Albino reggae toaster Yellowman (Winston Foster) parlayed his unusual looks and talent into overnight success. His music is versatile and engagingly comic in a dancehall style. Like his counterparts in American rap, he’s often swaggering, boasting about his toasting and his luck with the ladies. Because his strut is goodnatured and backed up by fierce turntable work (his improv and rhythm are extraordinary), he’s extremely convincing, and has become quite a sex symbol.
More than two dozen Yellowman albums flooded the market in the early ’80s. Many are so-so live sets, collections of singles and outtakes, Jamaican-only releases, or team-ups with other DJs. The listing above contains only some of his most widely available LPs.
Mister Yellowman, the album that helped launch his international fame, remains among his best. Nearly every cut is strong, including “Mister Chin,” “Two to Six Supermix” and the My Fair Lady-inspired “Yellowman Getting Married” (in the morning). While they often come close, none of his other records equal this consistency and easy versatility.
Zungguzungguguzungguzeng, for instance, isn’t even in the same league. For one thing, it’s misleading (if not mistitled): seven of ten cuts are actually duets with another DJ (Fathead). They make an okay team, but their rapport is mostly in a rub-a-dub style, and the record bogs down as a result. Best is the title tune, a solo toast to the music of Michigan and Smiley’s “Diseases”; worst is “Who Can Make the Dance Ram,” a reworking of Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Candy Man.”
Admirably, CBS tried to encourage Yellowman’s versatility when he signed with the label, but the resulting King Yellowman is another mixed success. Most of Side One is fine (“What Dat,” for instance), but the flip is a mess. Yellowman meets Material for “Disco Reggae,” tries to “Reggae Calypso” and finally covers Frankie Ford’s pop hit “Sea Cruise.” All of these fusion attempts go wildly astray.
Less contrived versatility is evident on his later Shanachie albums. Nobody Move is a bit spotty, but the strong cuts are really great. The title track, as well as “Strictly Mi Belly” and “Why You Bad So” are all cookers, guaranteed to make you rock and groove. Galong is also worth investigating, for it features an anti-Michael Jackson number called “Beat It”; “Reggae Win a Grammy,” Yellowman’s report on his trip to the awards ceremony; and “Skank Quadrille,” a toast to Bunny Wailer’s “Walk the Proud Land.”
Going to the Chapel, on the other hand, lags a bit and is less consistent, although a variety of rhythms are featured and the title cut is a wacko cover of the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.” Track for track, Don’t Burn It Down is stronger, full of energy and fire from first cut (the title song, a ganja anthem) to last (the consummately rude “Dry Head Adassa”).
As the ’80s progressed, so did Yellowman’s label-hopping. Rambo, on a Celluloid subsidiary, is a noble experiment featuring Robert Lyn on piano, Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare going heavy on the bass synthesizer. The backup is unusually high-tech for a Yellowman record, but he raps up a storm, pushing the music aggressively forward like the character commemorated in the title track. (There’s another appropriate cut called “Computerize.”) Yellow Like Cheese returns him to rootsy form: less dance-oriented and with sparser musical backup.
Despite rumors of ill-health, Yellowman has continued to churn out records. While Don’t Burn It Down contains some of his typically lewd slack lyrics, there’s some real fun and noteworthy selections that aren’t dirty. The title track, for example, is an anthemic protest against the burning of ganja fields. He condemns violence against women on “Stop Beat Woman” and offers a political opinion about the South African situation in “Free Africa.” He delivers his lyrics in a step-lively rock/rap mode geared to rile up his listeners, which he invariably does.
In typically nasty fashion, Rides Again contains “Want a Virign,” “AIDS” and “Girl You’re Too Hot.” Yet after such repellent doggerel, Yellowman can draw a card showing his politically conscious side with “Ease Up President Botha,” or reveal his sensitivity with an ode to late reggae singers (“In Memory”).
Recorded live in concert (1987) at the Negril Tree House in Jamaica, the Negril Chill is an actual dancehall session between Mr. Yellow and conscious, roots-culture DJ Charlie Chaplin. It’s an authentic slice of life, as the listener becomes part of and a witness to the casual banter between these two contrasting, yet equally talented DJs.
One in a Million (the material on which dates from 1982) contains two of his earliest hits, “Operation Eradication” and “Them a Mad Over Me.”