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U-Roy, Jamaican Vocalist Who Defined Dancehall And Presaged Hip-Hop, Dies At 78

U-Roy, performing at Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay, Jamaica on Aug. 8, 1984.
U-Roy, performing at Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay, Jamaica on Aug. 8, 1984.

Ewart "U-Roy" Beckford, who transformed the Jamaican art of toasting, or deejaying, from a sound system phenomenon into a hit-making art form that deeply influenced generations of dancehall artists as well as the formation of early hip-hop, has died. U-Roy's partner, Marcia Smikle, told the Jamaica Gleaner that he'd been unwell for some time; the news was also confirmed by Trojan Records. He was 78.

Respectfully referred to as The Teacher, The Originator or simply Daddy, U-Roy wasn't the best-known name in Jamaican music among an international audience, yet exerted an incalculable influence on the development of reggae and dancehall and its offshoots, most notably hip-hop.

"This is a very sad day for Jamaica and for the dancehall genre, we lost a pioneer; he's someone who every deejay should look up to – and I do," Jamaican dancehall superstar Sean Paul tells NPR. "Hearing his name growing up, hearing his songs, he came with a different style; before U-Roy, no one was toasting on records and filling in the blanks." Sean's own vocal contributions to Sia's 2016 No. 1 hit "Cheap Thrills" bears U-Roy's influence, he says. "The little ad libs on that record, the budda-bang-bang, I learned that from him," offers the platinum-selling and Grammy-winning artist. "He pioneered the way for someone like myself to do what I do."

The toasting art form that U-Roy, born in Kingston in 1941, brought to prominence evolved from the early days of Jamaica's sound system dances. Back when just a single turntable was used to play records at a dance, the selector (who chooses the records) was called upon to keep the crowd engaged with playful vocal patter as he flipped the disc from side A to side B. Citing jazz scatting as a primary inspiration, U-Roy's melodic, precisely timed flow advanced the rhyming style of Jamaica's earliest toasters, including Count Matchuki, King Sporty, King Stitt and Lord Comic.

U-Roy started toasting in 1961, rising through the ranks to become the top deejay on dub innovator King Tubby's prominent sound system, Hometown Hi-Fi, in the late '60s. Tubby's revolutionary dub mixes, stripping out vocals and various instruments from a record, gave toasters like U-Roy the opportunity to fully display their vocal finesse. Singer John Holt had observed U-Roy toasting live on an instrumental version of Holt's single "Wear You To the Ball," produced by Duke Reid. Holt told Reid to bring U-Roy in the studio; his productions with U-Roy spawned the radio singles "Wear You to the Ball," "Wake the Town" and "Rule the Nation."

U-Roy went on to record for various producers in Jamaica. He was signed to Virgin Records in the mid-'70s, bringing his distinctive vocals to a wider international audience. He launched his own sound system, Stur Gav, which he named after his sons, and brought forward another generation of toasters including Ranking Joe, Brigadier Jerry, Charlie Chaplin and Shabba Ranks. Through a deal with Epic Records in 1991, Shabba would take deejaying and dancehall reggae to a mainstream US audience, onto the Billboard charts and win two Grammys. Shabba's 1993 single "Respect" honoring the dancehall greats that preceded him highlights U- Roy's profound impact on any toaster who has ever held a mic: "cool cool U-Roy dun rule, U-Roy the godfather of the deejay school."

In 2019, at the 10th anniversary of their Reeewind series of live events in New York, promoter Garfield "Chin" Bourne, CEO of Irish and Chin Promotions, recruited Shabba to crown U-Roy – a gesture that brought tears to the elder artist's eyes. "We brought in Shabba to show a younger generation that might not know that this is who Shabba gives all credit to for his existence," Chin tells NPR. "U-Roy did not originate deejaying, but he became the best at it, his voice was so electrifying, that other deejays that followed wanted to be as melodious as he was and make those smooth rhymes like he did."

U-Roy's flow also laid some of the groundwork for what would become rap in the U.S. "Most of the early hip-hop artists had Caribbean roots and were directly influenced by Jamaica's dancehall space," Chin says, citing the cadence heard in Sugar Hill Gang's prototypical hit "Rapper's Delight" as "directly descended from that smooth lyrical flow that U-Roy perfected. He is the godfather of dancehall and hip-hop too."

In the early 1990s, as Jamaican dancehall was enjoying widespread commercial success with toasters like Shabba, Super Cat and Buju Banton, this journalist interviewed U-Roy about his pioneering role in this significant development. With characteristic humility, U-Roy said he was happy that deejay music had reached so far, even though he was somewhat surprised by it. "If you had said back then that this music from the sound systems would get Jamaicans on American radio, I would have not believed it," he said, "but I am glad to see this happening now and to have played a small part in it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.