The Jamaican style known as toasting speaking in rhyme over records figures prominently in the pre-history of rap. And few toasters had a greater impact in the 1970s than Big Youth, whose career during much of the decade is celebrated on the new three-CD set Natty Universal Dread.
"His made some of the greatest mold-breaking DJ records," assessed reggae historian Steve Barrow, who released the collection on his Blood and Fire label. "He was the first one to bring the culture into it and coined a lot of phrases like 'natty dread.'"
Big Youth, born Manley Augustus Buchanan, was already a devout Rastafarian when he began toasting in March 1971 with the Lord Tippertone Sound System (a large mobile disco). American artists such as Dionne Warwick were his idols as a young singer, but he turned to speaking because "that was my way of getting my expression across. It was something that was in me. The Almighty put me there to make my comments, and the sound system was in my reach."
Toasting became a reggae art form thanks to artists such as U-Roy, who had been scoring hits since 1970. Youth entered the studio under the direction of producers such as Gregory Isaacs and Gussie Clarke, and within a year had seven singles on the chart simultaneously. In 1973 he began releasing material on his own label, Negusa Nagast.
"The producers were looking after themselves, and not taking care of any artists," Youth said. "So I thought I should start doing my own thing." He took War's "The World Is a Ghetto," turned it upside-down with a reggae beat and called it "Streets in Africa" (RealAudio excerpt). To it he added his own spiritually and politically conscious vision, culled from his Rastafarian beliefs, and his raw ghetto voice. According to Youth, he earned more from that one song than from his seven previous hits.
Youth's reputation and success continued as an independent producer and artist. He said he was able "to reach to other people in the world and make my commitment through my words." The '70s were a time of raised consciousness in Jamaica. "In those days we had less violence," Youth recalled. "People weren't preaching the gun and disrespect to women."
Music also offered him a way out of the Kingston ghetto where he'd been living. While he jokingly remarked that "ghetto means 'get out,' and I was trying to get out," seriousness lies behind his laughter.
The next few years were among the most creative of his career. While he enjoyed a few hits as a singer, usually covering British or American hits, his focus was on toasting. Sometimes he combined the two, as on his version of Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack," which,
he noted, is "still one of my favorites." But he also retains fondness for the deep Rasta vibe of "I Pray Thee Continually" (RealAudio excerpt).
As with most other roots-reggae artists, the popularity of dancehall and ragga wasn't kind to Big Youth and he doesn't have many kind words for the newer sound.
"People are pushing mediocrity. There's nothing to uplift the music or the people. Reggae music is a tool for teaching. Reggae is truth music, and they're not preaching truth today."
But with a growing resurgence of roots music, Youth is back in the spotlight. He will release a new album, Misinformation, in March, on his Negusa Negast label. Blood and Fire also hopes to release more from the man who, according to Barrow, "mashed them all up from '70 on."
"We're going to follow up with more Big Youth material over the next few years," Barrow continued. "I'm preparing an album of outside productions to come out on a new subsidiary next year."
Youth has no plans to alter his sound, though.
"I never changed my music, my style or my beat," he said. "I'm catering to people young and old. When you can make a baby or a great-grandmother dance, you know you're reaching out."