by Eric DoumercA few facts to start with... Yellowman (born Wisnton Foster) is a Jamaican deejay who came to prominence in the early 1980's. The stage name "Yellowman" is a reference to his albinism which set him apart from the rest of Jamaican society and must have been a serious handicap during his childhood. Yellowman grew up in an orphanage and was then moved to the famous Alpha Boys School where many musicians and singers before him had studied (i.e. Desmond Dekker, the Skatalites). As we'll see, part of what makes his career so vital is that he helped to smooth the transition between the roots era and the new dancehall style.
In the late 1970's, he began to deejay at various sound system dances and acquired a reputation for his ability to improvise lyrics in a continuous and seemingly endless manner. He first worked with Black South International Discotheque, and in July 1979, he won the third Tastee Amateur Talent Contest with a song entitled "Barnabus Killing," which was an answer-record prompted by Lone Ranger's huge hit of the day "Barnabus Collins."
In 1980, Yellowman became the resident deejay with Aces Disco in St Thomas. His lyrics were often bawdy, or "slack" as Jamaicans say, and referred to girls, sex and money (maybe making him pre-gangsta). He really broke big in 1981 when the LP Them a Mad Over Me (Channel One) was released and sold very well.
In 1982, his performance at that year's Reggae Sunsplash was very well received and was later released as Yellowman Live at Reggae Sunsplash (Sunsplash, 1983). It was an important recording which shows the deejay's ability to establish a rapport with an audience. 1982 also saw the release of the album Mr Yellowman, which featured the Jamaican hit "Mr Chin" as well as strong tunes like "Natty Upon the Rock" and "Gunman or Duppy." In 1983, the English label Burning Sounds released Divorced, a combination LP with his then sparring partner, the late Fathead, and it became a best-seller. He was to record several albums with Fathead, as well as "clash" LP's with the deejays Toyan, Josey Wales and Charlie Chaplin.
What launched the deejay's career internationally was the album Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Greensleeves, 1983) whose title track was a huge hit and demonstrated Yellowman's ability to extemporize or to "ride a riddim." The title track, a reworking of an old Studio One "riddim" originally done by Alton Ellis ("Mad, Mad"), has remained very popular to this day.
Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt (1984) was another good seller and the title track was a stirring version of Toots and th Maytals' "54-46 Was My Number."
By the mid-1980's it seemed that the deejay could do no wrong and his 1985 offering, Galong, Galong, Galong, recorded for George Phang with Sly and Robbie, contained some good tunes like the title track, "Beat It," "Money," and "Cuss Cuss." By then, the deejay had become quite a controversial figure in the world of reggae with his macho posturing, slack and pornographic lyrics and his embrace of the new dancehall style. Many reggae fans and journalists voiced their concern about the treatment he was giving to "Jah music." In 1986, he was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo an operation which removed part of his jaw, a seemingly serious handicap for a man who made his living by talking. Many lesser deejays would have been crushed but Yellowman rode out the storm and came back in 1987 with Don't Burn It Down and Blueberry Hill. The latter album's title track was a reworking of the Fats Domino hit and became a staple of his shows in the late 1980s. Yellowman had also recorded a tune entitled "Reggae Calypso" earlier (on the 1984 King Yellowman LP) and used it to close his shows, which always pleased the crowds. The 1988 album The Negril Chill, recorded with the deejay Charlie Chaplin, reminded his fans that he was still at the top of his form.
By the late 1980's/early 1990's Yellowman had become an international reggae star and toured all over the world, but controversy followed him and he still divided the reggae community with his outrageous lyrics. Yellowman was one of the first Jamaican deejays to sign a contract with an American label and the RAS label released Yellow Like Cheese, which, despite its title, featured some strong material like "Budget," "Gaze" and "Na No Lyrics."
In the early 1990's, Yellowman had to battle with cancer again, this time skin cancer, an experience which completely changed his attitude to life. He then began to record more spiritual and serious lyrics as shown by the 1994 LP Prayer and 1995's Message to the World. Since then he has continued to record and to perform internationally and his place in the history of reggae music is well assured.
Yellowman is a controversial figure in the history of reggae/dancehall because his lyrics tended to deal with pornography, and they were often denounced as sexist or as offensive to women. Indeed, a cursory look at any track listing on a Yellowman album from the 1980s will reveal that King Yellow was not really a "conscious" artist in the Peter Tosh mould or even in the Eek-A-Mouse tradition. It cannot be denied that Yellowman did court controversy and did sing his share of sexist songs.
Nevertheless, to limit his career and contribution to Jamaican music to "slackness" or "rude lyrics" is a gross caricature and an injustice. Indeed,Yellowman has been a real virtuoso at the mike and his ability to extemporise on a riddim always won the audience over. Moreover, he was much more than a slack deejay with a filthy tongue, and he did record quite a few tunes which could be seen as social commentaries or social observations on life in Jamaica.
Yellowman's ability to improvise lyrics for several minutes on a backing track was truly astounding. Of course all deejays in Jamaica do that and the point of deejaying is precisely to improvise continuously for as long as possible. Many other deejays master that art, but few at the time could do it as well as Yellowman and with as wicked a sense of humour. One only has to listen to his 1983 album Live at Reggae Sunsplash to realise that the deejay could effortlessly run together several songs on the same riddim. The first selection is a medley of three tunes, "Jah Jah Made Us for a Purpose", "Reggae Sunsplash" and "Herbman Special," all on the old Studio One "Full Up" riddim:Is one ting Yellowman can't understand (x2):As you can see, Yellowman referred to his albinism in a humorous way and also delivered a more general message about tolerance. He also alluded to the racial tensions in Jamaican society where the fact that an albino made it to the top was sometimes resented. Yellowman's improvising skills were also demonstrated by his 1983 hit "Zungguzungguguzingguzeng" which used the technique of continuous rhyming in a seemingly endless flow of lyrics. The deejay's diction was impeccably clear despite the rapid pace of delivery, which gave him an edge over other Jamaican deejays of the day.
Weh mek di whole a dem a cuss abomination,
A talk 'bout where mi get mi colour from,
A pity dem no know if from de Hola One
I want everybody to understand:
Jah Jah made us for a purpose.
He made di Yellowman for a purpose,
He made di Chineeman for a purpose,
He made di Black man for a purpose.
'Cause me say: glory, glory, Hallelujah,
Thank you Jah Jah for giving me this colour (x2)
But some a dem grudge me fi mi yellow colour (x2),
But if you want Yellowman yellow colour,
Dip yourself inna hot water !
His skills at the mike are evident on the 1983 live recording when he strung together several tunes and included well-known religious hymns like "Amen" or "Glory, Glory Allelujah." In one of the selections, he strung together his own hit "Soldier Take Over" with the then-current smash by Wellton Irie entitled "No More Army Life", and the crowd loved it. Yellowman could also effortlessly sing a few lines from Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" and make it seem as if it was a deejay tune . He was, and still is, a born entertainer and his instincts are those of the stand-up comedian or of the music-hall artist. After all, one of his biggest hits was "Yellowman Getting Married" (Mister Yellowman, 1982), a reggae version of the song "I'm Getting Married in the Morning" from the My Fair Lady soundtrack.
But what he had to say was important too, and although with the deejay's art form and content are inseparable, we have to deal with content separately for reasons of clarity.
Yellowman is still nowadays notorious for his outrageous lyrics, but there was more, far more to this art than this caricature suggests. The deejay could also come up with social and political material. For instance, his single "Soldier Take Over" (a live version is available on the Sunsplash LP) seems to have taken to task the new JLP Jamaican government, elected in 1980 and led by Edward Seaga. The song suggests that the government was too willing to resort to the army to maintain law and order:Left, right, left, right;In "Natty Pon De Rock" (Mister Yellowman, 1982), the deejay sang about "chanting down Babylon" and insisted that "you can't get away from Jah," thus expounding a Rastafarian outlook on life and showing that he could be a "conscious" deejay too. The backing track for that tune is really stunning and a different version of that riddim was used for Dillinger's "Natty Kick Like Lightning" (from his album CB200, 1976). The same theme was treated in the song entlited "Can't Hide from Jah" on the Zunguzunggguguzungguzeh LP: "You can get 'way from man but you can't get 'way from Jah."
Lift them up and put them down,
Government shoes is not your own.
Say de soldier take over,
Take over de whole a Jamaica.
Say on my way to Mobay City,
Me buck a jeep-load,
It full a soldier-man.
Dem say "Come yah bway, you favour gunman."
You a idiot man, me name a Yellowman!
"Shut your fucking mouth before you feel my Remington!"
He box inna mi face, he kick away me foot,
Him say "Red boy, I don't love the way you look!"
Galong, Galong, Galong featured three tracks which showed Yellowman in a more serious and militant vein than would have been expected including the title track, "Beat It" and "Money." "Beat It" is about the influence of foreign fads and fashions on Jamaican culture and uses the title of one of Michael Jackson's biggest hit in a humorous way:Michael Jackson make them mad, he make them mad,"Money" is a cynical and realistic tune about our materialistic world and the way money affects human relationships. The backing track on this tune, provided by Sly and Robbie's band, is simply hypnotic and Yellowman rides the riddim very well.
Michael Jackson make them crazy, he make them mad.
Just beat it! Beat it! Beat it!
Them a cut off the fast food and a-take plastic surgery
for they want pretty looks.
And some of them favour Slim Shots too.
Michael Jackson him don't partial,
If you look 'pon him face you know it naw man,
Some of them take plastic surgery to favour woman.
Michael Jackson make them mad, he make them mad,
Michael Jackson make them crazy, he make them mad.
Just beat it! Beat it ! Beat it !
In 1987 the album Don't Burn It Down proved that King Yellowman could adapt to the new "raggamuffin" or dancehall style, with the title track being a good example of his versatility. On a typical late 1980's dancehall track, Yellowman urges the Jamaican government to stop setting fire to the ganja fields and to "legalise ganja."
1990's Yellow Like Cheese, produced by Fatis Burrell, contained some serious social commentary lyrics like "Budget" in which Yellowman criticised the government of the day for putting Jamaica "under pressure" and sang about food shortages and the deteriorating economic situation:Under pressure, di country is under pressure!Yellowman has continued to record and perform since the early 1990's, but his second bout with cancer in 1994 led him to concentrate on more serious and socially conscious material. His influence as a deejay and as an entertainer is hard to overestimate. Listen to any of his albums from the 1980's and 1990's and you will understand why the public was "mad over" him then.
Dem lock off we light, lock off we water.
We can't get no meat, can't get no flour!
- Barrow, Steve and Peter Dalton. The Rough Guide to Reggae. London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2004.
- Huey, Steve."Yellowman." www.allmusic.com
- Lucea, Deanne. Liner notes to Live at Reggae Sunsplash (Sunsplash, 1983).
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