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Interview: U-Roy

Interview: U-Roy

Interview: U-Roy

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - 4 comments

"When I started the only "rappers" I heard were people who got a job in a store wrapping gifts!"

Sampler

The unwavering respect afforded to the veteran toaster Ewart Beckford AKA U-Roy is a testimony to his achievements in a music where you're only as good as your last tune. U-Roy is "the teacher"; "the originator"; the man from Jonestown who took talking over records from side show to main attraction - setting the wheels of steel in motion for the deejay-dominated Jamaican scene of today.

He had come up chanting on sounds like Dr Dickies Dynamic and Sir George Atomic in the 60s. He even deejayed for Coxsone Dodd's rig for a time but the impresario either didn't see the great man's talent or the potential of his trade. His recording debut came in 1969 for a producer who himself pushed the boundaries of traditional singing, Keith Hudson. It was via King Tubbys Home Town Hi Fi sound however, that his fame spread to Dodd's rival Duke Reid - creating a trio of deejay classics on rocksteady rhythms that in 1970 claimed the top three positions in the now reggae dominated charts.

U-Roy

As the success of his jovial jive and flow gave rise to a cavalcade of followers and imitators - U-Roy pressed on with a roll call of producers including Alvin GG Ranglin, Niney The Observer, Glen Brown and Bunny Lee. In 1975 he signed with Virgin Records and released a series of Prince Tony produced albums that brought him to the attention of punks, rockers, and the international market. As reggae music has morphed and mutated over the decades, the love for U-Roy has endured - and he has continued to tour and entertain audiences around the world. In October 2012 he dropped his first album in six years 'Pray Fi Di People' - featuring his most diverse range of collaborators. Angus Taylor spoke to him on the road in France - and found a man who, while ever humble about his credentials, still has a few topics where he feels the need to set things straight.

Why did you decide it was time to Pray Fi Di People around the world?

(laughs) Because there is so much war and problems in this world today. I think we all need some blessings and some more love instead of war because war takes away people's lives. Seeing war in Iraq and war in Afghanistan and war in Cambodia - it's people just killing people. It's like, hey, why not just think and deal with something better? If you love someone you don't plan to hurt them - you know what I'm saying? But it's not a matter of saying "Hey, the people must hear what I say and they must do what I say". They don't have to listen to what they say.

The album is credited as produced by yourself but the engineer on all the tracks is Gaylord Bravo - who mixes live with you on tour.

Bravo to me is like my son. I must tell you this. He is very, very protective of me. He takes the best care of me - especially on the road. I can trust him with anything. I can say anything that is private to him and it will be like that until the day he dies. So I take Bravo to be one of my best friends and a very good engineer at the same time. Because there are not many engineers in Jamaica right now that can record a band in the studio. Bravo is one of those people that can do anything in the studio.

I am a Rasta and that I will always be

The band for your album included many great veteran musicians like Horsemouth, Flabba Holt, Bongo Herman, Bo Pee, Skully, Sticky, Sly & Robbie, Obeah - you were going for that classic sound?

Yes, I really agree with that. I just tried to find real professional people. These people are people who write and read music so I don't think it gets any better than that in this time. I just wanted a roots album with live musicians playing - no computerised rhythms. That is what I have always been trying to put out there.

Do you dislike digital rhythms? I know you have ridden on some - on Singing Melody's last album for example.

I like some of them. It's modern technology and I am a person that is up for modern stuff. Because, look, we just don't expect things to be just one way all along. There are young people that have their ideas and are very skilful with their computers so I have to lift my hat to that. But in terms of me, personally, I just want to do a live musician album. It's not disrespecting the computer world because it's nice to have these things. It's a quick way of getting these things across to people.

Let's talk about some of the vocal collaborators - how did you link Marcia Griffiths? Or Tarrus Riley with whom you covered Toots and the Maytals' Pomps and the Pride?

This lady is one of my really good sistren man. We never pass each other on the street or get up on stage or talk on the phone without being friends. She has that respect for me and I have that respect for her just the same. Because she's a real sweet lady I can tell you. I know Tarrus' father from way back. And Tarrus is also a youth that we have known each other since he got into the business. I asked him to do this and he told me "Any time you ready Daddy Roy. Just say the word". So this made me feel so happy and so proud. Just like Chezidek, Winsome Benjamin, Richie Robinson, they are all younger people than I. When I put the question to them and they give me such great answers it's like, heeeey, let's go and do what I've got to do now with these people!

You've also given your album an international flavour with Tiken Jah Fakoly, Balik from Danakil and Harrison Stafford from Groundation. As someone who has been a star in Africa since the 70s, it must be nice to make a record with someone like Tiken.

U-RoyI'm telling you - that made a big difference for me on this album. We're talking about a different generation with different cultures. Because I had no idea that I would be able to get all these very important people - a Frenchman, an African and an American - to play a part. I have to lift my hat to these people. Some people think in a very negative way - that if you are not Jamaican you are not supposed to be doing reggae. I think that is out of order to say things like that. Music has got no colour, no class, no creed. So for me when people in Africa, France, Japan, Germany do reggae music this is upliftment for reggae. I don't know if I am wrong but that is definitely my opinion that it is great for the music.

In your song with Harrison, you say Buddha, Allah, Jesus and Jah are all names for the same thing.

Look here. I am a Rasta and that I will always be. And we all are praying to the same man that created us. The same God that made white, black, purple, blue, pink and every colour you can think about is just the one man. But we see him as a different name. Muslim people would see him as Allah. Rasta call him Jah. The church people - which were my old people, my mother, father, grandmother and all those people - they call him Jesus Christ. Which to me, is just the same person that made us. Because, look, there can't be two gods that created us here now - it's one God that made every single man. So to me, if you want to call him Allah, you're still talking about Jah. If you want to call him Jesus Christ - yes, it's Jah. If you want to call him Buddha - for me it's just Jah. It's the Almighty just the same.

So all religions should respect each other?

Every man has his own belief - and to each his own. I'm not watching my colour because I'm black and somebody else is white. I don't check on that. I check that if you cut each one of us you are going to see one colour blood - red. Whatever man believes you have to respect what a man believes in. My mother used to say to me "Why don't you trim and shave because you will look a much nicer boy" and I used to say "Listen Mum, I did not tell you not to be a Seventh Day Adventist. I did not tell you not to play that organ on that choir. I'm going to do what I have to do Mummy and I'm not going to disrespect you. But what I believe in is what I believe in".

Every man has his own belief - and to each his own

On the album you redid your classic Duke Reid track Wake The Town with Sophia Squire.

The reason was because this song was a big hit for me in Jamaica so it was almost like taking a shortcut to find another song to make up the album! But to me it was very good because the lady is a good singer and she did a good job I am really happy about.

John Holt famously recommended you to Duke Reid. But you were working on King Tubbys Hometown HiFi and Tubbys did some mastering work for Duke Reid. So both Tubbys and John were the link to Duke Reid?

Yes, yes. Tubbys used to play a lot of Duke Reid songs. John Holt type of songs, Melodians type of songs and Alton Ellis type songs from his studio. One time John Holt came to a dance - because John Holt was always a man who loved to go to a dance! - and he went back to Duke Reid and said "I hear this youth talking 'pon one of your riddims man - it sound good". Duke Reid told Tubbys that he wanted to talk to me. It was just a verbal agreement - "Yeah, yeah, yeah - that can be done" - in those times we didn't know about contracts and stuff like that. So I went in the studio and did This Station Rule The Nation and Wake The Town (Tell The People) - those were my first two songs for Duke Reid.

I know I have been ripped off a lot. I'm positively sure about that

A lot of artists - including a couple of the deejays that followed you - have said they were afraid to work with Duke Reid. Why weren't you afraid?

Because - I must tell you this - people deal with you in the way you handle yourself. In my country, Jamaica, people take you for what they think you are. If they think you are stupid and they push you around here there and everywhere - they will do that. If they think they can work you and not pay you - they are going to do exactly that. If they know that once they work you, they have to pay you - they will come up with your pay. A lot of people at the time said bad things about Duke Reid - but I can't say much bad. I know I have been ripped off a lot. I'm positively sure about that. But a lot of the things I asked for at the time - I got them. I'm just a person where - if I get proper treatment from you then I am not going to stray here there and everywhere. Because, at the end of the day, my parents always told me that "A dog that has too many homes goes to bed without dinner"! (laughs) So I can be very calm and easygoing so long as you are treating me in a good way. Because if I feel you are treating me in a way I don't appreciate - trust me - you can't do that! I am not going to accept that from you - and I don't care who you are.

A lot of deejays have had rivalries to this day. But when I interviewed U-Brown last year he said "I've known U-Roy for over thirty odd years and I've never heard U-Roy enter into an argument with anyone. If he disagreed with something he would say no, he's not doing it. But no argument or fight or anything".

Trust me, my brethren, I have no time for cursing you and fussing you. We are all in this business, we all have to eat, we all have to live and survive. So if you are doing your thing, so long as you are not interrupting me or throwing bad stuff at me, I just see you as co-workers who have to eat and we have to live. Because there used to be this brother called I-Roy and he imitated my voice, my words, everything. But I didn't make it a problem, because - guess what? - if the people want to see U-Roy they are going to hire U-Roy to do this work. If they want to see I-Roy they will hire I-Roy. If they want to see U-Brown or Ranking Trevor they are going to hire them. And none of them has ever been any problem to me - and will never be any problem. Because when you know what you're doing, and you originate stuff, you just don't worry about people. I don't have the time to worry about other people. I take more care of looking after my business than looking after other people's business. People want to know how come me and this person never had any argument when they are talking like me or sounding like me? Look here man, the Father has many singers and players of instruments. Millions and billions of us. You just have to accept that.

I-Roy imitated my voice, my words, everything. But I didn't make it a problem

You were neighbours and good friends with all three Wailers - Peter, Bunny and Bob. How did you feel about Peter Tosh getting the Order Of Merit this year?

I felt good. This man was a very good musician. He was a very good writer. He knew a lot about the music. I'm only sorry he had to get this thing when he is dead. Trust me, until his day Jah B is still my brethren because he is the only living Wailer now! But Bob, we just lived so close to each other and Jamaica is such a small country. Once you are in the music business it is not going to be long before we are meeting some place, some time. Peter was my brethren, Bob was my brethren, and Jah B he is still my brethren. I live very good with everybody. Because, if someone is going to show you love and you show them hate - you are not dealing with anything. This was exactly what these brothers used to show me. When we'd meet and greet it would be "Yeah! Roy! What's happening man? Wh'appen? Wha Gw'aan?" No animosity, no problem, no bad vibes.

U-Roy

You started your own sound King Stur Gav in 1978 which you named after your sons - and there you gave Ranking Joe, Jah Screw, Charlie Chaplin and Josey Wales their start on the sound. But apart from your own famous work talking on the mic, how were you at spinning the actual records and selecting the sound?

(laughs) You know what? That was the biggest fun in my life when I started doing this! Putting on the records myself, picking my own selection, because I had my stuff set out in front of me, I would search and select what I was going to play next, talking over the mic and saying where I would be playing next Saturday and where I would play tomorrow. Trust me it was the greatest fun for me. I loved that from my heart man. That was exactly why I had to have a sound system of my own instead of just playing others. I respect where I'm coming from to the max. I have to lift my hat to sound system because without sound system I don't think people would know anything about me. It was from playing Doctor Dickies, Sir George, Sir Coxsone, Sir Percy then coming to King Tubbys. And trust me, I loved every split second of it. No matter how rough it was. Because sometimes it was really rough. The police would come and say "Night noise" and "Disturbing people" and mash up the dance and stuff like that. But that could never stop me - Jah gave me something that I loved so much I keep thanking the Most High every time for this job and I love this work.

And there was a lot of love shown to you when you played in London this summer for Jamaican Independence - alongside the deejays that followed you - Dennis Alcapone, Tappa Zukie and Yellowman.

As I said I enjoy my work and I am not worried about who is coming up before me or after me. Because I am coming to do what I am supposed to do. So it was just a nice vibes and then even afterwards backstage it was just pure joking, laughing and everybody happy. Those things keep me going. Because I am an old man now in this business but, look, I am going to stop when the Most High tells me it's time to go but as long as I have my strength and my health, I am just going to do what I have to do.

I am going to stop when the Most High tells me it's time to go

Bizarrely, Tappa Zukie came back on stage and did two songs after you had finished his set but the band were too tired to play so he deejayed without music. What happened there?

I don't know the reason why! But you know something, there are some people who - maybe - just love to be in the limelight! (laughs) I would put it like that. But I don't know the reason why, I kept asking myself the same question "Why he go back?" But we must always learn something in this business - when you go out on stage and people love you - don't overdo it. Because you can flop yourself. It's like a guy would say "Woy! I'm coming to mash up Tappa Zukie, mash up U-Roy and mash up Alcapone!" Never should you ever go there with that type of mentality because you will mash up yourself. I have seen it happen many times. A guy thinks he's so superbad - that he thinks he is going to go up there and crush everybody. But when he goes up there, trust me, he's like a fool. I am just a laidback person. I understand how to be calm, do what I have to do, and if the people feel happy, just finish and go. Leave them with something.

You have been called the inspirer and inventor of rap music. What do you think of rap music in America?

I think they are all rolling off the Jamaican deejays - the Jamaican rappers. I can tell you this my friend: when I started to do this - yes, there were deejays before me like Count Machuki, King Stitt and Lord Comic. But in terms of putting music on a record to go out there to the public for sale, I am the first man to do that. And I am so happy to be a part of this. Nothing that I am going to get big headed or hyped up about or nothing. I am just one happy person. Because, when I started in my youth days the only "rappers" I ever heard about were people who got a job in a store wrapping gifts in the school holidays! I never heard of any other "rapper"! So they can go ahead and claim it, but, at the end of the day, people like you, and other people too, are going to know "Eh, you're talking rubbish there my friend!" (laughs) So that's why I tell you - I don't worry about people. It's like that, it's like that, it's definitely like that.

Count Machuki was the best! The greatest man who ever held a microphone around sound system

You mentioned Count Machuki, who was a big inspiration to you. But Machuki is really only known to Jamaican music historians. How come the music of U-Roy has inspired so many people but the people who inspired U-Roy are not so well known?

I was always worried about that part - especially with this man. This man was such an expert! This man had such an art to the thing! It worried me when I had one, two, three on the top ten charts in Jamaica yet this man never had a tune that got into the top 50. I used to say to myself "Oh my God, I don't like this at all". I felt very bad for him. Knowing that to me, this man, was the best! The greatest man who ever held a microphone around sound system. This man, when he talked was so intelligent, had so much timing, pacing his words between the singer and what he has got to say. But then, I said to myself, "What is for you is just for you. What is not for you won't be for you". I could never put it any other way than that. But this man was, until this day, the greatest deejay that ever played a sound. This man - he had a lot of arguments man, I can tell you this! This man, you had to listen to him when he was talking! You just better listen! But that's how life is. They say sometimes the people who do the work never really get paid for it. That is happening all over the world right now.

Finally, you've done a roots album, will your next one be a dancehall album?

I really wouldn't say that. I don't know why people think dancehall came around since Beenie Man and Sean Paul and Shabba Ranks. Dancehall was there from in the 60s and 70s, because it's the music that was being played in the dance, we used to classify as "dancehall music". I don't know why people try to make this big difference about dancehall and stuff like that. To, me there is no such thing. But, hey, the people have the last and the final say. Whatever the people say, that's what goes. We work with that. But for me to do a dancehall album, I don't think I would enjoy doing that. I think I would be coming to rain on the youths' parade! (laughs)

Whatever the people say, that's what goes. We work with that

You've got your own parade.

(laughing) Right! I want them to go ahead and do what they have to do. If they are saying bad things that are not right in the sight of the public, they are the ones who are going to have to realise that this is wrong. When Buju came with some songs saying "Man Fi Dead", "Batty Rider" - I can't afford to have people hearing me saying these things. They would say "Wait? This man is getting crazy". (laughs) But Buju, he changed. He started to become very cultural. So they are the ones that have to realise and change this habit or this attitude or these types of lyrics. But if someone wants me on one of their songs don't expect me to say the same thing they're saying if what they are saying doesn't sound good! (laughs)

Well nobody wants you to change what you're saying - even if it was on more up-tempo rhythms.

Trust me, I would never ever want to change. People know me like that and it would be so stupid of me to try to do what the youths are doing. I don't care about the next thing that comes along. I won't say "I'd love to sell a million albums so I will have to put myself down to say certain things. I will do what I know I have to do best - and that's it. Jah blesses me for what I have to do - and I'm just going to have to keep it like that.

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Read comments (4)


Posted by Dezmar on 12.21.2012
Great interview! Very interesting.

Posted by Lindsworth Garvey on 12.21.2012
Loved this interview. As a young boy, growing up in Jamaica, my Uncle listened to U-Roy and so I was introduced to him. I have grown up listening to the music - testament to the living and celebrating those that have come and gone before us. Bless you U-Roy. Here I am today a man, trying to impart the same sounds to my own children. May the almighty continue to bless and inspire you to continue to sing the sound tracks to our lives - At home and abroad.

Posted by Alistar on 12.22.2012
Love the pea coat his wearing.
The old reggae dudes have so much style!!

Posted by Prince Albert on 01.20.2013
Good interview. Just love U-Roy.

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