donderdag 3 oktober 2013

The Deejaying T(h)ing : historical overview of vocal techniques

The “Disk Jockey”, or shortened: DJ, Dee Jay, or Deejay, is an important figure in Jamaican music. Yet, the term Deejay has a different meaning in Jamaica than in many other parts of the world. A “Deejay” in the US or Europe got to mean: someone who spins records (by others) for people to hear, while often choosing and interchanging such records. In Jamaica it got to mean: a rhythmic vocalist on an existing song. This chatting in the mic was done at mobile discotheques, called Sound Systems. The “Selector”, in turn, had at such sound systems in Jamaica the function to play and choose records, over which the Deejay as a “vocal entertainer” chatted rhythmically. This was called “Toasting” in reference to the term as in a “toast” before a drink or a dinner, a type of introductory speech.

Indeed early - what were called - Deejays of Jamaican sound systems since soon after World War II, began doing just that: introducing the records that then got spinned. From there it evolved into yells and short intersections during/on the songs themselves, short responses to what the singer sang (like “tell about it!”, “tell dem”, “lord have mercy”, or “wow”), and eventually gradually into longer, “fuller” deejays “toasting”, chatting rhythmically over a whole length of an existing song.
This was sometimes partly with chanting, alongside rhythmic chatting/toasting. This is the deeper origin of what would become later “Rap” (originally influenced by Jamaican migrants in New York) in the 1980s. It was going on at Jamaican sound systems since at least the 1950s..

In this post I choose to focus on one specific aspect of the “deejay t(h)ing”: the vocal techniques and styles of the deejays in the Jamaican sense: the toasting/chatting itself, done when the microphone was in front of their mouth. How did these vocal techniques/styles develop in relation to developments at the dancehall (i.e. to distinguish oneself in style from other deejays), in the reggae scene and industry, and to cultural or even social changes?


What’s interesting about the deejaying is the organic development of this vocal practice, quite unique to Jamaica. It started at sound systems: for a live audience that showed appreciation (or not), in interaction with this audience. It also began as very improvisational. The Deejay (from now on I mean deejay in the Jamaican sense of the word of vocalist) in the early period did not know on forehand what song the Selector would play. He had to improvise lyrics spontaneously, “on the fly”, over this song. In the first years this was over vocal songs (during breaks for instance), but with the rise within Jamaican music of instrumentals or “versions” (later called Dubs) since the 1960s, over instrumental versions of (popular) songs. This practice also influenced the development of “freestyling” in later hip-hop.

These deejays or toasters in Jamaica were connected with specific Sound Systems, owned by specific people. They travelled throughout Kingston and Jamaica. This way they could gain popularity among audiences. In a later stage, these deejays found their way to recordings, and could record such “toasting” songs in studios, for sale on the market, apart from sound systems. “Fixed” in studios you might say.

Photo: early, pioneering toaster King Stitt performing at the Garance reggae festival in France, July 2011

Early “deejays” generally only talked or chatted over parts of songs (not over the entire length of them) in that stage, including the early toasters Count Machuki and King Stitt. These did not record their vocal interjections yet: it was improvised, and only aimed at the crowds in the dancehalls present at the time. Many doubted that serious songs could be made of this. Yet little by little such recordings were made: Ska-ing West by Sir Lord Comic, recorded in 1966, with the singer talking partly over a ska record, was probably the first “toasting/deejay” song recorded on disk.


In a later stage, close to 1970, U-Roy really helped develop the toasting/deejaying genre. U-Roy’s important contribution was the spreading of his vocals and lyrics over an entire song, interacting with the music and vocals of original songs - local hits mostly - by other artists, resulting in time in recordings that were aimed at studio recording, rather than – as before – a sound system practice that happened to be recorded in the studio as an exception. U-Roy’s toast songs - both from the year 1970 - ‘Wake The Town’ (over the rocksteady riddim of Alton Ellis’s song ‘Girl I’ve Got A Date’) and ‘Wear You To The Ball’ (over a Paragons slow ska song of that name), pioneered the deejay as full-fledged vocalist. That’s why U-Roy is called “the Originator”.

This full-fledged toasting continued over early reggae and roots reggae songs until later years of the 1970s. Then, Rastafari-inspired lyrics came also from these deejays, contributing to what can be called “dread” sounding deejays like Prince Fari and others. I above discussed the period from the developing Jamaican music industry from about 1945 to the 1970s. From imported R&B records played in Jamaica by sound systems (with deejays introducing them) to the own, distinct music genres that developed in Jamaica since the late 1950s: ska, and in the 1960s rocksteady, and later in the 1960s reggae.

The example of the early songs by U-Roy (both rocksteady and ska) shows that genre changes did not correspond directly to differing vocal techniques in the broad sense. The deejay had to “ride the riddim” vocally adequately and engagingly to please an audience or a public. Whatever riddim or genre. First often foreign genres, later (since the 1960s) mainly Jamaican genres.


Vocal styles/techniques changed more directly, though, when toasters were recorded. The very “fixing” on record, and conventional musical timing of songs, limited the too free-flowing, improvisational style of earlier deejays at interactive sound systems. The word says it: recording is “fixing”: 4/4 timing had to be considered more thoroughly for example. That deejaying got recorded aimed to make records to sell – and not going to a sound system phase first – meant a change in vocal technique. The deejaying vocals had to be, simply put, “tighter” regarding musical timing. More structured as well. In the sound system, freer, improvisational deejaying was still done, of course, interacting with audience response.

Still: structured or not, or even recorded or not: one underlying skill had to be there when vocalizing over records. As self-evident as it is crucial: the deejaying/toasting vocalist had to have a good sense of rhythm, had to “feel the song”, and use his vocals right to entertain the crowd enough. That deejay should vary enough to keep attention: partly “chatting” /toasting, partly chanting or even singing, catch-phrases, voice effects, distinct yells or screams…all meant to show rhythmical and vocal entertaining skills. That is where specific talent should show.

In the Jamaican musical culture, furthermore, the sound systems played what people wanted to hear or were hoping to hear, much more than the mainstream, elite radio stations. The deejay thus had to test this skill or talent also in direct interaction with an audience: on the streets. At the very popular base of musical appreciation. The way it should be, I think.

A far cry of what would develop in Western pop cultures of the US and Europe: big corporations or slick businessmen manipulating (or at least misdirecting) musical public tastes from the top-down: think MTV, commercial pop etc. In Jamaica this order is the other way around. People on the streets liked it, therefore someone got popular and recorded in studios.


Roots reggae came at a high point in the course of the 1970s after an early, faster reggae phase. The Rastafari influence increased protest lyrics, spirituality, social critique, as well as in a sense a mystique, what is called a “dreader” sound (linguistically a beautiful reggae term, I think: “dreader”). The lyrics of deejays – when Rastafari-inspired – obviously changed to Rasta social and spiritual (called “cultural”) themes – also those of early pioneers like U-Roy. Also a “wailing” or “thunderous” quality in vocal technique came more to the fore, befitting such lyrics. This was often also an adaption to the “dreader” and slower original Roots Reggae songs (more “minor-chord”) that were now often toasted on.

Prince Jazzbo was one who used a gruff, slightly wailing voice accompanying such lyrics. Although he had more or less this gruff voice with his debut singles as well, which were just about dancing and partying. Some reggae books call Prince Jazzbo for this reason an early predecessor of more recent current gruff-voiced deejays like Buju Banton, Capleton, Bounty Killer, or partly Sizzla. Jah Lloyd/Jah Lion had a less-gruff, sharper, but in another way also “dread” toasting style.

Prince Fari had a “voice of thunder” (also the name of one of his albums) befitting his Rastafari lyrics, that he used in his best songs with rhythmical skill and variety: even if he at times seemed to just talk over a riddim: there was still more to it. I Roy also toasted in such a “dread” vein, as did Big Youth: one of the early deejays in expressing Rastafari lyrics. Some deejays/artists – especially closer to the 1980s - had a somewhat intermediate position: combining a Rastafari with a general “dancehall party” vibe, like Dillinger, Ranking Dread, or Trinity, though still with Rasta references.

Both lyrically and musically/technically, the heyday of Rastafari-inspired Roots Reggae certainly had its impact on deejaying.


The 1980s consisted of a transitional period. Regarding reggae in general, and specifically in the “deejay ting”. There were broader musical changes accompanying this. The rise of digital riddims, with the Casio-based ‘Sleng Teng Riddim’going back to 1984 having a pioneering role. In this post, though, I focus on vocal techniques. A most notable practical change in the course of the 1980s among deejays consisted of the move to “on the beat” chatting.


Early recording deejays like U-Roy, Big Youth, Dennis Alcapone, and I-Roy had to be as said somewhat “tighter” and structured in the studios when compared to the – looser - live sound system setting they started in. Nonetheless their “meandering” vocal style was still free and loose in some senses, also on record. It was rhythmic, of course – else it would not appeal - , but a bit more indirect: more AROUND the beat, rather than on it. This changed around the year 1980 in Jamaican deejaying. One influential artist/deejay influencing this change cannot go unmentioned: Lone Ranger.

Lone Ranger was a deejay of the second or third generation, you might say, who to be distinct (a necessity in the competitive Jamaican music/dancehall scene) innovated by toasting ON the beat, rather than meandering around it, like others did before. It created a nice, catchy flow that appealed to audiences. He had several hits in Jamaica, such as the catchy ‘Love Bump’ in 1981, on the music of an older Slim Smith tune (‘Rougher Yet’) at Studio One. This On The Beat toasting would signify a lasting change, continued by other 1980s toasters and by following generations of the 1990s and beyond: Admiral Bailey, Charlie Chaplin, Brigadier Jerry, Josey Wales, and Yellowman. Along with the mentioned rise of digital riddims, this would help shape the Dancehall subgenre within reggae.

Barrington Levy was one who helped “bring singing back” in the dancehall, and more singers (rather than deejay-ers/toasters) were active in reggae and popular, but many toasting/chatting deejays also rose to popularity. The term “Chatting” instead of Toasting probably relates to the new ON the beat vocal style of these next-generation deejays.

I personally have mixed feelings about this latter deejay phase. Too much slackness-lyrics (though not all) is one point of critique I have, but strictly musically I found it was in worst cases also to simple and monotonous. I overall was more into the old 1970s style of deejaying of U-Roy, Jah Lion and the likes. I enjoyed it overall more, though I did like some later 1980s deejay songs as well. Maybe it has to do what I first encountered, e.g.: my path, or with my age. I appreciate some later (1990s and later) and current chatters too, by the way, so my taste is not limited time-wise.


Dancehall continued, and there came a later generation of deejays. This can be considered the third or fourth generation of deejays (who chatted rather than sung). It coincided with a “return to Rastafari messages” - though it was never totally absent within reggae – in the 1990s, and was led by Rastafari-adherent artistes/deejays, belonging mainly to the Bobo Ashanti branch within Rastafari. Sizzla, Capleton, Lutan Fyah, Anthony B, Jah Mason are artists that played crucial roles in this type of deejaying. Most of these started in the later 1980s, and some of them started out lyrically in a less-conscious vein.

Did these Bobo Ashanti/Rastafari-deejays introduce new chatting/vocal techniques and styles? Interesting question. It is hard to say, but I think they did a little, though each artist often has an own, distinct, very personal vocal style. As I said: in the competitive Jamaican dancehall one had to distinguish oneself as an artist.

On the one side: these Bobo Deejays like Sizzla and Capleton continued in a general sense the ON the beat chatting technique started in the 1980s, more than the meandering, early Toasting style characteristic of the 1970s. This latter “meandering” is not totally absent though: especially in some songs by Sizzla, as well as artists like Lutan Fyah, Junior Kelly and some others, you do find at times a looser chatting style. In addition, the deejaying of these artists includes singing (or: chanting) parts, typical of what became known as the Sing-Jay (singing and deejaying) style.


The sing-jay tradition is older than these Bobo-deejays. As I said: early deejays as I-Roy, U-Roy, Dennis Alcapone, and Big Youth included chanting/singing parts to alternate the rhythmic toasting. Yet, a more structured combination - generally with the verses chatted rhythmically and the choruses sung - developed later. Singer, later turned deejay and sing-jay Michael Rose (of Black Uhuru fame) was one of the pioneers of this. Before him deejay duets like Michigan & Smiley had this structure (toasted verse, sang or chanted chorus) as well.

Current artists like Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Jah Mason, Turbulence, Louie Culture, and several others can be mostly called Sing-jays, rather than just chatting deejays. It became so common in the course of the 1990s that reggae reviewer Mark H. Harris on his website (no longer updated, but still online at jokingly remarked about an artist between commas that “…is a new sing-jay…(but who isn’t nowadays)”. It became that common by the early 2000s in Jamaican music.

Besides this there were still singers continuing, and also new singers arrived on the scene (Luciano, Bushman, Chezidek, Richie Spice, Tarrus Riley a.o.), and on the other hand those who chatted rhythmically mainly. Yet, overall, now singing qualities could/can be judged also of deejays, besides their rhythmic flow. I find Lutan Fyah a good singer and a good chatter, for instance. Also Turbulence, Fantan Mojah, and for instance Junior Kelly are okay singers. Some find Sizzla’s singing annoying or even bad, though I find it in instances appealing. Others find the singing of, e.g., Anthony B not very special, though not bad per se. “White men” Gentleman and Alborosie have mixed results, in my opinion, and are too often mediocre in my opinion, in both their chatting and singing attempts (with a few good exceptions among their songs). Queen Ifrica, on the other hand, and newer talents like Chronixx, can I think both chat and sing very well. Also some of Marley’s sons (Damian and Kymani for instance) show talent in this regard. But all that is a matter of opinion or taste.

In any case, the balance of combining good chatting and good singing remains an interesting artistic challenge to follow within current Jamaican music. Also, the broad (grey?) terrain between singing and rhythmic deejaying enabled several artists to make a very specific mark, and hard to “classify”. Many are “sing-jay like” but not quite, more singers than deejays or vice versa.

Understandably in light of (required and desired) musical creativity: strictly rhythmical vocalizing and strictly singing could not long remain fully separate domains. Sing-jaying became another original Jamaican contribution to world-wide music, later to be copied in hip-hop, R&B, and other genres. Just like deejaying before it had influences beyond Jamaica..


The organic development sketched above was shaped of course by interrelation: action-reaction, as so much of human behaviour. Jamaica knows several highly individualistic musical artists, going a different way of their own. This often influences other people, going in a similar direction. This is also the case with vocal techniques of deejays. Most of them would admit this openly, by the way. U Brown and I Roy derived not only their artist name from U Roy, but partly copied his style. As did Dillinger, who admitted to at first simply copy older deejays like U Roy and Dennis Alcapone. I already mentioned the ON THE BEAT innovation by Lone Ranger.

The very early toasters like Count Machuki and King Stitt, as well as U Roy and others, were partly influenced by Black US radio presenters talking “jive” and speaking “Ebonics”, using specific terms to introduce records, as heard on US radio stations that reached Jamaica. Soon after Jamaican deejays would influence other, later Jamaican deejays.


U-Roy was as said influential, but the “gruff” case is also interesting. Prince Jazzbo has recently (11th of September 2013) deceased as I write this. He was one of several deejays becoming popular in the 1970s, but like others had to find his distinctive mark, his own style. Whether sought, or just naturally there, he had a somewhat “gruff”, wailing voice, that several reggae historians see as early precursor to the style of Buju Banton and comparable later deejays.

Photo: Prince Jazzbo performing at the Garance reggae festival in France, July 2011

Earlier deejays than Buju Banton had this of course as well: Prince Fari a bit (though perhaps more “thunderous” than gruff), or Big Youth. An apprentice of U Roy (at the same Stur Gav sound system as U Roy), namely Josey Wales, rising in the early 1980s, also had a gruff voice.

A bit later in the 1980s, a deejay called Burro Banton, who is known as “the original Banton” distinguished himself with a very gruff, aggressive style. Buju Banton said he was influenced by Burro Banton, reason why he also took the name Banton. So there’s an interesting “gruff” line of vocal influence from Prince Jazzbo in the 1970s, passing through Josey Wales, Burro Banton in the 1980s, to Buju Banton or other gruff-souding artists (Mega Banton, Terror Fabulous, or Alborosie and Bounty Killer) in recent times. Burro (Banton) still took the “gruff” in his voice the furthest though.

This gruff voice is an acquired taste, even among some dancehall fans, but I think it really gives a nice energy to songs – especially “inna di dance”, and when the chatting/toasting is done well rhythmically. Buju Banton has I find a very good flow. In fact, Burro Banton and other gruff-voiced deejays were very popular at the dancehall before recording.

I-Roy was known as one of the more intelligent deejays lyrically. I-Roy was vocally influenced by U-Roy, and sounds according to many similar, but he still had a distinct vocal technique of his own, characterized by a sort of (natural) “reverb”, that sounds a bit like one is in a tunnel. I have not read yet about this having influence, although I think I Roy might have influenced several deejays at the time. Or later: current artist Busy Signal (also more or less a sing-jay) has this “reverb”. Also a bit artists like Mavado or Vybz Kartel. Of course this can also be coincidence.

While Josey Wales and also Charlie Chaplin toasted at the same sound system as U Roy (Stur Gav), they were active since the early 1980s, in a later stage, when the “on the beat” chatting had come into vogue: that’s why Josey Wales and Charlie Chaplin still sounded different (“updated”) than their older mentor U Roy, though having still similarities with him. They (Wales and Chaplin) chose “cultural”/conscious/Rasta lyrics over slackness lyrics, unlike many of their contemporaries by the 1980s. The specific vocal technique of 1980s deejays, e.g. Charlie Chaplin and General Echo, often had similarities (on the beat chatting), but their lyrics differed: General Echo focussed on slack and sexual lyrics, with song titles such as ‘Bathroom Sex’.

The same is the case, of course, with present-day deejays with similar chatting styles/techniques, yet different lyrics.


I finally focus on one less obvious aspect about deejay vocalizing or “riding the riddim”. I myself am active in percussion, especially playing bongos, for a few years now. I learned some standard Afro-Cuban/African and other patterns (son, “martillo”, conga, nyabinghi, samba a.o.), but also enjoy improvising on reggae riddims. This improvizing is rhythmical and therefore similar to freestyle toasting. I recognize that similarity. Also the vocal meandering of artists like U Roy, I Roy, and Big Youth was after all rhythmic, varied but rhythmic. On the bongos you likewise make quasi-melodic patterns on a rhythmic base, interchanging these. This is especially possible when you have several drums tuned different or of different size. A varied rhythmic (“talking drum”) improvizing, just like I Roy and the others do/did vocally. Interesting parallel!

It is however also self-evident, since toasting/deejaying is, like percussion, “riddim pon de riddim”. I even suppose that some of the deejays consciously use drum patterns in vocalizing.

The Jamaican variant of toasting/chatting is, like Wikipedia also states, relatively more melodic and varied than most of what would become US “rapping”. Therefore Jamaican toasting and chatting overall approaches even more the varied drum and percussion patterns.


According to many, there was a general downward trend in Jamaican music regarding quality, since the 1980s. The re-use of riddims took often precedence over original riddims, which many found less original. The deejay dominance was furthermore accompanied by a change in lyrical content (albeit with much exceptions). The emphasis in lyrics came on partying, but also on boasting and slackness (violence and sex). I also find that less intelligent and negative lyrics became too common, although I found some joking (not too negative) lyrics on sex or otherwise at times funny and entertaining, if they were not violent or degrading.

The re-use of riddims is strictly speaking also less original, but can be explained by economic reasons: lacking funds for studio time to create new riddims, therefore reusing old (Studio One, or other) riddims.

Still, despite these flaws, I also find that the “deejay ting” has its merit and can be considered creative and artistic. The need for vocal creativity, in chatting/timing/ rhyming and entertaining, for deejays was certainly there, also needed more to be distinct from others on the same riddim/instrumental. This led to more or less original art. Even traditional drum patterns seemed revived, like I said, masqueraded as rhythmic vocals, along with heritages of rhythmic vocals from African music historically..

Moreover, deejaying made/makes evident the positive, healthy aspect of the Jamaican music scene: deejays - as well as more via studios singers and instrumentalists - gain popularity “on the streets”, among the common people in the ghettos and elsewhere, through sound systems at dancehalls. Popularity from the bottom up. After this came recording or specific live shows (often with live bands) at international concert halls. Popularity is in this case no “big corporation” taste manipulation from the top down, but truly popular, democratic and organic. This makes it more real..

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