Hey everyone, how’s it going? Thanks for dialing up the ol’ Sorry State Newsletter and for taking the time to read it. It’s always appreciated.
Last week I steered you toward Eugene McDaniels and his great Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse album, which I mentioned was a big record in the crate digging scene and the source for multiple samples used by hip-hop producers. This week I am going to talk about an artist whose style and innervations had a huge influence on the early hip-hop scene and from whom the ripples of creation are still being felt. Sadly, he passed away last week, another name added to the roll call of departed artists. Let’s pay our respects to the mighty U-Roy then and celebrate his life and career and talk about a couple of his records that you may know but in particular, Dread In A Babylon from 1975.
As always with these staff picks, I hope to pique your interest or serve as a reminder. I’m not qualified to offer proper biographical information and never claim to be an expert on anything. I’m a music enthusiast and evangelist. If you like my selections, you are encouraged to jump down whatever particular rabbit hole we are looking down each week. I like connecting the dots in music and seeing how one thing influenced another and so on.
I have to imagine there are a lot of you reading that enjoy listening to reggae, dub, and other styles of Jamaican music, and so might already be familiar with U-Roy. Perhaps you know or have the record I am recommending? In which case pull it out and give it a rinse. For everyone else, a quick bit of background and information for context.
U-Roy, real name Ewart Beckford, was a Jamaican artist who pioneered the concept of “Toasting,” talking and singing over other records or rhythm tracks. His “Versions” of other people’s records became hits in their own right and put on to record the real sound of the dance hall where the DJ was the man on the mic rapping over the tunes that the Selector played on the turntable. In dance halls during the early 1960s, the DJ typically worked with one turntable and so would talk on the mic between records. These pioneers with royal names, King, Duke, Lord, Count, Sir and so on developed a rhythmic style whilst on the mic and it was this that U-Roy built upon and put onto a record for the first time. The success of U-Roy’s early records such as the immortal Wake The Town (credited as Hugh Roy) kick started a whole sub-genre of reggae music, DJ. Many other toasters followed in his wake, often copying his style directly but mostly adding their own spin on things.
Picking up on this technique was Jamaican born DJ Kool Herc, who took that concept from Jamaica and reinvented it back in the Bronx in New York. He realized he could find the best bits from records, parts that had drum breaks mostly, and extend that break by cutting in another copy on the other turntable and then rapping over the top. The idea of using two turntables wasn’t new; it was the staple of a good discotheque and the disco DJs were at the same time trying to figure out how to extend the beat on records to feed the dance floors. As disco developed, a big part of that progress was the introduction of the 12-inch single, which could fit more music onto a side than a 7-inch. This idea of a disco 45 12-inch was in turn adopted by Jamaican record producers who could now extend tunes into dub or DJ versions. Between Kingston and New York in the 1970s, one could argue modern dance music was born and made.
Back to our record. It came out first in Jamaica in 1975 with a different but just as classic cover on TR International, producer Tony Robinson’s label. Virgin records took over UK, US, and European pressing and distribution. The Virgin cover, like the original, sports an image of the holy sacrament being taken from the chalice and our star disappearing under a cloud of smoke. Although routed in Rastafarianism, it’s easy to see why the image appealed to music fans and lovers of wacky backy. This is prime mid-seventies reggae with U-Roy’s inimitable vocal style riding the rhythm. Musicians playing on the record came from the Sound Syndicate and Skin, Flesh And Bones bands. The latter becoming The Revolutionaries. Recorded at Joe Gibbs with Errol Thompson as engineer, Thompson or ET was one half of The Mighty Two with Joe Gibbs, who together produced tons of great reggae records during the 1970s. Check out Culture’s Two Sevens Clash for an example.
So, the pedigree is present in this record. It’s classic after classic beginning with the poppy Runaway Girl then cheeky Chalice In The Palace and on to more dread material like The Great Psalms and African Message, the latter an early run through of the Rockers flying cymbal sound The Revolutionaries band would perfect after. The album closes out with an instrumental, a take on The Wailer’s Trench Town Rock. It’s an Augustus Pablo like tune being as the lead instrument is a melodica but it is odd why the track remained an instrumental. I can’t imagine U-Roy was stuck for inspiration. Maybe he stepped outside for a smoke and the band kept playing. Whatever, it’s a nice and easy finish to a fine record.
As I have mentioned, I am a huge fan of Jamaican music along with the country and people. I was lucky during my times working on the cruise ships to visit much of the Caribbean, but always looked forward to visits to Jamaica. During the late 80s and throughout the 90s, I visited many times and took several vacations there between stints onboard ship. I even considered buying a home there, back when I was making decent cheddar.
I have many fond memories of adventures and good times on that beautiful island. Including recreating the cover art of this album. If you know what I mean? It was always so nice being met at the airport in Montego Bay by my friend Trevor who, as we pulled away in his car and the radio played Irie FM, would hand me a spliff the size of a baseball bat. Good times.
Of course, you don’t have to indulge in the herb to enjoy good music, and I shy away from the stereotypical idea that the two must go together. You can listen to reggae not stoned for sure, just as you can listen to any kind of music straight. I mean, isn’t there a scene devoted to just that? Respect to everyone and their choices, right? I will say that reggae music does sound awesome when you smoke weed. As does hip-hop.
I bought this album in the late 80s because I remember I was in college and getting more serious about my music and digging deeper. My reggae collection had some good records in it already as, luckily for us growing up in the 70s and 80s, reggae was in its golden period and having huge pop hits. Even kids like me, a goofy and shy white boy from a small town in southern England, would see reggae records in his local shops. But I was getting a Bob Marley record or a Trojan compilation and the odd single like Police And Thieves or Uptown Top Ranking because they were hits. Once I was a little older and meeting new people and going out more, it soon became obvious that I was clueless about music and had just barely scraped the surface of most genres. I felt I had to learn as much as I could and listen to as much as I could if I was going to be even a tiny bit cool. I still try to learn about and hear something new every day if I can. Anyway, one day I was in a record shop and saw Dread In A Babylon and knew that this would be a good record. It proved to be the case, and my hip points went up just a little next time my buddies and I had a listening party. It’s a record I still pull out and play and has been a great DJ tool over the years. I have a few other U-Roy records and used to have some CDs. They are all good. There’s a later one he did in the late nineties called Serious Matter, which I like and particularly the accompanying Dub LP. Another good 70s one is Natty Rebel from 1976, also on Virgin. On the title track U-Roy versions Soul Rebel by The Wailers, a track I love, and for me he breathes new life into it. Not that he is making these old tunes better, but recontextualizing them and bringing them up to date.
Just to round things out and bring us back full circle to hip-hop and sampling, I have to mention the track Fortified Live by Reflection Eternal on Rawkus from 1997. A classic use of a sample in hip-hop. The record samples the beginning of Tom Drunk by Hopetown Lewis and Hugh Roy with Tommy McCook & The Supersonics from 1971. An early record featuring U-Roy on the Treasure Isle label. The Reflection Eternal EP was a big deal too when it came out. Featuring then new names, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek, it ushered in a new era of conscious hip-hop. It was also a contributing factor in me wanting to move to New York.
Here’s the two records for you to compare and check out.
https://youtu.be/lffTZFV1y60 -Tom Drunk
https://youtu.be/REmk4mx1UY -Fortified Live
There are some very worthy tributes and well written pieces out there on U-Roy and his career, so please have a little poke around the internet and fill in your knowledge. I should not be your one and only source of information about him. I just wanted to pay my tribute and offer my personal thoughts and recollections and if in doing so one or two more people get to hear the voice of Mr. Ewart Beckford aka U-Roy The Originator, then all well and good.
Here’s a couple of cuts to start you off.
https://youtu.be/Y37gTjNx4sA -Runaway Girl
https://youtu.be/VrFlbj8VY0 -African Message
Take care everyone, I’ll see you next time