Here is a short profile on Jamaican heavyweight ‘Big Youth,’ the man who single-handedly invented and innovated “deejay,” or rap, as we refer to it in the U.S. Quite possibly the “heaviest” dread to hold the mic since Marley and Tosh.
Also included is a review of a recent concert in NYC memorializing Gregory Isaacs
Big Youth, aka ‘Reggae Phenomenon’ who is respected and revered is described by the Encyclopedia of Popular Music as ‘reggae cognoscenti.’ He was the first Rasta DJ to bring, via his lyrical references to Rastafari way of life and the flashing of his dreadlocks onstage to popular music in Jamaica. These played a significant part in presenting the Rastafarian faith within mainstream Jamaica.
With songs like ‘Natty Cultural Dread’, Isaiah First Prophet of Old’, ‘Manifestation’, and ‘I Pray Thee.’ Big Youth according to the Encyclopedia of Rock “Represents(ed) the authentic sound of the ghetto … set new standards for DJs to say something constructive on record.” He led the emerging uprising Rasta consciousness in the early 1970’s that was capturing the imagination of the youth, or as he told me in an interview “when Bob Marley was leading a Soul Revolution I was leading the Jahwawa rock movement.” Dubbed “The Human Gleaner,” by the Encyclopedia of Rock, a reference to The Jamaica Gleaner one of Jamaica’s leading newspapers, because “it was from his records that many young Jamaicans learnt what was going on in society around them” and at one point he had five of the top-ten Jamaican singles.
He was the first Rasta artist to perform at a reggae concert at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in 1974 along with the Scorch dance Group. The Encyclopedia of Rock, described him as a “stylistic and artistic innovator of the highest order” and an “important pioneer” – this by the Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Big Youth’s style made him one the most popular artiste in Jamaica, where his fame and record sales rivaled his contemporary Bob Marley.
In late 1970’s Big Youth in his song Green Bay Killing was the first artiste to utterly condemn one of the most regrettable political massacres in Jamaica’s history, the Green Bay killing. Unarmed ghetto youths set up by the authorities and indiscriminately slaughtered by the security forces, including Big Youth’s brethren and national soccer player Norman ‘Gutto’ Thompson. Bob Marley would later address the Green Bay killing in his seminal song ‘Time Will Tell.’ In an interview with Phillip Smart and I on WNYU 89.1FM Big Youth told us of having his life threatened by agents of the state due to his outspokenness and having to step back in order to come forward later. He emerged even more determined and defiant in the 1980’s with his album ‘A Luta Continua’ (The Struggle Continues) in support of the Southern Africa struggle.
On stage Big Youth’s energy belies his 60 years; save the white mane beard and silver-grey-hair he showed very little signs of aging. And his unorthodox dance style was vintage Jah Youth. At times seemingly not sure what to do with himself his performance at RCS took this writer ‘back to my youth days in Jamaica at Gaynstead High School when his sound system referred to as ‘his mightiness Emperor Lord’ Tippa Tone Hi-Fi reigned.
Drawing on Rasta iconography his catalogue of roots and cultural, religious and black conscious hits from the early 1970’s he cajoles and mesmerizes his audience. He preaches ‘I Pray Thee’ on the Sattamassagana Rthymn. Jah Youth croons on his movie soundtrack “Every Nigger is a Star’, wails on ‘Ten against One’ and ‘Screaming Target.’ He chills out on ‘Cool Breeze’ (Stop that Train Rthymn) track, was fierce on ‘Dreader than Dread’ and he forewarns of the effects of remote control on our lives (in the 70’s before remote control existed) on ‘Jim Screechy’ (the Stalag Rthymn). As Big Youth belts out ‘so don’t you ride like lightening…cause man if you ride like lightening you will crash like thunder ‘on S-90 Skank on his first hit a female a volunteer came on stage and simulated the S-90 skank dance that elicited roars of approval from the large and appreciative crowd. When he draws for his 1976 hit, Ray Charles’ ‘Hit the Road Jack’, the audience erupts. His son Tafari then joins him on stage for two songs, Jah Youth takes time out to pay tribute to his friend and early mentor Gregory ‘Tooth’ Isaacs. He refers to Gregory as a kind soul who was always willing to help those in need and thanked him for being one of the first to offer him the opportunity to be on record. Youth also laments the tragedy of Isaacs’s drug addiction and how it hurt his career and image as a Rasta man.
Here is a killer mix of my favorite Big Youth tracks. Start off with a vocal and dub produced by our friend Ryan Moore and Twilight Circus followed by my own personal rip of “Spiderman Meet Hulk” 7″ vinyl released on the Negusa Negast label. On to 15 more album stunners and 1 live track from ‘Jamming In The House of Dread.’
1. Big Youth – Intro 2. Big Youth – Love is What We Need (Twilight Circus Sound System) 3. Big Youth – Dub Is What We Need (Twilight Circus Sound System) 4. Big Youth – Spider Man Meets Hulk 5. Big Youth – Wolf In Sheeps Clothing Part 1 6. Big Youth – Wolf In Sheeps Clothing Part 2 7. Big Youth – I Pray Thee (Live) 8. Big Youth – Waterhouse Rock 9. Big Youth – Hot Cross Bun 10. Big Youth – Mesiah Garvey 11. Big Youth – River Jordan 12. Big Youth – Some Like It Dread 13. Big Youth – Be Careful 14. Big Youth – Miss Lou Ring A Ding 15. Big Youth – Same Something 16. Big Youth – Political Confusion 17. Big Youth – The Way of The Light 18. Big Youth – Black Man Message 19. Big Youth – Honesty 20. Big Youth – Lightning Flash (Weak Heart Drop)