Wednesday, May 21, 2008
I-ROY "The Mighty Poet"
I-Roy was one of a quartet of DJs that reigned over the Jamaican music scene during the early to mid-'70s. Along with U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, and Big Youth. I-Roy was the most eloquent, and his toasts were littered with references to pop culture, movies and historical figures. He cut many singles, and dozens of albums, but his prominence began to wane by the end of the decade, although he continued recording in to the 1990s.
He was born as Roy Reid on June 28, 1949, in St. Thomas, Jamaica. He had no musical aspirations in his early life and after graduating from Dinthill Technical College, he embarked on a civil service career, working as an accountant for the government. Though once the island's music scene began to grow in the '60s, he became more impassioned by music and especially Sound systems. In 1968, Reid decided to launch his own, ‘Soul Bunny’. To start with he took advantage of the weekly early closing (a former British practise, were shops closed for businesses one afternoon a week). With this in mind he decided to set up his system on Wednesday afternoons down by Victoria Pier. He soon made an impact, and was offered a spot at Son's Junior system in Spanish Town. It was here that he met producer Harry Mudie, who took the Roy Reid into the studio where he became I-Roy. He recorded four songs, two with Dennis Walks, "The Drifter" and "Heart Don't Leap", and one with the Ebony Sisters, “Let Me Tell You Boy". His fourth cut was called "Musical Pleasure," this became his solo debut. All the songs were hits, and I-Roy quickly became in demand at sound systems. He DJ’d for virtually all the outfits operating around Spanish Town, Stereo, Ruddy's Supreme, and V-Rocket.
Although I-Roy played for many of the systems he remained loyal to Mudie until 1971. I-Roy had now developed a rabid following in Britain, and as so often is the case they fell out over money, namely financial arrangements for a forthcoming European tour. With their partnership now over this freed I-Roy to record with virtually every major producer on the island. He cut "Hot Bomb" for Lloyd Campbell, "Mood for Love" with Winston Blake, and "Problems of Life" and "Musical Drum Sound" for Lloyd Daley. These singles were all big hits, and subsequently I-Roy was offered a slot at King Tubby's legendary Hi-Fi sound system. 1973 was a signature year, the hits came down like rain. Producer Bunny Lee oversaw three, the fabulous "Rose of Sharon," "Make Love," and "Who Cares." Derrick Harriott produced "Melinda," Jimmy Radway cut "Sound Education," and Keith Hudson produced "Silver Platter." Lee Perry took the DJ into the studio for "High Fashion" and "Space Flight," Ruddy Redwood was responsible for "Sidewalk Killer," Pete Weston oversaw the entertaining "Buck and the Preacher," Glen Brown was behind a trio of cuts including "Festive Season," while Byron Lee oversaw a tribute to the ever popular sci-fi show Dr. Who. There were others with Clive Chin, Rupie Edwards; the list just goes on and on. However, these many mighty cuts pale compared to I-Roy's work with producer Gussie Clarke. The pair began their partnership with "Magnificent Seven," and followed it up with the equally impressive "High Jacking." This was followed by a flood of hits, and by the time the two men had completed work on I-Roy's debut album, ‘Presenting’, the record was almost a ‘Best of Collection’. The majority of the album is made up from Clarke cuts, with several from Pete Weston included. The biggest track for me from this album is "Blackman Time," which utilized the "Slaving" rhythm, while everything else on the LP is nearly as strong. A second self-produced album followed soon, ‘Hell & Sorrow’, and is a worthy successor to his debut. Again this is hits heavy, with "Buck and the Preacher" and "Monkey Fashion" amongst the top tunes included, and it proved to be as big a success as its predecessor.
Britain was now paying serious attention and Hell & Sorrow, which had been released there via the Trojan label, and had received nothing but acclaim. In response, I-Roy was off to the U.K., arriving in time to promote his next release, the excellent The ‘Many Moods Of’. I-Roy stayed in Britain for eight months and arrived home to discover that DJing had been declared dead. He was having none of that and a battle brewed. With the rise of the DJs, Jamaican artists had taken a serious hit. The new genre was built around recycled rhythms initially using popular oldies from the rocksteady era. Producers still need a rhythm section to re-record the songs to give them a more up to date feel. As time went on more musicians were added to the brew, but this meant singers were now virtually redundant. In response, the Jamaican Federation of Musicians, under their president, veteran jazzman Sonny Bradshaw, had fought long and hard to resurrect what they deemed as "real" music. This was the beginning of the shadowy conspiracy of veteran singers who now began unleashing a flood of vocal cuts onto the market. However, Jamaican fads are notorious for their short lives, and it's more likely that it was down to a normal change of taste, that saw the initial age of DJs fade away. I-Roy however hadn't admitted defeat yet, he was merely biding his time. In the interim, he took employment at Joe Gibbs and JoJo Hookim's brand new Channel One studio. Although he never held the title, and rarely received the credit, the former DJ became the studio's house producer, and was behind several of the studio's innovations.
In February 1975, I-Roy started to re-launch his career. It began with "Black Bullet," on which he dueted with Jackie Brown. JoJo Hookim then oversaw a stream of I-Roy hits, "I Man Time," "Forward Yah!," "Roots Man," and the saucy "Welding" amongst them. With Phil Pratt, the DJ cut "Ital Dish" and "Musical Air Raid," while Pete Weston was at the controls for "Natty Down Deh." The latter single was aimed directly at I-Roy's number one enemy, Sonny Bradshaw (who's referred to as "Lockjaw" on the record), and the DJ couldn't help but gloat at the singles chart successes. By the end of the year, I-Roy had scored hit after hit with songs including "Fire Stick," "Dread in the West," "Padlock," "Teapot," and a pair of songs taking exception to fellow DJ Prince Jazzbo, one of a number of young toasters determined to take I-Roy’s crown. Dissing the competition on record has always been the fashion in Jamaican history, dating back to the early '60s with Prince Buster's feud with singer Derrick Morgan and producer Leslie Kong. That one was personal, but I-Roy's and Prince Jazzbo's musical battle was not, Though that didn't stop the two from taking even more personal, and more hilarious, potshots at each other. I-Roy’s opening shot was "Straight to Jazzbo's Head," which prompted Jazzbo to retort with "Straight to I-Roy's Head." Soon after, the younger DJ had an incident with a bus, luckily with no serious harm; the elder DJ then used this incident for "Jazzbo Have Fe Run." As he had not suffered any misfortunes of his own. Jazzbo then fired back questioning I-Roy’s manhood with “Gal Boy I-Roy”. That received a swift return with "Padlock," a song where the DJ attempts to arouse the sleeping "Princess Jazzbo." And the sparring continued, much to audiences' delight, with other DJs jumping on the bandwagon to take their own potshots at the mighty I-Roy. Thankfully this feud never resulted in clashes between supporters, and the two DJs remained friendly behind the scenes. Before this clash finally ended an album was released ‘Step Forward Youth’, which put the pair's barrages onto one disc. (In 1990, the Ujama label rereleased them as Head to Head Clash).
In 1975 I-Roy's released his fourth album, Truth & Rights, which was produced by Pete Weston. Again the album was filled with recent hits, alongside some strong new material. In 1976, I-Roy signed with new Virgin subsidiary Front Line, and over the next three years he released a staggering nine albums! In 1976 alone I-Roy released four albums. The best one being ‘Can't Conquer Rasta’, a dub-filled joy overseen by Bunny Lee. With whom I-Roy had worked with the year before on "Straight to Jazzbo's Head”. His debut for Front Line was titled ‘Musical Shark Attack’, and was immediately followed by ‘Crisis Time’. Both records were slightly not as ferocious as past efforts, probably keeping in mind the sensibilities of his overseas audiences, but both feature heavy roots and flowing toasts over a host of classic cuts. The Klik label also released Dread Bald Head. The following year, I-Roy joined forces with Niney Holness for a host of cuts, including "Zion Trip," "Point Blank," "Jah Come Here," and "Point Blank." He also went into the studio with Alvin Ranglin, to make ‘The Best of I-Roy’ album. Which is not quite as the title suggests a hits collection, but was in fact a record of new material, all recorded with the superb Revolutionaries. The Rhythms are taken from Studio One classics, with the Heptones and Alton Ellis particularly favoured, and is a laid back, rootsy, atmospheric record, and is considered by many as one of the DJ's best. ‘Ten Commandments’ was also released this year. A concept album. Musically the record is based on Bob Marley's Exodus, with each of the biblical commandments providing the theme for a single track.
After that, Heart of a Lion paled somewhat, although Harry Johnson does nice work here. The Godfather paired I-Roy back with Bunny Lee and Roderick "Blackbeard" Sinclair, with the law (as compared to the commandments) and gangsters being the chattering themes of choice. The General sadly was of less note than its dub companion, Spider's Web. All of these albums arrived in 1977. Perhaps this heavy output of records helped to suppress the DJ’s singles' sales, and he was now no longer a regular in the chart. But the albums kept coming, and 1978 brought ‘World on Fire’, with Sly & Robbie again supplying the rhythms. The late great Joe Gibbs oversaw ‘African Herbsman’, and the DJ rejoined Harry J. for 1979's ‘Hotter Yatta’. That same year's ‘Cancer’ a reference to I-Roy's zodiac sign, not the disease, while the song topics return to movie stars and musical heroes. 1980's ‘Whap'n Bap'n’ was released under the DJ's real name, and paired him with the U.K. maverick producer Dennis Bovell, for a surprisingly subdued record.
I-Roy followed this the following year with another mediocre effort ‘Doctor Fish’, while 1983's ‘Outer Limits’ found the DJ trying rap. Unfortunately there were few highlights, and it was becoming apparent that the DJ was beginning to lose his shine. Further albums just confirmed this fear and sessions with Blackbeard in 1984 were so disappointing that the DJ's output now slowed to a trickle. Occasional records did appear, 1987 brought “We Chat You Rock”, on which the DJ paired with Jah Woosh, 1990 saw the arrival of ‘The Lyrics Man’, but none revived I-Roy's fortunes. By the '90s, the DJ was suffering from a variety of health problems and his financial situation was so precarious that for stretches of time he found himself homeless.
By the end of his life, I-Roy had become financially reliant on his mentally retarded son. A second son was in prison and was killed there in October 1999. This tragedy was perhaps the final blow for the weakened legend, and on November 27, 1999, the DJ died in a Spanish Town hospital from heart problems.
With thanks to Jo-Ann Greene, All Music Guide