitting, raucous, low browed, beer bellied and in your face, they were prime 90s punk pin-ups.

But Sublime had a groovy, melodic and softer psychedelic other side which was far more inclusive, bringing the girls and the dance party to a scene dominated by sweaty male angst and backyard brawls. They were sex, drugs and rock n’ roll incarnate, living the lifestyle they sang about and taking shit from no one. To this impressionable teen tripper, they were gods. “Hey bro,” Brad said to me after our set, backstage as I quaffed a red cup, patting Lou. “Good show! You guys rocked it. Can we get those dancers back out there?” He was being nice. Our set mostly sucked, but my dancer girlfriend at the time embellished it with some teen spirit, and Bradley liked it.

Before Sublime became the soundtrack for Southern California and its idealistic beach lifestyle, it was an underground movement.

Their sound brought diverse music scenes together at a time when they were like rival gangs. Reggae, punk rock and hip hop were the ingredients of their secret sauce, home brewed in the melting pot of The LBC. It was something old, new, borrowed and stolen. Sublime were musical hoodlums. They burned every backstage and looted the archives of popular music in the same smash and grab frenzy witnessed in the LA Riots, reclaiming and re-mixing musical history. 40 oz to Freedom was a landmark album and a cultural catalyst that would go on to define reggae rock for the next generation.

The cover for 40 Oz. to Freedom, by artist Opie Ortiz

At the core was Bradley Nowell’s soulful vocal and bluesy guitar riffs carried by Eric Wilson’s rolling signature bass lines and Bud Gaugh’s funky drummer beats. But the whole 40 Oz. crew included producer and unofficial band members Michael “Miguel” Happoldt on guitar and vocals and Marshall “Ras MG” Goodman on turntables. Their 1992 album 40 oz. to Freedom is a collage of their musical influences which Sublime are inseparable from. This was back when covers were tributes that recognized and honored your musical mentors, not bite them, and liner notes had to include everyone in your scene because they were family. “The album’s like Paul’s Boutique,” said Miguel in an interview, referencing the milestone 1989 Beastie Boys album.“It’s the great songs and playing that make it special. Our thing was truth and beauty. Life is sort of meaningless unless you're pursuing these simultaneously. That record is truth and beauty for the times.”

Bradley Nowell is the everyman’s deadbeat anti-hero. He sings candidly about his life, navigating broken homes, ghetto life and the demon of drug use while trying to keep his heart and soul above it all. With Sublime, he acknowledged the hard truths and 40 oz. chronicled the real California, not the dream state pined for by The Mamas and The Papas. It spoke out for the outcasts, hood rats, and miscreants whom society rejected. It was pure rebel music, a middle finger to the authorities and the war on drugs. Reggae, Punk Rock and Hip Hop were the fringe element before they gained critical mass. Sublime packaged their moody messages in pure feel good music just like their heroes, reggae greats Toots and The Maytals and Bob Marley, whose songs about poverty, violence and oppression are unimaginably joyful and make you want to dance. Their truth is the beauty of the unbroken spirit, that in spite of hardship refuses to be corrupted by the darkness of the world.

The album’s cover artwork by Opie Ortiz is the iconic visual representation of this paradox, a bright hippie sun on a bad trip. It functions like a medicine bottle’s instructional illustration, displaying the broken condition that the music inside is meant to heal.

“A lot of people bought the album just because of the artwork” said Miguel, “Then they were blown away by the music.”

‘Two Pints of Booze

Tell Me, Are You a Badfish too?’

A folky acoustic guitar struggling to be heard through a noisy backyard party sets the scene as “Badfish'' kicks off. The song’s breezy mellow midnight meet up is a refuge from the album’s high energy ska and punk, offering a slow dance for all the star crossed, tragic lovers out there.

“Badfish to me is always the one,” recalled Miguel. “We took our time and just made it sound good. Brad was very lyrical, He had a lot to say and there wasn’t any room for any bullshit. Even the love songs are really twisted. He would hide a lot of pain, but when he would sing, you knew this dude was really going through it.”

Bradley’s soulful singing always rang true. With honesty and humor he held nothing back, sharing his misadventures and foibles with us, revealing his boyish longing to find real love in a jaded world.

”Badfish really stood out. It is soulful, melodic and lyrically progressive, even conversationalist,” said Jon Phillips, Sublime’s former manager. “It’s just a brilliant, simple piece of music, and that is something that’s in any great song. It’s simple but it says so much.”

“Badfish” is perhaps the most beloved song on the album today, but at the time “Date Rape” was the gateway drug. When LA radio station KROQ began to spin it constantly, Sublime’s pot boiled over.

“There was a groundswell of movement forming around the Long Beach subculture,” said Phillips. “Date Rape was this frenetic ska song that just caught fire. Brad told me he was on too much coffee and he just wrote something when he was up in Santa Cruz. It was just off the cuff, but it was influenced by something socially that was really happening at the time and he was commenting on that in his own way.”

Before weed was legal, surfers were athletes and white boy reggae oversaturated the SoCal music scene, Sublime were the last of the outlaws who occasionally found themselves on the wrong side of the bars. The grim specter of jail haunts Bradley’s lyrics like he was a convict himself. He was a freedom fighter. Many of the cultural freedoms we enjoy today were fought for by Sublime – from dyed hair and neck tattoos to pre-rolls. The 40 oz. crew normalized these, but Bradley did not live to see his movement hit the mainstream. He was a local hero who was tragically lost to the war. He did not get to see his truth become beauty for the masses of the next generation. He probably never would have believed that Peter Tosh’s plea to legalize it would be fulfilled. 40 oz. to Freedom is unapologetically earnest and is still championing our freedom of expression. We have the extraordinary opportunity to enjoy Sublime’s classic album 40 oz. to Freedom at this year’s BeachLife Festival, and to celebrate the new freedoms it helped to obtain.

Sublime with Rome will perform 40 Oz. to Freedom in its entirety on May 6 at BeachLife.


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