Jamaican deejay music in the 1970s
In the 1970s Jamaican deejaying was heavily influenced by the rise and popularity of Rastafarianism and as a consequence the Bible became a prime source of inspiration for deejays. Alongside these develoments, the old “talkover” tradition survived and constantly battled for supremacy with the new; religious input. Thus the Jamaican deejay tradition could be said to have moved along an axis with “good talking” at one end and “talking bad” at the other.
The Jamaican deejay tradition could be said to embody the rhetorical traditions identified by Roger D. Abrahams in his influential Man-of-Words in the West Indies. Roger D. Abrahams has indeed shown that the Caribbean man is a “man of words” who delights in manipulating language to defend himself and harm his opponents.
In his study of verbal practices in the Caribbean, Abrahams noted that language skills and rhetorical virtuosity were highly valued in this region of the world : “In such communities, the eloquent speaker is capable of garnering a great deal of power, respect and in many cases admiration through his artful speaking “i . Abrahams identified two main « traditions of eloquence» which resulted in two types of verbal practices : “good talking/talking sweet” and ” broad talking/talking bad “.
The first tradition implies the use of standard English and includes a set of verbal practices accepted by the community, such as Non-conformist sermons, wedding speeches and tea meetings. The second tradition corresponds to the use of dialect or “patois”, repartee, wit and a type of lavatorial humour disapproved of by the community.
These two traditions of eloquence seem to be antithetical and to have little in common, but in fact they can be said to form part of one rhetorical continuum. The idea of a language continuum stretching from Africa to the Caribbean and taking in various languages and dialects was first developed by the linguist David De Camp2. At one end of the continuum patois seems to predominate with its African-derived vocabulary and syntax, and at the other end, standard English would be the norm, and in-between there would be various idiolects like street slang, Rasta talk, reggae’s subcultural slang , etc.
In the 1970s the Rastafarian ideology and language had a massive influence on the Jamaican deejay tradition. The birth of Rastafarianism is associated with a prophecy supposedly made by Marcus Garvey according to which a black king would be crowned in the east. In 1930 Ras Tafari, a young Ethiopian prince, was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and became Haile Selassie I.
In Jamaica a number of Garveyite preachers had interpreted Selassie’s coronation as the fulfilment of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy and started preaching about the coming of a black king who would be the Redeemer. These preachers included Leonard Percival Howell and Nathaniel Hibbert. In the 1940s Howell and his followers moved into a vast compound named Pinnacle and started a kind of cultural revolution in colonial Jamaica. Indeed the Howellites lived communally, smoked marijuana, worshipped their black god and praised all things African.
The Rastas did not pay any taxes and many squatted on government land. They gradually became real figures of fear or outcasts, and most Jamaicans despised them or were frightened of them, warning their children against the Rastaman who would come and take them away if they misbehaved.
The Jamaican authorities raided Pinnacle several times, and in 1954, after a particularly violent raid, most Rastas left Pinnacle and moved to the West Kingston slums or to other parts of the country.
By the late 1950s many Rastas lived in West Kingston and clashes with the police were becoming more and more frequent.
By the early 1960s many Rastas lived in West Kingston and clashes with the police were becoming more and more frequent. One such clash, the Coral Gardens incident, deeply shocked the nation and most Jamaicans grew aware of the existence of the sect at that time. Indeed, in 1963, a group of Rastas killed a petrol station attendant, near Montego Bay, and then looted a motel. To many Jamaicans, Rastafarianism became synonymous with violence, and the government continued to adopt a repressive attitude (for instance jailing the Rastas and cutting off their dreadlocks). Nevertheless, two important developments were to give the Rastafarians an unprecedented degree of legitimacy: Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica and the growing popularity of the Rastafarian faith and lifestyle with Jamaica’s poor, and reggae singers.
In April 1966, Haile Selassie himself paid a state visit to Jamaica and was welcomed by a crowd of about 100,000 Rastafarians, who invaded the tarmac of the airport. Selassie’s visit to Jamaica did much to make many people aware of the popularity of this movement. This new legitimacy in turn led many musicians and singers to adopt the Rastafarian faith and in the late 1960’s artists like the Abyssinians, Burning Spear, and the Wailers (Bunny Livingstone, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh) all became spokespersons for the movement, spreading its tenets in their songs.
Since the late 1960s the Rastafarian movement has made many more converts in Jamaica (and in the wider Caribbean) and has become an important part of Jamaican culture thanks to its popularization through the medium of reggae music. Indeed in the 1970s more and more reggae musicians became Rastafarians and popularized the language, symbols and culture of the movement. Some of these singers and musicians like Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Peter Tosh became international pop stars, and they made Rastafarian culture a truly global phenomenon. In the 1970s the Twelve Tribes of Israel organistion became more and more influential, notably through their sound system. Artists associated with this organisation included the deejay Brigadier Jerry and the singer Freddie Mc Gregor.
From a thematic point of view, the themes of black pride, the greatness of African civilisations, poverty, life in the West Kingston slums started to predominate, and from the early 1970’s on, reggae became the favoured vehicle for the Rastafarian ideology (see section on music for more on this).
From a formal point of view, reggae disseminated the Rastafarians’ code language and made it very popular with young Jamaicans from the late 1960’s on. Indeed, it must be said that one of the main contributions made by the Rastafarians to Jamaican and Caribbean cultures concerns language.
The Rastafarians devised a new language to suit their own world view and ideology. The main characteristics of this new language are the predominance of “I-Words” and the constant coinings of new words tailored to achieve a greater adequacy between signifier and signified (Pollard 1995).
The predominance of “I-words” in the Rastafarian code language is a consequence of the Rastafarians’ desire to be in communion with their god, that is Haile Selassie. It must be said that the Rastafarians pronounce the Roman numeral “I” in “Haile Selassie I” as if it was the first person personal pronoun. Thus an identity is established between the person who speaks and his Creator. That identity provides the basis for countless new phrases that pepper the Rastafarian code language such as “I-ses” (= praises), “I-tal” (= vital), “I-rie” (= free), and “I-ssembly” (= assembly ). Other phrases common in Rastafarian talk are “Yes-I” (= yes indeed ) and “Jah-I” (= Myself and Jah).
The words tailored to achieve a greater adequacy between signifier and signified are words whose first or second syllable has been replaced by a more “appropriate” one. This linguistic manipulation is based both on sound and meaning. For instance, the word “oppressor” is said to fail to convey the negative connotations of its meaning because of the positive associations of the syllable “op”. Thus its opposite, “down”, is substituted and the end product is “downpressor”.
Another example would be the word “everlasting”, whose third syllable is burdened with the negative connotations of the word “ last”. Thus the verb “to live” will replace “last”, and the new coinage is “everliving”. Here are a few examples of the Rastafarians’ search for a less arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified: “deity – livity”,” dialect – livalek”, “destroy – downstroy”, “understand – overstand”.
The Rastafarian code language found its way into the deejays’ toasts and Jamaican patois rubbed shoulders with an elevated biblical diction that was lifted from the King James Bible. The deejays Big Youth and Prince Far-I became the foremost exponents of this biblical style, as is evidenced by this excerpt from a song by Prince Far-I:
-” Ethiopia, now stretch forth her hands
Ethiopia, a black man land.
By the rivers of Babylon, I and I sat down
And there I wept tears from my eyes
When I remembered Mount Zion-I
Wicked has taken us away [in] captivity
The Lord is I and I shepherd
He leadeth I in the path of righteousness
Yea, though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death
I and I will fear no foe !
Well, watch out man !” 3
In this short excerpt from Prince Far-I’s “Black Man Land”, the Rastafarian code language (“I and I”, the use of “I” for “me”) found its way into Psalm 23 and Psalm 137. The latter was first popularised by the Melodians with their song “Rivers of Babylon” and has proved very popular with reggae singers and deejays. What is fascinating about « Rivers of Babylon » is its multiple transformations, from Biblical psalm through Rastafarian chant to international disco hit. Indeed the song was initially a reworking of two Pslams which have been used in countless reggae songs and are part of Rastafarian culture, Psalm 137 and Psalm 19.
Psalm 137 is actually entitled « Song of the exiles » and is about the Babylonian exile of the Israelites, telling of their dismay when their captors asked them to sing a song :
“« By the rivers of Babylon,
we sat and wept
at the memory of Zion.
On the poplars there
We had hung up our harps.
For there our gaolers had asked us
To sing them a song,
Our captors to make merry,
« Sing us one of the songs of Zion ».
How could we sing a song of Yahweh
On alien soil ?”.
The last verse of Psalm 19 includes a prayer to Yahweh :
” May the words of my mouth always find favour,
and the whispering of my heart,
in your presence, Yahweh,
my rock, my redeemer “.4
When the Melodians recorded “Rivers of Babylon ” in 1969/1970, Rastafarian culture was gaining ground in Jamaica thanks to the work of Burning Spear (” Door Peep “, 1969) , the Abyssinians (” Satta Amasa Gana “, ” Declaration of Rights “, both recorded in 1969) and the Wailers (” Duppy Conqueror “, 1970). In the early 1970s Rastafarianism became increasingly popular with reggae musicians and the Melodians’ song reflects that influence.
The fact that they chose Psalm 137, the ” song of the exiles “, is important as the Rastafarians consider themselves as exiles in Babylon, as prisoners in a ” strange land “. So, like their African-American brothers, the Rastafarians used the Christian message, the Bible, and subverted them to tell their own story. Rastafarian culture works by borrowing from the Bible and then moulding it to fashion it in a particular way. This is visible in the song’s last words (” O Fari” ) and in the reference to ” King Alpha “. ” Fari ” is of course an abbreviation of ” Rastafari ” and ” King Alpha” is just one of the many titles Rastafarians use to address their god at the beginning of prayer meetings or ” grounations ” (” King of Kings, Lords of Lords, the Alpha and the Omega “).
The excerpt from the Prince Far-I song quoted above is a good example of “good talking” as it relies on a well-known biblical text to establish the deejay’s authority. Moreover Prince Far-I’s chanting style and his gruff voice also contributed to creating a feeling of dread which pervades the whole recording.
Big Youth (Manley Buchanan) was another 1970s artist who relied a lot on the authority of biblical texts to create a new style. One of his best-known pieces is entitled “I Pray Thee”, which is a Rastafarian version of Psalm 1:
” Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor stand in the ways of sinners,
nor sit up i nthe seat of the scornful,
but delights in the law of the Lord God Jah Rastafari,
and in this law do I and I meditate.
I and I shall be like a tree which is planted by the rivers of waters,
that remains fruitful in due season.
I and I life or locks shall not wither,
And whatsoever we do it must prosper.
The ungodly are not so, oh no.” 5
Big Youth often recites this psalm at the very beginning of his performance in order to create a particular mood and in order to insist on the seriousness of the situation. Indeed the 1970s deejays saw themselves as modern-day prophets who were on a mission and who had to draw the masses to the message of Rastafari. Big Youth himself had insisted on the fact that from then on the deejays were supposed to sing “no more songs about girls” 6
The “good talking” tradition seemed to be firmly established by the mid-1970s and even the first-generation deejays like U-Roy adopted that new approach as is indicated by the title of his 1976 LP, Dread in a Babylon. One of the tracks on this LP, “The Great Psalms”, has the deejay reciting a number of well-known biblical passages at breakneck speed and with a minimal musical accompaniment (drums, bass and harmonica). The vocal style used by U-Roy on this track is very intense and could remind a Jamaican audience of the energetic style used by some Baptist or nonconformist ministers, but this is highly speculative. If that connection could be proved though, it would be interesting to find out to what extent U-Roy’s style was a modern reinterpretation of the Jamaican preaching style, with its repetitive structures and appeals to the congragation/audience.
The “good talking” tradition could thus fit a more general framework that would cover the religious style in Jamaica.
Nevertheless that good talking style did not completely take over and traces of the old deejay style survived into the 1970s. The early deejay style developed by Count Machuki, King Stitt and King Sporty was partly based on the boasting/jiving tradition and the agonistic power of the word. Indeed the man-of-words in the West Indies manipulates language and uses words to assert his power. That agonistic function of language was used in the 1970s to launch attacks on fellow deejays.
As demonstrated by Abrahams in his Man-of-Words in the West Indies linguistic virtuosity is highly valued in the Caribbean and daily conversations can easily turn into contests of wits in which using language well insures victory. In the USA “the dozens” and “signifying” are well-known rhetorical activities in which teenagers and young people practise their verbal skills. In the Caribbean these activities are known as “sounding” or “mamaguying”. In Jamaica more particularly, they are sometimes referred to as “jiving”, “mouthing” or as the “tracing” tradition.
This tradition was identified by Abrahams as “talking bad” and is associated with street life, rum bars and public life. It is usually associated with patois or creole, and with wit or repartee.
In Jamaica this tradition gave birth to the boast song in which the singer boasts about his rhetorical virtuosity and tries to destroy his opponent with words. An early example of this tradition is Clancy Eccles’s “Don’t you Brag and Don’t you Boast”in which, ironically, the singer advises his opponent not to boast while engaging in a long boasting tirade himself:
” Don’t you brag and don’t you boast,
Grief comes to those who brag the most !
Why you crummy, you crummy fi true,
Why you acting like a bugaboo ?
When you hear this beat, I know you’ll move your feet,
It will make you wonder can you upset this beat ?
I’m the originator of the latest craze,
I am the king of the reggae, I know my music’s sweet !” 7
In the mid-1970s this “talking bad” tradition came to the fore when two well-known deejays had a feud and traded insults in a series of best-selling records. The feud started when the deejay I-Roy released a record entitled “Straight to Jazzbo’s Head” which contained the lines “Jazzbo, if you were a jukebox, I wouldn’t put a dime in yourslot”8. Prince Jazzbo replied in kind with the song “Straight to I-Roy’s Head”:” I-Roy, you a boy, move out of the way. You imitate the great U-Roy. I-Roy you a boy. How come you trouble Prince Jazzbo; Prince Jazzbo never trouble you”9 . The two deejays thus traded insults and sexual innouendoes in a series of records which proved to be very popular with the Jamaican public and which enabled the two artistes to defuse tensions which might otherwise have led to physical violence. Bragging and boasting thus remained part of the toasting tradition even in the so-called “roots” era when social and religious themes seemed to be predominant. In fact, one of the most popular songs in 1976 was Dillinger’s “CB 200” which was not a strictly “cultural” tune, but which celebrated the new fashionable “natty dread” culture in a style which was reminiscent of nursery-rhymes:
“Say one, two dreads sat upon a CB200,
I say to one dread you better show me your natty dreads
And so the dread flashed him locks and the lighting clapped
and a weak-heart dropped
We come yah fi dread, we no come yah fi dead,
We come yah fi knot, we no come yah fi plait,
Say set up yourself dreadlocks for natty well on the mountain top”.10
Although they refer to the Rastafarian cult and its peculiar hairstyle, these lines are characterised by a certain flippancy and are poles apart from the seriousness of a Prince Far I or a Big Youth. Indeed the deejay strings together various popular cathphrases like “”the dread flashed him locks and the weak-heart dropped” to produce an original tune. The technique of composition is reminiscent of the one used by the early “jive” deejays like Count Machuki or King Stitt in the late 1960s, but it incorporates elements from the Rastafarian cult and its “dread” vocabulary.
In fact, the 1970s seem to have been characterised by the coexistence of two modes in Jamaican popular music, the sacred mode and the profane one. As cogently argued by O. Nigel Bolland in his article on creolisation in the post-emancipation Caribbean, binary patterns do not really apply when studying Caribbean cultures and the latter are characterised by the absence of the rigid dichotomy between the sacred and the profane to be found in European cultures. Bolland claims that Caribbean cultures are characterised by a “holistic and organic philosophy” which cannot be understood “in terms of the dualistic tradition of binary oppositions” 11 (Bolland186).
Bolland’s dialectical approach and his rejection of dualism or binary patterns could help us to understand how Jamaican deejays in the 1970s were able to move along the rhetorical continuum identified by Roger D.Abrahams. Indeed these recording artistes constantly straddled the border between the sacred and the profane and were very comfortable doing so. For instance, on his 1975 album Dread ina Babylon, U-Roy could resort to the Nonconformist or black preaching style in “The Great Psalms” and then switch to a different mode in “Runaway Girl” which, as the title indicates, is concerned with more mundane matters.
Likewise, Big Youth, despite his injunction to stop releasing songs about girls, could release tunes like “Mammy Hot and Daddy Cool” or even “Love Me in the Morning”, thus reflecting the influence of American soul music on reggae.
This constant interplay between the sacred and the profane amounts to a syncretistic or creolising process in which various elements from oral and written traditions influence each other and coexist. The Bible, a written text which was reinterpreted by the Rastafarians, was once more reappropriated by the sound system deejays who used it for political commentary or simply to drive a point home. The endless versioning of a particular “riddim” points to this open-ended aesthetic in which various traditions intermingle. Again, Big Youth provides us with a ready example of that approach with his song “House Of Dreadlocks” which starts with a snatch from a song entitled “Curly Locks”:”Now you see what curly locks is, what more can you do but love him?”. Then the deejay intones:”Because the dread dem love it, because the daughters dem scrub it; the natty dread dem love it, and the sisters dem love it, ’cause natty dreadlocks dread down in the house of dread. […]I say to be young, gifted and black is where it’s at, and if you beat me, you can’t beat my words, righteousness will stand continually, love one another like sisters and brothers, each and every day, from I was born until this thing I would say” 12. This song is obvioulsy about the status of the Rastafarians in 1970s Jamaica and about the atttaction of the new “natty dread” hairstyle and its erotic nature. Indeed the Rastas are said to be “dread”, serious but they are also popular with the girls who love and scrub their locks, thus keeping them natty. African-American soul slang also makes its appearance (“to be young, gifted and black is where it’s at”), thus reinforcing the creolising process.
Thus it could be argued that the techniques developed by Jamaican deejays in the late 1960s continued to shape Jamaican music in the 1970s, but they were refined and came to incorporate many facets of the Caribbean rhetorical spectrum. As a consequence, David de Camp’s theory of the language continuum and Roger D. Abrahams’ concept of a rhetorical continuum could help us to understand the complexity and diversity of Jamaican popular music in the 1970s.
This complexity seems to be part of a creolising complex in which dual patterns or structures are irrelevant and in which the sacred and the profane coexist, which suggests that, as O.Nigel Bolland suggested, Caribbean cultures are best understood using a dialectical approach which excludes dualistic patterns.