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U-Roy, Reggae Artist and Toasting Pioneer, Dead at 78

“Without him, there would be no dancehall, no hip-hop, no rap, no Afrobeat,” Mad Professor says


David Corio/Redferns

U-Roy, the influential reggae artist who specialized in the art of toasting and whose style became a key precursor in the early development of hip-hop, has died at the age of 78. The singer and producer died in his native Jamaica Wednesday after a long illness, Loop Jamaica reported.

“We are very sad to announce that pioneering DJ who revolutionised the sound of Jamaican music in the early Seventies – Ewat Beckford aka U Roy has passed away at the age of 78 yesterday in Jamaica,” Trojan Records tweeted.

Dub producer and Ariwa label founder Mad Professor wrote on Facebook, “What can I say? A very sad moment of transition for the man who inspired Ariwa. Without him, there would be no Ariwa. From I was 15 when I heard Version Galore I wanted to work with U-Roy. And I finally got the chance in 1991 when we met in LA. This is one of the highlights of Ariwa. We last spoke 2 weeks ago, and he was quite frail, but quite quiet. As we mourn the loss, we have the memories of this amazing talent. We have the stories. Without him there would be no Dancehall, no Hiphop, no Rap, no Afrobeat.”

BBC reggae DJ David Rodigan tweeted, “RIP Daddy U Roy the iconic toaster who changed the paradigm of Jamaican music when he voiced the ‘Version Galore’ album …I was always in awe of him; the tone of voice, the cadence, the lyrical shimmering and riddim riding made him ‘the soul adventurer.’”

Born Ewart Beckford in Kingston, Jamaica, U-Roy — whose nickname came from a younger relative who struggled to saw “Ewart” — spent the Sixties under the tutelage of numerous veteran sound systems — Dickie Wong’s, Coxsone Dodd’s and King Tubby’s — before linking up with Paragons singer John Holt and producer Duke Reid in 1970.

Together, U-Roy released his singles “Wake the Town” and “Rule the Nation,” with the musician “toasting” — a seamless blend of talking and singing — over a rocksteady riddim beat. The singles became hits in Jamaica and beyond, with the tracks helping to foster the country’s dancehall genre.

Beyond that, U-Roy’s toasting became a major influence on the hip-hop music that would emerge over the next decade. Kool Herc, a Jamaican-born, Bronx-raised DJ and one of hip-hop’s early pioneers, would often cite U-Roy as his chief inspiration; after moving to Queens as a young teen, Kool Herc introduced toasting at his legendary Sedgwick Ave. parties.

After releasing a stream of albums throughout the Seventies — including his landmark 1970 LP Version Galore and his hit 1975 album Dread in a Babylon — U-Roy founded his own Stur Gav soundsystem in 1978, which featured deejays like Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin and Ranking Joe.

Dancehall star Shaggy wrote on Instagram, “Today we lost one of our heros !! A true legend in this game of dance hall/ Reggae if your [sic] a fan of sound system, then your [sic] a fan of Stur Gav sound. With such greats as Colonel Josey Whales and Charlie Chaplin, pioneers in this game … with a catalogue of amazing recordings U Roy was a master at his craft. Rest Well daddy Roy!! R.I.P. walk good.”

In 2004, U-Roy was among the artists to feature on Toots and the Maytals’ Grammy-winning all-star album True Love. Beckford received the Order of Distinction from the Jamaican government for his contribution to music in 2007. “Never even remotely considered a novelty act, U Roy nowadays commands a rightful respect as one of reggae’s elder statesmen and a true genre innovator,” Trojan Records previously wrote of U-Roy. “Not only would Jamaican DJ music be considerably less significant without his contributions, neither would American rap, as many who operate in that field are quick to acknowledge.”

“Mad Professor — who coaxed U-Roy out of a decade-long hiatus with 1991’s True Born African, as well as produced a pair of U-Roy albums this past decade — added, “The True Born African! We remember the good times. Los Angeles, Beastie Boys, London Ariwa, Jamaica Leggo, Bravo, France, Italy..all over the world. Happy to be a part of the journey. 2 weeks ago when we spoke the few words told the story. End of an era, but you are forever strong to handle the next journey.”

From Rolling Stone US