U Roy – DJ Originator (1942-2021)

by Feb 18, 2021Articles, Obituary

U Roy 1987 (Photo: Beth Lesser)
Artist Info
U Roy 1942-2021

Career: Deejay / Sound System owner

Tracklist

Albums:

  • Version Galore (1970)
  • Version Galore Vol 2 (1972)
  • U Roy (1974)
  • Dread In A Babylon (1975)
  • Natty Rebel (1976)
  • The Best Of U Roy (1976)
  • Right Time Rockers – The Lost Album (1976)
  • African Roots (1976)
  • Rasta Ambassador (1977)
  • Jah Son Of Africa (1978)
  • With Words Of Wisdom (1979)
  • The Originator (1980)
  • Love Is Not A Gamble (1980)
  • Line Up And Come (1986)
  • The Seven Gold (1987)
  • True Born African (1991)
  • Smile A While (1993)
  • Babylon Kingdom Must Fall (1996)
  • Reggae Live Sessions Vol. 1
  • Serious Matter (1999)
  • Now (2001)
  • Rebel In Styylle (2005)
  • Old School/New Rules (2007)
  • Pray Fi Di People (2012)
  • Talking Roots (2018)
  • My Cup Runneth Over (2021)
U Roy
Really sad news came out of Jamaica. Ewart Beckford, known to reggae fans worldwide as the deejay U Roy, who was also known as The Originator, has passed away at the age of 78. Affectionately called Daddy U Roy, he was the teacher for all deejays, the most influential toaster to emerge on the Jamaican scene, the first deejay to take the ghetto uptown by putting down on vinyl the lyrics he would chat in the dance. Even though it was known that he wasn’t well for quite a while, it’s still a great shock to hear the news of the veteran deejay’s passing. To salute this reggae icon we here feature a part about the legendary deejay that is included in Beth Lesser’s 2012 book ‘Rub-a-Dub Style: The Roots of Modern Dancehall’. Rest in power, you will never be forgotten!

U ROY – DJ ORIGINATOR (21 September 1942 – 17 February 2021)

Legendary toaster U Roy used to listen to Count Machuki. “I used to love to hear that man talk because when him talk it’s like you wan’ hear him say something again. So, I always try to be in time, the way he was in time with the rhythm. Cause there’s a little art to it. You have to listen and be in time with the rhythm. Them things me learn from dem man there.”

Yet, even with so many deejays performing regularly in the dance, Jamaicans didn’t take deejays very seriously as artists. “People didn’t really recognize the deejay stuff until U Roy took over,” explained Dennis Alcapone to writer Carl Gayle. “King Stitt did a good thing with things like [hit 45] Fire Corner, but it didn’t really get off until U Roy came along. I came on the scene about three months after U Roy. Then Lizzie came – he used to play Jammy’s Hi-Fi. And then you had Scotty… [but] I rate U Roy, up to now, as the greatest, Yeah! I used to go and listen to him and I admired the sounds he put out. He used to play King Tubby’s sound system. That was, and is, the best. It had everything a system should have. When you sat down and listened to that man [U Roy] playing that sound system, it really blew your mind.”

“King Stitt made it interesting. We hear King Stitt and we were like, ‘WOW! This guy’s talking!’ And then we hear about U Roy and [his 45], ‘Wear You To the Ball’. U Roy came and mashed the place up!” – Singer Madoo

During the ’60s, a small but increasing selection of deejay records was released. “You had deejays that actually recorded in the Ska era, you know. Lord Comic, ‘Ska-ing West’ – ‘Adam and Eve went up my sleeve…’ And then Machuki,” Producer Bunny Lee explains. “But those deejay didn’t follow it up. Machuki do a nice tune for Clive [Chin]. But when U-Roy come on the Duke Reid rhythms and say, ‘Wake the Town’, it take off everything else.”

1985 U Roy & Stur Gav Crew (Photo: Beth Lesser)

U Roy & Stur Gav Crew – 1985 (Photo: Beth Lesser)

U Roy, who teamed up with producer Duke Reid, shot off like a rocket. U Roy, himself, was stunned by the songs’ success. “Not long after the two tune recorded in the studio, me hear them a play pon the radio station. When I hear the two tunes playing pon the radio, I just tell myself, seh, ‘Oooooo, a just two little stupid tunes whe’ them a play pon the radio, just like how so much tunes just a play pon the radio and don’t get nowhere. That is the first thing I tell myself.” But, the tunes didn’t disappear. They just got bigger. “I hear them everyday! Them things was a big surprise and that was the starting of something good for me”

‘Wake the Town’ went straight to number one on both radio stations. And so did U Roy’s next two 45s, ‘Rule the Nation’ and ‘Wear You to the Ball’. “To my surprise, those two songs become number one and number two,” U Roy recalls. “It was like a blessing to me. A deejay never do that. And a couple of weeks after, I had the one, two, three on the radio station. ‘Wear You to the Ball’ stay pon the chart for 12 weeks in the number one position.”

The fact that U Roy was talking over the versions of the most popular records of the day made all the difference. It was the U Roy/John Holt combination that made the records work so well. As Singer Madoo explained, “The reason that U Roy got so popular is because John Holt was already an international star. If U Roy didn’t join with somebody who was already making hits, it would never have happened.”

The U Roy releases with Treasure Isle were revolutionary. Each 45 featured something old and something new. The John Holt songs were already well known throughout the island, but the toasting was new. The combination of something familiar and something different caught fire, paving the way for the deejay revolution. Dennis Alcapone remembers, “It took the place of the vocals that was going on at the time, because U Roy actually took over the charts. He had one, two, three [songs on the top ten]. Deejay records took center stage at the time.”

1986 U Roy at home (Photo: Beth Lesser)

1986 U Roy at home (Photo: Beth Lesser)

After U Roy’s success, everyone wanted to be a deejay. And every producer thought he could get a hit by putting a deejay over his old vocal tracks. And a whole generation of young men had a new hero to emulate. U Roy also deserves credit for his style of deejaying, which was very different from what was going on earlier in the dance. Deejay Dennis Alcapone recalls, “U Roy actually did change the whole thing. Because U Roy made up his thing like it was a complete song, like a singer. Lyrics were going straight through the rhythm and he actually made up a song that people could sing along to. [Before that, the deejay was] in and out, in and out. No one wasn’t filling out the whole rhythm with lyrics. It was regular dancehall jive, in those days. Then U Roy came and filled the rhythm out with lyrics, and that was something new.”

The deejays who were toasting over instrumentals left a lot of space for the music to flow in between the words. U Roy recalls, “That’s how it used to be when you at a dance and talk on a sound. You generally never used to crowd the music. Just say a couple of words and the people long fe hear you again. [When] you say a couple of words, it reach the people outside deh a street and, yea, your dance get cork up with people of all descriptions.”

That was the way it always had been. But when U Roy began making hits, he set a new standard. Earlier deejays used to start with a spoken introduction and then add a few carefully placed interjections to accentuate the beat. King Stitt’s song, “Van Cliff”, consists of Stitt intoning, after the introduction: “Die! Meet me at the big gun down. I am Van Cliff, Die, Die Die! I am Van Cliff. Die!” That’s it. And it was great for instrumentals, especially in the upbeat Ska age. But when Rock Steady took over, it was a different story. While mixing, the engineer left strands of the vocal in the version. This gave the deejays a jumping off point, something on which to base his lyrics. For example, in the song ‘Merry Go Round’, the engineer leaves the opening where John Holt sings, “Where must I go, if there is nowhere that I know.” As the vocal drops out, U Roy comes in with, “That is a musical question and it needs a musical answer. Where do I go from here? Got no place to go. Got to stay right here and work my musical show.”

Ironically, at the time, U Roy didn’t fully believe that deejays could make legitimate recordings. When he was working with King Tubby’s set in the late ’60s, U Roy wasn’t thinking of recording retail selling 45s. He was making dubplates for King Tubby’s exclusive use on the sound. “When I used to play with Tubby’s sound, Tubby used to have a dubbing [dub cutting] machine. So, if he want a special tune to make for his sounds, he could just make it. So, that was the only thing that ever got me to record at that time, doing certain tune for the sound.” Tubby’s recorded some excusive discs for his sound system with U Roy toasting over some of the rhythm tracks Tubby had mixed in his studio. Rock Steady producer, Duke Reid, heard them playing and was fascinated. “Duke Reid… heard the music and he said, ‘I would love to see this man’. So, I went to the studio with him and made some arrangements. So, I start recording for him and the first tunes I do was Wake the Town and Tell the People and This Station Rule the Nation.”

Duke Reid

Duke Reid

Duke Reid knew exactly what he was doing. He had a sixth sense for knowing which songs would go straight to the top. According to U Roy, “Duke is a man whe’, when him hear a hit, him know it- that it’s a hit. At first, him know it. The man used to have a gun and when him have a hit, whenever it’s a hit, the man bust up pure shot in the room.” The U Roy recordings were never meant to remain dubplates for a sound. When he made those first recordings with U Roy, he was aiming for the commercial market. U Roy recalled, “This is a record fe go out there for sales, and it’s a different thing from when you deh a dance. He [Duke Reid] definitely do them for sale purpose. No question about that. This go there to the public for sales, it haf fe more professional.”

Once U Roy hit the charts, deejays were freed from their live status and joined singers as regularly recording artists. A deejay on vinyl was no longer just a dubplate thing. Not only did U Roy’s popularity launch a continuing barrage of deejay recordings, it struck the first rock from the wall diving uptown and downtown Jamaica. People from all over the island bought the new releases, not just the folks in the ghetto who went to dancehall sessions. “There is a lot of people from up Beverly Hills, Red Hills, (from) all about, that buy a lot of my tune”, U Roy commented. The popularity of the songs bridged a great social divide and also created a market for downtown music uptown and all over. It also made U Roy the musical granddaddy to generations of youth that followed.

U Roy was well loved by Jamaicans. Former pupil, deejay Josie Wales used to look up to him, “U Roy used to be a pace setter like that and we used to admire him, as youth, and want to be like him.” With his gentle manner and warm humor, he inspired confidence in people. U Brown, the heir to U Roy’s vocal styling, followed the teacher closely in those early days. “On any given day, I wake up and I’m walking around Towerhill, when I see U Roy ride past on his motor cycle or on his brother-in-law peddle bike, It was like a joy to see him. It was like my musical god [is] there. I speak honestly. And I never get a chance to express these things to U Roy. He don’t have to put out a lot, like some people have to come and do a lot of physical things to make themselves recognized. U Roy just a humble person. But once you and him click, from there, the rest is just joy. I respect him a lot to be honest. I adore U Roy so much because the inspiration I get from U Roy, it makes me be who I am today, music-wise. Even clothes, I used to love how he dressed.”

Wearing his tall beaver hat with his red, gold and green robes, U Roy always looked the part of the star deejay. To U Roy, looking ‘trash’ was a professional requirement. “We learn to buy good things – it’s nothing about no show off thing, but you ina the music, music is a ting whe, is different from when you come out of a yam field. You cyaan go up on stage and look like you a come out of your yam field. If me sit down pon me corner then, those are the clothes me sit down pon the corner in, not the clothes me come pon the stage, you know?”
Spending over 40 years in music, U Roy saw the whole scene take shape, climbing the ladder from selector to deejay to sound owner. “If me didn’t enjoy it me woulda never, never do it. Until this day it’s my trade.” He influenced so many people and set the stage for what was to follow musically, a 50 year reign of dancehall music from Jamaica spreading throughout the world.

Check U Roy Music