Before there were MCs, there were DJs. In hip-hop, “DJ” refers to the person who makes the music and plays it live. But in the early Jamaican sound systems of the 1960s and ‘70s, “deejays” were the masters of ceremonies, introducing songs and often interjecting phrases and commentary inspired by American R&B music.
Ewart “U-Roy” Beckford was not the first deejay, but he was one of the most famous and successful of his era, and he was the first to take the deejay technique into the studio. Recording his energetic “toasting” commentary over alternate, proto-dub versions of contemporary tunes, sometimes replacing most of the original vocals, he scored a series of massive hits in the early 1970s. Such was his influence that he earned the nickname “The Originator”.
Though he never eclipsed his mid-’70s pinnacle, U-Roy continued to record music and tour. In 2018, he was introduced to Zak Starkey and Sharna “Sshh” Liguz, who had recently co-founded the Trojan Jamaica label. What better way to establish the imprint and gain credibility than a triumphant, legacy-cementing, all-star tribute/collaboration album from the Originator?
The variable no one could plan for was U-Roy’s death in February 2021, at age 78. By that time, Solid Gold U-Roy was already completed, its release delayed by the Covid pandemic. This is not some sort of posthumous cash-in. However, it is still not exactly what one expects, nor is it quite what meets the eye—or ear.
A title like Solid Gold U-Roy suggests a greatest hits collection. It is—with a significant caveat. The album consists of a dozen new recordings of U-Roy classics. Of course, the original U-Roy tracks were themselves new recordings of previous hits, so maybe there is an argument to be made for completing the circle. U-Roy went into the studio with an all-star band, including Starkey and the legendary Jamaican rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. SShh laid down guide vocals for U-Roy to toast around; these were later replaced by separate recordings made by a series of guest vocalists. Youth, the ex-Killing Joke bassist best known for his work with indie and post-punk bands, co-produced.
Thankfully, all concerned keep the backing tracks on point, providing a deep, authentic sound that is clear but not too polished or reliant on electronics. To find the entire range of Solid Gold U-Roy’s successes and failings, one needs to look no further than the trio of Bob Marley standards. Sadly, “Trenchtown Rock”, featuring Marley’s son Ziggy, is a mess. Individually, both Marley and U-Roy are enthusiastic and enjoyable enough, but they sound like parts of two completely separate songs that are being played on top of one another. At certain points, their vocals overlap, and it’s all too obvious they never shared a studio. That was the case with U-Roy’s original recordings, too, of course.
The difference is on the classic recordings, U-Roy’s toasting sounded like a natural, unforced dialog with or complement to the original vocals—not like they were doing battle. “Soul Rebel” and “Small Axe” fare much better. On the former, Steel Pulse’s David Hinds hits all the notes and adds the appropriate gravitas. The latter features relative youngster Jesse Royal effectively channeling Marley while U-Roy revels in the song’s defiant message, following Royal’s “We are the small axe” with, “Yeah, ready to cut you right down to the ground!”
As with the three Marley tracks, the effectiveness of the others depends heavily on the guest vocalists. American singer Santigold adds a welcome menace to “Man Next Door”, sneering like no one so much as Siouxsie Sioux. In a rare vocal turn, Robbie Shakespeare lends a smooth falsetto touch to “Queen Majesty / Chalice in the Palace”. If there is a true revelation on Solid Gold U-Roy, it’s “Every Knee Shall Bow”. An edgy, 15-minute dubfest, it finds U-Roy and one of his ‘70s contemporaries, fellow deejay Big Youth, trading toasts in real-time (and for the first time ever) while Mick Jones adds FX-heavy, trippy guitar.
Coming at the end of the record, it raises the tantalizing prospect of how a truly forward-thinking album might have been created. As is, Solid Gold U-Roy has its heart in the right place; even if, as an unexpected epitaph, it doesn’t quite do justice to its namesake’s pioneering spirit.