His front teeth inlaid with red, green and gold gems, Big Youth (Manley Buchanan) is probably the best-known and most popular of all reggae DJs, with a career that’s been going strong since the early ’70s. He began toasting in the early ’70s, after working as a cab driver and a mechanic. His success was quick: records like “The Killer” and “S.90 Skank” (named after a motorcycle) scaled the Jamaican charts with ease, demonstrating his power and versatility. Many years and albums later he remains a major reggae presence, an influence on an entire generation of toasters. (He’s credited with coining the term “natty dread.”) If U-Roy laid the foundation, Big Youth made it happen — he gave toasting style as well as something to say.
Eccentric and startling, all of Big Youth’s early records sounded radical when they first appeared, and have held up marvelously well. Featuring instrumental tracks from songs by Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and others, Screaming Target boasts two versions of the wild title cut, along with “The Killer” and “Solomon a Gunday.” Natty Cultural Dread features the amazing “Every Nigger Is a Star” and “Jim Squashy,” which invokes John Coltrane. Hit the Road Jack has several loopy covers of American soul hits, including Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the titular Ray Charles song and Teddy Pendergrass’ “Wake Up Everybody.” You’ve never heard these songs this way — offbeat and wonderful. Although all of the Trojan releases are worth owning, Everyday Skank is an invaluable compilation of LP tracks and early singles.
Dreadlocks Dread (reissued by Virgin in the Crucial Cuts series) features “Marcus Garvey Dread” (a toast of the Burning Spear classic), “Train to Rhodesia” and “House of Dread Locks.” The LP marks Big Youth’s development as a composer, and his increased reliance on Rasta subject matter. Side Two has a couple of filler instrumentals, but the record is widely considered his best.
Isaiah continues the evolution heard on Dreadlocks Dread. Youth does more singing (or sing-jaying, as it’s called) than toasting; originals outnumber covers. The groove is steady and appealing. Big Youth’s recent releases are also marked by their consistency. All four Heartbeat titles boast a variety of styles, tough and relevant protest lyrics and rootsy playing. Not as wild as his early sides, these records are nonetheless some of the best contemporary reggae — authentic and uncorrupted, personal and moving. He’s mellowed a bit with age — parts of Manifestation are downright sluggish — but Big Youth remains as formidable an artist as ever.
Rounding out the canon, Live at Reggae Sunsplash (from a 1982 festival) proves he hasn’t lost his ability to work a crowd, and provides a decent document of one of his better shows.