Thursday, May 02, 2013

"Young Gifted and Yellow" Anthology Review

By Erin MacLeod “Hi, my name is Yellowman, in the ghetto they call me Mr. Sexy,” begins “Mad Over Me”, the first track on Young, Gifted and Yellow. If you’ve not met Yellowman before, with this new collection VP Records provides a 40-song introduction. It also presents a case– “nuff arguments”, as Yellow would say– for the relevance of 1980s dancehall and the importance of one of Jamaica’s most well-known and well-loved deejays. Yellow’s accomplishments are significant because he was anything but sexy and successful early on in his life. In fact, his mother tried to throw him away in a dumpster for being a dundus—albino in Jamaican patwa. Winston Foster, the bwoy, was born in 1957 and came of age at Alpha Boys School, a Catholic-run institution for what used to be… …called “wayward children.” Alpha produced piles of musicians, providing a foundation for the development of ska and reggae– and, through Yellowman, dancehall. As Bob Marley famously reminds us, “the stone that the builder refused shall become the head corner stone.” Foster provides snapshots of what it is like to be refused as an albino in Jamaican society in a number of songs featured on YG&Y; in “Bunn the Kutchie” he mentions that “when me did born me mother disown me.” Abandoned by his mother and ostracized as a dundus, Yellowman grew up to become the corner stone of dancehall in Jamaica and the world. He got what Jamaicans would call his bus in the late 1970s with St Thomas-based sound system Aces Disco with whom the deejay perfected songs like “Soldier Take Over”, “Them a Fight I”, and others included on the VP compilation. In the heyday of the soundsystem, artists not only had the to produce hits in the studio, but also had to work a crowd in the dance, hopping on the mic and riding riddims. The early dancehall era required performers to perform and Yellowman was a master– danceable tracks like “Body Move” and “Strong Mi Strong” are but two examples. His style is characterized by sharp humor, clever wordplay, and experiments with different voices– always with a smooth delivery that rocks back and forth, seamlessly shifting from chant into song. It’s the kind of talent and confidence that led to the first major-label signing of a dancehall artist by Columbia, which was looking for the next big thing out of post-Marley Jamaica in 1981. But YG&Y shows that Yellow wasn’t all about the hype. Sure, there’s self-aggrandizement on display in “Who Can Make the Dance Ram”, but tunes like “Eventide Fire”and “Jah Mek Us Fi a Purpose” provide evidence of Yellowman’s social conscience. However, if there’s one thing that he is known for, it’s for what Jamaicans term “slack”, meaning sexually explicit, lyrics. The hugging and squeezing Yellow chats and sings about in tunes like “Morning Ride” and “Rub and Go Down” may be downright tame in comparison to some contemporary tunes running the dance, but it certainly pushed the limits of 1980s Jamaica. Yellow’s slackness helped him to turn the tables on those who might wish to ostracize him due to the color of his skin. Researcher and Yellowman-biographer Brent Hagerman suggests that “slackness essentially allowed him to alter the representation of the dundus in society from that of an outcast to a sex symbol.” In doing so, King Yellow challenged and continues to challenge social mores in Jamaica– confroting stereotypes and forcing his audiences to consider their own assumptions and preconceived notions. It’s no surprise he’s come out strongly against homophobia in the dance: “I don’t do songs against gay people…If you don’t like a person or you don’t like a thing, you don’t talk about it. You don’t come on stage and say kill them or burn them because everybody have a right to live.” Jamaican dancehall is often discussed in terms of disconnect from the rocksteady, reggae, and dub era. It’s seen as a dangerous, and degenerative deviation from the golden 1970s. The range of songs represented on YG&Y, however, dispel any notions of Yellowman as a one-dimensional artist or of 1980s dancehall as a morass of slackness. He also demonstrates that dancehall is an integral part of the whole story of Jamaican music’s worldwide success. Take the song “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng”. After spitting this mouthful, Yellowman asks the listener to “catch it”, but following the thread of the song is actually tough to do. Scholar Wayne Marshall has tracked the memorable melody from 1982 to 2013, from Jamaica to NYC to Puerto Rico to Japan to the UK and back to Jamaica– the nonsensical lyric plays an important role in rough and tough ragga, conscious hip-hop and party reggaeton. His ability to produce hooks that stick is matched by his ability to play with bits and pieces of tunes throughout his work: “Leaving on a Jet Plane” in “Night Flight”, “Three Blind Mice” in “Who Can Make the Dance Ram”, and “Bring it On Home” in “Yellowman Getting Married”, among many others. Winning multiple bouts with cancer left Yellow with a disfigured jaw in 1986, but he was and still remains able to control a crowd. He still actively tours, gracing stageshows in Jamaica and around the world, often one of the most well-received acts at reggae festivals. Alongside the two CDs, YG&Y offers a DVD of Yellowman at Reggae Sunsplash in 1988. This footage provides yet further evidence of his significance as a performer: with reams of hits up his sleeves, he’s got stage presence to spare. YG&Y is not an exhaustive collection spanning this artist’s nearly four-decade long career, but enough to provide a portrait of one of Jamaica’s most important artists. Given his major-label signing and related licensing issues, it’d be impossible to provide a comprehensive picture. Listening to the collection from beginning to end, however, proves that Yellowman is, and will always be, King of the Dancehall.

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