Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Big Youth - A Profile

This month sees the 60th birthday of one of my favourite, and first reggae artists I got into the amazing....

Born on April 19, 1949, in Kingston, Jamaica, Manley Augustus Buchanan would grow up to become better known as Big Youth. He would also be among the first reggae artists to profess his Rastafarian beliefs in music. He was one of five children and grew up in chaos and poverty raised by his mother, a Christian preacher, and his father, a police officer. He had a strong will and often clashed with his parents as he was determined to make it on his own. Indeed when he joined the Rastafarians it caused a lot of stress in his Christian family, and took a very long time for his mother to accept her son's decision. He left school at 14 and went straight to work as a driver and mechanic at the Skyline and Sheraton Hotels in Kingston. It was here where he was given the 'nickname' of "Big Youth" due to the fact he was both younger and taller than his co-workers. It was also while here that people overheard him singing to himself in the hotel's large empty rooms. Impressed with his style his friends told him he should try to deejay, and so He began to work at the local dancehalls by night, where he developed his talent, of talking and singing for an audience. By 1970 Big Youth was a regular deejay at Lord Tippertone's sound system, a popular club in Jamaica where duelling deejays vied for the stage. Big Youth, with his deep voice and Rastafarian style, quickly became a star.
Big Youth took a while to break into the Jamaican mainstream. His first recording, the Gregory Isaacs produced "Movie Man" didn't really do much, and after a few more rather disappointing releases with various producers it was Gussie Clark who finally got him the recognition he deserved. Clark turned Big Youth's single "The Killer" into his first big hit. With a follow-up collaboration on the single "Tippertone Rocking" the two enjoyed a back-to-back success that put Big Youth on the music map. "Representing the authentic sound of the ghetto, Big Youth set new standards for DJs to say something constructive on record...," so says the Encyclopaedia of Popular Music.
His first really big hit though was in 1972 with the motorcycle-inspired single "Ace Ninety Skank" (Also known as "S. 90 Skank"), produced by Keith Hudson, it gave his career another big boost. The song, named after a cult Japanese motorcycle, was about riding the bike safely. Producer Keith Hudson actually brought the motorcycle into the studio to record its characteristic sound. The melody of the tune and Big Youth's flowing vocal caused an immediate stir in Jamaica and tune soon went gold. His first full album followed in 1973, with "Screaming Target", which spawned a number of hits, including four that stayed in the Jamaican top 20 for a full year. Also he formed his own labels in this year, Negusa Negast and Augustus Buchanen, and these gave us some quality releases, but Big Youth still found time to work with other producers, such as Prince Buster, Joe Gibbs, Derrick Harriott and Winston Riley, and due to his phenomenal output at this time, he even at one stage had 5 of the top 10 singles in Jamaica.
His live performances were also becoming legendary. He would drive the audience wild with a quick flash of his incredible dreadlocks. He was, indeed, one of the first artists to don the style on album covers and on stage where it became a staple of the culture. He also had red, gold, and green gems set into his front teeth. Now firmly in the spotlight, he didn't let go. Bob Marley, already a growing international musician, called Big Youth his favourite artist. Though Big Youths influence would not spread so wide and he remained primarily in Jamaica. He did however tour England, with a young Dennis Brown, in 1977 and was a huge success. Johnny Rotten, flying high with the Sex Pistols, saw Big Youth's London Rainbow show and went backstage for photographs with the artist afterward.
Big Youth continued recording with releases during the 1980s and 1990s, though never reaching the heady highs of the 70's, and his work includes 'Chanting Dread Inna Fine Style', 1983; 'Live at Reggae Sunsplash', 1984; 'A Luta Continua' (The Struggle Continues), 1986; 'Manifestation', 1988;' Jamming in the House of Dread', 1990; and 'Higher Grounds', 1995. In 2000 Big Youth's biggest hits, from his golden era between 1973 -1979, were collected on 'Natty Universal Dread', a three-CD set. This set was hailed as
"Just bursting with Youth's incomparable toasting over many of the most crucial riddims of the era. Riddims that have remained foundational to this day."
Music critic Maurice Bottemley singled out the track "Riverton City" for praise:
"A tour through the poorest of the poor that is done with warmth, dignity, and love. This is urban poetry at its most sublime and over as fine a set of rhythms as anyone has ever heard."
Big Youth's great legacy is built on a number of moving hits and his casual demeanour, which makes his audiences feel like they know him. He continues to record and perform new material, such as 'Dreadlocks Dread' released in 2001, with a focus on preaching the ways of Rastafaria. Though his records and live appearances are now few and far between, Youth has remained at the top for longer than any other DJ apart from U-Roy. He is now considered an elder in the reggae and Rastafarian community, recording and performing music at his leisure, and is still very much respected and revered by the reggae world.

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