Jah Youth with an English fan
In its genesis, Jamaican deejay music, considered by many to be a prequel to American hip hop, was all about simply whooping and pepping up dancehall patrons. On just about any day of the week, Jamaican sound systems are set up in a lawn or venue, with speaker boxes stacked two stories high, and blare the popular music of the day.
by Toby Gohn
In the fifties and sixties, Sir Coxsone Downbeat, Tom the Great Sebastian, Nick the Champ, Duke the Trojan, Prince Buster, Voice of the People, King Edwards the Giant, and Lloyd the Matador, to name just a few major "sounds," kept the dances rammed. In the seventies, sounds like King Tubby’s Hi Fi, Arrow’s International, Socialist Roots, Channel One, among many others, ruled the roost and pumped out seriously dread rhythms to the bass craven public. The eighties brought sounds like Stereophonic, SturGav Hi Fi, King Jammy’s, Volcano, Youthman Promotion, Gemini, Killimanjaro, Ray Symbolic, and Virgo Hi Fi to the fore, which laid down sparse, mechanical dubwise sounds, as well as ushered in the digital era. The nineties and new century have been conquered by sound systems like Stone Love, Renaissance and Firelinks.
In each era, the art of the deejay, or toaster, has been taking a few steps forward by more than a handful of microphone-men. Deejays Count Machukie and Sir Lord Comic are commonly considered to have started it all off, using phrases adopted from the US radio disc jockeys to great effect. Not until the next phase of the art form during the late sixties however did this make a more artistic turn. Starting with King Stitt and then the exceedingly popular U Roy, deejays started to use the song as a vehicle to chat about something completely different from the original song’s lyrics. U Roy’s first hit, called "Wake the Town," was a deejay version to Alton Ellis’ hit "Ain’t That Loving You," proclaiming "Wake the town and tell the people, about the musical disc coming your way!" From there, U Roy’s uses the rhythm track to speak directly to the audience in a more personal manner. The deejay as public spokesman on record starts here.
U Roy’s songs for the most part used the rocksteady songs popular toward the end of the sixties as his stylistic canvas. As Jamaican music progressed yet again, it became more socially aware and conscious of its political and cultural surroundings. So did its commentators. The early seventies brought forward a host of new chatters, none of whom however were as influential or prolific as Big Youth.
The first taste of Youth’s keen public eye manifested itself in a massive hit single from unsung record producer Keith Hudson in 1972, called "S 90 Skank." A dedication to the then popular Japanese motorbike, the tune starts out with a revving engine, giving the tune a very atmospheric and memorable intro, to which Youth adds, "If you ride like lightening, then you’ll crash like thunder!" The intro alone captivated a new generation hip to the new reggae sounds as well as the Honda and Yamaha motorbikes found throughout all of Jamaica’s roadways. But the mammoth, syrupy rhythm supporting his rockstone voice is enough to shake the JA colonial powers’ already unsteady foundation. And Big Youth was only getting started.
The very next year, the Screaming Target set, his first full-length album effort, was released by producer Gussie Clarke and set the benchmark for all deejay albums for almost a decade. It is often considered the most essential of all foundation deejay albums from reggae’s golden era. The choice of songs supplied by Clarke are flawless, from vocal talents such as Gregory Isaacs, Leroy Smart, Lloyd Parks, and Dennis Brown, who are all legends in their own right. Stand out tunes include "The Killer," "Honesty," "Be Careful," "Tippertone Rock" and the title track itself. This album is highly recommended and is still available on the Trojan label.
Upon seeing the excitement that this new artist brought to the local music scene, Prince Buster, who was a top ranking producer and singer in the ska era of the sixties, rushed out an album by Youth called Chi Chi Run, which in fact only contained three Youth tunes. Then a self produced set called Reggae Phenomenon was released in 1974, which contains some solid music, but received little to no promotion and made minimal impact at the time.
In 1975, Big Youth hit another level of exposure through Virgin Records, who were signing many of reggae music’s top singers and deejays in an attempt to find a niche for reggae on the international scene, without Mr. Marley’s services. Dreadlocks Dread, produced by Prince Tony Robinson and backed by the rock solid Skin Flesh & Bones session band, is a fine example of Youth’s development as a deejay up to this point. He can be heard voicing over classic rhythms such as Yabby You’s "Conquering Lion," Dennis Brown’s "Some Like It Hot," and a remake of Junior Byles’ "Curly Locks." Oddly enough, five of the 11 total tracks are somewhat interesting instrumental/dub tracks. But the music contained herein is solid enough to be considered a must from the Youth catalog. This release is available through Virgin’s Front Line reissue label.
In true Jamaican fashion for this time period, our superstar did the customary label and Kingston studio circuit, making strong records for Joe Gibbs, Phil Pratt, Glen Brown, Prince Buster, Jimmy Radway, Niney the Observer, the Abyssinians, Winston Riley, Yabby You, as well as for his own imprints Negusa Nagast, Nichola Delita, Tanisha and Agustus Buchanan. He even cut a few memorable records for Lee Perry, voicing over some Wailers songs that they had recorded before signing with Island Records in 1972.
By the middle of the decade, there were numerous young micmen who styled themselves after Youth, not only in lyrics and delivery, but even attempting to match his actual voice. He had truly become the voice of the people, and his success spurred on many youths with musical ambitions. Some of the more successful talents to rise in his wake were Trinity and Dillinger, who both enjoyed hits in both Jamaica and England.
Considering himself more of a chanter than deejay, Jah Youth obviously had much more to say than any of his predecessors, using his opportunity at the mic to comment on everything he saw around him. He paid attention to the happenings in both local and international politics, as well as the social issues relevant to the poorer classes, and reported it to a population stricken with a lofty illiteracy rate yet hungry for the truth. It is this quality that gave him the street name "Human Gleaner".
The song "Green Bay Killing" retells the circumstances and outcome of heavy-handed police brutality taken to its extreme. "Can’t Take Wah Happen On A West" details his thoughts on the devastating flood in the parish of Westmoreland in the late seventies. While on "Forman And Frazier," Youth talks about this historic bout, which was quite a big deal with the Jamaican public.
"African Daughter," a rebuttal to Prince Jazzbo’s woman degrading "Crankie Bine," shows Youth’s ability to comment not only on social issues but the comments of his peers, as well. When I Roy voiced his 1975 hit "Welding," in which he claims to know "what the young gal want", Youth answered back with the correcting "Natty Dread A Wha She Want."
In 1976, Big Youth issued an album called Natty Cultural Dread in the UK, which also received zero promotion, though through no fault of the music. Then the Isaiah Prophet Of Old set was released by Virgin Records in 1978, at the height of his popularity in Jamaica, and it shows Youth deejaying in fine style as well as trying his hand at singing, which is at times a less than spectacular endeavor. That same year, Youth was a headliner at the famous One Love Peace Concert, receiving almost as much stage time as Peter Tosh, Inner Circle, and even Bob Marley and the Wailers. Big Youth was the biggest thing in JA music for over five years now, yet he had still had not tasted major international acclaim.
The albums Progress, Reggae Gi Dem Dub (the very worthwhile dub counterpart to the Progress album), and the little heard Rock Holy, all found release at the end of the seventies, and were essentially the sunset to Jah Youth’s reign as supreme deejay of Jamaica. As the new decade approached, the style of U Roy began to return to fashion with top ranking deejays like Nicodemus, U Brown, Brigadier Jerry, General Echo, and Welton Irie carrying favor with the massive. The next phase of Jamaican music, often called Dancehall, arose and all but did away with the "peace and love," Biblical concerns of Roots Reggae. Singers and deejays were again boasting their talents and celebrating the thriving dancehall culture on record, apparently oblivious to the music trends elsewhere in the world.
One other set, called A Luta Continua, was released in 1984 and made an impact with a more "world music" sound fused with reggae. Other than this, however, very little was released by Youth until recent years, with his release of Higher Grounds, produced by Junior Reid in 1995.
With a confidence not found in many performers as humble as Jah Youth, he has always been able to command a crowd to do exactly as he wishes. Amazing for someone who essentially talks the whole show. There is no ethereal voice to take you away. Just the chanting dread telling you how it really is, but somehow making you feel like you are on the side of good at all times. Check his cameo in the reggae film Rockers for evidence of his positive influence and disarming smile.
Big Youth continues to do a minimal amount of touring to this day, with shows throughout North America and Europe, where his modest by rock and roll terms but passionate following continues to flock out to see this righteous dread tear through his vast catalog of hits.
As if right on cue, top flight reggae reissue label Blood & Fire has recently released a 3-CD boxset covering Youth’s self productions between the years 1973 and 1979, Natty Universal Dread.
The first disc, titled "Hot Stock," covers many of Youth’s first studio sessions, circa 1973, and is the real jackpot with this boxset. Many of the songs on this disc have never been compiled in any form prior to this, and none will disappoint. The set opens with two Joe Gibbs productions, "Chucky No Lucky" and "Waterhouse Rock," both over an almost unrecognizable version of the Rockfort Rock rhythm. Neither song was released outside of Jamaica before now, and Babylon should be thanking their lucky stars. Youth is young and hostile on these tracks, with lots of "Huh!" screams between the frantic lyrics. These tracks are perfect examples of what I like most about Jamaican deejay music. Tough as nails rhythm tracks that are sparse and urgent, a complete lack of overproduction (which kills most modern music for me) and the lingo of the average Jamaican sufferer voicing their woes for all their fellow countrymen to hear.
Disc Two, "Reggae Phenomenon," details the years 1973 through 1975, and picks up right where Disc One left off. Starting with a rough cut on the Satta rhythm, this tune is the equal of his "I Pray Thee" track that he also cut on the Satta rhythm for the original wielders of that track, the Abyssinians. "Mama Look" and "Reggae Phenomenon" are over Jah Youth’s recut of the Money In My Pocket rhythm, and both are killers. "Battle Of The Giants Parts 1 & 2" combine the forces of deejay trailblazer U Roy and Big Youth together. And there is no clashing of egos here, as the two dreads give a one-two vocal jab as the relaxed, almost easy listening backing decorates their words perfectly. Great to hear.
Other songs of note are "Jim Screechy" (with those famous John Coltrane lyrics), "Riverton City," "Every Nigger Is A Star" (featuring the soon-to-be I Threes of Bob Marley fame), and "Natty Universal Dread" itself. There is also a Leroy Smart vocal featured on this disc, "Love & Happiness," and Youth’s next version, called "Weeping In The Night."
The third chapter of this set is titled "Hotter Fire," and covers the years 1975-1979. With the longest playing length of all the discs, this is a serious collection of "dread era" tunes, when most of the music getting made was hailing up Rasta. Starting with "Mosiah Garvey," the chant to Burning Spear’s "Marcus Garvey," in full extended form with its dub companion, this is a most troublesome tune to all weakhearts. "Bag a wire (traitor) catch a fire."
Following on the heels of such a landmark Spear rhythm is one even heavier, Desmond Young’s "Warning." Two tunes called "Wolf In Sheep Clothing," one a JA prerelease and the other a Trojan UK release, both show the righteous dread in fine form. Crucial.
Another major highlight is "I Light and I Salvation," which I will simply describe as a rampage. Youth was very obviously vexed when this tune was recorded, and the mood of this monstrous rhythm is dark and moody. I can only picture a dimly lit studio billowing with smoke. One of the most dread songs on this release.
Other very noteworthy cuts include "Miss Lou Ring A Ding," "Keep Your Dread," "Ten Against One," the extended mix of "Jah Jah Love Them," "Political Confusion," and a dub side called "The Wise Sheep." This last song is a version to a Big Youth/Junior Byles collaboration titled "Sugar Sugar" (yes, the Archies tune). While the vocal track is a little silly - though not for a lack of talent! – the mixed down cut is pure murder. A bassline guaranteed to shake down your mother’s china cabinet prevails here, through layers of reverb and sonic "pings", while the occasional vocal slices its way into the cauldron. Essential to all dubheads.
As you look to the current deejays running things in Jamaica, or the many hip hop artists getting massive amounts of air play on television and on the radio, you can see what Big Youth helped to shape as an art form, starting 30 years ago. Hailing from a source of true inspiration, the ghetto areas of Kingston, Jamaica, he has laid his claim to originator of conscious deejay music, and in the process recorded a body of work that will continue to be collected and compiled for years to come.
Reggae: The Rough Guide by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton
The Rough Guides; 1997.
Reggae Bloodlines by Stephen Davis and Peter Simon
Da Capo Press; 1992 (1979).
Full Watts magazine, by Steve Milne
Volume 4, Number 2; 2000.
Natty Universal Dread CD release, by Blood & Fire Limited
BAFCD 034; 2000.
Also see Toby's Roots Enthusiast site
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