Readers of this website — by my best guess, all two of you! — will note that I have twice criticized NPR for errors in obituary/remembrance pieces for reggae artists, first for deejay U-Roy and a second time for singer Bunny Wailer. Well, I'm at it again. This time, the subject is my single favorite musical artist, Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Bunny was one of the founding members of The Wailers, whence came his adopted last name. He wasn't as well known as his bandmates Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, but NPR nevertheless felt he deserved recognition for his contributions to the group. Yet the piece largely passed over those contributions, making it seem like he was only a backup singer until he went solo.
That is a misconception that I'd like to correct.
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.