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Friday, July 7, 2006

Deejay U-Roy's still-righteous chat

Special to The Japan Times

"Wake the town and tell the people" rings the trademark battle cry of Jamaican deejay extraordinaire U-Roy, who plays three live dates in Japan this weekend.

News photo
U Roy (above) keeps it true; The Blood and Fire Sound System, with Steve Barrow work the crowd.
News photo

When the 63-year-old started out as a "DJ" in the early 1960s, he used to play his own records, but, like a number of other Jamaicans inspired by the disc jockeys on American R&B radio shows of the '50s and '60s, U-Roy (real name Ewart Beckford) began punctuating his selections with bursts of chat (or "toasts") of his own to whip up the crowd.

The phenomenon soon took off, and the "deejay" (spelled just so) became a star in his, or later, her, own right -- ruling the Jamaican dancehalls and the sound systems that filled them, such as King Tubby's Home Town Hi Fi, which U-Roy would go on to join.

Although there were a number of deejays before him, U-Roy is known as the Originator. "At first we didn't do a lot of chatting, you know," says U-Roy, "we didn't want to crowd the music." But buoyed by his immense popularity, U-Roy increasingly toasted his way through the length of entire records, often adding his own lyrical ideas and interpretations to the theme of the songs rather than peppering them with jive-talk.

At his height in the late '60s/early '70s, U-Roy was recording his chat on wax (including for Treasure Isle, the label founded by Duke Reid), and early in 1970 he held the top three slots on the Jamaican charts with his deejay versions of hit tunes by Alton Ellis, The Techniques and John Holt's The Paragons -- the first deejay to be at numbers 1, 2 and 3 simultaneously.

"These tunes already came out on the street and were selling. I put my voice on them and they sell 10 times more!"

Asked why he thinks the deejay style grabbed people's imagination, U-Roy says, "It got a vibe about it that strike you straight away. When a deejay really knows what he is doin' he can strike the people strong."

If the idea of talking over records still sounds bizarre as a form of entertainment in its own right, then consider the pervasiveness of American rap today, a musical form that was in many ways born from Jamaican deejay culture. It is a link U-Roy is more than aware of.

"Deejaying was a big influence [on rap]," he says. "Rappers and deejays are close relatives." Of the US rappers, U-Roy gives a nod of approval to Jay-Z, Jah Rule, Biggie Smalls and Tupac -- but steers clear of the genre's talk of bitches and guns. "I don't like that part of it. [It's the] same with a lot of Jamaican dancehall reggae today."

Blood and Fire's Steve Barrow explains U-Roy's style as "full of jive and righteous Rasta feeling, often at the same time, but no slackness or violent lyrics. Love, peace and unity is the agenda." Barrow and partner Dom Sotgiu will be playing hard-hitting Jamaican reggae 45s, with added samples and FX, to back up U-Roy on his Japan tour.

The sound system sprang up in the late '90s when Dom, working with Barrow at the Blood and Fire record label, which has specialized in reggae re-issues since 1994, suggested they start DJing together under the Blood and Fire banner. They have since toured around the world working with deejays such as Dillinger or Dennis Alcapone.

Barrow himself has a foundation in the reggae scene as solid as any of the "riddims" he will lay down this weekend. Getting into Jamaican ska as a teenager in early '60s Mod clubs in London, he went on to work in record shops (founding the famed Daddy Kool reggae shop in London in 1975) and established himself as a freelance music writer.

"In 1979, I did my first compilations for Island Records, which did well saleswise. Since then, I have produced or compiled over 150 albums since 1979. There was no 'career plan' -- it just happened that way," says Barrow.

U-Roy has had his dips and surges in popularity, but partly thanks to the persistence of roots reggae lovers like the Blood and Fire crew, he is enjoying a new lease of life.

"It's a blessing. There's a time when things are going for you, and times when they don't," U-Roy reflects. "Things go in cycles."

Barrow sums up the appeal of the forthcoming shows thus: "U-Roy is simply the originator of the modern Jamaican deejay style."

U-Roy performs with the Blood and Fire Sound System at Yellow, Tokyo, on July 7; Triangle, Osaka, on July 8; and at BoomBoom-Bash, Shizuoka, on July 9. Tickets are 4,000 yen in advance, 4,500 yen at the door. For more information, visit www.beatink.com

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