U-Roy: the singularly musical toaster was a vital part of reggae's bloodline

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Oldham/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Tom Oldham/Rex/Shutterstock

For as long as there have been soundsystems, there have been DJs toasting them. Known as “the originator”, U-Roy was far from the first, but nobody had made a significant impact outside Jamaica before him. In 1970, his album Version Galore landed in London courtesy of Trojan Records. We’d never heard anything like it. There had been soundsystem men bigging up their dances and selections in an ad-libbed, often intrusive manner, but nothing that took what was essentially talking over records seriously enough to create its own uniquely rhythmic art form. While the mixing and Duke Reid’s masterful studio technique provided the perfect environment for toasting on such rocksteady classics as The Tide Is High, Tom Drunk and Everybody Bawling, it was U-Roy’s light touch, musical nous and general sense of celebration that made these tracks so special.

Whether or not the history of rap can be traced back to U-Roy and his inspired yet precise rhyming is an argument unlikely to be settled any time soon. What can’t be doubted is without his singularly musical way with a lyric, toasting in the recording studio might have ended in 1970. U-Roy rode the rhythms with such a playful, tuneful and compulsive energy that it voided any argument that toasting was nothing but somebody shouting over a perfectly good song. He so effortlessly took record buyers across the jump from singing that studios immediately opened their doors to other talents. U-Roy’s importance in reggae’s bloodline cannot be overestimated.

The poster for U-Roy&#x002019;s 1975 Virgin Records album Dread in a Babylon.
The poster for U-Roy’s 1975 Virgin Records album Dread in a Babylon. Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redferns

When U-Roy was still known as Ewart Beckford, he would sneak out to dances to listen to Count Matchuki and King Stitt toasting Kingston soundsystems and practise his cries of “Wow!” and “Yeah yeah!” in his grandmother’s bathroom. Aged 15, he overcome his shyness to introduce the singers on Dickie’s Dynamic system. A fan of Louis Jordan and Louis Prima, he evolved his jive-talking style to move up in the soundsystem world to the stellar company of Coxsone and King Tubby. As he told it: “I used to practise hard, like a footballer who loves the ball – whenever he wakes up he’s on that ball. That was me – whenever I hear music I started toasting in my head and it was the most joy I could get at that time. The thing was to work with the record, you didn’t want to crowd the singer or t’ing like that. You talked in between the lines, you didn’t have to say much at all, but when you add your bits to a record it became personal to that crowd at that time – their record. A good deejay could make a sound system famous.”

Tubby mastered Duke Reid’s recordings, a connection that led to U-Roy sharing songs with the producer’s stable of rocksteady giants. As reggae evolved into roots, the DJ embraced Rastafarianism and turned out a string of classic cultural albums: Dread in a Babylon, Natty Rebel and African Roots.

His 1991 album Rasta Ambassador couldn’t have been more aptly titled: U-Roy was the ideal poster boy for a faith built on peace, love and understanding. He was one of the most mellow, likable people you could ever hope to meet. I formally interviewed him three times, and on each occasion he was he was generous and highly entertaining. The first time he invited me, then a perfect stranger, to his home in Kingston, a comfortable bungalow in an area that wasn’t totally downtown but still had a bit of life about it (tellingly the only clues as to who lived there were a couple of framed vintage soundsystem posters). Another time we sat at a local roadside bar where he was treated like royalty: as a devout Rasta, he drank ginger beer and raised a quizzical eyebrow at my ordering actual beer.

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The last occasion was at Mad Professor’s studio in Crystal Palace, south London, where he was laying down lyrics for some soundsystem specials and potential album tracks. It was a genuine privilege to sit in the booth with Daddy U-Roy and watch a master at work. He didn’t seem bothered by the interruption. As a technology buff, he was fascinated by my credit card-sized digital recorder, and chuckled heartily as he concluded it would have been useless to King Tubby as he couldn’t have taken it apart and improved it.

In 2007, U-Roy was awarded Jamaica’s Order of Distinction for his contribution to music. Yet he was endearingly modest to the end. I remember asking him whether he was surprised at where toasting at Kingston soundsystems ended up: “If you had tell me back then that I coulda buy two shirts, two pants and two pair of shoes at the same time with money I get from this,” he said, “I woulda told you stop that stupidness!”