A native of the Kingston, Jamaica, U-Roy (born Ewart Beckford), also known as the Originator, is credited with bringing wider popularity to the Jamaican “toasting” style — an ancestor to modern Rap that traces its roots back to the late 1950s.
U-Roy landed his first professional gig as a DJ in 1961, when he was 19. At the time in Jamaica, the actual choice of a record was the job of the “selector,” while the DJ was the “hype man” on the microphone, much like those on American radio. Early Jamaican DJs would improvise call-and-response routines with the original vocals of the records they played; eventually they took to crafting entire rhymes and chants over a single’s B-side (the instrumental version of the A-side), and the sound of modern toasting was born.
U-Roy became famous for the sense of melody and rhythm he brought to toasting. His unique style, as much a singer’s as a deejay’s, drew the notice of the island’s biggest producers and in 1968, he teamed up with King Tubby, a budding producer who would go on to invent, with Lee “Scratch” Perry, the psychedelic, echo-drenched “dub” sound, which revolutionized reggae music in the early 1970s.
By 1970, industry heavyweight Duke Reid signed U-Roy to his long-running Treasure Isle label. A string of hit singles — among them “Wear You to the Ball,” “Rule the Nation,” and “Wake the Town” — were collected on the album Version Galore, which firmly established U-Roy as a bankable artist. In 1975 he released the breakthrough Dread in a Babylon, produced by Prince Tony Robinson, which charted internationally as reggae music exploded in popularity, and led to a string of Robinson-produced albums.
As the electronic beats of Dancehall music supplanted the “roots Reggae” sound of the 70s, U-Roy changed with the times. He mentored the careers of Josey Wales, Ranking Joe, and others, while other up-and-coming Dancehall stars like Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse acknowledged him as an influence. In 1986, U-Roy recorded a Dancehall album, Line Up and Come, with producer Tappa Zukie.
For the next two decades, U-Roy continued to tour sporadically and record albums marked by a willingness to experiment with new genres, such Love Trio in Dub, a 2006 collaboration with the New York City-based electro-jazz-funk band Love Trio. Pray Fi Di People, released in 2012, reaffirmed his deep connection to Jamaica’s Rasta culture.
In 2007, the Jamaican government honored U-Roy with the Order of Distinction for his contributions to the development of Jamaican music.