Monday, October 12, 2009

October 12: Big Youth, "Screaming Target"

Artist: Big Youth
Album: Screaming Target
Year: 1972
Label: Gussie/Trojan

When people hear the term "island music," most immediately think of the reggae sound, and go no further in the thought process. Though the reggae style dominated for years, the reality is, like anywhere else in the world, there many other musical styles in play beyond just reggae. In many ways, the dancehall/dub style of music had more impact throughout the world than reggae, as it can be seen as the catalyst for the SKA movement, hip hop scene, and had a large influence on many areas of the punk scene as well. Though the dub style is based in reggae, and it often shares the political and social overtones, the dub style has its own distinctive feel, and produced its own list of music legends. Among this list is one of the loudest and most well respected voices in the history of Jamaican music, Big Youth. Though he gained the nickname long before he picked up a microphone, Big Youth (real name: Manley Augustus Buchanan) has one of the most distinctive sounds ever, and has been cited as an influence by artists across genres, perhaps most notably, The Clash. Setting the standard in vocal delivery, lyrical content, as well as DJing style and skills, few artists share as much talent as Big Youth, and his resulting albums remain some of the most stunning ever recorded. After gaining success though a few hit singles, Big Youth entered the studio and recorded his monumental 1972 debut record, Screaming Target.

Though Screaming Target may not be as well known in the U.S., the reality is, it yielded a number of hit singles in Jamaica, and found later recognition in the U.K. Having already established himself with his massive hits, "S 90 Skank" and "The Killer" a year earlier, Big Youth went to work with childhood friend and producer Augustus "Gussie" Clark on recording a full length record. The title track remains one of the most moving and legendary tracks to ever emerge from the islands, and the song stayed in the top twenty for well over a year. The song itself is one of the most clear and concise pro-literacy tracks ever, and nearly every line revolves around the repeated theme " don't you ever be a fool..." Preaching about the need for education to further society, Big Youth brilliantly places his rallying lyrics over the familiar sound of K.C. White's "No, No, No." While Screaming Target is a truly stunning album to experience, it must be noted that there is a dangerous 1989 re-issue of the album from Trojan Records. For whatever reason, some genius decided to split the vocals to the left channel, and the music in the right, and this separation absolutely destroys the mood and impact of the album. AVOID THIS RE-ISSUE AT ALL COSTS! Aside from the original release, there are re-releases from 2001 and 2006 by Trojan that keep the original sound properly intact.

While the name Big Youth and his words may not be immediately familiar to most listeners, a majority of the music over which he performs are some of the most time honored and well known dub/reggae songs ever. This is largely due to the "sound system" style of presenting music, and there is quite literally no comparison anywhere else in the world. The "sound system" falls somewhere between a street party and a club, and for decades, it was the main way in which new music was presented to the masses. These events were, in fact, where the foundations for DJing began, and it is a primitive precursor to the hip-hop parties of the late 1970's. Nearly two decades later, SKA legends, Operation Ivy paid tribute to these events in their song, "Sound System." This need for the DJ's to serve as supplier of new music, as well as keeping the crowd engaged is perfectly captured on Screaming Target with the song, "The Killer." Speak-singing about such events, as well as employing an amazing backing track, there are few songs that can hold a light to the power of "The Killer." It is the habit of using familiar songs under their vocals that made many of these dub DJ's famous, and Big Youth is no different. Aside from the aforementioned "No, No, No," Leroy Smart's "Pride And Ambition," Dennis Brown's "In Their Own Way," and Gregory Issac's "One One Cocoa Fill Basket" all make appearances among many other classic tracks. This fusion of new, powerful lyrics over some of the most beloved musical tracks is yet another clear starting point for the hip hop genre, and the results found on Screaming Target rival any hip hop record ever recorded.

It is this strong, moving lyrical content that sets Big Youth aside from his contemporaries, as his words are some of the most brilliant and potent ever written. Whether he is simply trying to brighten the mood or he is attacking the ills of the society in which he lives, the lyrics crafted by Big Youth remain among the greatest ever. Overall, the content of Screaming Target is positive in nature, and much like his more traditional reggae brethren, the songs call for change and uplifting of oneself. Easily one of the most brutally cutting tracks on Screaming Target is the unrelentingly forceful, "Honesty." Going after topics ranging from equal pay for equal work to outright blasting the clearly present sense of slavery, Big Youth holds nothing back on the track. Though the lyrics are superb on every song, one of the key factors in their impact is the amazing vocal style of Big Youth. Much like his peers, a majority of his lyrics border singing and speaking, but Big Youth's voice is so powerful and emotive, that they take on a life of their own. Clearly letting the mood of each song take him away, often times, the ad-libbing he adds are what truly make the songs amazing, and there are truly few artists who express themselves as freely and completely as Big Youth. His voice is so strong and filled with force that one can clearly understand why his songs continue to inspire and motivate people across the globe to this day.

Though it is more aggressive in sound and style, the dub sub-genre of the reggae sound is just as important in the overall history of music. Within the sounds of dub and more assertive reggae, one can find the roots of SKA and hip hop among many other later genres. The direct link from the "sound systems" of the islands to later hip hop park events and battles is undeniable, and Big Youth and his music play a vital role in both. Not only is it the forceful and loud way with which he delivers his lyrics, but his extraordinary DJ skills also served as a major influence on hip hop, though many do not realize that there is such a blatant connection between the two forms of music. Though there were many stars to emerge from the sound systems, few were more successful and had more wide-reaching influence then Big Youth. With his humble upbringing as an auto mechanic, and his uncanny writing ability, few artists have singlehandedly shaped so many later musicians whilst simultaneously receiving such little credit for their efforts. Truth be told, there is not a dull moment anywhere on Screaming Target, and everything from the lyrics to the music to the mood of every song is nothing short of perfect. Though he continues to make new music to this day, there are few albums that are as important in the overall history of music, or have as much impact as Big Youth's landmark 1972 debut album, Screaming Target.

Standout tracks: "Screaming Target," "The Killer," and "Honesty."

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