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U-Roy, the rightful ruler of deejays

Published:Sunday | June 9, 2013 | 12:00 AM
U Roy

The impact and influence of the deejay, U-Roy, on Jamaican popular music and, by extension, international music, is far-reaching. Although he was not the first to make DJ records or talk over existing rhythms, U-Roy's style was radically different from other persons and became the foundation on which many of the current deejay-rappers, both local and foreign, built.

In the beginning, there were people like Winston 'Count' Machuki, who got his professional break in 1950 with the sound system Tom The Great Sebastian. He remains legendary as Jamaica's foundation deejay.

Another early 'talk over rhythms' pioneer was Sir Lord Comic, who is widely accepted as the first of his type to record.

And then, of course, there was the most flamboyant of all, Winston 'King Stitt' Sparks, who was born with features not designed to win hearts, but used them to great advantage, proudly introducing himself at times as "I am the ugly one".

Unlike his predecessors, who would merely make introductory remarks and interject a few phrases and shouts at convenient points during a recording, U-Roy would almost invariably ride the entire rhythm track with sizzling, jive-saturated lyrics that sent dancehall fans into a frenzy.

Born Ewart Beckford in Jones Town, Jamaica, in 1941, he had a desire to attend dances as a teenager, even at the expense of being locked out by his grandmother.

U-Roy got his earliest musical exposure by following a sound system - Doctor Dickie's Dynamic - as a 14 year-old schoolboy. However, he didn't hold a mike until some years after, owing to shyness. "Then I started to use the mike to introduce singers and announce invitations for dances the following week," declared U-Roy. He soon began spinning discs for the Maxfield Avenue-based Sir George the Atomic sound system, and as time wore on, gathered more courage and gradually began to unleash his extraordinary talent as a deejay.

Towards the end of the 1960s, the introduction of dub - dropping out the vocal track and remixing the remaining rhythm tracks to create versions - provided the perfect platform on which U-Roy exhibited this musical phenomenon. The space created by the vocal track's absence enabled him to improvise and interject his own jive talk/toasts when the sound system played at dances. He seemed to have acquired the knack of utilising the space provided by the version perfectly to create exciting (sometimes nonsensical) lyrics.

After all is said and done, U-Roy owes a lot to a skilled electronic engineer and disc-cutter named Osbourne 'King Tubby' Ruddock, who experimented with the dub phenomenon and wanted to utilise it exclusively on his Home Town Hi-Fi sound system. U-Roy provided the perfect complement and began working with Tubby's sound around 1967, returning the favour by taking Tubby's Hi-Fi to the top of the sound system heap by 1969.

From this association developed the whole modern DJ style. U-Roy's power was of such that on occasions when there were blackouts, he held crowds with his voice alone.

astonishing effect

By 1968, the effect of U-Roy's deejaying on the dancehall crowds had reached astonishing levels. The following year, he had a short stint with Clement Dodd's Downbeat Sound System before beginning his recording career with a set of songs that included Earth's Rightful Ruler, Organrang, and Dynamic Fashion Way for producers Lee Perry, Bunny Lee, and Keith Hudson, respectively. In late 1969, he followed up with Sound of the Wise and Scandal for producer Lloyd 'The Matador' Daley.

However, 1970 was the watershed year in U-Roy's career. After being introduced to producer Arthur 'Duke' Reid early in that year by his former boss, King Tubby, U-Roy went on to successfully version rocksteady hits issued on Reid's Treasure Isle record label. The first three releases were massive hits that proved the deejay was almost unstoppable, and nothing would ever be quite the same again.

The first was Wake the Town, a version of Alton Ellis' Girl I've Got a Date', which quickly rose to number one on the two radio stations that existed at the time. Rule the Nation, on the rhythm of the Techniques' You Don't Care, did just that also. By the third release, Wear You to the Ball, a Paragons original, U-Roy was basking in glory. The group sings two lines:

"I'm gonna wear you to the ball tonight

Put on your best dress tonight"

The deejay then makes his extraordinary entry:

"Did you hear what

the man said baby

He said be your best

'Cos this gonna be your

musical test

So come to school

Let I teach you the musical rule

Dig me soul brother, dig me soul


Come to I

And maybe you can make it if

you try"

The recordings occupied the top three positions on both radio stations for over six weeks during early 1970, a Jamaican musical record. Wear You to the Ball inspired a whole generation of rappers, deejays, musical toasters and boasters, locally and internationally. Locally, a sea of artistes inspired by U-Roy emerged, including Dennis Alcapone, I-Roy, Scotty, and Lizzy as deejay records bagan outselling even the most popular singing ones.

career decline

By 1973, U-Roy was recording for other producers like Alvin Ranglin, Glen Brown, and Lloyd Charmers, but with the rise of a new generation of deejays - including Big Youth, Dillinger, and Trinity - his career went into a slight decline.

U-Roy soon launched his Stur-Gav Hi-Fi sound system, which became very popular in Kingston's dancehalls. Functioning like a DJ academy, it graduated such stalwarts as Charlie Chaplin, Josey Wales, Brigadeir Jerry, and Rankin Trevor. Enjoying a revival in the mid-1970s, U-Roy did some remake recordings for producer Prince Tony Robinson, which revived memories of the Treasure Isle days. He continued to record sporadically up to the 1990s for a few producers.

His influence is such that in the early 1990s, Shabba Ranks, who was about two or three years old when U-Roy started recording, honoured him as the first elder named in the song Respect. Shabba Ranks growls "cool, cool, U-Roy done rule/U-Roy a godfather of the deejay school".

U-Roy will long be remembered as the deejay who proved that the jive talk which became popular in early dancehall could be successfully transferred to vinyl as a beautiful musical art form.