U-Roy: ‘Toasting’ His Way to Top of Jamaican Charts : Pop music: The recording artist’s unique Caribbean style is making waves in the United States. He’ll appear at FESTAC in Long Beach on Sunday.
“When I was young,” says Jamaican deejay and recording star U-Roy, “I didn’t think I would ever live in the United States.”
When asked just how he came from the Kingston ghetto of his youth to an apartment complex in Santa Ana, he is a little hazy on details. He has music business friends in Los Angeles and, well, he just kind of settled in about five years ago.
He does his best to simulate some comforts of home. Every morning, for instance, he drives to Newport Beach to shop for fresh fish. “I just chill and make the best of life,” he says.
U-Roy will be part of a packed lineup of attractions at FESTAC--the Festival of African and Caribbean arts and music--Sunday at the Rainbow Lagoon in Long Beach. Others on the bill include Trinidadian soca star David Rudder, a quartet of salsa veterans billed as the Salsa All Stars, African reggae singer Mutabaruka and Zairean soukous star Tabu Ley Rochereau, a veteran of the original FESTAC in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977.
U-Roy (born Ewart Beckford) may make his home in Orange County these days but Jamaica remains close to his heart. He travels back often (“If I don’t go back to Jamaica, it’s like I turn my back on my country”) and owns a sound system there, a mobile deejay set-up that travels to various neighborhood dances throughout the island nation. Such systems were a fixture in Jamaica in the ‘60s; U-Roy, now 52, first became involved with one as a deejay at age 14.
The deejays at that time were local stars in their own right, adding flamboyant introductions to the records and “toasting” (which is believed to have influenced rapping) over the instrumental sections. U-Roy’s big break came when he was heard by King Tubby, who owned one of the most successful sound systems in Jamaica. Tubby is credited with inventing “dub,” the spacey, echo-heavy, bass-driven remixes of top reggae hits.
“That’s when things started picking up for me,” U-Roy recalls. The dub versions allowed him to toast at length, and the inventiveness of his raps quickly earned him a reputation. Record producer Duke Reid heard him at a dance and wasted no time getting him into a recording studio.
His first three releases were huge hits in Jamaica, holding down the top three spots on the chart for six weeks. “Wear You to the Ball,” which went to No. 1, recently was covered by UB40.
U-Roy was surprised to find himself a recording star.
“Before that, the deejay business was not something that people take seriously,” he says, his thick patois intact despite his time in the States. “I didn’t really took it serious. . . . People weren’t really used to this stuff.”
His rhythmic sense and distinctive voice, with its gravelly exclamations of “Wow” and “Yeah,” have been much imitated but international success has been elusive for U-Roy. Still, he continues to have breakthrough spells, and his recent recordings for Washington-based RAS Records have been well-received.
In any case, he is widely recognized for his pioneer role in the breakthrough of toasting, the precursor to modern “dancehall” music (the biggest dancehall star, Shabba Ranks, is a graduate of U-Roy’s Jamaican sound system).
In his own lyrics, “I just talk about unity with people. I don’t really try to put down people or anything like that. Violence is very ugly and love is very lovely. I never been to college or anything like that, but I have some common sense, and what I learn I just make the best of it, you know.”
* FESTAC takes place Sunday from 11 a.m. to dusk at the Rainbow Lagoon on Shoreline Drive near the Long Beach Convention Center. $10-$18. (310) 474-8685.