Ska Sparring Match: Hepcat Vs. King Django

Punk-ska toasters take verbal shots at one another.

Ska shows by L.A.'s rock-steady crew Hepcat have long been known as

peaceful, groove-filled shows -- the perfect environment for blossoming love.

Those days are over, according to ska vet King Django, a member of

cross-country rivals Skinnerbox and the Stubborn All-Stars. Django has

given notice to Hepcat -- in particular singer Alex Desert -- that the

band's stage is now a battlefield.

"If I just happen to jump up onstage and snatch the mic away from him,

his band should be ready to lay the rhythm down and let me get my propers,"

Django, 30, boasted recently from his home in the Big Apple.

Desert says he's ready for any lyrical throw-down: "I'd say there'll be

some sparks flying," the 27-year-old vocalist said confidently from Los

Angeles.

The two bands' good-natured call to arms began with "Open Season," the

title cut from the Stubborn All-Stars 1995 debut album, in which Django

(born Jeff Baker) offered an open invitation to other ska singers to show

their muscle in the traditional Jamaican DJ bragging form known as toasting.

"When I heard that song, I thought, 'Damn, that's cool,' " said Desert (pronounced

Day-zair). "It was a nice little rhyme. And I was like, 'Oh, but that's

an invitation.' Let's try it and see what happens."

Hepcat dropped their own bomb on the recently released Right On Time

(Epitaph) album with the song "Open Season. . . Is Closed," which included

a direct reference to Django.

"Open season has now been closed -- all steady rockin' ska DJ Don Wannabes

are free to go," Desert proclaims assuredly on the track. "Live not in

fear of the braggadocio dingo from the East Coast who likes to pump up and

boast as if he is the most. For if he comes to my town, he'll burn like

toast! On his own dry words he will choke!"

Now Django is stepping to the mic with his own retort in "Hepcat Season,"

the soon-to-be-released Skinnerbox single on King Django records. Though

he wouldn't reveal the song's lyrics before release, Django noted that

Skinnerbox took Hepcat's challenge seriously. In fact, they wrote,

recorded, mixed the track and sent it to the pressing plant in one

afternoon in order to get it to stores as quickly as possible.

Lest any ska fans believe there's an actual beef between the groups, Django

stressed that he's quite happy that Hepcat answered his call. "It's

definitely cool that Alex responded, because Hepcat is one of the few bands

on my very short list of bands playing this kind of music in the country at

the moment that I actually do have respect for, and that I actually do

enjoy," he said.

Desert underscored the notion: "It was all love when we did 'Open Season ... Is Closed,' " he said.

One of Django's motivations for recording the original "Open Season" was to

prod ska DJs into relearning the semi-lost art of toasting. "It's a thing

that goes back to the early days of ska," he said. "It's all about

microphone skills, man: who's got the freestyle verbal skills, who's got

the funny lyrics, who's got the tongue. It's always been a big part of what

I do, but there haven't been a lot of people doing it in ska in, say, the

last 10 years. So my intent in recording 'Open Season' was to set

something off, to inspire people to take up the mic and give it a whirl."

Of course, those who take up the mic must understand that others will

answer their toasts. "I'm not talking physically, because we're friends,

we're pals and it's all cool," Django said, trying to cover a laugh. "And

it's all well and good for Alex to be a DJ if he wants to become a DJ in

the far future. But as it stands right now, he went a little far for his

own good. And as it stands right now, there's no telling what will happen."

"We'll have to see what happens," Desert said with aplomb. "It depends on

the mood." [Fri., Feb. 20, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]