Along with U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, and Big Youth, I-Roy was one of a quartet of DJs that reigned supreme over the Jamaican music scene during the early to mid-'70s. Of the four, I-Roy was the most eloquent, and his toasts were littered with references to pop culture, from movies to historical figures. He was also one of the most prolific, cutting scores upon scores of singles, and dozens of albums. Although the DJ's sun began to set at the end of the decade, I-Roy continued to record sporadically up to the '90s, by then, though, his life had taken a tragic turn.
The DJ was born on June 28, 1949, in St. Thomas, Jamaica. The young Roy Reid had no early dreams of becoming a sound system hero, and after graduating from Dinthill Technical College, he embarked on a civil service career, working as an accountant for the government. However, as the island's music scene blossomed during the '60s, other possibilities began to present themselves. Sound systems were flourishing and in 1968, Reid launched his own, Soul Bunny. Initially, the young man took advantage of the weekly early closing (a practice inherited from the British, who closed their businesses one afternoon a week). Thus, Reid set up his system on Wednesday afternoons down by the Victoria Pier. He made an immediate impact, and was soon offered a spot at Son's Junior system in Spanish Town. It was there he met producer Harry Mudie, who took the young Reid into the studio, christened him I-Roy (taking advantage of the success of U-Roy), and recorded four songs. Two paired him with Dennis Walks, "The Drifter" and "Heart Don't Leap"; the third with Ebony Sisters, "Let Me Tell You Boy"; while the fourth, "Musical Pleasure," became his solo debut. These songs were all hits, and I-Roy swiftly became in demand at the sound systems. He DJed for virtually all the outfits operating around Spanish Town, Stereo and Ruddy's Supreme included, and then spent some time with V-Rocket.
In contrast to his flirtations with the sound systems, I-Roy remained loyal to Mudie until 1971. By then, the DJ had developed a rabid following in Britain as well, and the pair fell out over the financial arrangements for a forthcoming European tour. With their partnership at an end, the DJ entered a stage of amazing prolific period, recording with virtually every major producer on the island. He cut "Hot Bomb" for Lloyd Campbell, "Mood for Love" with Winston Blake, and "Problems of Life" and "Musical Drum Sound" for Lloyd Daley. These singles were all big hits, and subsequently I-Roy was offered a slot at King Tubby's legendary Hi-Fi sound system. 1973 was a signature year, the hits came down like rain. Producer Bunny Lee oversaw three, the fabulous "Rose of Sharon," "Make Love," and "Who Cares." Derrick Harriott produced "Melinda," Jimmy Radway cut "Sound Education," and Keith Hudson produced "Silver Platter." Lee Perry took the DJ into the studio for "High Fashion" and "Space Flight," Ruddy Redwood was responsible for "Sidewalk Killer," Pete Weston oversaw the entertaining "Buck and the Preacher," Glen Brown was behind a trio of cuts including "Festive Season," while Byron Lee oversaw a tribute to the popular sci-fi show Dr. Who, there were others with Clive Chin, Rupie Edwards, and the list just continues. However, these many mighty cuts pale compared to I-Roy's work with producer Gussie Clarke. The pair inaugurated their partnership with "Magnificent Seven," and followed it up with the equally impressive "High Jacking." In their sway came a flood of hits, and by the time the two men had completed work on I-Roy's debut album, Presenting, the record was already a virtual hits collection. The majority of the album is culled from Clarke cuts, with several of the best from Pete Weston also included. The centerpiece is the phenomenal "Blackman Time," which utilized the "Slaving" rhythm, while virtually everything else on it was nearly as strong. A second self-produced album, Hell & Sorrow, followed hot on its heels. A worthy successor to the DJ's debut, again it was hits heavy, "Buck and the Preacher" and "Monkey Fashion" are amongst the smashes included, and was as big a success as its predecessor.
Britain was now paying serious attention and Hell & Sorrow, which had been domestically released via the Trojan label, had garnered nothing but acclaim. In response, I-Roy was off to the U.K., arriving in time to promote his next release, the excellent The Many Moods Of. It would be gone eight months, a lifetime in Jamaica's fast changing music scene. I-Roy arrived home to discover that DJing had been declared dead, but he was having none of that and a battle brewed. With the rise of the DJs, Jamaican artists had taken a serious hit. The new genre was built around recycled rhythms (in Jamaican terms, the riddims, which is distinct from the actual rhythm. Riddim refers specifically to the song's melody, not its actual rhythm, which was normally re-recorded with a reggae beat), initially using popular oldies from the rocksteady era. Producers would still need a rhythm section to re-record the songs with more modern beats, and as time went on more musicians were added to the brew, but singers were now virtually redundant. In response, the Jamaican Federation of Musicians, under their president, veteran jazzman Sonny Bradshaw, had fought long and hard to resurrect "real" music. This was the beginning of the shadowy conspiracy of veteran singers who now began unleashing a flood of vocal cuts onto the market. However, Jamaican fads are notorious for their short lives, and it's more likely that it was down to a normal cyclical change of taste, that saw the initial age of DJs fade away. But I-Roy hadn't admitted defeat yet, he was merely biding his time. In the interim, he took employment at Joe Gibbs and JoJo Hookim's brand new Channel One studio. Although he never held the title, and rarely received the credit, the former DJ became the studio's house producer, and was behind several of the studio's innovations.
Finally, in February 1975, I-Roy was ready to launch his attack. It began with "Black Bullet," on which the DJ paired with Jackie Brown. JoJo Hookim then oversaw a stream of I-Roy hits, "I Man Time," "Forward Yah!," "Roots Man," and the innuendo-laced masterpiece "Welding" amongst them. With Phil Pratt, the DJ cut "Ital Dish" and "Musical Air Raid," while Pete Weston oversaw "Natty Down Deh." That latter single was aimed directly at I-Roy's number one enemy, Sonny Bradshaw (who's referred to as "Lockjaw" on the record), and the DJ couldn't help but gloat as the single sailed up the chart. By the end of the year, I-Roy had sent a baker's dozen of cuts soaring up the chart, including "Fire Stick," "Dread in the West," "Padlock," "Teapot," and a pair of songs taking exception to fellow DJ Prince Jazzbo, one of a number of young toasters determined to knock I-Roy off his throne. Dissing the competition on record has a long and illustrious history in Jamaica, dating back to the early '60s and Prince Buster's feud with singer Derrick Morgan and producer Leslie Kong. That was personal, I-Roy's and Prince Jazzbo's musical battle was not, but that didn't stop the two from taking even more personal, and more hilarious, potshots at each other. I-Roy opened the account with "Straight to Jazzbo's Head," which prompted the victim to retort with "Straight to I-Roy's Head." Soon after, the younger DJ had a run-in with a bus, thankfully with only bruises resulting, the elder DJ utilized this incident for "Jazzbo Have Fe Run." As I-Roy had not suffered any misfortunes of his own, Jazzbo opted to question his manhood with "Gal Boy I-Roy." That received a sharp retort with "Padlock," wherein the DJ attempts to arouse the sleeping "Princess Jazzbo." And the sparring continued, much to audiences' delight, with other DJs jumping on the bandwagon to take their own potshots at the mighty I-Roy. Unlike earlier feuds, this one never resulted in clashes between supporters, and the two DJs remained friendly behind the scenes. Before this clash finally died out, it spawned a clash album, Step Forward Youth, which bundled up the pair's barrages onto one disc.
In 1990, the Ujama label would compile them up again on Head to Head Clash. 1975 also brought the release of I-Roy's fourth album, Truth & Rights, which was overseen by Pete Weston. Again the album was filled with recent hits, alongside some strong new material. In 1976, I-Roy inked a deal with the new Virgin subsidiary Front Line, and over the next three years they released a quite breathtaking nine albums by the DJ. In 1996 alone, I-Roy would release four albums. First up was Can't Conquer Rasta, a dub-filled masterpiece overseen by Bunny Lee. The two men had picked up again the year before, debuting with "Straight to Jazzbo's Head," and their relationship had continued across a string of other hits. His debut for Front Line (or more accurately Virgin, as Front Line wasn't quite up and running in time) was Musical Shark Attack, immediately followed by Crisis Time. Both records were slightly less ferocious than past efforts, probably keeping in mind the sensibilities of his overseas audiences, but do feature heavy roots and steaming toasts over a host of classic dread cuts. The Klik label also released Dread Bald Head. The following year, I-Roy joined forces with Niney Holness for a host of cuts, including "Zion Trip," "Point Blank," "Jah Come Here," and "Point Blank." He also went into the studio with Alvin Ranglin, emerging with The Best of I-Roy album. Contrary to its title, this is not a hits collection, but a record of new material, all recorded with the superb Revolutionaries. Although the rhythms are taken from Studio One classics, with the Heptones and Alton Ellis particularly favored, this is a laid back, rootsy record, moodily atmospheric, and indeed remains one of the DJ's best. Equally good was Ten Commandments, also released this year. A brilliant concept album, musically the record is based on Bob Marley's Exodus, with each of the biblical commandments providing the theme for a single track.
After that, Heart of a Lion was going to pale somewhat, although Harry Johnson does nice work here. The Godfather paired I-Roy back with Bunny Lee and Roderick "Blackbeard" Sinclair, with the law (as compared to the commandments) and gangsters being the chattering themes of choice. The General sadly was of less note than its dub companion, Spider's Web. All of these albums arrived in 1977. Perhaps this very rash of records helped to suppress singles' sales, and the DJ was now no longer a constant in the chart. But the albums kept coming. 1978 brought World on Fire, again featuring Sly & Robbie's seminal rhythms. Joe Gibbs oversaw African Herbsman, and the DJ rejoined Harry J. for 1979's Hotter Yatta. That same year's Cancer must refer to I-Roy's zodiac sign, not the disease, while the topics revolve around movie stars and musical heroes. Intriguingly, 1980's Whap'n Bap'n was actually released under the DJ's real name, and paired him with the U.K. maverick producer Dennis Bovell, for a surprisingly subdued record.
1981's I-Roy's Doctor Fish was equally patchy, while 1983's Outer Limits found the DJ dipping into rap. Again there were a few highlights, but the majority of the set was lackluster, and it was becoming apparent that the DJ was beginning to lose his shine. Further albums seemed to confirm this fear and sessions with Blackbeard in 1984 were so disappointing that the DJ's output now slowed to a trickle. Occasional records did appear, 1987 brought We Chat You Rock, on which the DJ paired with Jah Woosh, 1990 saw the arrival of The Lyrics Man, but none revived I-Roy's fortunes. By the '90s, the DJ was afflicted with a variety of health problems and his financial situation was so precarious that for stretches of time he found himself homeless.
By the end of his life, I-Roy had become financially reliant on his mentally retarded son. A second son was in prison and was killed there in October 1999. This terrible tragedy was perhaps the final blow for the weakened legend, and on November 27, 1999, the DJ died in a Spanish Town hospital from heart problems. An artist of I-Roy's stature would be best served by a multi-disc box set, but the copyright situation makes this difficult, as it does for most Jamaican stars, as I-Roy's recordings are spread across so many different producers. However, much of I-Roy's best work is still available, and there are a number of collections devoted exclusively to his recordings. The U.K. label Blood & Fire's Don't Check Me With No Lightweight Stuff is particularly noteworthy, and concentrates on his 1972-1975 heyday. 1983's Crucial Cuts culled the best from the Front Line material, while Touting I Self, released by Heartbeat in 2001, picked up the best of the DJ's work with Bunny Lee. I-Roy is also found showcased on compilations devoted to individual producers, as well as being featured on many DJ compilations.
© Jo-Ann Greene /TiVo