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Interview: Big Youth in Kingston

Interview: Big Youth in Kingston

Interview: Big Youth in Kingston

By on - Photos by Veronique Skelsey - Comment

"The system stifles me man"


No one embodied the 1970s reggae scene in its pomp quite like Big Youth. The dreadlocked deejay's music and persona contained the decade’s gritty DIY street toughness, its Rastafari social conscience and its flamboyant ghetto fabulousness all at once.

As the microphone speaker who popularised Rasta lyrics on Jamaican sound system, whose rough-edged mystical chants made him a favourite of Britain’s punk rockers, Big Youth's place in history is secure. But when you talk to Manley Augustus Buchanan, he still sounds like a man with something to prove.

An arrangement is made for United Reggae to meet him in his historic base of downtown Kingston. The vibes downtown haven't changed since Big Youth flashed a jewel-toothed smile in the 1978 movie Rockers. Motorbikes roar past. People shout at each other in friendly conversation. Yet most of the old studios and record shops - Randy's, Prince Buster, African Museum, Techniques - are closed up monuments to reggae's golden era.

United Reggae waits for Big Youth at Small World studio on the corner of Charles Street and Orange Street. It's owned by Gaylord Bravo, a highly skilled engineer named on the credits of many recent Sly and Robbie releases. He tells us his philosophy of what makes a good engineer: it's someone who does the work and gets the experience. Around the corner is the studio of Big Youth and Dennis Brown’s old friend Trevor “Leggo” Douglas. Leggo isn't there so we miss chance to ask him if he famously chased Buchanan’s rival chanter Prince Jazzbo for pirating lyrics (immortalised by another sound system poet, the cheeky I Roy, on Jazzbo Have Fe Run).

After a few hours Big Youth arrives, his hair all white and his famous teeth capped with gold. He walks up and down “Beat Street”, talking to members of the community, before entering the tiny studio at nightfall to give our interview over the sound of a DVD of Burning Spear.

Big Youth has been restoring a mural of himself on Orange Street – because he feels the need to reassert his legacy in an ever-changing city. This sense of being pushed out of the music's limelight pervades the discussion. It is not the other 70s deejays that he seems rivalrous with, so much as the biggest singers, whose birthdays are commemorated during Reggae Month. He makes some bold but not unjustifiable claims - that it is he who should be celebrated as proudly as they for popularising reggae and Rastafari around the world. His favoured refrain is “Come on maaaan!” when he feels slighted or challenged, delivered in a Black Power Jamerican drawl.

Big Youth

You're currently having your mural repainted on Orange Street…

Yeah. Well we had it on the wall for the past 40 years and as you know Orange Street is Beat Street. And with whoever, I don't know because I'm not into bureaucracy, they want to put their mural on the wall. So I get so upset that I say “No” because that's my heritage. So I'm restoring the Big Youth. It will be finished by Monday or Tuesday the latest. It's on Orange Street right next to Prince Buster, on the other side of the road. We put that there when I used to be involved in all the bus company and all of that. We established Negusa Nagast [label] there. So I say “No. I need to preserve my heritage”. That's the trip I'm on at the moment.

You were born in Rae Town?

Yes right! Almost around here. I grew up right around here in this area.

Your mother was a revivalist preacher.

Yes. She died as a bishop. She had her own church and all of that.

Your family moved around a lot.

Yes. Because if she wanted to get to some place to keep her church, she had to be renting a whole yard. She's not going to get a place where other people are living. Because they always would be singing and things so she'd always build her own vineyard.

We moved from Water Street in Rae Town to Matches Lane which is two blocks from where we are right now. And I lived all up in East Kingston too and in Barbican as a youth. We moved around a lot. I was living in Marverly at one time.

So you must really know Kingston like the back of your hand?

Big YouthYeah. I know it. I know it. But to be perfectly honest with you, right now some parts of it are so developed that I'm like a stranger! (laughs)

How did your Christian upbringing connect to your sighting of Rastafari?

Because they taught me humanity yeah? Because my mother was so strict on that morality you know? They want to put a different moral inside of you. But [I was] in the street and growing up and watching Rastaman. But yeah the church really made me get biblical because I studied and read a lot. But within me and music it's a translation. Knowing that most of what they were talking about, they were talking about the love of Rastafari. Within Christianity they don't show that because they used Church and State to divide and rule. Because for me I am of no religion you know?

Because Rasta is not a religion.

No. It’s natural. And I'm a natural person. I praise the Most High God so I don't have to be in a denomination. You get what I'm saying?

So were there any Rasta elders that you looked up to as a young person?

I knew Leonard Howell. One of his daughters used to be in my mother's vineyard because her mother was a member of the church when we were in East Kingston. My mother helped grow her - Catherine Howell. That's one of his first children.

Then Mortimer Planno is a next elder that we came across. Then you had some great Ras from down at Back O’ Wall. Because that's where the foundation started. In the dungle. In the gutters, down in the dumps. Because once you live natural and you don't use a comb and try to groom like how the system wants you to be, you are a Rasta. A natural Rasta.

So we used to watch these people, listen to these people because from when they become church-ical it's a different story altogether. People want to believe that the leader wants to rule so they divide and rule even within their Rasta congregation. Well, knowing a lot of things from these people and getting literature and knowing of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I and things of Africa we know how nice and pleasant it is. We read King David within the Bible and if you go with know-ledge - what they call knowledge - you'd get a fullness of what David is saying.

Because it's the Gideons that establish the Bible you know? A set of Seventh-Day Adventist people from James. You understand? In those days they never even used to call them theologians. Because theology never came yet! (Laughs)

So how did your family feel about you becoming Rasta?

Upset. Because the same David tells you that when your father and your mother forsake you then he will take you up. So that's in the 27th Psalms. If you know the interpretation. And she - they - just despise you for a period of time. Because when she realised the type of person that I am she would look upon other people and say “Don't be hard on your son because he might be like mine”.

Because my mother is a spiritual healer you know? She could help sick people you know? And look on you and tell you your fortunes. That means she was a telepathic person. Telepathic. Which is before telecommunications. Because we have that. We have that psyche in me too. Where you could look ahead if you're willing to learn and, like I say, the humanity, the love of humanity that she taught us. To love each other even when people act wicked. Learn to forgive that you may be forgiven. Because we all make mistakes.

You left school early and went to work as a mechanic.

Yeah. I left school at about 13 you know? So by 14 I started to learn auto mechanic. And within the year, by 15, I think I mastered that. I wasn't getting enough pay. So I left it alone because I think they were using me now because I knew know what I'm doing but they don't want to pay for my work. Until I was on the site. Because they were building what is now called the Hilton or the Wyndham or...

I learnt my craft within the elevator shaft!

The Sheraton hotel.

It was Sheraton back in the days. We were the ones that were building it, carrying it up in the air on the skyline beside it. And I was on the site as a common labourer until we get with the mechanic and they find that I know the work, so I started doing diesel mechanics. So that's how I learnt my real craft within the elevator shaft! That's when I go in there and I’d sing out “Yo yo yeah?” it would echo back at me and I’d know.

So you were deejaying in the elevator and using the echo like your own amplifier?

Yeah, yeah. Like the sound. The acoustic that is in that place. Come on man! It's having delay, reverb - everything is there when you shout.

How did you decide to take the mic at sound systems?

I always wanted to. They had a lot of people who I thought weren't any good. They weren't good, so they would try to stun it.

The music was "Yeah yeah baby baby wooo" and they weren't saying nothing

They were threatened by what they could see was coming?

Alright. So they didn't want to give me the chance. But you had Tippertone. Because it's me that called that sound His Mightiness Emperor Lord Tippertone. That sound was where we’d hang out, so it was our corner thing. Because all the music was “Yeah yeah yeah baby baby wooo” and they weren't saying nothing. I don’t care and all the while I talk the truth and a whole heap of them will go on like they are vexed. But lyrically, even those songs that still play today, they weren't saying anything.

So we had to carry a spiritual vibes within it and tell the people they must make love not war because war is ugly and love is lovely. And do things right and make things bright, yeah? And stop fight against one another. Because we thought the music wasn't getting that, because romantic love alone will not change anything. Because each of us have feelings, so as long as we have romance we have that kind of love. We don't have to sing about that. And the world was living in selfishness like they are living today. Yeah because it's like it's repeating. History is repeating itself. That's the condition the world is in right now.

When you brought that kind of lyrical content to the sound system, did it feel like you were changing the business?

It was a change. Because everybody would talk about “Simmer down” or “Bend down” or “Chickabow” or “Yeah yeah yeah”. I would go in and say “Live it up Jah, do it Jah, live it up Jah, Jah wa wa wa.” You understand? And start showing people saying “Ride like lightning and you crash like thunder” and if we want to make gimmicks I talked about a movie “Screaming Target” and certain films. With the knowledge of the people, and it’s natural and I would try to highlight the people and the things that are happening around them. And the things that they are doing to themselves. What they should stop doing. We would sing of Rastafari, we would sing of Marcus Garvey, in order to bring people together.

And when you did that, did you get a fight from the powers that be?

Brethren, brethren, brethren - in no time! In no time I had seven songs in the two charts. Because there were two radio stations here so it was me that controlled it you know? Every kind of thing. Because we were punching out some lyrics that were different. I used to push up my knots inside but I’d take off my cap and shake my head and the world would go mad!

It's Big Youth that started the Natty Dread culture

Where did you first free up your locks?

Maybe in Carib Theatre? It was just natural and then I made the song Dread Inna Babylon because when we said “Dread Inna Babylon” it's the wickedness of the times that we were facing even now today…. I was foreseeing and talking about. Which is a greater power than even Big Youth you know? It's the Almighty’s inspiration because he put me as a watchman to watch the city. And tell the people. Because like I say it made the change that Big Youth is the whole Natty Dread culture. Everyday everybody rise up and everybody say “Ray ray ray”. It's not no Marley. It's Manley Buchanan Big Youth that start the Natty Dread culture. And all of them adapt. And maybe one of the main reasons why you can be talking to me today is because of the way that I have been stifled.


Of course. I'm not given my just reward. I'm not quarrelling or begging. I'm not complaining. I'm just telling you like it is. Because it's me that raised the banner and said “Natty Dread” so the whole of them have to come see me. It's me who told them about “automatic pistol remote control, synthetic genetics to mash your soul.” What kind of food are they feeding them with now? Genetics. Is that that I was talking about from ’73.

But the people that know the real history, they know. But you say you never got your financial reward?

Yeah, who know. Thank you. One of these days. I'm still holding on.

In 1977 I carried Dennis Brown as my opening act

We just visited the former site of the African Museum label. Was that the first label that recorded you? The song Movie Man on the rhythm to Errol Dunkley’s Movie Star?

All right. That time Gregory was round in Milk Lane. He never had a shop and all of that. Because it's me that turned African Museum and Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown into stars, man. Come on man. When I’d go to England in 1977 I carried Dennis Brown as my opening act.

With Lloyd Parks and We The People band.

You see they call him Crown Prince? And when I do all of that. It was politics because Joe Gibbs was there, they were trying to dethrone me to push up him. And through all of these things. All of this Gregory and Dennis we – we were like one. Making music. Because even that song that Gregory did with me first, it didn't go nowhere. It wasn't even playing on the radio. Because that is what I was making music for you know? To hear them on the radio. I wasn't even thinking about no money or no star thing. I just wanted the message to get over to the people to be heard. So we had Dennis, Big Youth and like I said I took off. Because after I did S90 Skank and Chi Chi Run that's how it would stay.

Big Youth

You did Chi Chi Run for Prince Buster - whose shop we just visited around the corner.

Yeah round the corner. Come on man. It's right here all of these things. The same day we made S90 Skank [for Keith Hudson] was the same day I did Chi Chi Run. And another couple because Buster didn't have a full album. He just had a couple of songs and hitched on because they were seeing how great I am even more than I knew. Before I knew, they could see. So they wanted to take advantage of the situation. So I worked with it, I worked with it and I got wise up.

We couldn't find Jimmy Radway’s premises. He was one of the first to record you.

Jimmy never had a studio. He was just a one-foot man. Because the real talk of the thing is that Jimmy Radway is the man carried me to the studio first. And he was itching like he really wanted to do it - to do Black Cinderella. And Gregory Isaacs is a serious man you know? He’d come to the dance and hear me how I was handling the people. So Gregory said “This is the man.” He was the man that booked the first studio time at Dynamic Sound.

We also just visited Randy’s where you did Natty No Jester…

No Jestering, Hit The Road Jack, Ten against One. Yeah and those Jimmy Radway tunes, some of them do up there too, you know? So most of my voicing, some of the wicked songs that I did, were upstairs. I can remember when we made the rhythm of Hit The Road Jack… if you ever listen to that rhythm you hear a bus drive downstairs because we were upstairs in Studio 17. Because the thing about Studio 17 was it's not the studio, it was like the man that was running it - Errol Thompson.

The engineer.

That's the greatest one. You hear them big up and boast up everything but if you listen to Joe Gibbs…

Errol went there as well.

That's where. Because he left from Randy's and went to Joe Gibbs. You listen to the way that he put things. We didn't even have certain kind of digital fandangos but he could make things to get those kinds of sounds from back in the day.

He was very clever with sound effects.

Yeah, that he created.

For Joe Gibbs you did Foreman vs Frazier. Did you watch the fight?

I was working with them. Right around the country because Frazier brought a band called the Knockouts with the Beaufort Express and all that. So we were touring Jamaica with the fighters and the band. We did some shows.

At the time did you think Foreman was going to win?

It was Frazier. Joe Frazier. Because remember I came out and I did another version and I said “Because Joe Frazier was my boxer anyway but George Foreman has got him down.” Because remember I did Round Two. That was fun. We mingled with Foreman and Frazier and Kenny Norton. Me and Norton had a stink because there was a girl named Deborah Youngblood who was in the band the Beaufort Express. And I was after her and it was Kenny Norton’s girl! So that's fun man.

Let's talk a little bit about your work with Gussie Clarke and that Screaming Target album.

That was one of my worst nightmares. Wicked this trip. Look man, when Gussie’s mother died, Gussie was living one, two, three blocks across from here. Because this is Orange Street, Chancery Lane, King Street, Love Lane, four blocks, Church Street. And we knew Gussie and Gussie got rhythms. Gussie wasn't a producer, he got some rhythms, KC White…

No No No…

Big YouthThat No No No and Anywhere But Nowhere. He got those things and me and Gussie were making the album together. So it's my talent, I would get some rhythms and me I no get no advance, no nothing. He never even wrote a contract because we didn't know what the hell that is back in the days. But through him go to Kingston College and Heidelberg University, they know what they're doing.

The album came out. Screaming Target was a movie when we’d go to matinee on a Wednesday. I thought this movie Screaming Target was wicked and Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry. So that was the whole story and then I tried to tell the youth that they mustn't be illiterate, must go to school and try to become civilised. So it's teaching youth we were running you know? And that album comes out and even today they say it is the greatest deejay album.

Yeah, people loved it.

Yeah to the world. In the world circle and everything. Gussie was just unfair. And it's just lately that we ound out about publishing to a level and we try but they take away all of it. But one day me and him are going to go to the court. Even though they know I no love the courthouse but man no dead so we go carry them to court because they have my wealth.

So then you decided “I'm going to start my own Negusa Nagast label… and do my own thing?”

Because we put seven songs in the two charts and if you saw my house down the street? It was nowhere for a human being to live. You understand? And with all that I created and having all of these guys driving nice vehicles now? Come on! So I just made a song named World Is A Ghetto and I just turn around and call it Streets in Africa. When I did that they said I can't sing you know? Bad fight us within the business. And to be honest with all of this fame and things I create, that's the only time I saw a change that I could move out of this dilapidated building. And people were even vexed because they still wanted me to stay there to uplift them. While they want to carry you down. Cho!

Then I realised now and I say “Alright I'm not going to sing a song for no producer. When it comes to singing vocal I sing for Negusa Nagast - Big Youth.” And the thing went on and on until we get a rhythm from Phil Pratt and do Every Nigger is a Star. Because I was in the movie. There is a movie named Every Nigger is a Star. It's not no racial bullshit.

Boris Gardiner did the soundtrack and you were in the movie.

And they don't want to give me no justice. Boris Gardiner will go on like it was him alone. We’d sit up at the same Sheraton and wrote that with him and Calvin Lockhart. But he still wants to take the claim for Every Nigger is a Star like it was them that wrote it. It was we. And Every Nigger is a Star [the film] flopped. There is a journalist down here named Archie Lindo. He doesn't say nothing good about Rasta. But when he criticised the movie he said one thing about the movie “Every time Big Youth appeared on the screen he got a standing ovation”.

It was me that formed the I Threes

So that is why now when I started taking the Sweat For You Baby rhythm and start singing this Every Nigger is a Star and find the changes in the break and everything. And then I said “All right I'm going to get a horn section to cover it”. Come on! I even did What's Going On to the same rhythm. With the horns now. You understand me? And it was a hit. And when I did that song it was me that formed the group named the I Threes.


How you mean really? Every Nigger is a Star - that song that formed the group. ’75 and it ran away. That's why Bob Marley would come. I remember one of them was his wife. That's why they had to put them together. It's me they used to take on and they did all of these songs. I'm in the reggae phenomenon. It's them singing Lord Jah Bless. It's the I Threes, it's me and them.

So how did it happen?

Because the shining light is on me. Me the phenomenon. Phenomenon means indescribable. So me was the man that all of them admired. And I was too nice because I let in everybody and treat them good when I should be treating myself.

How did you get signed to Virgin Records?

Boy that is a next thing. Because we were with Trojan. And then Johnny Rotten because they think that is me that mashed up the punk rock. They said Big Youth chase it. And Johnny Rotten acknowledged it because Johnny Rotten them is my friends. The Sex Pistols. When my era rise in London because the punk era was taking over with God Save The Queen and all of that. So Big Youth come chase all of that. It's me that was the talk of Britain and all of those things man.

Johnny Rotten sat at my feet

The punks they really loved you.

Come on man! Johnny Rotten sat at my feet man. And said it before me himself. They did a documentary to acknowledge that you know? Right now I'm doing an album with Zak Starkey, that's the drummer from The Who.

The son of Ringo.

That's right. I was acknowledged from then. These people say they grew up on me.

I'm doing an album with Zak Starkey, the drummer from The Who

What do you think it was about what you did that the punks loved so much? They weren't so into the singers like Dennis Brown and John Holt.

Because I’m wild man! Wild man and I take certain notes and go to a depth man. I must tell you I'm speaking with you but I acknowledge that Big Youth is something else. I don't let it get to my head you know? Which sometimes I should! (laughs) So that's me.

The thing is brethren, the system stifles Big Youth man. And pushes some other mediocrity man. And it goes on for long. And when they go on all tired and tired and then when they see this Big Youth it's a young youth they see. Because I'm well-preserved. With righteousness. Because I'm not preaching idiot things. You hear me sir? Because I’m not no racist. Because I quarrel with black people too, you know? Because enough of them are racist. Because if him just want to be black what happens to the next man who you call white? He is a human being. I allow for everyone. So that is what we call righteousness and that exalts a nation.

Big Youth

Can you tell me about your appearance in the film Rockers?

Rockers is just a natural movie. If you notice it's just two little appearances I make in it. And it's one of the most outstanding parts of the movie when I tell him to “Play the drum and blow the big guy’s mind.” Because they have written about it in the San Francisco Chronicle. Because that is when something is natural. Because last year we did a Rockers thing in Brazil, you know? Two open-air things straight. Thousands of people. So we’ll be coming to Europe this year with the Rockers thing.

How did you feel in the 80s when the music and the lyrics moved away from righteousness?

Alright. If you could remember A Luta Continua - that Big Youth album? Remember I was singing “Them a sing too much song upon the same rhythm. So you must sing another song for me. Sing one of reality. One for humanity”. So the whole thing is that. I stand up and I never change because people think they have to sing nastiness and disrespect women and slackness.

Because I still think like a youth, you know? I don't even fight who carries on how they want to carry on. I don't adopt nobody’s style. Because music was before me. So I study music from before my time. If you want to be a great musician you have to do that. You have to practise the root, so we love country, rock, jazz. Right now I deal with reggae, rock, pop, rock and roll. We want to communicate with people because we have evil forces within music, man. That allow mediocrity and stupidness to carry on. That's why we're having so much problems. We're having problems that are out of control because of what the media promotes.

What else have you been working on? A couple of years ago you came to the UK with the Uppercut band.

Yeah and then I took the year off last year. Because before I was doing some tours. But as I tell you I was working with Trojan Jamaica which is not Trojan England. Alright? It is Zak, the Who drummer and his clique. So they are doing an album and I also have my album that's almost complete. Cultural Icon. So I'm going to give the people some music, man. Because I study this thing you know? I notice all kinds of music comes and comes but every time you take onto the original music the way they sound, none of these people are making music anymore. So we're making the same kind of music. Working on some of the same tracks from then with modern style of voicing and adding things to it.

I still think like a youth

What do you think of Reggae Month?

It's a front. (laughs) Yeah because of some bureaucratic people you know? Some people that get some breaks all the time and just not doing nothing for the music and just doing it in selfish ways. So it's just a month that's going to come and go. And then come off another year and they talk and I don't even see the benefit. They ignore the great part of Reggae Month. And they don't uplift the living. I'm not fighting against the dead who played their part within the music but come on man. You have live strong great ones still.

We're just watching, they’re playing Burning Spear and these people are still alive and great and strong. These are the greats. We are the icons. Honour the great people and stop giving the people carbon copies. You push up and you push up and you’re acting like you’re spending money on one ground. You have other grounds. You have other places that we go that the tourist board don't advertise. So we bring tourists to this country also. Do you understand? Jamaica is reggae so 12 months of the year to me is Reggae Month man. Because this is the reggae capital. That's why I told you we restore my wall. And they're going to be jealous and be hating at the same time, but love we a deal with.

Do you have anything else you want to say?

Well I just want to tell the people because it's February, it's just the second month of the year don't make nobody take your joy. Happiness and joy is what we’re seeking. We don't want no stress and no frustration. And leaders of the world we want you to stop the war man and stop kill off the children. Save the youths.

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