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'ACE' OF THE DANCEHALL SPACE: A PRELIMINARY LOOK AT U ROY'S VERSION AND

SUBVERSION IN SOUND
Author(s): Jalani Niaah and Sonjah Stanley Niaah
Source: Social and Economic Studies, Vol. 55, No. 1/2, POPULAR CULTURE (March and June
2006), pp. 167-189
Published by: Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, University of the
West Indies
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Social and Economic Studies 55:1 & 2 (2006): 167-189

ISSN: 0037-7651

'ACE' OF THE DANCEHALL SPACE:


A PRELIMINARY LDDK AT U ROY'S
VERSION AND SUBVERSION

IN SOUND
Jalan i Niaah Sc Sdnjah Stanley Niaah*

ABSTRACT:
No history of the development of the sound system, of DJs or indigenous
Jamaican popular music can be told without reference to stalwarts such as

Count Machuki, King Stitt and Ewart 'U Roy' Beckford. This paper is a
preliminary look at U Roy using a multi-disciplinary and multi-textual

approach to analyse his life, lyrics, space, methods, innovations and


contribution. We contextualize U Roy's verbal artistry in the Jamaican
scene but also in a larger African I African American musical experience.

We define the DJ's 'sound space' as an autonomous entity that


unwittingly 'ruled the nation' by virtue of the subversive versioning that

the Dj added to the musical arena, thus undermining the influence of,
while still winning appeal from, 'polite society'. Notably, the musical
laboratory or sound space gave credence to the artistry and culture of those

persons considered as the under class. It is this laboratory or multi-layered


sound space that is demarcated based on primary data from interviews and
a review of secondary sources.

Dancehall is first to be understood as a space even though it is best

known as a musical genre. It is Jamaica's premiere popular street


theatre that emanated from the poor of Kingston's inner-cities and
continues to receive its creative sustenance from them. Dancehall is

more than music and space though: it is also a specific volume, a


social movement, a profile, an institution, a language, an attitude, a
profession, and much more. More specifically, it first described the

venues in which dance events of the low-income Kingston


population took place. The venues such as lawns, dance yards and
street venues flourished in and around the late 1950s along with
* Versions of this paper were presented at the Clement Dodd Symposium on

foundation DJs, May 3, 2003, UWI, and the Caribbean Soundscapes conference,
New Orleans, March 12-13,2004. We are grateful for the comments received from
scholars at both events in addition to the anonymous reviewers of this paper.

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168 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

local music and dance. Placed in the context of Jamaican national

identity and belonging, Dancehall is wrapped up with survival,


celebration, and freedom from economic and social hardship for the
masses that create and perpetuate the form.

The DJ is a central figure in the evolution of Dancehall. This


paper engages the popular Dancehall social movement in its spatial

and performative aspects through the personality of one of the


earliest DJs. This engagement is not strictly a music-centred
approach, but it intersects with other paradigms often left out of
contextualizations of the indigenous Jamaican music/dance nexus.
These include the biographical, the spatial, the performative, and
embodied memory, through ethnographies, case studies and other
multidisciplinary approaches. The paper focuses on foundation DJ

U Roy and the musical terrain he harnessed, created and

bequeathed. We privilege the voice of the DJ himself, and not just


interpretations of lyrics. It is preliminary work that forms part of a
larger study to widen the definition of Jamaican Dancehall beyond
music, to performance space with an ethos, aesthetic, personalities,
vision, memory and transnational significance.

Reggae and the Genesis of Dancehall


Reggae is one of the most popular world musics (some argue the
first world music) evidenced, among other things, by the special
place it holds within distinct Reggae music racks in record stores
around the world when other musical forms are lumped in broad
categories.1 And, in no small way, evidenced by its influence on
other musical forms such as Kwaito in South Africa, German and
Japanese Reggae, Havasupai Reggae and Hip Hop in the USA, Trip
Hop and Jungle in England, Reggaeton in Puerto Rico and among
US Latinos, Makossa in Cameroon and Zaire, and Fuji and Afro
beat in Nigeria. It is the generic name given to all Jamaican popular
music since 1960 and also refers to the distinct beat characteristic of

this music from 1969-1983. Reggae is created out of a uniquely


Jamaican experience: the music is imbued with the very soul of
singers, their psychic and spiritual processes,2 while giving voice to

previously voiceless peoples, and persistent and unvoiced social


1 Thanks to Brian Meeks for pointing this out.

2 See Chang and Chen 1998, p.2.

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xAce' of the Dancehall Space: 169


dilemmas.3 Reggae, in its rocksteady, dub, Dancehall or ragga
incarnations has undergone name changes as a result of political
and technological changes, however, "the tradition in which the
music is created and enjoyed has not" (Chang & Chen 1998: 2).
While there is debate about the actual genesis of Dancehall

music in musicology and culture circles, Dancehall is largely


understood as the reggae manifestation of the 1980s to the present

even though there is at least fifty years of celebration around


indigenous Jamaican popular music which was consumed in dance
halls. The difference in the Dancehall musical era is the degree to
which live Dancehall styles influenced what appeared on vinyl ?
developing performing styles, a new generation of singers, bands
with fresh playing styles and reliance on rhythms, new dance
moves, explicit lyrics and sound clashes. Whereas DJs used to
perform live in the dance,4 technological advancement, corn
modification and increased consumption of the form meant that
using vinyl became a way of playing music within the dance space.

The DJ migrated to the studio and the radio as his performance


space. His presence in the dance decreased as that of the selectors of
DJ recordings increased.5 This paper offers a look at the 1960s when

live music ruled the Dancehall and personalities such as U Roy


were forerunners in defining the role of the DJ. Further, it locates U

Roy in a wider trajectory of musical evolution by highlighting the


African-American influences on the Jamaican DJ's artistry.
3 See also Dawes 1999, p. 38. Dawes explores the centrality of, among other things,
eroticism, as a key component of an ill-defined reggae aesthetic. A critique of

Dawes can be found in Michael Bucknor (2004). Bucknor's central question is


whether Dawes' Reggae Aesthetic is articulated through a narrow modernist

orientation to aesthetics which undermines the embryonic theory's intention to


articulate a radical masculinity and therefore, gendered "political mobilization".
A major problem seems to be the choice of texts on which Dawes bases his theory.

4 A DJ is a word artist, or griot in the broader African sense: one who


chants/sings/talks on a rhythm to keep the dance event lively by toasting their
fans. See Brewster & Broughton (1999) for an extended discussion of the history

of the DJ, especially the chapter on Jamaican Reggae. See also Cooper (1993);
Stolzoff (2000).
5 For a discussion of the history and evolution of Dancehall especially in Kingston,
see Stanley Niaah (2004; 2004a).

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170 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

Who is this U Roy?


Who is this U Roy? What did he do that was so fascinating and
laudable? Why does this artist warrant the painstaking scrutiny that
great thinkers deserve? Why should one seek to resurrect his effect
in these times? What lessons can be shared between the generations

of DJs to have emerged? U Roy was considered a success in Jamaica


with 'chart toppers' based on his 1969 debut recordings with Duke
Reid, but he was a "cult success in the UK... [and] his largest market

was Africa" (Thompson 2002: 293). He has released some eleven


albums with as many compilations. The early work is best captured

by the album "Your Ace From Space" which is discussed in the


following section.

The context of U Roy's practice is the sound system dance.


White's (1984) sociology of Jamaican popular music and dance halls
gives important insight into the development and role of the sound

system dance for the consumption of a developing indigenous


musical form. White highlighted the local musicians of the modern
1950-1980 period along with the urban spatiality of their practice

within shanty towns. He also highlighted the rise of early sound


systems like Wong's Tom the Great Sebastian, Lord Coo's The

Universe, and V-Rocket, among others. The technology,

innovations, economy and industry that propelled the sound


systems' development, such as the reliance on sailors and farm
workers for the importation of records, and the competition for
records are detailed below. In the early context supporters emerged
as sound systems proliferated, and as a spin-off:
"[l]ow-income areas of Kingston became more linked as sound
systems moved around. Many youths learn't about many areas

after being first acquainted with their dance-halls ? from


'Shady Grove' in the North-east to 'Back-to' in the West, 'Gold

coast' and Club Monaco' and 'Palm Beach' in the East, to


'Silver Slipper' in the Crossroads area" (White 1984: 56).

Similarly sound system operators became associated with

their playing venues or residential areas which served as


identifying markers, for example ? Count Piah from Four Roads,
Sinclair from Fletcher's Land, Hylton & Milton from West Street,

Admiral Cosmic from Shady Grove near Papine, and so on. While
sound system operators achieved the fame of prime ministers in
their local contexts, they were inextricably linked with DJs once

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vAce' of the Dancehall Space: 171


Count Machuki emerged in the 1950s. DJs also enjoyed immense

popularity and U Roy was one of the first to gain national


prominence through his recordings.

U Roy the individual, might be summed up as in Table 1

below. Born E wart Beckford in 1942 in humble circumstances and

steered by issues of love and survival, U Roy moved from being a


boy 'tiefing out to go dance' on the Jones Town corners, to king of
the dance. He was the first commercial success in the DJ business:
beyond Machuki and King Stitt, U Roy made it as music selector as
well as a recording artist. The birth of the Dancehall musical genre

was contingent on the innovations, appeal and success of U Roy,


after whom a flood of DJs followed, such as I Roy, Big Youth, Tappa

Zukie, Dennis Alcapone, Scottie, Josey Wales and many more,


working in the mould established by U Roy Those who were not
aware of his ability to 'wake the town' by the mid-1970s were either

dead or deaf: he jammed up the musical circuits with his live jive
dancehall flavour. U Roy's style epitomized the popular sound of

the period which was in touch with the pulse of a maturing


citizenry and sense of nationhood.
Table 1: A Profile of U Roy6
1. Intention:

Wake the Town and tell

2. Expertise:

Version

3. Apparatus:

The DJ Station

(physical, psychical, transnational


soundscape; the people's station)

4. Domain:

The Nation

(local, national, international)

5. Focus:

(at home, and abroad)

6. Ambition:

The Ordinary folk


To have his own home

(resting place for self and family)

7. Vocation:

DJ/Teacher/Daddy

(griot, word artist)

the people

(of real life, our life)

(style, stylization of the everyday)

At age 14 U Roy would ask to attend the weekend dance to

play music with Dr Dicky's sound system while attending


secondary school and living with his grandmother Ms. Ruth
Kennedy in Jones Town. U Roy developed a strong love for the
music, in no small way influenced by Count Machuki who had the
6 Information on U Roy was taken from interviews conducted by Clinton Hutton
and the authors during April 2003, in addition to secondary sources where cited.

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172 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

gift of talking between the music ? jive talking. Machuki is well


respected by U Roy who admits to gaining from Machuki's and
Stitt's contribution. Being a resident of Jones Town, U Roy could
hear the music from dance venues like 21 and 46 Penn Street, and
Jubilee Tile Garden, which he rehearsed in his bathroom. After
moving on from Dr Dicky's, Sir Mike, Sir George Atomic, a short
stint with Sir Coxone's Downbeat sound, the DJ developed a long
and fruitful relationship with King Tubby and his Tubby's Hi Fi
sound which signaled big times in the big league.

The DJ moved rapidly to fame and became well known and


loved because the sound system King Tubby's Hi Fi had a huge
following from which he benefited. It was during these times that a
top sound system owner Duke Reid sent for the hot DJ with whom

he established a verbal agreement about recording and royalties.

The first two tunes recorded with Duke Reid were 'Wake the Town'

and 'Rule the nation'. Even U Roy was unaware of what he had
produced when he started to hear the tunes on the radio. The
recordings became so successful they eventually captured the
number one and two positions on the song chart. Subsequent to the

success of those recordings, he recorded 'Wear you to the ball'


originally recorded by John Holt. But the DJ added something else

to the music. According to U Roy, his ability to make successful


recordings was a gift of words that flowed from his mighty creator.

The tune immediately sold several thousand copies and occupied


the number one spot on the local charts; 'Wake the Town' fell to
number two and 'Rule the Nation' to number three. At one time U

Roy's songs were simultaneously 1, 2, 3, & 5 on the charts. He


recorded over thirty tracks with Duke Reid, drawing from the rich
Treasure Isle catalog, with many showcasing the talents of former

Skatalite member Tommy McCook. U Roy recalls: "$10 was my


stage pay as a big DJ with Tubby's." Noting that the amount was
small, U Roy said his musical labour was for love and not money.
Watching a few thousand people in front of him enjoying his
performance is his ultimate joy.

Very clearly articulated in the verbal agreement with Duke

Reid was the fact that money earned was really for the
establishment and running of U Roy's home.
When ? start work fi Duke Reid then my arrangement with
Duke Reid was 'Duke with my likkle royalty I going ... want a
likkle house, yuh know', wid mi royalty. Well I used to go to

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* Ace' of the Dancehall Space; 173


Duke Reid fi mi money fi run mi house and stuff like that but I

always tell him look, my royalty Duke, I want a likkle house

yuh nuh ... everything was verbal stuff no paper no verbal


stuff. (U Roy, personal interview with authors, April 2003)

Other DJs recording for Duke Reid were driving cars pretty soon
after working with Duke and even some of the employees of Duke
wondered and might have said to him "how come U Roy don't have
a car yet and other DJ have car and dem just come" (U Roy, personal
interview, April 2003). In response to these queries about owning a

car, U Roy explained that he had a bed, a good chair, gas stove, a
'likkle fridge', his woman and two kids and there was no car he had
ever seen that could hold all of those things. His current home is the

product of his employment with Duke Reid and that has always
been a priority. U Roy now lives in a community which is deemed
a ghetto. His presence there represents a certain standard of so
called 'ghetto' humility and dignity, often associated with lack of
ambition or 'worthlessness' on the part of the lower-classes to move
beyond their circumstances. On the other hand this 'worthlessness'
reinterpreted, could be seen as the conviction to build in one's own
community for the community.

'Dynamic Fashion way' and 'Earth's Rightful Ruler' recorded


with Peter Tosh, were two of the earliest U Roy tunes. They did not
get very far. The DJ tells the story of the producer taking 'Earth's

Rightful Ruler' to Byron Lee (early band leader and music


promoter) who said it was an 'alright tune' but they couldn't
distribute it because it was talking about Jah, Rastafari's counter
discourse of religious modernity (see Wynter 1977). Since it was still
difficult to understand that the Divinity of Haile Selassie as a Black
God in the present was taken seriously by the Rastafari brethren, U
Roy said he acted on directions from a higher source that said 'mek

wi give dem some tune like 'Wear you to the Ball'. He explained
that as he opened his mouth the creator filled it with words. Even if
he writes something down to record while in the studio, by the time

he gets there something more powerful comes to him. This


something, this embodied wisdom, this old and simultaneously
new creative force is the source from which U Roy added new

dimension, new versions to/in the DJ's soundspace. U Roy's

explanation was that his creator had blessed him with the gift (U
Roy, personal interview, April 2003).

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174 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

On stage U Roy was cool: smooth walking, smooth jive


talking, cool playing, and dapper appearance with characteristic felt

hat, English Clarks shoes and shirt buttoned up to the neck, an


aesthetic that could be located in the context of a rude boy on a
night out. While no explicit philosophy guided this appearance, it is
not difficult to identify this as a well documented feature of African
expressive arts found in the traditions of word artists such as street

preachers, poets and musicians within Africa and its diaspora.


There is a particular 'will to adorn' (Neale Hurston 1933), and
general stylization of everyday life by diasporic Africans. For the DJ

therefore, his art and appearance are caught up in a larger musical

diasporic location which is discussed below.

Technology: The DJ as Artist:

The sound space can be described as organizing energy for the


production of songs which producers hope will be hit songs. Stories
about the sound space, the process of music-making, in the 1960s
and early 1970s are common. For example, the 1960s technology to

record songs left no room for producers to re-record or cut and


paste: there had to be precision and when it was recording time the

entire song had to be recorded at once. Here is where the master


ears and ability of musical connoisseurs such as Duke Reid were
essential. He could spot a hit song from a 'sound year' away and

was very keen to tell his engineer, sometimes with a gun salute for
emphasis "mine yuh wipe off dat yuh nuh Smithie [be careful not
to erase that Smithie]".

U Roy took hits and made them bigger hits. Original songs
were superceded by the U Roy version of them, an expertise that
was concretized within his first album 'Version Galore'. Whether it
was the hit songs of the Paragons, the Melodians, John Holt, or
Alton Ellis it was U Roy's version of them that was retained in the
people's memory bank. By just listening to what was being sung, U
Roy just "come in" and the engineers would clean it up, manipulate

the sonic nuances with their technical expertise. Duke Reid was a
great influence on the development of U Roy's versions as well as
other artists to come. One of the stories U Roy shared was that Reid
was responsible for the recording of 'What is catty', a tune that was

spontaneously produced when Reid observed that there was no


recording on the 'B' or flip side of the 'Wake the town' record. The

inspiration for U Roy to sing the tune and for the engineers to

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% Ace' of the Dancehall Space: 175


record it came from Reid's observation (U Roy, personal interview,

April 2003).

The process of music-making was revolutionized by


technology, but also the genius of those like King Tubby. King
Tubby was the gifted master engineer who had a primary role in the
emergence of the new genre. He had been experimenting with the

re-mixing of tracks and arrived at what became known as dub


versions. Unmatched in his engineering capacity, King Tubby built

his own sound system and had the capacity to build one almost
overnight. The human voice added to the recording machine, and
the manipulation of the sound tracks by Tubby helped to propel the
DJ from side walk talker, to recording and touring both locally and

internationally. Tubby concentrated on building new versions of


songs which he achieved with the addition of sonic effects over the

master recordings. Essentially, mixing and toasting in Kingston's


'poverty laboratories'7 was transported to sound laboratories and
transformed for greater appeal by key sound operators such as King
Tubby. Out of a successful relationship with Tubby, U Roy reaped
the benefits of a superstar with local and international followings
that surprised the DJ himself. The lower class context in which DJs

emerged, the condition of their everyday militated against


traditional forms of advancement. U Roy and Tubby contributed to
the evolution of the Jamaican (globalized) modern in a postcolonial

context mediated through sound as opposed to the production of


sugar on the plantation by the peasantry after emancipation. Hence,

the musical legacy and its centrality to national and postcolonial


identity is itself transgressive when juxtaposed to the way in which

Dancehall is blamed for the decay of moral and social norms


especially in the Jamaican context.

Understanding the power of sound, U Roy admitted that he


always had a connection to the sound system, because that was his

connection to the people, to survival beyond the poverty trap, to


ultimate joy. He said,
7 The idea of 'poverty laboratory' comes from Niaah's (2003) article of the same
name which argues that the Rastafari experience in Jamaica is one of the first
Cultural Studies projects originating in the 1930s in Kingston and reported on by

the University of the West Indies in 1960. The concept describes the author's
reading of the 'institutionalization' of indigenous Caribbean cultural studies

projects and questions the role of the University within that context.

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176 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES


Me mus haffi have a sound system, because sound system, is
deh so mi a come from, so mi learn everything from that. That's

the reason why me happen fi be a recording DJ up to this time


so mi haffi respect that an respect di people dem who out deh
an' a stand up fi me an' say, 'yeah! dah DJ yah bad'. Cau', trus'

mi, when di society people dem hear bout me all di ghetto


people dem already pass mi through send mi through long
time an seh 'yuh a di wickidest DJ we ever hear'. And, I lift mi
hat to them that's why people waan ask mi di reason all di time
- 'why yuh live deh so' [lower-class community]. Man seh boy
'I wouldn't build my house yah so'. I seh look ', is right yah so
I stay an' work di money wha' I tek build di house'. A just joy
e very time. " (U Roy, personal interview, April 2003).

Using Chude-Sokei's (1997) notion of Dancehall as a new spatial


arrangement, a postmodern, postnational system of sound, we wish
to extend the understanding of U Roy's sound space in that sense.
The DJ acknowledged his roots within a local context as well as his
rootlessness in initially not having a home. However, through the
sounds of music he has crossed national and international borders
and class boundaries. The fact that DJs traverse several borders and

have influence across national/international borders and among


several generations ultimately, is a characteristic that supports the

interpretation of Dancehall as freedom space, survival space, and


unbounded space (Chude-Sokei 1997).
(Polite) Violence as Experience and Tactic of the DJ:
Based on the work of Planno especially in his 1998 lecture on 'Polite
Violence', the concept has come to refer to the way the State and its

apparatuses use the 'polite' law and other processes to continue


oppression of disenfranchised youth, among them, Rastafari. In this

paper we are applying this concept to the way Dancehall creators


and perpetuators come in confrontation with the State, through the

law, the 'polite' but often violently imposed law, as tactic of the
State, and the way Dancehall creators return this 'polite violence' in
the subversive activities of perpetual celebration.
The underside of the joy that the sound system brought for U
Roy was the bad reputation and its effects that sound systems such

as Tubby's Hi Fi developed because it was believed all the 'rude

boy' and/or 'bad man' were its strongest supporters. U Roy


explained that the reason for this was that Tubby's was the top

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% Ace' of the Dancehall Space: 177


sound and all types, from far and wide would attend a Tubby's
dance, following the sound wherever it played. U Roy recalled
playing at the Up Park Camp, where an Officer in the army at the
time remarked about the crowd by asking, "man, a so your sound

carry crowd?" To this, U Roy replied "Yes Boss". "But yuh mus
control dem man!" was the rejoinder from the Officer. But the DJ
had no control over the crowd, save his selections that themselves

drove the people wild. Unfortunately, the saying was that 'if yuh
want to find bad boy go to the dance where U Roy and Tubby's

pia/.

The Dancehall quickly translated into a site of siege and

humiliation. Raids were (and still are) common, with attendant


beatings, 'locking down the sound', and often arrests (see Stanley

Niaah, 2004). Experiencing "thousands of problems" with the


police, U Roy himself was once so badly beaten by the police that he

needed assistance from his partner to turn in bed. U Roy recalled


that there were several arrests and incidents of turntables being
confiscated because they were creating 'night noise'.8 In addition to

disturbance of events by law enforcement officers searching for


criminal elements believed to be hiding in the dance hall, the Police

were incensed by the playing of certain tunes: once they were


played the dance event Was sure to be immediately halted. In the
1960s dance events started and ended early, that is starting at 8 pm

and ending by 1 am. By 10.00 pm, many events would be halted


because of shooting incidents. These were due either to gang wars
or the police. After a while the Police were disproportionately

responsible for the largest number of events that ended

prematurely. King Stitt supports this point by saying that the


vocation of being a DJ was like the offence of smoking marijuana in
the eyes of the Police. U Roy recalled that events were terminated

prematurely not only based on interruption of events, but also


damage to equipment. One example is the incident en route to Gold

coast, a popular 1960s venue, when the Police destroyed sound


equipment consisting mainly of turntables, amplifiers and speakers.

What is significant about this incident is that although the Gold


Coast event was cancelled because the equipment was damaged, it
was rebuilt within 24 hours for the next night's event at the
Student's Union.
8 Night noise in the Jamaican context refers to excessive volume from sound
systems and entertainment activity in general that disturbs the peace after dark.

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178 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

The authority of the police was particularly invoked when the

middle- and upper-class citizens complained about the noise from


sound systems in venues that were above Cross Roads.9 Certain
songs were particularly known. Max Ruby's song with the line
'Babylon likkie likkie and beggie beggie [the police are greedy

parasites and beggars]' was a sure dance stopper. Police would


immediately appear to close down the session, and if they were
enough incensed, would 'mash up' the dance. Police officer Joe
Williams was especially known for harassing those who appeared
to be 'rude boys' or bad boys. This was easy because the rude boy
had an aesthetic marked by khaki clothes, Clarks brand name shoes,
hazard spectacles and shirt buttoned to the neck. Many associations

were made between rude boys and Rastafari brethren, which


affected U Roy because of his Rastafari faith and associated
dreadlocked appearance.
The Dancehall has seen systematic marginalization and its
purveyors have been brutalized in a context where it is believed
anything 'African cannot be good' (Nettleford 1978), much less be
pleasing to the ear. As a counter to the conditions of plantation
society and its legacies, violence was in a sense reinterpreted by the

DJ, in a sense as 'polite violence', explained by Planno (1998) as a


theory and practice of Western existence and modalities. Where the
context of master/slave relations persisted through class relations

and lack of recognition for lower-class artistic innovations, DJs


found other ways to infect their detractors with innocuous sounds.

Philosophies of survival, of new self identity, and God were


channeled into the music with its 'infectious rhythm' (Browning
1998) and performance context.

Moreover, 'polite violence' evokes the transgressive terrain


that Dancehall occupies. From the lyrics, location of venues, their
use and contravention of state laws governing the street and noise

nuisance, celebration in the face of poverty, to the technological

experimentation, the subversive effects of Dancehall are

highlighted in the ways 'polite' or overt violence by arms of the


state could not deter the creators and purveyors of Dancehall.

9 Cross Roads is the de facto class/geographical divide located in the South Central
region of the Kingston Metropolitan Area. Generally, it is thought that the poor
live below and the rich live above Cross Roads.

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% Ace' of the Dancehall Space: 179


"This Station Rules the Nation with Version": Defining the DJ's

Sound Space

The DJ is focused on the task of 'hitting the people with music', a hit
that brings no pain. An empty space is transformed into a dance hall

with the selector's turntable, interactive mode, speakers, and


patrons. Additional elements such as the drink bar, vendors,
dynamics within the inner and outer regions, and distinct purpose
of the event converge to add to the meaning and uniqueness of the
dance hall. Arguably, dance events were created out of nothing, but
the organization of the afore-mentioned elements defines historical,

spatial and performative boundaries that are maintained through


such things as the sound, dress, posture, gesture and other bodily
actions. Since it was "poor people who went to dance halls"10 from

as early as the 1950s, the dance is a space where alternative


identities are constructed vis a vis middle- and upper-class norms.

The 'dance' provided physical, ideological and spiritual shelter for


a generation of lower class Jamaicans', particularly those who
matured around the country's 1962 independence when the music
Ska became popular.
U Roy being a member of the Independence generation, was
overtaken by the rhythm of the time. Around the mike with the
headphones on, the vibes took over. "Is like, mi just a gwaan talk,
and dem ting yah just come to mi yuh know. It come een like is a
form a Jazz, wha' a Jazz singer woulda did do, dem style deh, yuh

know" " (U Roy, personal interview, April 2003). The foundation


DJs in their trail-blazing Jamaican 'Dancehall hermeneutics' were to

become the first of a fraternity of subversive performers to

indigenize the constellation of imported music and related


equipment, and to produce something brand new, but perhaps
most importantly, something brand new every time.

The space created by the foundation DJs became a com

prehensive animated spectacle of the most available and artful life

drama, masters, in essence, discoursing with a people, many of


whom were burdened heavily. Arguably, U Roy's work stands as
gripping evidence of the man's theses on life from the 1960s until

now. It avails us interesting readings of the history and

development of not only a musical genre, style of communication,


10 Personal interview with Bunny Goodison, April 29, 2002. See also White (1984). It
was clear from most of the interviews conducted throughout this research that

Dancehall is felt to be a "poor people" phenomenon.

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180 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

art and philosophy, but also the evolution of poor men into stars.
With his signature sounds, scatting, jive talking, jazz ethos, U Roy

consolidated a new era in the music developing on the con


tributions of Count Machuki and King Stitt. The word/sound
artistry of the street preacher was metamorphosed by the DJ who
captured the masses to the bewilderment of the DJs themselves.

Arguably, U Roy spawned a new era and generation(s) of reggae


artists, in no small way supported by accolades from many DJs.

The dance event held a monopoly on consumption and

innovations in local musical styles because up to the early 1970s,


local music was not a part of the musical diet on radio and there was
no other avenue to experience the emerging local music. It was only
available when producers bought 15 minute radio spots each week
on certain days. Programmes like Teenage Dance Party (see Brown
2000) contributed to the presence of the music on the airwaves but
it was not until the advent of IRIE FM (c. 1990 to present) that the
air waves were revolutionized so much so that local music was the

staple rather than the appetizer on radio.

The sound system was the impetus behind the recording


industry. As DJs selected their musical tracks during the events,

they talked, jive-talked, scatted over the tracks to excite their


patrons. U Roy got so good at this that his scatting was recorded,
first on the B-side or empty side of vinyl records. Hits created by U
Roy in the Dancehall that were popular among patrons were avidly

solicited by producers who would only 'hear about' them. One


example, and there are many, is the way the song 'You and your
smiling face" by The Paragons (Duke Reid recording artistes) along
with John Holt was transformed into the U Roy hit 'Flashing my
whip'. As was the DJ's signature of versioning, lyrics were recorded
at systematic junctures in the musical sequence to create a whole
new version, a whole new song. It is an example of the way the DJ
added something new, something brand new every time to each
recording. In later years this scatting stood on its own and was
recorded as the primary songs, therein becoming a product in its
own right. The importance of the dance event, the DJ's space, was
therefore indisputable.
The physical space of the dance was typically demarcated by
a corrugated metal or 'zinc fence' at its periphery, with dirt surface

otherwise called 'lawn' as a way of adding a certain prestige to a


venue. Often, the zinc fence would be flattened after a police

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%Ace' of the Dancehall Space: 181


invasion of the dance event. U Roy recalled many such venues.
Tubby's played at Grant's Pen community centre which yielded a
lot of complaints from neighbouring communities about the noise.
Other venues included Gold Coast, 21 Penn Street, 46 Penn Street,
Forrestor's Hall, Rail Road, and Chocomo Lawn. The stories such

venues tell include that of marginality nomadism, transformation


and celebration.11

Eventually U Roy obtained his own sound system called King


Stur-Gav with a number of DJ prot?g?s including Ranking Joe, Josie

Wales, Charlie Chaplin and a number of star musical selectors such


as Jah Screw and Inspector Willie. Commanding his own following,
the ability to promote events, being hired for gigs and earning his

own money became easier.

"Your Ace from Space":


There are some important factors to consider in contextualizing U
Roy's work. With the evolution of Jamaican music between 1966-69
moving from ska to rocksteady, emphasis was placed on harmonies.

But there was criticism that the music had no political or social
commentary and rocksteady could not advance the political cause

of youths to end oppression in the form of police abuse,


unemployment and general disenfranchisement. Daddy U Roy re
engineered the harmonies with an accent that appealed to the
youths some of whom entered the Dancehall space to eke out a
living or gain fame.
From his debut album in 1969, the first recorded Jamaican DJ,

U Roy has released over twenty five albums. Your Ace from Space
(1995) is the Trojan produced compilation of thirty popular tracks
recorded between 1969 and 1970.12 The album captures the DJ at his

career height and is comprehensive in demonstrating emergent


trends and characteristics of the artiste and genre of Dancehall, the
DJ aesthetic, the Dancehall worldview generally and its relationship

to the broader New World African musical terrain. It comes at a

11 For elaboration on 'performance geography' of Kingston, specifically its


Dancehall venues and their stories, see Stanley Niaah (2004), and Stanley Niaah

(Thesis).

12 It is important to note that the only other DJ who comes close to this level of
musical production is Buju Banton who holds the record for the most number one
Dancehall hits. For additional works on U Roy, his influence and importance, see
Francis (2000) and Foster et al (1988).

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182 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

time of black consciousness and limited access to airplay on official

radio stations. The Dancehall became the people's station and it

ruled the nation with 'version'.

First, the name of the album is important to consider. The


Webster's Encyclopaedic Unabridged Dictionary defines 'ace' as 'a
serve that the opponent fails to touch; very skilled person, expert, a

superior play in one stroke'. A version on the other hand, is 'a


particular account of some matter; as from one person or source; a
particular variant, a translation'. U Roy's expert play and translation
is what we therefore wish to focus on through his album Your Ace
From Space.
An important part of the translation is that the name locates U

Roy in a trajectory of African diaspora popular music and comes


from the self-styled nomenclature of African American DJ Douglas
'Jocko' Henderson.13
'"Your Ace from Space" ... places Beckford in the continuum of

African Diaspora popular expression in the late 20*^ century.


"Your Ace from Space" was the popular moniker of pioneer
African American DJ "Jocko" Henderson, who was in every
sense the sole model for Kingston's earliest Sound System DJs,

and especially U-Roy but Lee "Scratch" Perry and others as


well. "Jocko" Henderson, who broadcast out of Philadelphia
but was syndicated across the United States from the early
1950s and heard in the Caribbean via the Miami relays of his

spin hour, as well as on singles that were available in the


Caribbean, provided the vocal howl and prattle, the shout and
skank style that Jamaica's Sound System DJs would copy and
further develop.
Henderson not only described himself as the ace from space, a
reflection of the huge popularity of space travel incited in the

United States and around the world by the Soviet space


missions in the 1950s, he in fact dressed like an ace from space,

complete with an aviator's headgear, and his station call began

with the loud drone of a space ship launcher taking off.


Henderson is referenced in U-Roy's retention of the call and the
13 We would like to acknowledge the significant feedback from one of the reviewers

of this paper who pointed to this dimension of U Roy's work and style.

Henderson is considered the greatest DJ in history and one of the group called the
'Original 13'. For additional material see Nelson (1988), Brewster and Broughton
(1999) among numerous world wide web references.

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xAce' of the Dancehall Space: 183


moniker, Ace from Space, a clear homage. He pioneered the
genre of the recorded DJ long before Beckford joined the Sound

Systems. (Olu Oguibe, cultural critic, email communication,


February 25, 2005)

Henderson was a model for Jamaican DJs who copied and


developed on the vocal howl, scatting and other verbal styles
("great gugga mugga shooga booga"),14 and playing techniques
that were transmitted via Jamaican sound systems to the wider local

context and later to the Jamaican Diaspora. The album name


therefore signifies an important dimension of New World African
musical history in referencing the ties that bind not only Africa and
Jamaica but Jamaican and African-American popular culture: one
big cross-fertiiization encounter:
U-Roy's prime historic place, however, is not only the fact that

he more than any other picked up, translocated and trans


formed Henderson's techniques, shifting them out of the radio
and recording studios into the streets, then back again, but also
in the fact that he in turn provided the model for the expatriate
Jamaican Sound Systems that would take over the Bronx in the

early 1970s and eventually form the foundation for hip hop and

rap. "Your Ace from Space", as an expression and a cultural


marker, establishes and signifies the transversal cultural
history that unites African-American and Jamaican popular
culture across a half-century, from Henderson to Beckford to

The Bronx and on to Shaggy on one hand, and Ol' Dirty


Bastard [ODB] on another, ODB being a straight incarnation of

late 1960s Beckford (Olu Oguibe, cultural critic, email


communication, February, 25, 2005)

The following are noticeable features of the highly acclaimed


album, and of the DJ's work in a general sense:

1. It represents a short span of the artist's work - a sort of 'bus


way', or fast moving sensation;
2. There is a well known clientele, a 'target audience' to which
the DJ refers across different generations and nationalities;

3. Explicit pedagogical style based on 'social responsibility' of


the artist;

14 From Robinson, Quela "What you Need to Know about the Disco Part 2: The
Rhythm and the Blues (1948-56)", http://www.sistersf.com/articles/discoPart2.

php, pp.3

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184 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

4. Its 'philosophical anchor' in Ethiopia, Africa, Emperor Haile


Selassie, the Bible, and witty social commentary reflecting the
DJ's Rastafari faith;

5. 'Clever word play' akin to the 'lyrical gun' analogy;15 and


6. 'Guidance through faith' is what explains the DJ's belief in the
biblical maxim ? 'open your mouth and I will fill it with

words'.

7. 'Less is more' as a concept runs throughout the recordings:


songs such as Tide is High' consist of four twenty-second U
Roy injections.
An outstanding feature of the 30-track album is the short
injections used by U Roy to alter finished tracks recorded by The

Paragons, The Melodians, The Techniques, The Jamaicans, The


Silvertones, and Hopeton Lewis and John Holt. In some instances
the injections were as few as four, lasting 20 seconds each, pregnant

with themes such as the importance of love versus war,


perseverance in the face of natural and man-made odds, the need to

relax the (screw) faces (of the wicked) to facilitate good, and the

metaphorical musical ball which is the schoolroom where the


golden rules of life and love are learnt.
In a strong way the ubiquitous theme of the music as practice,
process and space is highlighted in many of the songs. For example,

'Wear you to the Ball' highlights the music as a schoolroom, the


music as a teaching tool, or giving a "musical lesson" as in the
recording 'My Girl'. Issues are raised and answers are given to
questions listeners might have on relationships, or the way to treat

a woman, situating U Roy as public intellectual and teacher. The


recordings also highlight the music as a space in which you "blow
off steam" (as in 'Treasure Isle Skank'), or get the "musical shower"
(in 'True Confessions') for a baptism of blessings. The music is also
a tool for exhibiting male prowess through lyrical engagement with
a potential partner as in the lines, "I am the soul of the city, young

girl be cool...I have got enough soul to make your liver quiver..."
(in 'Same Song').
The issue of homelessness, a sort of wanderlust, carefree space
of refuge, that the musical arena affords, is taken up in U Roy and

John Holt's 'Merry go Round'. U Roy's injection says, '...Got no


place to go so I have to stay here and work my musical show",
15 This is expounded on by Cooper (1994).

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'Ace' of the Dancehall Space: 185


implying that within the music there's a home, a safe comforting
place, the kind of comfort you feel as a child on the Merry go Round

riding up and down on the circulating electric horse. The DJ is


homeless, wandering around, but has time to keep the focus of his
teacher persona as he implores the children of the world to love,
using his example as one who only has love to give. The importance
of love is also found in the song 'Everybody Bawlin' in which the DJ
ventriloquizes the call for love from every living being. The musical
school is the DJ's home in a real sense, and in the tune 'Super Boss'
done with The Melodians, U Roy entreats all listening ears to "take
the last train to the musical college ? do, ra, me, fa, so, la, te, do."

The tune 'Version Galore', also the name of three albums

released in the 1970s, helps to extend our understanding of 'version'


beyond the dictionary's definition. Versions are beyond particular
accounts, translations or variants at the level of discourse. They
encompass the self or persona. In what seems to be addressed to a
loved one, the DJ said, "Be good, you I love... you keep on coming
back through the door. Version galore ... I could give you by the
score, got to let the world know how I need you so." 'Your Ace From
Space' develops on this to concretize the role of the DJ as teacher of
the youth and his chosen medium of versions, his own versions,
when he declares, "I am teaching the youth my version..." A certain
volitional agency is articulated in the way U Roy uses the possessive
'my' and the first person T, the highest expression of self especially
in Rastafari cosmology16 that side of the self that is closest to God
and community.
'Words of Wisdom' begins the incantations of praise and
thanksgiving to the King, the creator, the ultimate T: "I will give

thanks and praises to the King...words of wisdom, and I will


always make the sound ring, rock it if you have got it...let the
children sing thanks and praises to the King." Through the
representation of Ethiopia, U Roy announces that his ultimate
destiny is Ethiopia where the King lives, that he is one of the King

of Ethiopia's scattered children: "Behold how good and how


pleasant it is ... Ethiopia here I come, love is all I bring, drink
wine... feel so fine, shake it or break it, drink wine and get high and

shine."

16 See Pollard (2000) for an extended explanation of Rastafari lexicon and meanings.

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186 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC STUDIES

Finally, in 'Things You Love' by U Roy and the Jamaicans, the

DJ explains his modus operandi, qualities and immortal status.


Originality, winning at the game, self confidence and a legacy that
will live on forever, are key characteristics highlighted:
I don't imitate, I originate... I can't loose off the stuff I use, no
no no no no no!!! When the game is over I will...live, I will live
forever, you are going to loose, did you hear that? Be a man of
your own, I say I will always be around.

Continuity and Conclusion:


Undoubtedly, a spin off from the DJ profession is the impact U Roy

has had on Jamaica's cultural and national identity as well as


international music history. We are talking about a generation of

ordinary people who matured at the turn of the 1960s in tandem


with the granting of Jamaica's independence by the British. It is
clear that the profound work of DJs like U Roy has paved the path
for other kinds of vocations to be appreciated other than that of the
Lawyer or Doctor. Indeed many DJs were told that they 'should stay

home and read dem book, cau' this DJ business is not going tek
them anywhere'. U Roy can tell you that he didn't necessarily know

where he was going:


Believe you me, it's a surprise and it mean a lot to me because
I never had an idea that the music was gonna get this far, so it's
a big honour for me to be part of this. At the time when I just

started doing this music it wasn't recognized, the DJ as an


artist. The DJ was a man who go to the dance and put the
record on...So it wasn't somebody was gonna expect that the
DJ was going to like number one, number two and number
three on the top ten chart. (U Roy, personal interview with
authors, April 2003)

In commenting on the current generation of DJs, and by

extension the legacy he has left for its members, U Roy


acknowledged that even though onlookers might see the youths of
today earning more than a U Roy, the DJ is clear that as long as the
work continues, there will be accomplishment:
"Right now some people ask me sometimes, ah how you feel
bout dem youths yah now who a get some enormous amount a

money fi do dem tings yah an' you ... never get dem t'ings ?
Someone woulda haffi do di work... You haffi gi dem man deh

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xAce' of the Dancehall Space: 187


dem ratings to...You can't envy the youth." (U Roy, personal
interview with authors, April 2003)

He continued by charging the youth with the responsibility of


keeping the music clean: "just keep this music in a way that is clean.
Say something that you can collect some dollars later on. So yuh can
have something fi play as oldies". Though the artistes are different,

and a new era has come, certain themes, norms, codes of conduct

and rituals remain the same. Undoubtedly, U Roy's legacy forms an


important part of the DJ ethos.
In summary, though this sound space is policed, nomadic, and

creative, it is central to national identity. It persists because it


represents, recreates and continuously manifests the identity of the

underclass, spoaking as it must to a global ghetto Diaspora. There


are several U Roys who did not manifest but several wait in the
wings for their chance to shine, survive and tell of it to all nations.

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