In the quarter century since its release, Sublime’s 40oz. to Freedom has soundtracked approximately 1.2 million backyard house parties, 2.7 million hotbox sessions and the glorious decimation of 124 trillion brain cells.
The official debut from the sun-fried Long Beach fusionists is implicitly responsible for weed’s legalization in California, and its title track has kept the malt liquor business afloat more than any gimmicky advertisement ever could. It might be the most alternately loved and loathed masterpiece in music history.
This is where I tell you the haters are wrong. To dismiss 40oz. to Freedom is to deny the cultural ferment of Southern California itself; it’s conflating the flip-flops and gravity-bong clichés of fans with the brilliant syncretism of the band itself. To indict Sublime is to diss Long Beach, among the most diverse cities in the country, where the band’s lead singer, Bradley Nowell, famously attended Polytechnic High around the same time as Snoop Dogg and Cameron Diaz.
That’s no coincidence. Sublime created platonic Southern California house-party music by appealing to everyone passing the J, from blond surfers and magnet-school actresses to Long Beach Crips and the first-generation progeny of Mexican, Cambodian and Caribbean immigrants.
The solution was to throw in everything, a risky choice that invariably fails for everyone but Sublime. During an atomized era when skaters and surfers, punks and hip-hop heads, reggae stoners, jam wookies and Spanish-language pop all ostensibly existed in their own universes, the Long Beach trio fostered a harmonious peace.
40oz. to Freedom starts with a Minutemen sample and quickly veers into an absurd, slanged-out, bilingual narrative about picking up a girl named Ramona who wants to go to a house party. “Smoke Two Joints” samples Eazy-E and Just Ice as part of a scratched hook. There’s a tribute song to KRS-One and covers of The Melodians, Bad Religion and the Grateful Dead.
These aren’t token gestures of eclecticism but the innate obsessions of a troubled yet deceptively intelligent lead singer with a genius for songcraft. Before dropping out a semester short of his degree, Nowell studied finance at UC Santa Cruz and Cal State Long Beach.
Singing in Spanish wasn’t merely a nod at inclusiveness — it reflected Nowell’s years spent studying the language, trips to Central America and growing up around Latinos. The dedication to the frontman of Boogie Down Productions wasn’t some ironic gag but testament to a deep love and understanding of hip-hop culture, down to the Dust Brothers–like bricolage of psychedelic samples that permeate the album.
Nowell wasn’t a Ras Trent but someone profoundly invested in reggae and dub. An inscrutable artist disguised as a drug-addled surfer bro, a seeker with a bizarre sense of humor and a ravenous appetite for all strains of sound.
In the abridged list of inspirations shouted out on the album’s finale, he thanks Miles Davis, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Eek-A-Mouse, Crass, Fugazi, Butthole Surfers, Frank Zappa and Meat Puppets. You hear them all in 40oz. to Freedom, cloaked in goofy weed jokes, warped odes to psychic darkness, safe-sex testimonials rapped in Spanish and a particularly infamous anti–date rape song. The latter has aged poorly in the context of contemporary mores, but it still attacked sexual assault at a time when most male singers stayed quiet on the topic.
If 40oz. to Freedom revels in its careening, narcotic whimsy, that’s partially why it’s stood the test of time. At its core, music is utilitarian, and Sublime reached a universality of experience that can’t become obsolete. As long as there are house parties to crash, 40s to sip and joints to smoke, there is this record. Besides, you have brain cells to spare.
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