For too many people reggae still means Bob Marley. There never was any excuse for this view and, as each month sees another re-issue of material from what can only be seen as one of music’s true golden ages, this mistaken belief needs to be buried once and for all.
This collection of material from the mid-‘70s by the leading DJ/toaster of the time can only help in this project. Augustus Manley Buchanan aka Big Youth changed the face of Jamaican music and his influence on future developments in reggae (not to mention punk, hip-hop and DJ culture generally) has yet to be fully realised. Of equal significance, his was the representative sound of Kingston in the turbulent seventies—at a time of huge political and social upheaval—in a way that the Wailers, with their eyes (or at least their record company’s eyes) on the lucrative pop market were not. Big Youth singles sold by the bucketload to black youth in Jamaica and particularly in England.
The rise of the DJ, toasting over the dub or version of a current record, which had been started by U Roy and others reached its apogee in a series of singles from 1973 to 1977 in the work of Big Youth. Not all of them are here, although with a generous 51 tracks spread over three CDs no one can feel shortchanged. The inclusion of a 36-page biographical and discographical booklet makes this one of the best re-issue packages for some time and an essential purchase for aficionados and the merely curious.
Big Youth combined the toughest and the sweetest rhythms of the day, mixed rasta prophecy with ghetto commentary and added a humour and a romanticism all of his own. Wrapped within a lazy and loping rhythmic delivery, the end result was and remains powerful and enchanting. To those of us around at the time there is a poignancy that is, I hope, something more than nostalgia. This stuff turned us into music obsessives!
Some of the tracks are milestones in popular music. Two versions of “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” show Big Youth at his best. Anguished and angry, this classic statement on the “false dread” theme has lost none of its power. The anthemic chant, the use of repetition and the general eeriness of the whole piece all combine to produce a true work of art. This is Big Youth in his ghetto high priest mode and he carries all before him. “Marcus Garvey”, “Natty Universal Dread”, “Give Praises” and others all serve to remind us that no-one mixed rasta-and-rhythm with the urgency of Buchanan. It is not all high seriousness though. “Hit The Road Jack”, a half-sung, half-chanted take on Ray Charles, showcases the quirkiness and the humour that leavened the heavyweight message of many numbers. This brings to the vexed issue of Big Youth’s singer. Well, he couldn’t. But somehow it doesn’t matter—songs like “Every Nigger Is a Star” seem to suit the shambolic vocal delivery. It seems only to flesh out the musical persona of the DJ and, oddly, to add to the potency of the message.
A favourite track? Any of the above would do , but try “Riverton City” a tour through the poorest of the poor that is done with warmth,dignity and love. This is urban poetry at its most sublime and over as fine a set of rhythms as anyone has ever heard. What more could anyone want?
// Notes from the Road
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