40oz. to Freedom Is 20 Years Old: We Reminisce and Speak With Sublime's New Incarnation
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.
The iconic album art of Sublime's 40 oz to Freedom
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.