Styles & Forms | Deejays | Reggae

If there was one thing that summed up Jamaican music – its uniqueness, its ability to adapt from elsewhere, its inventiveness, its influence abroad, its sound system roots and its continuing closeness to its audience – it would be the deejay.

Born on the sound systems in the 1950s, the deejay’s job was to vibe up the dance by ‘bigging up’ his employer’s sound system (the term ‘toasting’ comes from this main part of the deejay’s job), comment on what was going on around him, interact with the records, push liquor sales and announce the next dance, all while riding the rhythms. As a sound system operator, having the right records was one thing, but having the right deejay could be everything – when Prince Buster launched his Voice Of The People Sound System in 1958, he poached Coxsone Dodd’s deejay Count Machuki, considered the best on the island. Buster maintains ‘It was so important to have the right deejay, that when Machuki join my new sound system, even though I was just a yout’ everybody knew they had to take me seriously.’

Creating Their Own Style

As with so much that is uniquely Jamaican, the idea of deejaying in this manner was originally appropriated from somewhere else – it was inspired by the jive-talking jocks on the southern black American radio stations that were picked up in Jamaica. These guys scatted around and over their records, turning the most mundane tunes into something exciting, which suited their Caribbean counterparts for two reasons: prior to a Jamaican recording industry, all but the biggest sound systems had pretty much the same imported US records as each other and an inventive deejay could customize them; and by speaking in their own style it was a handy way to put a Jamaican twang on American songs. It’s hugely ironic that it was a Jamaican, Kool DJ Herc, who moved to New York with his sound system in 1967 and introduced toasting, which was quickly taken up by native New Yorkers and metamorphosed into rap.

Deejays found their way on to wax in the late-1960s when the acknowledged founding father was U-Roy, who toasted on top of old rock steady classics. He was followed by Dennis Alcapone, I-Roy and Dillinger. With their eloquent protests, deejays had something serious to say, and Big Youth, Tapper Zukie, Prince Far-I, I-Roy, Prince Jazzbo, U-Roy and Dr. Alimantado assumed griot status as they ushered in the roots’n’culture era. U-Roy’s album Version Galore contains some of the first deejay songs to go on record, while Big Youth’s Screaming Target LP and Prince Far-I’s Under Heavy Manners are roots deejay classics.

Taking It Further

Dancehall reggae was all about deejays, and as they moved to centre stage, characters like Yellowman (‘Mr Yellowman’), Eek-A-Mouse (‘Wa Do Dem’) and Michigan & Smiley (‘Rub A Dub Style’) proved to be hugely inventive. The 1990s generation of deejays brought MTV-style showmanship to their craft: Ninjaman, Supercat, Bounty Killer,...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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