A man with a message, Big Youth arrived on the music scene in the wake of U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, and I-Roy, but quickly established his own style, threatening to eclipse them all. The consummate cultural toaster, the DJ ruled the dancehalls across the '70s, and although his career flagged in the next decade, he returned with a vengeance in the '90s, and continues to have an impact on both his own nation and beyond. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on April 19, 1949, Manley Augustus Buchanan had his moniker long before he had picked up a mic. He was named Big Youth by his co-workers at the Kingston Sheraton hotel, where the tall teen was employed as a mechanic. Initially, he toasted to himself (the DJing equivalent of air guitar), but eventually he took the chance of picking up the mic at a few parties. The enthusiastic response he received prodded him to perform at dances, and by the late '60s, he had a small, but avid following. This fan base swiftly grew and as the new decade arrived, Big Youth was now DJing regularly at Lord Tipperton's sound system, quickly becoming the top DJ for the outfit.
By this point, U-Roy, Alcapone, and I-Roy had already made their vinyl debuts, but Big Youth would wait another year, finally releasing his first single in January 1972. He cut "Movie Man" for African Museum, Errol Dunkley and Gregory Isaacs' label, and the song fittingly utilized the rhythm to Dunkley's own "Movie Star." Surprisingly, the single was barely noticed; other producers had no better luck. "The Best Big Youth" (also known as "Black Cindy"), cut with Jimmy Radway, sank without a trace. Lee Perry did no better with "Moving," a version of the Wailers' "Keep on Moving." Producer Phil Pratt thought for sure his two cuts were chartward bound, but both "Tell It Black," a version of Dennis Brown's cover of "Black Magic Woman," and "Phil Pratt Thing," a sublime version of Derrick Harriott's "Riding for a Fall," followed its predecessors into oblivion. Even "Fire Bunn," produced by Niney Holness over his own smash "Blood & Fire" rhythm, failed to ignite the Jamaican buying public. The drought was finally broken by a young (just out of his teens) up and coming producer, Gussie Clarke. For "The Killer" single, he had the DJ toast over the rootsy Augustus Pablo number, and the result was magnificent. The pair followed it up with "Tippertone Rocking, another major hit. Big Youth was now in demand.
The ever-innovative producer Keith Hudson dragged a motorcycle into the studio to capture its revving engine for "S.90 Skank," a tribute to the popular Honda motorcycle, and roared Big Youth to the top of the Jamaican chart. Their follow-up, "Can You Keep a Secret," a duet between the toaster and his singing producer, did almost as well. In between times, Big Youth cut a pair of songs for Glen Brown, "Come Into My Parlour" and "Opportunity Rocks," the latter employing the popular "Dirty Harry" rhythm. Both were actually recorded the same day as "S.90 Skank." That same week, the DJ also cut a quartet of songs for Prince Buster: "Leggo Beast," "Cain and Abel," "Leave Your Skeng" (a version of "Get Ready"), and "Chi Chi Run" (cut over the rhythm of John Holt's "Rain From the Skies"). That latter track titled a various artists compilation that featured the DJ, a young acolyte Little Youth, a trio of top vocalists (Alton Ellis, John Holt, and Dennis Brown), all produced by Prince Buster.
Big Youth's own debut album, Screaming Target, arrived in 1973. Produced by Gussie Clarke, the album was stuffed with classic rhythms from the likes of Gregory Isaacs and Lloyd Parks, and filled with hits as well, including the magnificent title-track. The DJ seemed to have now glued himself to the chart and during that year, four of his songs, including "Screaming Target" (a version of K.C. White's "No No No" and Buster's "Chi Chi Run"), the Derrick Harriott-produced "Cool Breeze," and the Joe Gibbs-produced "A So We Stay" (a version of Dennis Brown's "Money in My Pocket"), sat proudly on the Jamaican Top 20 for the entire year. Gibbs notched up a total of three hits with Big Youth in 1973, along with the aforementioned single, there was also "Chucky No Lucky" and the topical "Forman Versus Frazier."
From boxing bouts to the "Facts of Life," a hit cut for Sonia Pottinger, Big Youth was the tops on any topic. He'd matured swiftly, from a barely understandable mumbler who exhorted the crowds with typical U-Roy or Alcapone-sque exhortations, to a more relaxed, conversational style. And it was this very ease of delivery — relaxed, but so perfectly timed to the rhythms — that had entranced the nation. In 1974, Big Youth launched his own label, Negusa Nagast, it was later followed by a second, Augustus Buchanan. The former's name was particularly telling and is Amharic (the Ethiopian language) for King of Kings. It announced a further shift in the DJ's performance toward a full-on cultural chanter/toaster. Negusa Nagast debuted with a quartet of the DJ's singles, "Hot Cross Bun," "Mr. Bunny," "Children Children," and most spectacularly of all, "Streets in Africa." This latter was a cover of War's "The World Is a Ghetto," and features Dennis Brown backed by the equally sonorous tones of the Heptones. Big Youth released his second album this same year, Reggae Phenomenon, and it was as phenomenal as its title suggested. It featured new songs (all chart-bound), remakes of earlier cuts, and smash hits like the title cut (another version of Dennis Brown's "Money in My Pocket") "Dread Inna Babylon," and "Natty Dread No Jester") (a version of the Paragons' "Only a Smile"). And the DJ's phenomenal chart success continued with producer after producer. Glen Brown scored with "Dubbie Attack," Tony Robinson oversaw the mighty "House of Dreadlocks" and "Mammy Hot and Daddy Cold," Buddy Davidson produced "Johnny Dead," while Yabby You sat behind the desk for the most seminal of them all, "Yabby Youth," the first of several versions the DJ would cut over the "Conquering Lion" rhythm.
Big Youth would again pair up with Dennis Brown for the Harry J.-produced "Wild Goose Chase." Niney Holness liked what he heard and kept the duo together for his "Ride on Ride On." The two would go on to record a stunning version of Bob Marley's "Get up Stand Up." Marley's version wasn't alone; besides toasting over classic rocksteady rhythms, Big Youth was now increasingly utilizing heavier roots rhythms. Most notable was "I Pray Thee," a version of the Abyssinians' "Satta Amasa Gana," which was another seminal smash hit, and the DJ also cut a version of Burning Spear's classic "Marcus Garvey." Two more Wailers' versions also appeared around this time, Marley's "Craven Choke Puppy" and Bunny Wailer's "Bide Up" became, respectively, "Craven Version" and "Black on Black."
In 1975, the Dreadlocks Dread album appeared, a seminal album overseen by Prince Tony Robinson and split between Big Youth's toasts and instrumental dubs. Accompanied by Skin, Flesh & Bones Band, the album remains a masterpiece of dread roots and provocative cultural toasts.
Dreadlocks Dread had a massive impact on the U.K., where it was picked up by the Klik label and prompted Big Youth to tour there the following year. 1976 brought two albums in its wake, Natty Cultural Dread and Hit the Road Jack, both self-produced by a self-confident Big Youth at the peak of his powers. Again the albums featured a clutch of Jamaican smashes — "Ten Against One" and "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" amongst them — and new numbers equally biting at the chart bit. Interestingly enough, Natty Cultural Dread also boasts "Every Nigger Is a Star," backed by the I-Threes making their recording debut. Also featured are some of Big Youth's surprising covers. In the past, he'd versioned Motown hits, Gene Pitney, Al Green, and Otis Redding, "Dock of the Bay" of course. Now along with the title-track, there was even "If I Had a Hammer." 1977 brought the masterful "Four Sevens," a clever version of Culture's "Two Sevens Clash." Produced by Niney Holness, the pair followed up with the provocative "Six Dead, 19 Gone to Jail."
Having now signed to the Frontline label in the U.K., Big Youth's debut album for the Virgin subsidiary was 1978's Isaiah First Prophet of Old, a fiercely roots record produced by D Russell. The DJ also had a cameo role in the movie Rockers. He's absolutely unmistakable, stepping out of a flash car and flashing a smile that shows off his front teeth embedded with red, yellow, and green jewels, as his long dreads whip around his face. But behind these eye-catching trappings was a thoughtful and thought-provoking DJ, as his records proved time and time again. 1978 also saw the release of the "Green Bay Killers" single, a fierce diatribe on the death of a group of rastafarians at the hands of the Jamaican army. Perhaps Big Youth was now seen as too radical for Virgin, and the label chose not to release the DJ's next two albums, Progress and Rock Holy. Nor did they pick up on the former's dub companion, the excellent Reggae Gi Dem Dub, remixed by the up and coming master Sylvan Morris. However, the toaster's grip on Jamaica was also beginning to loosen, and a new generation of chatterers were beginning to come to the fore.
Big Youth continued to record, but no longer ruled the charts, and most of his singles were now self-produced and released through his own labels. The Heartbeat labels' Some Great Big Youth collects up many of these late-'70s, early-'80s material; the label's follow-up collection, The Chanting Dread Inna Fine Style, concentrates on earlier Negusa Negast singles.
The increasing violence in the dancehalls prompted him back into the studio in 1982 for "No War in the Dance," cut for producer Lloyd Parks. He proved his popularity wasn't totally gone, with a steaming, hits-filled set at Reggae Sunsplash before an adoring audience that summer, giving a repeat performance the following year, and again in 1987. In 1985, Big Youth released a surprising new album, A Luta Continua, where he transformed from toaster to singer and roots rasta to jazzman, accompanied by Jamaican jazz hero Herbie Miller. However, 1988's Manifestation found the DJ regaining his footing, for a roots-drenched set split between excellent toasting and sub-quality singing. Two years later, Niney Holness brought Big Youth back into the studio and cut the remarkable "Chanting." The DJ also contributed a fierce "Free South Africa" to the One Man One Vote artists' album. Big Youth later performed at the Japansplash festival in Osaka, with his powerful set caught on 1991's Jamming in the House of Dread album. He reappeared with a vengeance at Reggae Sunsplash the following summer.
With his profile now the highest it had been in years, Big Youth guest-starred on Capleton's I Testament album, Mutabaruka's Gathering of the Spirits, and Creation Rebel's Feat of a Green Planet. In 1995, the DJ released his own new album, Higher Grounds; overseen by Junior Reid, it was an intriguing mixture of R&B, reggae, and other styles. Another powerful set at Reggae Sunsplash was delivered the following year. The new millennium saw the release in the U.K. of the compilation Tell It Black, a two-CD set that rounds up 31 seminal songs from 1972-1975. But that pales next to Natty Universal Dread, released by the British Blood & Fire label that same year. Three albums and a total of 51 tracks brilliantly wrap up the best from 1973-1979 and include a clutch of Negusa Negast singles that have never been reissued. ~ Jo-Ann Greene