Perfect Sound Forever

I-ROY


A tribute by Eric Doumerc
(June 2010)

Born in 1949 in Jamaica as Roy Reid, the DJ known as I-Roy first worked as an accountant for the government before moving into the music business, first as a sound system operator and then as a DJ. He first worked for Spanish Town sound systems and then set up his own sound system.

He first recorded for the producer Harry Mudie and had hits like "Heart Don't Leap" and "The Drifter," and then "Musical Pleasure." He also recorded a very moving tune entitled "Musical Drum Sound" for the producer Lloyd Daley. This song was based on the use of Nyabinghi percussions which merged very well with the his vocal style. I-Roy also recorded a tune for Lee Perry entitled "Space Flight" ("Space flight to Venus and Mars...").

1973 saw the release of I-Roy's first two albums, Presenting I-Roy and Hell and Sorrow, which were essentially collections of his hits recorded for Gussie Clarke and other producers. These albums established I-Roy's reputation on the DJ scene and made him a household name in the reggae community in England too where the West Indian and Black British communities bought his records. The ebullient DJ even got mentioned in a poem by the Black British writer Linton Kwesi Johnson. Indeed in his poem entitled "Street 66," published in 1975, Johnson wrote about the "mitey poet I-Roy" being "on de wire" (Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dread Beat and Blood) .

I-Roy remained in England for a few months to promote his next album, The Many Moods of I-Roy. He went back to Jamaica in 1974 to find out that DJ music had been strongly criticized by the Jamaican Union of Musicians, led by the jazz musician Sonny Bradshaw, on account of the fact that DJ's reused previously recorded backing tracks for which the original musicians did not get paid (reflecting similar later controversies in the music industry). This actually led to one of I-Roy's most productive periods- at one time in the mid-1970s, he had about fifteen titles in the charts. The song "Natty Down Deh" was apparently written about Bradshaw. "Welding," a bawdy tune, was recorded at Channel One, and was a massive hit. In the mid-1970's, the DJ's popularity was also boosted by a verbal duel with another mike man called Prince Jazzbo and tunes like "Straight to Jazzbo's Head" and "Jazzbo Haffe Run" sold very well.

In 1976, I-Roy signed a contract with the British label Virgin which was about to launch its reggae-based Frontline subsidiary. Virgin commercialized a string of albums which made I-Roy's music accessible to a wider audience in England and in Europe (Can't Conquer Rasta, Musical Shark Attack, Ten Commandments, Heart of a Lion). Ten Commandments is a DJ interpretation of Bob Marley's Exodus album and is held in high esteem by some critics. The DJ remained very prolofic throughout the late 1970's with albums like The Godfather, The General, Hotter Yatta, World on Fire and Cancer. 1980 saw the release of Whap'n Bap'n, an album recorded in England and produced by Dennis Bovell, the Black British dubmaster and founder of Matumbi.

The early 1980's marked a turning point in Jamaican music, with a new generation of DJ's coming on the scene and a new style being pioneered- dancehall. I-Roy did remain active throughout the 1980s with albums like 1981's Doctor Fish and 1983's Outer Limits, but it soon became obvious that a new generation of DJ's had now taken over and that I-Roy's style did not sell as well as before. In the 1990's, the DJ was dogged by personal and health problems, and his financial situation deteriorated too. He eventually found himself living on the streets. I-Roy died in November 1999 in Spanish Town. Maybe the greatest tragedy in I-Roy's life and career as a DJ was the lack of recognition he had to put up with. He died in relative obscurity and in terrible circumstances.



I-Roy's contribution to Jamaican music and to the DJ style more particularly is impressive by any standards. He literally recorded hundreds of 45's and a large number of albums, and the quality hardly dropped over the course of his long career. Many DJ's found that they had few things left to say after a couple of albums, but I-Roy always had a bag of lyrics and a bag of tricks at the ready. In the 1970's, his popularity was due to three main elements in his style: his versatility, his verbal inventiveness and wit, and the topical nature of his art.

I-Roy's output between the early 1970's and the 1980's was characterized by its versatility. Indeed, the DJ did not stick to any single concern or style in particular, but tackled various subjects and themes with the same aplomb. Some of his early tracks are definitely in the Rastafarian/conscious vein and reflect the growing influence of Rastafarianism and Black consciousness ideas at the time. For instance, the tune entitled "Blackman Time" makes a powerful point and is definitely a conscious tune. The song is preceded by a spoken intro which takes the form of a dialogue between I-Roy and a "little youth":

Little youth: "Hail star! The man name I-Roy?"
I-Roy: "Sight! Sight!"
Little youth: "I-man a-hear the man a play Tubby's Hi-Fi more time."
I-Roy:" Yeah, well, King Tubby's sound really wild, mi a tell you youth, you know!"
Little youth: "I-man a-beg the man a ten cent, you know."
I-Roy: "Ten cent..."
Little youth: "Yeah, I-man a-buy a stick, you know."
I-Roy: "Well, right now, I man no support that, but if is food, I-man give food for thought. Hear sah!"
Little youth: Love you still! Forward! More time!
I-Roy: "Love, youth!"
The song uses a backing track based on the tune "Slaving" by Lloyd Parks and here, I-Roy states that his fellowmen should stop "begging" and start working. He encourages the youths to "leave the corner" and to support the government's "illiteracy programme" designed to "open their minds."

Another powerful tune from the early 1970's is "Musical Drum Sound" recorded for producer Lloyd Daley. The backing track for that song is Audley Rolling's "Repatriation" and the DJ's gravelly voice and slow delivery are in perfect synch with the drumming that constitutes the backdrop for the song. In "Red Gold and Green," I-Roy used the Rastafarian idiom and showed the younger DJ's like Big Youth that he could hold his own with the best of them. But I-Roy took care not to stick to any style, and he could just as easily deliver a risque song or a bawdy tune. His popularity was boosted by the ease with which he chatted on tunes like "Welding," "Maggie Breast" and "Hot Bomb." The first of these tunes was immensely popular because of the spoken introduction in which a love-starved woman knocks on the DJ's door in order to get her "welding" done. "Welding," like "soldering," was then the latest Jamaican slang for sexual intercourse and by building his song on that phrase, the DJ became very popular. "Maggie Breast" is what we call today a 'slack' tune and is evidence that slackness and bawdy songs did not first appear with dancehall music in the 1980's, but were already well established as a sub-genre of reggae music in the 1970's. The song uses as its backing track Dennis Brown's "Wolf and Leopard," one of the outstanding 1970's roots reggae tracks. On top of that conscious tune if there ever was one, I-Roy tells a plainly pornographic tale which leaves little to the imagination. The overall effect is quite surprising when one knows the Dennis Brown tune well. These tunes show us that I-Roy was equally at ease in the roots reggae register and in the conscious reggae tradition.

I-Roy's versatility clearly appeared in 1980's Whap'n Bap'n, released under his own name (Roy Reid) and produced by the black British maverick Dennis Bovell . The LP contained a number of reggae tracks ("London," "Conscious Argument," "Get Up") but was also influenced by R&B and rap. This shows that I-Roy was willing to experiment with what was then a new musical form (rap) as a cursory listen to tracks like "Jive Time" and "Sweet Pussy Cat"" will reveal. The A side contained the startling title-track, a version of the Matumbi tune "Pow-Wow" with its driving bass and drum pattern and its smouldering horns. The track is memorable in its own right, but I-Roy's toast about the state of the world and the plight of mankind makes it even more powerful ("Political ideology mashing up the world! A weh do dem? A weh do dem? A weh a gwaan?"). Afghanistan, Cambodia and even Saskatchewan get a mention and the toast ends with one of those shrieks the DJ was famous for. The title-track was followed by "Alphabet," a rap tune in which I-Roy imitates the then-current rapping style developed by groups like Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. This in turn is followed by "Union Call," a reggae track. The pattern thus established reflects Bovell's approach to music-making, which was to work with different musical styles, different influences.

The soul/funk influence was also evident in the vocals and horn arrangements in "Ladies' Man," a track which shows how versatile I-Roy was as a DJ and of course in "Jive Time" (which is reminiscent of the work of Earth Wind and Fire).

I-Roy's popularity was also due to his wit and verbal inventiveness. Indeed the DJ seemed to have a bottomless bag of lyrics and never failed to impress through his verbal expansiveness. Some critics wrote that this was due to the fact that I-Roy had received a secondary education, which was not the case for most DJ's. A good example of his wit can be found in the song "Natty Down Deh" which was addressed to Sonny Bradshaw after the JUM had tried to ban DJ music from the airwaves (see above). As a consequence, the JUM had decided that DJ music had to be banned.

On his return from England in June 1974, I-Roy began to take stock of the situation and released "Natty Down Deh" which contained the memorable lines: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a version to die." This was an adaptation from the Bible. The original text was: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). The use of that quotation was particularly appropriate as I-Roy was casting himself as the champion of the DJ's just like Christ was the defender of the poor.

I-Roy's way with words is apparent in the way he constantly recycled well-known nursery rhymes or traditional songs and made them his own. For instance, in "Magnificent Seven" he recycled "Little Jack Horner" and on "Crisus Time," he used "Hickery Dickory Dock." In "Casmas Town," a very old Jamaican counting song, "Emmanuel Road," is incorporated into the DJ's rap and thus given a new lease on life:

We go down Emmanuel Road
A so we bruk rockstone.
We bruk them one by one,
We bruk them two by two,
We bruk them three by three,
This music gonna make you free universally !
A so we bruk them four by four,
Keep on coming through the door a little bit more !
A so we bruk them five by five,
so you've got to dip and jive and to stay alive.
A so we bruk them six by six,
And so lay down your bag of tricks before you get pure licks!
And it goes on and on...

But the art of the DJ is also based on the ability to comment on current events and to propose a particular take on certain news items. Big Youth was known as the "human Gleaner" (named after the Jamaican newspaper) because for many people, what he did was a form of journalism. All DJ's use political or social commentary , but I-Roy did it with just that extra touch of panache and class. Many of his songs contain references to topical events or are tributes to well-known historical figures or sports heroes. Thus we find a song entitled "Tribute to Michael Holding," the Jamaican cricketer, a tune about the boxer Joe Frazier, and a stirring tribute to Eyptian President Sadat. I-Roy was a sharp social commentator and in 1980, while recording "Whap'n Bap'n" with Dennis Bovell in London, he wrote a song about London and its West Indian community:

People inna London,
Some of them a-come from Clarendon.
People inna England,
Some of them come from Barbados,
From the Caribbean, from Jamdown.
Some of them come from Trinidad,
Some of them from Tobago.
I-Roy's talent for social commentary also underpinned his song "Money Troubles," a cut to the Maytones' "Money Worries," a track which was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Rockers, written by Theodoros Bafaloukos. The Maytones' song is memorable by any standards but I-Roy's toast compliments the group's message perfectly. The Maytones' song made it onto the film's soundtrack but unfortunately I-Roy's version did not.




I-Roy had a long and prolific career, and his verbal inventiveness means that his work can be found on hundreds of hard-to-find 45s recorded for various producers. Luckily, he also released many albums, some of them with the Virgin label, which means that his voice can still be heard. His songs can be found on numerous DJ or reggae compilation albums like Keep On Coming Through the Door Jamaican DJ Music 1969-1973 (Trojan, 1988) or With a Flick of My Musical Wrist Jamaican DJ Music 1970-1973 (Trojan, 1988), both with extensive liner notes by Steve Barrow. In 1991, Trojan released We Chat You Rock Two DJ Clash: The Best of Jah Woosh and I-Roy, a compilation which paired I-Roy with Jah Woosh and featured tracks from his first two albums. 1991 also saw the release by Virgin of Crisus Time Extra Version, which gathered tracks from Whap'n Bap'n and Heart of a Lion (1978). In 1997, Steve Barrow's Blood and Fire label brought out the collection Don't Check Me With No Lightweight Stuff, which looks at the 1972-1975 period and features the great track "Sidewalk Killer."



References:

Gayle, Carl. "Straight to the Nation's Head." Black Music, January 1976.
Greene, Jo-Ann. "I-Roy." www.allmusic.com.
Thompson, Dave. Reggae and Caribbean Music. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2002.

Bookmark and Share


Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER

MAIN PAGE ARTICLES STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC LINKS E-MAIL