The Music Diaries | Toasting and boasting - Big Youth churns out the hits
When Manley Augustus Buchanan, better known as Big Youth, had his first success as a recording artiste with The Killer in 1972 for producer Gussy Clarke, he was coming off a run of undistinguished singles. They included Movie Man, for Gregory Isaacs' African Museum label; The Best Big Youth for producer Jimmy Radway; Moving, for Lee Perry; and Phil Pratt Thing for Phil Pratt. When ordinary mortals would perhaps have given up in the face of these seemingly initial failures, Big Youth's resilience and indomitable spirit spurred him on, and he reaped success with a string of hits in the 1970s.
He came on the scene as a deejay in the late 1960s, toasting and boasting on Sound Systems in the surrounding communities of downtown Kingston, where he grew up, before finally settling as the resident deejay-rapper for Tippertone Sound, based at 112 Princess Street. The Sound became, as it were, the springboard that catapulted Big Youth into the recording studios after Gregory Isaacs heard him one night and promptly took him into studio to record Movie Man. According to Big Youth, with whom I spoke recently, "Jim Brown, him (Gregory's) right hand man, gave him a shop near Queen's Theatre, right on the bridge, after hearing the song, and that's where African Museum started business".
Big Youth was, in fact, born at Water Street in the Rae Town community of east Kingston on April 19, 1949, before moving to 132 Matthews Lane in West Kingston.
"I started school at Miss Goodridge at Hanover Street, then Stratford along Duke Street, but stopped short of a technical entrance. I walk behind the Skatalites from me a boy and attended all the dances and stage show with foreign artistes from 1963 onwards," Big Youth disclosed. He said that these were some of his main inspirations that led him to be not only a deejay, but a singjay - a unique characteristic that very few entertainers attempted.
But of all the inspirations that attended his success, Big Youth, amazingly, listed an elevator shaft as being the most important. He was working then as a diesel mechanic at the Sheraton Hotel, later to become The Wyndham.
"But when dem build the elevator shaft and mi go in there and hear mi voice echo, mi sey mi tough. And when mi hear some guys a talk foolishness on the microphone, mi sey 'gi mi that', a God thing mi a talk", Big Youth declared. He credits himself with being the first deejay to uncompromisingly project Rastafarian tenets on to recordings.
"A me sey Jah Rastafari when many people neva wah say it. While the others a sey 'yea, yea, yea', me a sey 'If you coming from far in a bus or a car, I man a beg you, mek love and not war'."
After Youth's initial drought was finally broken with producer Gussie Clarke's killer single, The Killer, the pair followed up with Tippertone Rocking, which became another major hit. Big Youth suddenly became in demand, while his fan base swelled significantly.
Producer Keith Hudson was next to get a piece of the action when he linked with Big Youth and carried him into studio the popular motorcycle brand Honda S-90 to capture its revving engine sound, which formed the introduction to Big Youth's next big hit: The S-90 Skank. The recording roared to number one on the Jamaican charts. According to Youth, he was inspired to do the recording after a near-fatal motorcycle crash (while being a pillion rider on an S-90) at the intersection of Industrial Terrace and Spanish Town Road.
"Dem have me pon a slab as a dead man because dem sey mi dead, and a so mi vision and Jah sey, 'go tell the world bout Rastafari'." The recording is particularly applicable to the crazy motorcyclists of today:
"But though you ride like lightening,
If you ride like lightening,
you will crash like thunder."
The uncompromising deejay continued to amaze the music fraternity with hit after hit between 1972 and 1974. At one point, he had seven songs on the Jamaican charts, with five in the top 10 on both radio stations. Chi-Chi Run for Prince Buster and S-90 Skank chased each other up and down the charts while Can You Keep a Secret, Screaming Target - the title track from his first album (Cool Breeze) A So We Stay, Foreman vs Frazer, and Dock of the Bay - were in hot pursuit. He was voted artiste of the year on no less than three occasions.
Developing as a singer and a cultural Rastafarian, Big Youth's stature grew extensively as he launched his own record labels: Negusa Nagast (Amharic for King of Kings) and Augustus Buchanan. The former debuted with four of the deejay's best singles, which included the overly impressive Streets in Africa. His amazing run continued in 1974 with the release of his second album, Reggae Phenomenon, which contained several chart-bound hits.
But if Big Youth's success were to be measured solely on the basis of his local exploits, we certainly would be doing him an injustice. Using Dennis Brown as his opening act, he played at The Rainbow Club in London for two nights in 1977; In 1983, the Rolling Stones said he had the rhythm section on the road, while 10 years earlier, "a we sock it up at Madison Square Gardens", Big Youth told me. But that is just a minuscule assessment of things because Big Youth said that he had taken Jamaican and Rastafarian music to all parts of the globe.
Other notable chart-topping hits by the deejay include Hit the Road Jack, Every Nigger is a Star, I Pray Thee, Facts of Life, Four Sevens, and Tings Fren. In addition to his numerous local and international awards, Big Youth was the recipient of JaRIA's iconic artiste award for 2018 and has capped an illustrious career with the establishment of his Big Youth Foundation to assist underprivileged youths.