U-Roy, legendary reggae toaster, dies aged 78

‘The originator’ of toasting on record helped revolutionise soundsystem culture in Jamaica – and inspire the birth of hip-hop

The legendary toaster U-Roy has died aged 78, a representative for Trojan Records has confirmed. No cause of death has been made public.

The British reggae DJ David Rodigan was among those to pay tribute, describing U-Roy as “the paradigm of Jamaican music … I was always in awe of him; the tone of voice, the cadence, the lyrical shimmering and riddim riding made him the ‘soul adventurer’.” Ali Campbell of UB40 hailed him as “a true inspiration, [paving] the way for many generations and creating a sound that will live for ever!” Shaggy said: “Today we lost one of our heroes!!”

The Rapper Ghostpoet tweeted: “They ain’t ready for your toasting in heaven.”

U-Roy was not the first toaster but he became known as “the originator” for being the first to put his distinctive vocal style on record, birthing a phenomenon and inspiring the creation of hip-hop. “His rich-toned voice proclaimed sizzling, jive-saturated lyrics rather than simply inserting a few phrases,” wrote a critic for Reggae Vibes. “And besides that he rode the pared-down instrumental track all the way through, rather than interjecting at crucial points.”

U-Roy was born Ewart Beckford in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1942. His family was musical, his mother performing in the choir at a local Seventh-Day Adventist church. He first DJed aged 14. “My mother used to say to me: Why don’t you trim and shave because you will look a much nicer boy?” he told United Reggae. “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 and I’m not going to disrespect you. But what I believe in is what I believe in.”

He began his professional career in 1961, performing on the soundsystem owned by Dickie Wong, who ran the Tit for Tat record label and club (where Sly Dunbar met Robbie Shakespeare) in Kingston. He moved between soundsystems before a period as the top DJ of King Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi in the late 60s.

King Tubby’s elongated dub versions created the space for U-Roy to expand his inventive vocal style. “That’s when things started picking up for me,” he told the LA Times in 1994.

U-Roy: Wake the Town – video

In Bob Stanley’s pop history Yeah Yeah Yeah, singer Dennis Alcapone describes witnessing the duo play live. “Him and U-Roy start the dance off as normal, and after a while he play You Don’t Care by the Techniques, then he switch it to the dub version and, after a couple of lines, all the crowd could hear was pure rhythm. Then U-Roy come in toasting and they went nuts.”

In 1969 U-Roy made his first recordings, with Keith Hudson, Lee Perry and Peter Tosh, though his breakout would come a year later, when John Holt witnessed U-Roy DJing and toasting over Holt’s song, Wear You to the Ball, and told producer Duke Reid to work with him.

Their partnership spawned three immediate hits, Wake the Town, Rule the Nation and Wear You to the Ball, as well as two dozen more singles, and inspired a rush of producers seeking to work with DJs on record. “Before that, the DJ business was not something that people take seriously,” he told the LA Times. “I didn’t really took it serious. People weren’t really used to this stuff.”

U-Roy released hundreds of singles throughout the 70s, including a run of hits with Bunny Lee. A deal with Virgin led to the album Dread in a Babylon, produced by Prince Tony Robinson. It boosted U-Roy’s popularity in the UK, where he counted Joe Strummer as a fan.

On the other side of the Atlantic DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock took the approach of U-Roy and the Kingston sound to their Bronx parties to distinguish them from the mid-70s disco scene, extemporising over Space Echo and inventing their own slang. Kool Herc’s Bronx apartment block would come to be recognised as the birthplace of hip-hop.

Undeterred by his recording success, U-Roy returned to soundsystem culture, launching his own, Stur-Gav, to raise a new generation of toasters including Shabba Ranks, Ranking Joe and Charlie Chaplin. “That was the biggest fun in my life when I started doing this,” he told United Reggae.

While active as a performer in the 1980s, U-Roy scarcely recorded again until 1991 – by which time he had moved to LA – when the British producer Mad Professor invited him to appear on the album True Born African. It spawned another lasting creative partnership. U-Roy’s last album, 2018’s Talking Roots, was also produced by Mad Professor. “From I was 15 when I heard Version Galore I wanted to work with U-Roy,” Mad Professor tweeted on Thursday.

In 2019 he was “crowned” by Shabba Ranks in New York, who called him “di Picasso of our music”. That year he also recorded a new album, Solid Gold U-Roy, featuring Sly and Robbie, Zak Starkey on guitar and Youth of Killing Joke on production, with guest appearances from Mick Jones of the Clash, Shaggy and Ziggy Marley among others, to be released this summer by Trojan Jamaica.

Reflecting on his message, U-Roy told the LA Times: “I just talk about unity with people. I don’t really try to put down people or anything like that. Violence is very ugly and love is very lovely. I never been to college or anything like that, but I have some common sense, and what I learn I just make the best of it, you know.”

• This article was amended on 18 February 2021. An earlier version said that Hall and Oates sampled a song by U-Roy on their song Soldering; it was by the Starlights. It was amended again on 24 February 2021 to update the name of U-Roy’s final album to Solid Gold U-Roy.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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