Just as dub reggae anticipated funk and rock remixes, toasters — chanting reggae DJs — prefigured rap. U-Roy (Ewart Beckford) was one of Jamaica’s first DJs to graduate from sound systems to chart success in the late ’60s. (Indeed, for several weeks early in 1970, he had three records — “Wear You to the Ball,” “Wake the Town” and “Rule the Nation” — atop the charts on Jamaica’s two radio stations.) His signature style is plain and direct: he shrieks and chants over the instrumental tracks of other hits, interrupting and talking back to the vocals. When he first appeared, such musical antics were unprecedented on record, and he became an immediate sensation. While it can’t be said that U-Roy invented toasting, he’s considered the style’s godfather, and an inarguable reggae pioneer.
Because U-Roy isn’t very active, his records drift in and out of print. Version Galore, which collects many of his first hits, is a must, although far from definitive. Most of his available LPs, in fact, date from the mid-’70s, when he was signed to Virgin and produced by Tony Robinson. Both Dread in a Babylon and Natty Rebel are excellent samplings of U-Roy’s forceful toasting, though the sound and production are smoother, less offbeat and startling than his early work. (Dread has the slight edge for featuring the wonderful “Runaway Girl” and “Chalice in the Palace.”) Crucial Cuts combines some early items with tracks from Rasta Ambassador for an odd combination of old and new styles (some hits are re-recordings) that is inconsistent but serviceable. With a Flick of My Musical Wrist is a compilation of DJ music (by U-Roy and others) from the early ’70s.
U-Roy quietly resurfaced in 1987 with Music Addict, a collection of contemporary tracks produced with Prince Jazzbo. The LP finds him in fine form, toasting with authority and ease, and it compares favorably with much of his older work. The song “Jah, Jah Call You” reaffirms U-Roy’s Rasta faith and reinforces the many positive messages he’s delivered. Ironically, the record got lost in the flood of releases by younger and hipper DJs — U-Roy’s musical descendants — and attracted little attention. Line Up and Come, produced and arranged by Tappa Zukie, surfaced around the same time as Music Addict. While there are some good tracks, this weak LP lacks U-Roy’s usual punch and spice.
Version of Wisdom is an essential 20-track compilation of two landmark U-Roy albums, Version Galore and With Words of Wisdom (aka U-Roy), showcasing him at his creative peak in the ’70s. Concise highlights (only one track exceeds three minutes) of this R&B-flavored cornucopia include “Your Ace from Outer Space,” “Rule the Nation,” “Version Galore,” “True Confession,” “Words of Wisdom” and John Holt’s “Tide Is High.”