Graded on a Curve:
U-Roy,
Solid Gold U-Roy

Ewart Beckford, better known as pioneering Jamaican toaster U-Roy, passed on February 17 of last year, a sad occurrence salved somewhat by the belated emergence of Solid Gold U-Roy, a double LP originally slated for release in 2020 but delayed by the Covid pandemic. While the CD came out last June, the gold vinyl edition didn’t hit stores until just last month. Although loaded with guest appearances including Ziggy Marley, Santigold, Shaggy, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, and Mick Jones, the set avoids the grandiose bloat of an over-orchestrated farewell. Intended as U-Roy’s next album rather than his last, it’s available now through Trojan Jamaica and BMG.

Both an innovator and an enduring recording artist, U-Roy’s impact on Jamaican music is considerable. While it’s impossible to know who exactly did it first, U-Roy’s toasting efforts have been cited as the earliest examples on record; they’re heard extensively on the 1971 Version Galore LP, which collects material cut in 1969-’70. Additionally, U-Roy was reportedly toasting live as far back as 1961, lending credence to his nickname “The Originator.”

Toasting (or deejaying), for those unfamiliar, is the act of talking or chanting over a reggae instrumental foundation, sometimes in combination with a singer. Occasionally described as the framework for early rap MCs, toasting also links roots reggae (where the technique flourished) to the dancehall style that followed, and it remains a vital component of Jamaican music right up to the present.

U-Roy’s early work holds lasting appeal (Trojan’s 2CD expansion of Treasure Isle’s original Version Galore LP, especially), but it’s really his self-titled set for Bunny Lee’s Attack imprint from 1974 followed by a string of recordings in connection with the Virgin label, specifically Dread in a Babylon (’75), Natty Rebel (’76), Rasta Ambassador (’77), and Jah Son of Africa (’78), that constitute his sturdiest stretch.

To be sure, U-Roy’s recorded a whole lot since, but his discography isn’t as unwieldy as some of his contemporaries. In fact, over the last decade or so, his output had slowed quite a bit; had Solid Gold U-Roy came out as planned in 2020 rather than posthumously, it still would’ve been considered a big deal, and beyond the string of guests.

Indeed, the whole shebang was intended (in part, anyway) to help establish the Trojan Jamaica label as formed by Zak Starkey (son of Beatle Ringo, don’tcha know) and Sharna “Sshh” Liguz. The band for the record includes the rhythm section of Sly & Robbie, guitarist Tony Chin, keyboardist Robbie Lyn, and guitarist Starkey, who produced along with Liguz and ex-Killing Joke bassist Martin “Youth” Glover.

The scoop is that Liguz laid down vocal tracks as a guide for the guests to sing over. At times, the lack of intimacy is detectable, and kinda right away in opener “Trenchtown Rock.” That’s not to infer the song doesn’t unwind pleasantly enough, as Ziggy Marley is doing the singing, it’s just that his interaction with U-Roy isn’t exactly organic.

But the pairing of Ziggy and U-Roy is fitting, as the source cut is a 1971 single by Bob Marley & the Wailers, and furthermore, “Trenchtown Rock,” in an instrumental version, delivers the finale to U-Roy’s Dread in a Babylon. It’s one of three songs associated with Bob Marley on Solid Gold U-Roy; the others are “Soul Rebel” with David Hinds (of Steel Pulse) and “Small Axe” with Jesse Royal, and it’s a toss-up which is best. The singing of Hinds and Royal is amongst the strongest on the record, but it’s the organ, touches of electronics, and the trombone that gives “Small Axe” the edge.

A glance at the track list might lead one to conclude that “Stop That Train,” with Rygin King on vocals, is yet another Marley tune, but no; it’s not the Peter Tosh composition heard on the ’73 Marley & the Wailers Catch a Fire LP, but a solid version of the oft-covered (and sampled) ’68 single by The Spanishtonians.

“Stop That Train” is a good one, but “Man Next Door” with singing by Santigold, is the standout selection on Solid Gold U-Roy’s first LP. Is it as killer as the Slits’ version(s) of the John Holt song (credited to The Paragons)? Well no, but Santigold does extend from the same tradition and her engagement with the proceedings is palpable, which in turn elevates U-Roy’s already sharp game ever further.

But “Queen Majesty / Chalice in the Palace,” a medley of tunes by The Techniques (who were themselves covering Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions) and a U-Roy cut from Dread in a Babylon, gives “Man Next Door” a serious run for its money, largely through the vocal flair of Robbie Shakespeare. But also diggable is “Wear You to the Ball,” a song reaching back to Version Galore (also heard on Rasta Ambassador), which welcomes Richie Spice to the microphone.

That the songs were thoughtfully chosen is particularly evident in the three consecutive versions from U-Roy’s eponymous ’74 album. They are “Rule the Nation” with Shaggy (quite good), “Tom Drunk” with Tarrus Riley (even better, partly because of Riley’s soulfulness but also due to the guitar), and “Wake the Town” (best of the three but bittersweet, as U-Roy goes it alone and shows he still had the stuff to handle a whole LP by his lonesome).

The kicker is that side three offers a 15-minute dubbed-out version of “Every Knee Shall Bow” (from a ’78 12-inch by U-Roy and Johnny Clarke) with tandem toasting from U-Roy and Big Youth (in the same studio at the same time) and with guitar from Mick Jones of The Clash. And then, to seal the deal, side four is an even deeper dub version of side three by Scientist that’s in the ballpark of his hazy, bent best.

Like a lot of contempo reggae, this set required a few spins to truly take hold, but rest assured, Solid Gold U-Roy is a grower. What was not conceived as a farewell is easily robust enough to handle the task.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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