Born Ewart Beckford in September of 1942 in Kingston, Jamaica. Addresses: Home--c/o Susan Andrew, 6538 Wilkinson Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91606.
In the late 1960s U-Roy helped start the dub revolution, rapping over "versions" of popular songs remixed by dub pioneer King Tubby. This style, known as "toasting," would later influence both Jamaican dancehall music and American hip-hop, laying the foundation for what is now a dominant music form.
Born Ewart Beckford in September of 1942 in Kingston, Jamaica, U-Roy began his career in 1961, while still in his teens, as a deejay for Doctor Dickies sound system, later known as Dickies Dynamic. While not the biggest sound system, Dickies was regarded highly enough to perform in well-established venues like Victoria Pier, Forresters' Hall, and Emmet Park. As deejay he both selected the music and chatted over the sound system, pumping up the audience and occasionally commenting over the track that was playing, accentuating it with whoops and hollers. At this time the most prominent deejay was Winston Count Machuki, who worked for Sir Coxsone Dodd's sound system and later Prince Buster's Voice of the People. By 1965 U-Roy was deejay for Sir George the Atomic, based around Maxfield Avenue in Kingston, and later worked briefly for Coxsone, doing his number two set.
Osbourne Ruddock, also known as King Tubby, a sound engineer and disc cutter for producer Duke Reid, set up his own sound system, Home Hi-Fi, around 1968. U-Roy soon joined him, performing his number one set. Both Tubby and U-Roy were adventurous and the sound system soon acquired a reputation as among Kingston's finest; from this developed the modern deejay style.
At this time Tubby worked as a disc cutter at Duke Reid's studio and had access to Treasure Isle's master tapes. Tubby cut discs from old rocksteady masters and used them in his sound system. He found that by dropping out the vocal track and remixing the backing tracks he could create new, or "dub," versions. Tubby encouraged U-Roy to take advantage of the space created by the absent vocal tracks with improvised vocals, providing doggerel verse and jive raps or "toasts" over the music.
In 1969 U-Roy toasted over a dub version of the Techniques' "You Don't Care" prepared by Tubby. It was an instant success with the dancehall crowd and became Home Town Hi-Fi's signature tune. As Lloyd Bradley explains in his book This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music, "Tubby and U-Roy between them had created a parity between the original material and what was being added. You couldn't listen and say which was the more important as each aspect existed in its own right: the deejay version was now redefining rather than merely supplementing the original."
The success of "You Don't Care" soon came to the attention of Duke Reid, the song's original producer, and he invited U-Roy to record for him. After some initial reluctance, U-Roy agreed and dub versions went to the presses. Tubby, who encouraged U-Roy to work with Reid, went on to continue his experimentation, fashioning elaborate soundscapes and elevating instrumental dub to the highest level possible.
Reid delved into the back catalog of Treasure Isle hits, creating dub versions of rocksteady classics by the Melodians, the Paragons, the Techniques, Alton Ellis and Hopeton Lewis, over which U-Roy dubbed new vocals. Their success was unprecedented. U-Roy's first release for Reid, "Wake the Town," used Alton Ellis' "Girl I've Got a Date" for a backing track and quickly shot to the top of both Jamaican radio charts. His next two releases, "Rule the Nation" and "Wear You to the Ball," soon joined it; these singles held the top three positions for 12 weeks in early 1970.
U-Roy's success inspired other deejays like Dennis Alcapone and Scotty to follow his lead. Alcapone, who became the second deejay to chart consistently, remembered the impact the early recordings had. In an interview with Bradley, he said: "When U-Roy come with "Wake the Town" it's like a new Jamaica was born.... It was a new era in the music industry but none of us didn't have no inkling that it could get so wide, because a lot of people didn't want to acknowledge it."
Both U-Roy and Alcapone were selling up to 70,000 copies of a release and "versions" soon dominated the airwaves. The demand for dub versions became so great that radio stations finally refused to play them, in order to give singers a chance. In all, U-Roy recorded 32 tracks for Reid, versioning almost every rocksteady hit on the label, and released two albums.
By 1973 U-Roy left Reid and began working with other producers, including Glen Brown and Bunny Lee. The times were changing, however, and a new generation of deejays, including the "dread" Big Youth, introduced "conscious" lyrics, edging U-Roy aside. In conversation with Lloyd Bradley, Big Youth summed up the situation at the time. "Up until that point deejaying was really just about nicing up the dance; none of it wasn't saying nothing--the whole thing was just a baby baby ... chick-a-bow ... bend down low situation, while dem people was hungry...."
After a period of relative quiet, U-Roy made a series of albums for producer Tony Robinson which were leased to Virgin Records in the United Kingdom. In 1975 he released Dread in Babylon, which featured a photo of U-Roy smoking a ganja (marijuana) pipe on the cover. This was a more commercial effort that alienated some fans but won some new converts. Critic Lester Bangs, writing in Stereo Review, described Dread in Babylon as U-Roy's best to date, "a dense, dazzling record that is nevertheless thoroughly enjoyable and as good a place to begin steeping yourself in dub as any."
The following year he toured Europe and the United States with Toots and the Maytals, performing at the London Lyceum backed by Sly Dunbar on bass and Ansel Collins on organ. Around this time U-Roy also began operating his own sound system, Stur-Gav, featuring Ranking Joe and selector Jah Screw. After it was destroyed during the violent aftermath of Jamaica's national elections in 1980, it was rebuilt with new deejays Charlie Chaplin and Josey Wales, with Inspector Willie as selector. U-Roy recorded sporadically throughout the 1980s, releasing the single "Hustling" for Gussie Clark in 1984, and albums for Tappa Zukie in 1986 and for Prince Jazzbo in 1987. In 1991 he played a revival at London's Hammersmith Palais. He then relocated to the United States, living in Los Angeles.
While the rougher dancehall style of the 1980s eclipsed his own brand of toasting over rocksteady "riddims," U-Roy's importance as an innovator cannot be overestimated. The practice of rapping over remixed tracks, which became a staple in hip-hop, was pioneered by U-Roy and the other sound system deejays, who were the first to commit their improvisations to vinyl. U-Roy's unique delivery style helped create an industry, alter the shape of Jamaican music, and indirectly influence the now-international idiom of rap.
by Kevin O'Sullivan
Began career as a sound system deejay at Dickies Dynamic, 1961; moved on to Sir George the Atomic, 1965; worked briefly with Sir Coxsone Dodd's sound system as number two deejay before joining King Tubby's Home Town Hi-Fi as number one deejay; began "toasting" over dub versions of popular songs, 1969-70; dub versions of "Wake the Town," "Rule the Nation," and "Wear You to the Ball," reached the top of both Jamaican charts, 1970; early singles collected in Versions Galore series, volumes 1, 2, and 3, issued in 1971, 1972, and 1973; established own sound system, Stur-Gav, performed at London Lyceum, 1976; toured Europe and United States with Toots and the Maytals, 1976-77; worked with Prince Jazzbo and Tappa Zukie, 1980s; worked with Mad Professor, 1992.
- Selected discography
- Version Galore Treasure Isle (Jamaica), Trojan (U.K.), 1971.
- (With Dennis Alcapone) Version Galore, Vol. 2 Trojan, 1972.
- (With Dennis Alcapone, Big Youth, I Roy) Version Galore, Vol. 3 Trojan, 1973.
- U-Roy (collection of Treasure Isle singles), Attack, 1974.
- Dread in Babylon , Virgin/UK, 1975.
- Natty Rebel , Virgin/UK, 1976.
- Best of U-Roy , Live and Love, 1977.
- Rasta Ambassador , Virgin/UK, 1977.
- Jah Son of Africa , Virgin, 1978.
- Line up and Come , Tappa, 1987.
- Musical Addict , Ras, 1987.
- Smile a While , Ariwa, 1992.
- Musical Vision , Esoldun/France, 1993.
- Right Time Rockers: The Lost Album , Sound System, 1998.
- Bradley, Lloyd, This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica's Music, Grove Press, 2000.
- Potash, Chris, editor, Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub, Schirmer Books, 1997.
- Salewicz, Chris, and Adrian Boot, Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
- Melody Maker, August 21, 1976.