Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reggae: Early DJs on the Microphone

This probably was the beginning of the microphone culture: Beats, melody, and sometimes vocals in the background, and the man on the mic, chatting about what's on his mind. It has spread through rap, dubstep and even rock, but it began in Jamaica's dancehalls. Perhaps the first DJ, or "toaster" was Count Machuki who, in 1950, made "musical wisecracks" over the U.S. R&B he was spinning for the crowd. He continued to do it, and started working Harlem street slang into the mix with the Jamaican slang. In various stylings, Sir Lord Comic, King Sporty, and Prince Buster continued the practice. In the late 60s Winston Spark, aka King Stitt became a pure toaster.

However, the most popular of the late 60s DJs was Ewart Beckford, who performed as U-Roy. His recordings for Duke Reid in the early 80s dominated the charts, inspired DJs who followed, and resulted in his nickname, "The Originator". This track demonstrates the style: The Paragon's "Wear You to the Ball", with U-Roy toasting over the top.

The most erudite of the early DJs was the educated, dapper I-Roy. This song demonstrates both his intimate but erudite style, and the height of the DJ production. "Sister Maggie Breast" (yeah, its not for children) uses Dennis Brown's "Wolves and Leopards" as a base track, and it was produced by the great Winston "Niney" Holness. However, Lee Scratch Perry couldn't resist grabbing the mic to do the intro himself, and make fun of his own randy nature:

In "Camp Road Skanking", I-Roy uses Junior Delgado's vocal over an original Heptones cut called "Get in the Groove" as a launching pad for his own thoughts of the day. It also is a Niney Holness production.

The next giant in the DJ role is one of the few men to challenge Bob Marley on the Jamaican charts--the irrepressible Manley Augustus Buchanan, who was known as Big Youth. Big Youth was a change agent: He changed the style to a more chanting style, fore-running the "singjays of the '80s. But his biggest change was in lyrics; he made the DJ the unofficial spokesman for the Ghetto. In this famous track, Niney Holness produced the 6'4" toaster chatting over a Dennis Brown's "Westbound Train". The interplay of the original track and Big Youth's contribution gives the impression that Big Youth and Dennis are in a duet. We also get a sense of the competition between the DJs for fans. Big Youth starts out with "Hey Bubba man Dennis, I hear some people go chatting this and that, but to me they don't know where it's at--go on and say something". At that point Holness cues Brown's original vocal, which says 'ride on', but to the listener is sounds like Dennis is responding to Big Youth's dismissal of his DJ competitors with 'right on'! Here is Big Youth's "Ride On":

Big Youth introduced a chant style to toasting which influenced other toasters for the next decade. Here is Big Youth toasting over the top of "Stop That Train" by Keith and Tex. Big Youth's version is named "Cool Breeze", and it is one of my favorites:

Here is a prime example of Big Youth's social commentary -- "Train to Rhodesia"

Our last artist for the Early DJ edition is Dillinger. The chosen track is "Flat Foot Hustling", which features Dillinger toasting over Dennis Brown's "Have No Fear".

If you had guessed that the crisp production is attributable to Mr. Holness, you were correct.

Well, Dillinger was the last artist, but the last track goes to Big Youth's iconic S.90, about his beloved motorbike. An early line is "if you ride like lightning, you'll crash like thunder.


satellite73 said...

great blog! never put together heptones "get in the groove" with john holt's "up park camp" but now it is clear.

i believe the backing track is the identical one used for gregory isaac's great "slavemaster" yes?

Rocksteady74 (Scott) said...

Yes, Gregory's Slavemaster was used the same riddim, as did Dillinger's Take a Dip and many, many more.