Childhood & Early Life
Nowell was born on February 22, 1968, in Belmont Shore, Long Beach, California, to Jim, a construction worker, and Nancy, a singer and piano teacher. He had a younger sister, Kellie. After his parent’s divorce when he was 10, the emotional and hyperactive Nowell became a difficult child, and his mother gave up his custody. He returned to Long Beach to live with his father.
He was interested in music since childhood, as both his parents played musical instruments. He learnt to play the guitar at a tender age. At 11, he was introduced to reggae and dancehall music when he went with his father on a trip to the Virgin Islands.
During his teenage years, Nowell formed his first band, ‘Hogan’s Heroes.’ He listened to a lot of hip-hop, reggae, punk, ska, pop, and funk music and was good at blending all the sounds into a new form of music. Their band played mostly at house parties and local clubs.
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Nowell met Eric Wilson during their school years. However, they began playing together much later. After his school graduation in 1986, Nowell left for the ‘University of California, Santa Cruz.’ During his university break, Wilson introduced him to his neighbor and childhood friend Floyd “Bud” Gaugh. The three began playing together, with Nowell as the lead singer and guitarist, Wilson as the bassist, and Gaugh as the drummer. In 1988, the three formed the band ‘Sublime.’ People enjoyed their music at house parties and other events. However, they needed to be stopped often, as they were noisy and went out of control.
Nowell shifted to the ‘California State University,’ Long Beach, to study finance. However, he dropped out a term before the completion of his graduation, as he wished to focus completely on his music.
The band recorded cassettes to sell at the shows. However, they often wasted their opportunities because of their indiscriminate behavior. Sometimes, the entire band would party on the day of the show, and sometimes, Nowell would hock their instruments to pay for his addiction, a habit that was reflected in his song ‘Pawn Shop.’
The band was in demand in South California but was not much amused by the music companies there. Thus, they co-founded (along with friend Michael “Miguel” Happoldt) their own label, ‘Skunk Records,’ announcing themselves as “Recording artists for Skunk Records.” The band produced their earlier records under this label and sold from Nowell’s car.
With Happoldt’s help, the band recorded and released the cassette tape ‘Jah Won’t Pay the Bills’ (1991). Around this time, Nowell’s drug addiction worsened, as he started consuming heroin. He justified his addiction, saying it helped his creativity.
The ‘Sublime’ bandmates stealthily used the ‘California State University, Dominguez Hills’ studios to record their debut album, ‘40oz. to Freedom.’ The album released in 1992. It included songs such as ‘Smoke Two Joints,’ ‘Badfish,’ ‘New Thrash,’ ‘Scarlet Begonias,’ ‘Date Rape,’ and ‘Waiting for My Ruca.’ The songs, belonging to different genres, became quite popular. The album sold 60 thousand copies.
Their second album, ‘Robbin’ the Hood,’ recorded on a four-track cassette, was released in October, 1994. It included the song ‘Saw Red,’ which Nowell had recorded with Gwen Stefani of ‘No Doubt.’ In the song ‘Pool Shark,’ his lyrics said, “One day I’m going to lose the war.” Some of his other songs, too, spoke of his addiction.
Their song ‘Date Rape’ was added to the playlist of the Lost Angeles alternative rock station ‘KROQ-FM,’ and it earned a lot of popularity and fan following for ‘Sublime.’ ‘MCA Records’ decided to distribute their album and signed them on in 1995. With this major offer, Nowell entered a rehabilitation facility, and for a while, he got over his addiction.
In February, 1996, the band was sent to Willie Nelson’s studio in Austin, Texas, for the recording of their next album, ‘Killin’ it,’ which was produced by Paul Leary. However, while working on the album, Nowell got addicted to heroin again, and his addiction worsened this time.
The band was all set for their first Europe tour, before which they went on a short tour through California. On May 24, 1996, they performed in Petaluma, California, and the next morning, Nowell was found dead. He had had a heroin overdose, and his pet Dalmatian, Lou, was seen whimpering by his side.
Nowell was cremated, and his ashes were spread in Surfside, California, which was his favorite surfing point.
Their album was released 2 months after Nowell’s death, and the title was changed to ‘Sublime.’ The album made to the ‘Billboard Top 20’ list, and the single ‘What I Got’ reached number one on the ‘Modern Rock Chart.’ Other hit songs of the album were ‘Santeria,’ ‘Wrong Way,’ and ‘Doin’ Time.’ Reportedly, the album sold more than five million copies in the US.