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Reggae Legends

U Roy

U Roy

By Tom Pryor
Published September 9, 2005

U-Roy perfected the art of the Jamaican DJ, turning the between-song patter of his sound system predecessors into the main event itself.

Ewart Beckford, a.k.a. U-Roy, is known as “The Originator,” since it was he, more than any other performer, who perfected the art of the Jamaican DJ, turning the between-song patter of his sound system predecessors like Count Machuki into the main event itself. U-Roy’s “toasts” (raps) were so successful and original that he inspired a legion of imitators and opened up a whole new genre, while laying the groundwork for hip-hop in the bargain.

          U-Roy got his start working for various Kingston sound systems as a teenager in the late ’60s, but his big break came in 1969, when he signed on with King Tubby’s legendary Home Town Hi-Fi sound system. At the time, Tubby was also working as an engineer for the Treasure Isle label, and had access to instrumental cuts from the label’s deep vaults. Tubby began experimenting with these “versions” at his dances, with U-Roy filling in the vocal gaps with rhymes, “toasts,” shouts, and all kinds of vocal exhortations to keep the dancers moving. But U-Roy took things one step further, improvising new and topical lyrical rhymes that perfectly rode the rhythm. His new style was wildly popular, and these “versions” were soon more in-demand than the originals at dances, prompting him to record.

          U-Roy cut his first sides for Lee Perry, Bunny Lee and others, but in 1970 he began recording for Duke Reid’s label directly, using even more of those same Treasure Isle rocksteady and early reggae favorites as his backing instrumental tracks. The collaboration struck gold immediately, with the first release, “Wake The Town,” going straight to number one upon its release. It was soon followed by “Rule The Nation” and “Wear You To The Ball,” which joined it in the number two and number three spots, so that U-Roy dominated the Jamaican charts that year.

          He would continue to dominate both dancehalls and record charts throughout the early ’70s, and his hyper-charged toasts and boasts evolved into smart and sustained commentaries on current events, both local and international. U-Roy’s success inspired a legion of new DJs in his wake, from I-Roy and Big Youth to Dennis Alcapone and Dillinger. Today, of course, aspiring dancehall dons can be found from Toronto to Tokyo, but it was U-Roy who first brought it all together, who set the template and defined the style. And, in his heyday, nobody could touch him.

Recommended Recordings


Version Galore (Trojan)

Super Boss: The Great Treasure Isle Collection (Lagoon)

Now (Beatville Records)