Tiggerlion on Screaming Target by Big Youth
In 1973, Manley Augustus Buchanon, cut a spectacular figure on Lord Tippertone’s Sound System, and not just because of his prodigious height, the physical characteristic that gave him the nickname of Big Youth. His smile gleamed with red, green and gold bejeweled teeth. When he released his tam, his luxuriant, flowing dreadlocks would be greeted by a roar from the crowd. Rastafari was a fringe religion. Only outsiders sported dreadlocks. The Abyssinians were locksed but hardly any other Reggae act at the time. Of The Wailers, just Bunny had a set of locks. Bob was starting to grow his out. Dreadlocks were the mark of a rebel. Big Youth’s appearance made a clear statement and so did his verbal content. He found a new way to toast, breaking the deejay mould. Big Youth was more than an entertainer, he had a message to deliver. Not for him the standard bend-down-low, chick-a-bow. Most deejays presented a grandiloquent caricature of themselves, dominating the stage by force of an exaggerated personality. Big Youth remained true to himself. He brought roots consciousness to the dance party and he did it with wit, charm and panache, using the vernacular of the ordinary brother from Kingston. It was as though he was speaking a new language.
The Sound System has been an intrical part of the Jamaican cultural fabric since the 1940s and is responsible for the rise in modern Jamaican music. Owners loaded up a truck with record decks and huge speakers and held street parties. The most popular and better organised were able to charge an entrance fee and benefit from sales of food and drink. A selecter would pick the records and an MC would introduce the songs, rev up the crowd and fill the gaps between one disc and another. Jamaican radio was institutionally conservative, so, at first, America was the major influence. The music played was jazz, RnB, then soul. Secretly imported singles with plain, white labels were highly prized. Exclusivity and novelty were essential to attract a bigger crowd. The MCs modelled themselves on their American counterparts, using jive slang, boasting, rhymes and catch phrases. Pretty soon, however, the sound systems became a test bed for local talent: engineers, DJs, record producers, business entrepreneurs who all put their own Jamaican flavour on proceedings.
By the sixties, the two big beasts in the field, Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, were making their own records using local musicians, not too dissimilar to the production lines of Tamla Motown and Stax. The music moved from Ska to Rock Steady. The focus was on melody and harmony vocal groups. Hedley Jones built bespoke speaker cabinets capable of emitting 30,000 Watts of bass. Count Matchuki was the first superstar MC, whose spoken word introductions were a key attraction in their own right. The records popular at the dances were also popular with the record buying public, despite little in the way of radio play. Dodd’s Studio One and Reid’s Treasure Isle thrived. Serious money was being made.
As the sixties turned into the seventies, a talented engineer called Osbourne Ruddick, ran Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi, the finest rig around. During the day, he cut discs for Duke Reid and created specials or versions with spaces left in the harmony vocals, giving his MC more room to work his magic at the dances. That deejay was Ewart Beckford, otherwise known as U-Roy. U-Roy knew the Treasure Isle catalogue intimately. His chat interacted with the singers as though they were close friends. He didn’t talk over the records, he conversed with them. He was the voice of the people and the Sound System was a direct line to the island’s public. His holler of a voice woke the town. The effect was dramatic. King Stitt might have been the first MC to successfully replicate his live act in the studio but U-Roy converted Deejay into an art form as a recording artist, embellishing and enhancing the original material.
Big Youth’s first big studio breakthrough was a young Keith Hudson recording, S90 Skank, celebrating a lightweight, affordable motorcycle commonly owned by Rastas in Kingston, matching it to a thick, heavy beat. But it was when he teamed up with a young, dynamic producer, Gussie Clarke, that he gained real traction. Gussie, though still a teenager, commanded great powers of persuasion. He convinced Harry J to let him use his sixteen track studio when four and two track were the norm. He also used many of Harry’s Allstars to record backing tracks especially for Big Youth, slowed down and bass heavy. Not only that, but he had a back pocket of the latest, most popular rhythms from the likes of Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and Leroy Smart. The uncluttered soundbed Gussie created was the best a deejay had ever enjoyed. The Sound System environment gave them immediate feedback from the public, enabling them to refine and reinvent their product quickly. Gussie and Big Youth came from the same district and were also closely in touch with what was happening for the people on the streets. Their records represented a relatable commentary on the reality life in Trench Town. It was a winning combination. At first, the likes of Dodd and Harry J indulged these youngsters without taking them seriously. It wasn’t long before their records were outselling the big producers’.
On the album, Jah Youth comes across as a gentle soul, friendly and genial, gossiping with his neighbours as he wanders around Arnett Gardens. His flow is easy and laidback, naturally melodic and rhythmical, punctuated by screeches and yelps. He repeatedly uses the phrase “as I would say”, almost as a vocal tic, often with the “say” long drawn out, to buy himself a little thinking time. He does, indeed, have a lot to say, free associating wildly about the weather, what’s for supper, your new girlfriend or the latest movie, as well as making pithy observations on life in the ghetto, supporting equal rights, including for women, quoting from the Bible, glorifying God and mumbling nonsense nursery rhymes. The title track opens with Jah Youth bumping into a mate and debating the relative merits of two movies, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and Oliver Reed’s Screaming Target (aka Sitting Target). Youth goes against the grain, preferring the latter, giving himself the excuse to deploy a high pitched scream. It’s an announcement, an attention-grabber rather than a blood-curdler. Once the lilting, syrupy rhythm kicks in, “You say no, I say yes” supported by an uplifting piano figure, he switches topic to advocate the Jamaican Government’s literacy scheme. “Don’t be no fool…go to school.” At the time, many of his listeners were illiterate but hungry for truth. The rhythm is taken from K.C. White’s No No No but its history dates back to You Don’t Love Me, an RnB hit for Willie Cobbs in 1960, which, in turn, was based on Bo Diddley’s 1955 song, She’s Fine, She’s Mine, and was covered by Dawn Penn for Studio One in 1967. She returned to it in 1994 with Steely and Clevie, scoring a worldwide smash. Screaming Target wasn’t too shabby a hit either.
Leroy Smart’s heartbroken Pride And Ambition forms the basis of Pride And Joy Rock. Jah Youth can only empathise, supporting a friend wretched by a wrong in love. “You should only be ashamed if you’ve done something to be ashamed of.” Most of the comfort he offers is in the form of a wordless vocal: “oh diddy wab oh diddy wab oh day,” mumbled as a soothing lullaby. Dennis Brown has the sweetest sufferers voice in Reggae. His cautionary tale, In Their Own Way, is converted into a more general warning to the brothers and sisters of Kingston on Be Careful. “The seeds you sow will be the seed you reap, you know” but at the same time, “You got to do it in your own way.”
Tipper Tone Rock is the closest Big Youth comes to being a traditional MC. He rides Roman Stewart’s Try Me to extoll the virtues of Lord Tippertone’s Sound System where he made his name. He calls out “Let me see you skanking!” and trades DJ phrases such as “Love the life you live and live the life you love,” but his tone is not the traditional brash, boastful MC, he’s relaxed and conversational. For One Of These Fine Days, he hints at his ‘sing-jay’ talent. His voice and rhythm are always musical but here he competes with the great Gregory Isaacs for soulfulness. From One One Cocoa, Isaacs mourns, “It may be for long, but it won’t last forever,” as Youth counters, “Never, never, give up”. Gussie pulls off a neat trick to close side one of the LP, slowing the already nonchalant beat almost to a halt.
Side Two restarts with a cheery greeting to the album’s best track. It’s certainly Gussie’s neatest production, a barely recognisable version of Skylarking, freshly recorded by The Society Squad. Glenn Brown provides a weighty piano figure, giving the rhythm track a stately momentum. Jah Youth is so excited, he ends up spouting gibberish but manages to maintain a smooth flow. It’s called Killer for good reason. Solomon A Gunday uses an obscure KC White version of a Gene Chandler & Barbara Acklin B side, Anywhere But Nowhere. Big Youth thoroughly enjoys himself riffing on the well known nursery rhyme. It’s as delightful as the pickled fish paté that revels in the same name.
An eerie organ refrain underpins Lloyd Parkes’s Slavery, the basis of Honesty. Youth is never aggressive but he can be assertive when it comes to truthfulness to yourself and others, chanting down slavery and demanding equal pay. It goes to the core of his philosophy. Gussie strips Loving Pauper by Gregory Isaacs to its bass, drums and rhythm guitar. The bass becomes the lead instrument allowing Jah Youth to sway to its undulations. He’s feeling good. I Am Alright is all about making the best of life. The finale revisits Solomon A Gunday’s backing track. This time, Big Youth, whose father was a preacher, is quoting from the Book Of Psalms, expressing his faith, without being preachy. “The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” Here is a man living in poverty in a government yard and outcast even there, at peace with himself and the world.
The LP was initially released on Dynamic in Jamaica and Trojan in the UK and beyond. The cover features a black and white photograph of Big Youth, fingers interlocked and wearing a hat, disguising his dreadlocks. He stands in front of a rudimentary target of white, black, grey, pink and cerise circles. The word ‘SCREAMING’ trembles in upper case. It’s simple and effective, unashamedly cheap, catching the eye as it glances through a rack of albums. The back cover has Big Youth oddly posed, down one knee and leaning on a pouffe, cracking enough of a smile to display his teeth. A colour photo might have done them more justice. The credits acknowledge Gregory Isaac (sic), Dennis Brown and K.C. White as backing vocalists, Randy’s Studio, Harry J’s and Dynamics Sounds, plus the engineers, Errol Thompson, Karl Pitterson and Syd Buckner, but none of the musicians. Screaming Target’s importance and popularity are reflected in the fact it has never been out of print. The 1989 CD release had a harsh stereo mix with Jah Youth in one channel and the backing on the other. In 2006, this was corrected and there was a very welcome bonus disc consisting of the original recordings from which the rhythms were taken. Plus, an extremely enlightening set of notes written by Harry Hawke, something you don’t get from a download or stream.
Deejay is a genre whose base unit is the 45 rpm single but is probably best experienced listening to key albums: U-Roy’s Version Galore, Gussie Presenting I-Roy, recorded by Gussie Clarke a little after Screaming Target and deploying many of the same rhythms, Dillinger’s CB200 and Dr Alimantado’s Best Dressed Chicken. Screaming Target trumps them all. Jamaican Deejay has all the constituent parts of Hip Hop and Rap and The Sound System is the template for rave culture and Superstar DJs. It was derived from US radio but returned the favour to Black Urban America with interest. Rap came into prominence in the late seventies and has dominated international music for decades. In its own way, Deejay tilted the world on its axis. If U-Roy is the equivalent of Grandmaster Flash and Dillinger Cyprus Hill, Big Youth is De La Soul. His whimsical style, spiritual nature, knack of making the ordinary sound extraordinary and his overarching message of Peace, Love and Unity reached even further into mainstream. Not only did his singles dominate the Jamaican charts, he and Gussie changed the music, leading the transition to Roots Rock Reggae. Big Youth was key to gaining acceptance for Rastafari in Jamaican society as well as bringing it to the forefront of its music culture. The audience was more than ready to be receptive.
Screaming Target is a joyful, captivating album that transcends Deejay, Reggae and music altogether. All in a little over thirty minutes. More importantly, it is one of the very few albums that captures the essence of a particular human being and the life he led. It is proof that a humble man can become a tower of strength, shape an art form and stand up for the truth. Gussie Clarke provided a wonderful platform but Screaming Target glows with the warmth of Big Youth’s ingenuity, originality and eloquence. He is a man to admire as much for his character as his artistry.
Reference: Lloyd Bradley’s magnificent book, Bass Culture, has a chapter on Deejay entitled Wake the Town, Tell the People, spotlighting Big Youth.