Big Youth - Biography

Big Youth was part of the first wave of Jamaican DJ’s inspired by U-Roy. After a series of chart singles in Jamaica, he released dozens of albums, toured internationally and helped set the standard for a whole generation of DJ’s to follow. Throughout his career, Big Youth emphasized the natural Rastafarian lifestyle and adopted the political message of Bob Marley and the Wailers and other Jamaican artists of his generation.


Born Manley Augustus Buchanan on April 19, 1949, Big Youth's career began as a sound system DJ, and brought a Rasta perspective into his lyrics and expressing a disdain for violence and positive view of black history. He first recorded for Gregory Isaacs and Lee Perry, then charted with singles for a variety of producers including Gussie Clarke with “The Killer” and “Tippertone Rocking” and Phil Pratt with “Tell It Black” and “Phil Pratt Thing.”


A bad motorcycle accident inspired two songs: “Instant Coma” and “Ace 90 Skank,” for which producer Keith Hudson took the unusual step of bringing a motorcycle into Byron Lee’s Dynamic studio to record the engine racing for the intro. The lyric, in typical Big Youth fashion, was in the form of advice to the young—“For if you ride like lightning, you might crash like thunder.” Other early singles that dominated the Jamaican charts included “A So We Stay” over a version of Dennis Brown’s “Money In My Pocket” for Joe Gibbs, “Mosiah Garvey” over Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey” for Jack Ruby, “Medicine Doctor” over the Gaylads for Sonia Pottinger, and “Cool Breeze” and “Dock Of the Bay” for Derrick Harriot. Beginning in 1973, Big Youth produced and issued singles on his own labels (Nagusa Nagast, Nichola Delita and Augustus Buchanan) with a string of chart shots including “Hell Is For Heroes,” “Every Nigger Is A Star,” “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing,” “Jim Sqeeachy” and “Ten Against One.”


The album Chi Chi Run (1973 Melodisc), produced by Prince Buster, has been touted as the first DJ album release, even though strictly speaking it is a various artists compilation featuring Dennis Brown and Alton Ellis to round out the Big Youth tracks. The corresponding dub album, The Message, has also been called as the first dub album, though, as with the first anything in reggae, there are a couple of other contenders for the title. Either way, the vocal album does contain some very early Big Youth tracks for which, he alleges, he has still never been paid. Some other great early works include the Impact 7" “Notty No Jester,” and “I Pray Thee” on The Abyssinians’ Clinch label and “Natty Warning” on a version of Glen Brown’s “Turn Around.”


Screaming Target (1973 Trojan), which may have preceded the Prince Buster album, was produced by Gussie Clarke and utilizes rhythm tracks first voiced by Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown and K.C. White. It is, to this day, one of the all-time great DJ albums and Big Youth’s blood-curdling opening screams make it clear this is not going to be like any other kind of music you’ve ever heard. “Pride and Joy Rock” is the first in a series of Big Youth tunes that draws inspiration from American R& B tunes and underscores Buchanan’s own argument that he was the first Jamaican “sing-jay,” as he often stopped his chat to actually sing the chorus of the song. Certainly, his melodic sense is strong from the very beginning, and unlike many later fast-talking DJ’s, he incorporated song into his chants in a way that later DJ’s, like Tony Rebel, would emulate.


His next release, Dread Locks Dread (1975 TR Int’l; 1978 Caroline), was produced by Tony Robinson but recorded at Joe Gibbs’ studio with outstanding cuts like “Lightning Flash Weak Heart Drop” and “Some Like It Dread.” Big Youth had his finger on the pulse of Kingston and flung the street lingo in a manner that is still startling today. His voice manages to convey equal parts joy and an unstoppable sense of humor. Visually he was astonishing—long dreadlocks, multi-colored jewels inset into his front teeth and, on the cover of his next album, Natty Cultural Dread (1976 Trojan), a monster spliff in his mouth. This album gathered singles and balanced DJ bursts like “Keep Your Dread,” spiritual chant “I Light and I Salvation” and a fairly straight vocal rendition of “Touch Me In the Morning.”


This set the pattern for what was to come from Big Youth. The title track of Hit the Road Jack (1976 Trojan), produced by Big Youth himself and recorded at Randy’s Studio 17 North Parade in Kingston, somehow managed to improve on the Ray Charles original. The track includes Jamaican folk rhymes and Ike and Tina Turner-style interplay—with Jah Youth doing both parts—that took it way over the top. He could always come back with serious sermons like “Jah Man of Syreen” or “The Way of the Light” but his re-workings of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and even Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s “Get Up Stand Up” added an indescribable element of surrealism, in which something familiar had been completely displaced by something alien.


Reggae Phenomenon (1977 Trojan) was the first DJ double album and, partly because these songs were twice tested—in the sound system dances and as popular records in Jamaica—you can listen to all four sides without your attention faltering. “Riverton City,” “Tell It Black,” “Mammy Hot Daddy Cool” and “Plead I Cause” are among the all-time favorites and once again his re-telling of American hits like Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” and The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” makes them Jamaican classics. 


At this point Big Youth began releasing his albums on his own label in Jamaica. Isaiah First Prophet of Old (1978 Nichola Delita) was produced by Devon Russell and recorded at Joe Gibbs & Harry J’s. Backed by The Ark Angels, his own band name for the Soul Syndicate, the album contained “Upful One” and “World In Confusion” and was reissued on compact disc in 1997 on the Caroline label. Progress (1979 Nichola Delite) contained one of his strongest blasts, “Pope Paul Feel It,” the topical “Green Bay Killing” and the original “Stepping Out A Babylon.” Rock Holy (1980 Negusa Nagast), like Progress, was produced by Big Youth himself.


In the early eighties, Big Youth was one of the first artists to sign with the Heartbeat label, which released his next three studio albums. The Chanting Dread Inna Fine Style (1982 Heartbeat) featured songs like “All Nations Bow,” “African Daughter” and “Streets In Africa.” A Luta Continua (1984 Heartbeat), produced by Herbie Miller, was dedicated to freedom fighters Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, and others. Manifestation (1988 Heartbeat) featured “No Nukes,” a crooning take on “No Way To Treat A Lady,” and one of those songs only Big Youth could pull off: “Spiderman Meet Hulk (In A Rub-A-Dub Style).”


Though he rarely toured, his performances were powerful--especially in the early days when he was backed by The Ark Angels with Santa Davis, Chinna Smith, Tony Chin, Fully Fullwood and Keith Sterling. Two live releases capture Big Youth at different points in his career. Live At Reggae Sunsplash ‘82 (1984 Sunsplash) is a classic run-through of hits. Jamming In the House of Dread (1991 ROIR) was recorded live in Osaka, Japan at Reggae Japansplash 8/30/90 and features some later material as well.


Higher Grounds (1995 VP) was produced by former Black Uhuru front-man Junior Reid and Big Youth, his sideburns greying, shows he’s still got the stuff on songs like “Free the People,” “Mr. Wicked Man” and “Why Do the Eden Reign.” A couple of excellent 10" from 2006, “Lion’s Den” and “Love Is What We Need” were cut for Ryan Moore of the Twilight Circus Sound System. By the time of Musicology (2007 Vizion Sounds) the grey had spread to his beard but the new set of music recorded at Leggo’s, Bobby Digital and Tuff Gong, including songs like “Glory To the King,” “Joy” and “Where Were All Them Bwoy” uphold the standards Big Youth himself set about thirty-five years earlier.


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