Twenty years ago this month, Sublime released their first album: 40oz. to Freedom. At that point drummer Floyd “Bud” Gaugh, bassist Eric Wilson and singer-songwriter Bradley Nowell were just three guys from Long Beach. No record deal, no tour, no nothing. They sold records at shows and out of the back of their car.
But the album they created was a unique mix of hip-hop samples, furious punk, Spanish raps, and strange songs that were fueled by Nowell's rough brilliance. And the cover of 40oz. to Freedom — a drawing of a depressed sun tripping out on itself — would go on to be forever associated with a band that has now sold over 17 million albums internationally.
In the South Bay, where Sublime still has a massive loyal following, this particular image is ubiquitous. Tattoos, stickers, skateboards, doodles in class — the drawing of the forlorn mushroom sun is replicated everywhere. The cover art was created by muralist and tattoo artist Opie Ortiz, a close friend to the band; he gave Nowell his “Sublime” tattoo, which would become iconic on a subsequent album cover, 1996's Sublime, released after the death of Nowell. Although Ortiz was a member of Wilson and Gaugh's next band, Long Beach Dub Allstars, one suspects that his most enduring — and certainly most widely distributed — creation is the sun motif. It has become a symbol of disruptive youth, of drug use, of surf culture, of an anti-authoritarian attitude.
Obviously this is partly because of what the symbol represents: the music of 40oz. to Freedom. I grew up in the South Bay years after the record first gained real popularity, and, especially among beach people, it was ingrained into the local culture. “Badfish” was played at every party, local punk bands covered “New Thrash.” And it's not just in South Bay or in their hometown of Long Beach that the band enjoys that kind of reverence — they're celebrated all over. You have to wonder if what made Sublime so enduringly popular was their versatility. It's music you can pit to, or chill out and light one up to, or put on when you're pissed off at your parents or your boss.
40oz. to Freedom first gained popularity as an independent album; it was not widely released until MCA Records re-issued it in 1994. Technically the album was originally released under the Skunk Records imprint, but according to bassist Eric Wilson, Skunk wasn't much of a label.
“Skunk was just something that we made up. It wasn't really a record label,” remembers Wilson, who is the last original member in the current lineup. He adds that they invented Skunk because in the early '90s venue owners would only put on bands signed to record labels, so they simply made one up. It wasn't until Gasoline Alley Records, an MCA subsidiary, picked them up years later and KROQ started spinning their single “Date Rape” that 40oz. to Freedom saw a proper release or any chart success.
Since then it's sold over 2 million copies. More importantly, it unquestionably influenced a generation of Californian musicians. One of those musicians was an 11-year-old Rome Ramirez, who almost a decade later would become the band's new lead singer. “I was in San Diego with my uncle. He told me to go grab that Sublime album and play it,” Ramirez says. “That album changed me, so to speak. 40oz. is my favorite Sublime album. It changed the way I dressed, talked, everything…. That summer I told my mom I wanted a guitar.”
Sublime disbanded immediately following Bradley's death from a heroin overdose in 1996, but reformed with Ramirez in 2009. Nowell's estate was unhappy with the decision to use the Sublime name and filed a suit against the band in October of 2009, who had to change their moniker to Sublime with Rome, the name they now perform and record under.
Hearing Ramirez and Wilson speak about Sublime is disarming — they are at such different places in their musical careers. Wilson seems willing enough to talk about the old Sublime and says that it feels really good when people give the album its due, but mentions that he didn't even know it was the 20-year anniversary.
There's no romantic reminiscing with him. Maybe that's because of Nowell's untimely death and the endless questions he's been asked by reporters about it. Ramirez, on the other hand, seems bright eyed. He never thought he'd be singing for a band he idolized, and calls the experience “surreal.” (He's also releasing a solo EP on June 12th entitled Dedication.) Regardless of how you feel about Sublime's newest incarnation, you will likely find their thoughts about some of 40oz. to Freedom's classic tracks interesting.
Wilson: “Ebin” is cool because it is one of the first recordings that we did. My dad took us to this studio in Hollywood, and when he came to pick us up, he came in and recorded. He was a classically trained jazz drummer. Played in the big band era. He tracked the bongos in one take. We sounded like school kids compared to him.
Ramirez: “Ebin” was the first solo I ever remember wanting to learn. Those were the kind of songs I wanted to learn.
“40oz. to Freedom”
Wilson: It's about a forty-ouncer and the walk to the liquor store — that was our freedom. We were always living a punk rock lifestyle. We covered a lot of Bad Brains, a lot of Bad Religion.
Ramirez: Just the fact that's it's been 20 years — you know how many fucking bands have come through? They had such a huge impact on a cultural level. That's something none of the guys planned on doing. It's so magnificent.
Wilson: We were always really stoked on that song. We knew when we first recorded it. In the opening you can hear people in a bar. Our friend Mike went into a local bar with a recording device.
The songs written in Spanish, like “Chica Me Tipo.”
Wilson: Brad took Spanish in school all the way up until college. When we went to Costa Rica he learned the slang in one day. He learned things quickly; he was such a smart guy. That was one of the best times of my life. Playing with Bradley, we were on the top of world as far as I was concerned. It reminds me of surfing in the sun — I had a trailer park in Mexico we used to go down to almost every weekend. He used to sing like a bird all the time.