First, a note of gratitude to NPR for devoting (at least) two on-air segments and one website story to Jamaican deejay U-Roy, who passed away .
U-Roy got his start in the Kingston dancehall scene in the early 1960s. At the time, sound system deejays typically worked with just one turntable, so the music stopped whenever they changed records. To fill the gap, deejays chatted and rhymed, exhorting patrons to join the dance or telling them what record they were about to play. They began to add their patter in the middle of songs, cleverly interacting with the recording as if the singers and players were with the deejay, performing live. Then came dub music, where sound engineers created remixes with most of the vocals removed. Dub provided almost unlimited space to rhyme, or toast, over the record. It wasn't long before deejays were making their own records, commiting their witty boasts and rhymes to vinyl.
The first to do this was U-Roy. Exploding on the scene in 1970, he held the top three spots on the radio charts for something like six weeks. With that, the deejay phenomenon had arrived. It would soon travel abroad, notably to New York City, where an American spin on dancehall culture — in particular by Jamaican immigrant and Bronx resident Kool Herc — spawned break dancing and hip-hop music.
In a word, then, U-Roy was an immensely important figure in modern popular music. So 'nuff respect to NPR for paying tribute to him.
I must, however, register my displeasure over some errors in the tributes.
“Here and Now”
I begin my harangue with NPR's weekday midday program “Here and Now,” which broadcast
The interview segment began innocuously enough with a music clip featuring a vocalist chanting in Amharic, from a 1969 record called “Rightful Ruler.” It's a great cut to be sure, but the voice chanting in Amharic is not U-Roy's. It belongs to his collaborator on the disc, Peter Tosh. The part with U-Roy was faded down so low that listeners coud barely hear him. Then the guest for the segment, Billboard writer Patricia Meschino, compounded the error by talking about the significance of the Amharic lyrics as if they were voiced by U-Roy.
Is the Peter Tosh gaffe Wikipedia's fault?
“Rightful Ruler” is a somewhat obscure track, not an obvious choice by any means. I don't know how it was chosen to introduce the U-Roy piece. But I suppose if I were a “Here and Now” producer assigned to research an artist I had never heard of, I'd probably start with Wikipedia. There is indeed an article about him, with one section that is suspiously noteworthy:
U-Roy's music and Rastafarianism (retrieved on )
Rastafarianism has been a feature of Beckford's lyrics from his earliest singles to his latest album Pray Fi Di People. Beckford's second single “Earth's Rightful Ruler” (1969) opens with a profession of Rastafarian faith given in the Ethiopian language Amharic:
Kibir amlak (Glory to Jah) Qedamawi ras fetari (First creator) Qedamawi iyesus kristos (Holy Jesus Christ) Lebdama mabrak isad Tenayistilgn (Greetings)
Taken separately, the facts are accurate: U-Roy's lyrics do invoke Rastafarian faith, and “[Earth's] Rightful Ruler” does “open...with a profession of...faith.” But poor editing, or a perhaps misinformed writer, blur those facts, leading the unsuspecting reader to believe that the vocals were recorded by U-Roy when they were not. Was this the source of “Here and Now's” gaffe? It is certainly plausible.
Incidentally, there's another minor error on Wikipedia concerning the song title. I looked through my record collection, and found the cut on three compilations:
- The Upsetters Dry Acid (Trojan),
- Peter Tosh The Toughest (Heartbeat), and
- Peter Tosh Honorary Citizen (Legacy/Columbia)
On all three, the song is listed as “Rightful Ruler.” I've looked through online discographies, too, and every 45 single issue shows the same title on the label. Only Wikipedia titles it “Earth's Rightful Ruler.” I think that's wrong.
I will probably edit the Wikipedia article to reflect the correct title, so you might see the correction by the time you read this article.
“Here and Now” redeems itself (sort of)
To be fair, the “Here and Now” interview included a second clip which this time featured U-Roy's voice prominently. The cut was “Jah Jah Call You,” a somewhat perfunctory performance from the mid 80s. Which left me scratching my head: why that track? There are so many better examples of his talent that “Here and Now” could have chosen. But perhaps I shouldn't complain. At least listeners got to hear U-Roy's voice, for real this time.
All Things Considered
The other on-air segment,
It was mostly good, but there was this odd remark by reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas:
He started out as a DJ in 1960s Kingston, doing a bit of vocal patter while he flipped LPs between songs.
No no no. If they're playing reggae records, they're playing 7-inch 45s. For one thing, because the vast majority of ska and reggae music was released on singles, not LPs. I'll admit I'm nitpicking here, but it makes me think the reporter doesn't really know much about reggae. That's understandable — reporters can't be experts on everything — but isn't there anyone in the music department who could have looked over her script?
And, really, wouldn't deejays in any genre be playing singles? In a club where it's generally dark, I imagine it would be difficult to try to cue up a track in the middle of an album side. I'll bet that in the vinyl days of yore, club djs, whatever the genre, played singles. And I'll bet they still do, unless they've switched to a digital format.
Can't afford to be late (and can't afford to be wrong!)
There's also a mistake in the web page that accompanies the audio story. The lyrics to U-Roy's “Wake the Town” are transcribed thus:
Now, wake the town, and tell the people I've got a musical disc I can't afford to delay.
That should read,
...a musical disc I can't afford to be
NPR website article
Last but not least — in fact, last but best — is the web-only article
The author is knowledgeable, and her 800+ word article is well written. Were I to continue nitpicking, I might point out that U-Roy's contemporary is not merely Lord Comic but Sir Lord Comic, thank you very much.
But that would be too nitpicky even for me. I will say it's a good read, informative (I didn't know U-Roy's soundsystem was named after his sons!), and includes a great video of the originator performing an early hit titled “Version Galore.” It's a great example of toasting because the lyrics demonstrate how the deejay craft is rooted in dancehall culture:
You keep on coming back through the door 'Cause I want to see your face some more
And that was the raison d'être of the deejays: to keep patrons coming through the door and into the dance, helping the sound system make money.
Good choice, NPR. And again, thanks for shining a light on an artist whose impact deserves our attention.