If rap music is the CNN of black America, dancehall reggae is the equivalent for ghetto youth in Jamaica. Since first emerging in the late '60s, Jamaican DJs (the reggae version of hip-hop's MCs) have offered their rude-boy spin on the goings-on of politicians and drug dealers in their communities, introducing a virtually impenetrable patois phraseology along the way. Over the years, hundreds of ambitious microphone chatters have attempted to boast and bluff their way into dancehall stardom, but fame is ephemeral on the talent-packed island. Only Yellowman has called himself king of dancehall and not been shot for it (gunfire being a very real threat for dancehall artists who dis the wrong rival). Yellowman not only altered the nature of Caribbean wordplay forever, but also heavily inspired the early American MCs who wrote the blueprint for hip-hop.
Yellowman was born Winston Foster in Jamaica in 1956, with very little going for him. In addition to being poor and possessing the looks only a far-sighted mother could love, he was albino; a condition afforded the social status of leprosy on the island. Like the proverbial school-age fat kid, young Foster overcompensated by being gregarious and cocky, qualities that would be indispensable in his later vocation. Adopting the self-evident moniker Yellowman, he began performing in 1979 with the Aces International sound system, a mobile party-rocking crew that would battle other sound systems over which possessed the largest bass and hottest records. He became a Jamaican celebrity after his storied performance at the 1982 Reggae Sunsplash festival, the Caribbean's biggest annual reggae showcase. Over the phone from his home in Jamaica, he recalls that show, which he says is still talked about, as "the best experience I ever have in all my career."
Over the two years following his breakthrough at Sunsplash, Yellowman ascended the DJ ranks on the strength of a string of hits produced by Junjo Lawes, whose legendary Volcano label also launched the careers of reggae heavyweights Frankie Paul, Eek-A-Mouse and Barrington Levy.
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Yellowman's lyrical versatility and impeccable phrasing proved irresistible to reggae audiences, and during the early and mid-'80s, he was incontestably dancehall's most prolific artist. (In 1982 alone, he released no fewer than four classic albums: Duppy or Gunman, Mister Yellowman, Bad Boy Skanking and Live at Reggae Sunsplash.) But what truly endeared him to Jamaican youth was his founding of the "slackness" style, which dealt in explicit sexuality and homophobia, two subjects that still enjoy immense popularity in dancehall.
Many reggae critics have decried Yellowman's advent of slackness as the beginning of the end of dancehall's relevance, after which odes to "punany" (female genitalia) and death threats to "chi chi men" (gays) were obligatory. But King Yellow set himself apart from the legions of foul-mouthed DJs that followed with the humorous twists he inserted into even his bawdiest material. Between sex chatter on "Zungguzungguguzungguzeng," for example, he paused to chuckle, "Some of dem a talk 'bout me no have no girlfriend/ ya idiot boy me have one hundred and ten/ and all of dem a have yellow children."
And Yellowman was no one-trick rude boy. As often as he'd delve into gutter talk, he'd offer an insight into the social conditions of his homeland. On "Bad Boy Skanking," he and partner in rhyme Fathead reported on Jamaican gangsters who "dress up in dem tie and in dem jacket" as a cultural phenomenon, but without glorifying their criminal nature. With "Duppy or Gunman," Yellowman pleaded with the thugs terrorizing Jamaica's inner cities to lay down their arms: "Gunshot it no respect no one/ beg you cool down yourself, youthman."
Through his inventive rhyme schemes, Yellowman offered listeners an unusual mix of the shocking and the edifying, with a storytelling ability that suggested he might appeal to audiences outside of reggae. CBS Records took the risk and signed him to its roster in 1983, making Yellowman the first dancehall artist to release an album on a U.S. label.
With stateside distribution a luxury afforded to a scant few reggae artists his tracks began to turn up in the record crates of New York's early hip-hop DJs, Afrika Bambaataa chief among them. Bambaataa, known for throwing reggae, funk, calypso, soca, Afrobeat and even TV theme songs into his mix, took a liking to Yellowman's singles and spun them frequently at his legendary South Bronx block parties. Thus began Yellowman's profound but almost totally undocumented influence on the stylistic evolution of American rap.
Run-D.M.C. owes the most obvious debt to his work a close listen to the group's earliest material reveals numerous parallels to Yellowman's collaborations with Fathead. Run and D.M.C. clearly patterned their back-and-forth techniques rapping in unison, complementing each other's verses with vocal embellishments on the duets in which Yellowman and Fathead echoed the rhymes in each other's verses.
Countless other rap artists were similarly inspired by Yellowman, especially on the East Coast, where large Caribbean populations often resulted in a degree of cultural crossover. Eighties New York groups Masters of Ceremony and Stetsasonic both quoted the lines "higher than the highest mountain/ deeper than the deepest sea" from Yellowman's track "Morning Ride," and acts as diverse as gangsta rapper Eazy-E and New Jersey Afrocentric outfit Poor Righteous Teachers sampled his classic number "Nobody Move."
When asked about the extent of his influence on hip-hop, Yellowman minces no words. "Well, most of these rappers are inspired by me," he says matter of factly. "L.L. Cool J, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Tone-Loc, Young MC, Puffy, Biggie, all of them guys." Dancehall hyperbole indeed, but the connection between Jamaican DJs and their American counterparts has been glossed over for so long, we might excuse a little corrective overstatement from the never subtle King Yellow.
Over the years, Yellowman has mellowed considerably from his once-slack self, with his penchant for matters of the flesh giving way to a less controversial lyrical approach. Critics have responded favorably to his maturation his 1997 comeback album Freedom of Speech earned a Grammy nomination and now Yellowman talks more of his responsibility than his rude-boy reputation. "I find out that I'm like a popular figure, a leader with a purpose in this world," he says. "Haffi [slang for 'I have to'] show the consciousness of the people. What's going on, you know, when Bob Marley died, reggae was on my shoulder, to finish taking it across. So I do it in a conscious way, you know?"
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He says his mission is to finally bring reggae to the masses, the same goal his CBS deal failed to accomplish 20 years ago (he released only one album on the label before returning to the Jamaican Shanachie). "It's gonna break through whenever," he says. "It takes time, because reggae music is a message music. It's a music that opens people's eyes, if people can get to that. Reggae is already popular, but it needs more listeners."
As evidenced by the spate of recent high-profile collaborations between reggae DJs and hip-hop MCs, dancehall indeed appears to be on the verge of crossing over (and if one counts Shaggy as dancehall, it already has). But Yellowman believes that the cultural exchange has become too one-sided: Too many Jamaican artists, he says, are just mimicking techniques and slang from hip-hop instead of pioneering their own.
Ironically, Yellowman was the first dancehall artist to appear on an American hip-hop record Run-D.M.C.'s 1985 song "Roots, Rap, Reggae." But for that work, the artists agreed on a middle ground somewhere between their styles, and the result was a fusion of Caribbean and American cadences. With the commercial dominance of hip-hop, the balance of influence has shifted too far stateside for Yellowman's tastes. "Rap music take over for dancehall now, y'unnerstand?" he states. "Used to be dancehall, now is rap." Indeed, one of the biggest hits in Jamaica in the last year was Elephant Man's "Shizzle My Nizzle," a track overflowing with lyrics borrowed from rap's lexicon.
Yellowman, now a father of six and well into his 40s, says he tries not to let such matters upset him. He's still adding to his unbelievably long discography, and he declares that his live shows are as spirited as ever. "I got natural energy, you know," he says. "And I got the love of people and my family. I get a lot of courage from people, especially the audience. When you got the love of the people, you don't need nothing else, you know?"