Thu 30th June at 8:00pm
The remarkable story of U Roy’s early career has been told so often that it has become the stuff of legend among reggae circles, and not without good reason. Through his groundbreaking performances on King Tubby’s Home-Town Hi-Fi, and the series of chart-topping hits in their wake, U Roy forever changed reggae music and the dancehall culture at its core. Although such a meteoric rise to fame is not uncommon for reggae artists, U Roy was unusual in that he did not descend into obscurity with equal speed. Though he was never to repeat the tremendous success of his initial recordings, U Roy nevertheless had a powerful and direct influence on Jamaican music for well over a decade past his popularity’s peak in 1970, primarily through the sound system that he founded and ran. This sound, King Stur Gav Hi-Fi, not only served as a deejay academy at which some of the best microphone talent of the era could hone their skills, but also provided a platform for these disciples to take their teacher’s style to the forefront of reggae music.
Despite U Roy’s initial popularity, and the accompanying wave of imitators eager to share in his success, his delivery did not remain in fashion indefinitely. Adapting the innovations of Big Youth, mid-70s deejays turned away from U Roy’s ballistic jive-talk, instead favoring rootsy, cultural chant. Yet, by the late 70s, U Roy’s style was again dominant in the dancehalls. Many artists shared the responsibility for this shift: U Brown and Ranking Trevor, who deejayed for King Attorney (soon to become Socialist Roots) just as U Roy once had, and whose deliveries were almost wholly faithful to U Roy’s style, never were regulars on Stur Gav, but scored hits in the later part of the 70s and played a significant role in bringing U Roy’s musical tradition back into popularity. General Echo and Lone Ranger, who remained faithful to the feel of U Roy’s delivery while making creative stylistic innovations, also had a huge influence on the path 1980s deejaying was to take. But in addition to these younger deejays, it was U Roy himself who, through his sound system, ensured that his style was to be the foundation for all deejaying of the 1980s and beyond.
Perhaps wisely, U Roy was not the lead deejay of his own sound system, which might have condemned it to being an “oldies” sound irrelevant to the new generation of dancehall patrons; instead, he allowed younger, more popular DJs to take center stage. In its first incarnation, Stur Gav was dominated by Ranking Joe on the microphone and selector Jah Screw at the turntable. Joe, formerly known as Little Joe, essentially turbocharged U Roy’s rhyming style: his chat was wild, lightning-fast, and full of barely-contained explosive energy, often punctuated with wails, shrieks, ululations, “oinks,” “bims,” and similar interjections. Infectiously dynamic and full of energy, Joe’s delivery was perfectly suited for live performances, and though his vinyl recordings did not always capture his dancehall capabilities, he nevertheless found chart success through several major hits. With Joe on the microphone, Stur Gav was one of the biggest sounds of the era, only challenged by Stereophonic with General Echo as its lead DJ; the two sounds came together in spectacular sound clashes on several occasions.
In 1980, however, disaster struck: the sound was destroyed in one of the many incidents of politically-motivated violence associated with the year’s election, and Ranking Joe and Jah Screw, who had both been working for Ray Symbolic for some time, left the sound permanently. Though this may have seemed a deadly blow to the sound, it in fact only set the stage for a new beginning. After a brief hiatus, U Roy rebuilt the sound in 1981, and Joe’s departure did not prove fatal: U Roy had found new disciples to take Stur Gav forward into the new decade. The rejuvenated sound featured Josey Wales and Charlie Chaplin as lead deejays, with the late Inspector Willie serving as selector. Again, U Roy allowed the younger micmen to dominate the sound, with the “Teacher” only occasionally taking up the mike to chat.
Of the new lineup, the “Colonel” Josey Wales was the most celebrated. He was the only deejay close to challenging Yellowman’s dominance during the early 80s, and his records for Lawes, George Phang, Bunny Roots, and Ossie Thomas often met with chart success. Onto U Roy’s stylistic foundation Josey added a no-nonsense ragamuffin voice and a seemingly incongruous half-sung delivery; this unlikely mixture was perfectly suited for the heavy-hitting Roots Radics rhythms that were the standard sound system fare of the time. In contrast, his sparring partner Charlie Chaplin’s delivery was less gruff, but shared the half-sung quality, and was aided by a distinctive voice and way of phrasing words that made even his spoken comments in the interim between selections compelling. Though the Principal, as Chaplin was called, was indisputably a talented deejay, he never achieved the same level of chart success as his spar. Nevertheless, Chaplin’s efforts for producers Roy Cousins, George Phang, and Junjo Lawes are well worth seeking out. Both deejays, particularly Chaplin, were extraordinary not only in prowess at the mike, but also in a firm anti-slackness stance and Rastafarian viewpoint that was to become increasingly uncommon as the dancehall era progressed.
With the Colonel and the Principal at the helm, Stur Gav became not only one of the leading sounds of the era, but developed a distinct “personality” that distinguished it from the competition. This was in part because of its consistent roster of performers: though many sounds had large numbers of deejays constantly cycling through, Stur Gav was almost always manned by Josey and Chaplin. Though they were occasionally accompanied by other performers, such as Brigadier Jerry, Sugar Minott, Don Carlos, U Brown, Jah Grundy, Colour Ranking, and others, the Stur Gav mike was not dominated by swarms of up-and-comings eager for self-promotion. Perhaps because of this, the sound’s sessions had a uniquely musical feel: Inspector Willie’s selections played almost continually, with the vocal “Part One” often allowed to run for nearly its whole length instead of being hauled up after fifteen seconds, as was common practice on many contemporary sounds. When the record was flipped and the performers let loose over the version side, the music was again continuous, as the artists allowed the rhythm to run without feeling the need to “wheel up” the music and lecture the crowd. This commitment to entertainment over self-indulgence, when combined with an unwavering dedication to cultural music instead of slackness, made Stur Gav a unique sound that not only commanded the respect of dancehall patrons of the day, but that has lived on in the cassette tapes sought after by fans to this day.
Inevitably, times changed, and reggae music changed with them. As the decade passed through the Sleng Teng digital revolution and headed into the late 80s, Stur Gav left the spotlight. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that the digital rhythms themselves were at the root of the sound’s decline – the sound was still running strong in 1986, with the deejays, talented as ever, not showing any difficulty adapting to the new sound of the music. Indeed, Josey Wales continued to score hits using King Jammy’s digitized rhythms. It is perhaps more due to the newer generation of deejays that came to prominence in the late 80s, and the near complete demise of conscious lyrics, that Stur Gav no longer was at the center of the dancehall scene. It is a stark reality of reggae music that older performers are eventually eclipsed in popularity by younger innovators, and the new crop of deejays of the late 80s – men like Shabba Ranks, Supercat, Cutty Ranks, Admiral Bailey, Ninjaman, and Cobra – were not inclined towards the Rastafarian lyrics that would make them welcome on Stur Gav. Inevitably, without the support of young, popular deejays, and without sacrificing its commitment to positive, conscious lyrics, Stur Gav could not remain at the forefront of dancehall music, and sounds like King Jammy’s Super-Power and Killamanjaro came to symbolize the new era. The coffin must have seemed nailed shut by the change, instigated by Stone Love, from live performers to dubplates that took place around the turn of the decade. Following the tradition of U Roy on King Tubby’s Hi-Fi, it was the live deejay performances that were at the very core of Stur Gav’s vitality, and so the sound was utterly incompatible with the dancehalls of the early 90s.
However, by the late 90s, time had changed again. Led by Tony Rebel, Buju Banton, Anthony B, Sizzla, Luciano, and Capleton, cultural music had again come to the forefront of Jamaican music, and though many artists still dealt with hedonistic concerns, the stage was set for Stur Gav’s return. The New York-based Downbeat Hi-Fi hosted several successful reunion sessions featuring the Stur Gav crew, and after touring on the Blood and Fire sound system alongside Joseph Cotton and U Brown, Ranking Joe returned with news of enthusiastic crowds. Seeing his opportunity, U Roy relaunched the sound, and since then, King Stur Gav Hi-Fi has again been on the road, featuring not only its original crew (albeit with Inspector Willie replaced by former Volcano and Stur Mars selector Danny Dread), but also a host of other vintage artists eager to participate in foundation-style dancehall sessions. The sound has toured the world, and recordings of two 1998 sessions, featuring Johnny Osbourne, Brigadier Jerry, Al Campbell, and U Brown alongside the expected Colonel, Principal, and Teacher, have been given commercial release as a double-CD set.
In between these performances, the artists have again found time to record tunes: Charlie Chaplin has voiced several superb “combination” tunes with conscious singers like Luciano, Garnett Silk, and Cocoa Tea for culturally-oriented labels like Bobby Digital’s Digital B and Fatis Burrell’s Xterminator. And even though the Colonel and the Principal, strangely enough, never collaborated in the studio during their prime in the 80s, the two have now begun to appear together in combination efforts on vinyl as well as on the Stur Gav microphone. Although it is not reasonable to expect Stur Gav and its artists to regain the same influence they had at their peak, their revival of foundation-style dancehall music can still be enjoyed by fans old and new alike. Hopefully, they will carry on their musical works for years to come.