Friday, January 21, 2011

January 21: Big Youth, "The Killer"

Artist: Big Youth
Song: "The Killer"
Album: Screaming Target
Year: 1973

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For true music fans, there is perhaps no more disappointing reality than the way in which nearly every musical genre seems to have lost its way over the past twenty years.  Though many styles still boast the same name as earlier bands, the fact of the matter is, in most cases, the current acts are little more than watered down versions of their claimed influences.  Whether it is the way in which punk rock has turned into nothing but "boy bands" with dye jobs or the overly-artificial, almost cliché sound that is "hard rock," there are few bands even remotely worthy of connecting themselves to the founders of their particular genre.  While this reality is present in every musical style, it is perhaps no more apparent than in that of hip-hop, and if one traces the sound back to its true roots, it is almost embarrassing how far it has fallen.  Though many feel that hip-hop began in the late 1970's, there are far earlier roots of the genre that are undeniable.  However, to find these sources, one must look outside the presumed birthplace of hip-hop and travel to the "island sounds" of the late 1960's and early 1970's.  It is here that one finds a musical style known as "toasting," and there is no question that it is here where hip-hop music began.  Though there were a number of fantastic performers who made their name in the "sound system" parties in Jamaica at the time, few were as captivating as the great Big Youth, and there are few songs in history that can compare to his 1973 single, "The Killer."

The moment that the music kicks in on "The Killer," there are a number of influences that become immediately evident, and it is the way in which producer Gussie Clarke mixes them together so perfectly that makes the song so fantastic.  Bringing a steady, yet strangely dark beat, there is something almost menacing or dangerous about the overall mood of the song, and there are few instances elsewhere in music where this feeling is as authentic as one finds here.  It is also in the rhythm that one can hear the influences of the island sounds, with the guitar sending out a consistent ska sound, yet the overall tone retaining a rock-steady feel.  It is the interplay between the instruments where one can hear and understand the differences between these two styles, and they are both complimented in grand fashion by the piano that repeats a catchy melody in the background.  The way in which the entire band seems to surge back and forth as the song progresses is like nothing else previously recorded, and it is much the reason that "The Killer" stands so far above other singles of the "toasting" era.  It is also through the tight musical arrangement that one can completely feel and understand the entire idea of the "sound system," as the way in which this song would have moved such a gathering cannot be denied.  Furthermore, the fact that the song never loses the mood or becomes overly repetitive is a testament to the true musical perfection one finds on "The Killer."

However, while the musical arrangement is superb on "The Killer," there is simply no getting past the fact that Big Youth is in rare form, and it is this song that forever changed the musical landscape.  Though many have tried over the decades, no artist has come close to the sound and emotion found in Big Youth's voice, and there is also a sense of proximity to that which he sings about that makes his performances all the more impressive.  After hearing just a few moments of the song, the word "raw" comes to mind, and once one hears Big Youth's work here, it is almost impossible to use that term in reference to any other recording.  It is also through the vocal performance on "The Killer" that the live feel of the song is completed, as the opening "welcome" brings the listener into the song and almost transports them to the street party where the song was likely born.  Yet while one can tie the sound found here to the other "island styles," there is simply no denying the fact that "The Killer" can be seen as the final step into what would become rap music, and Big Youth sets the standard for vocal delivery as he flows perfectly along with the music.  There is an excitement and tension in his voice that is not lost on any listener, and it is this aspect that makes one want to hear the song over and over.  In many ways, one can feel Big Youth simply letting the music drive his vocals, and it is this loose, yet potent delivery that serves as a phenomenal finishing touch to "The Killer."

While the entire "toasting" style was largely lost on foreign shores at the time, the fact of the matter is, such artists became massive hits across Jamaica.  Among all of these performers, few were as well known as Big Youth, and "The Killer" would become a huge hit, and remains one of his most beloved recordings.  After hearing the song, its longevity is no surprise, as there is something that remains captivating in the way that his vocals seem to bounce along with the musical backing.  Furthermore, one can feel how this song, in both the music and vocals, would have kept a live crowd dancing and interested, and this represents the true spirit of the "sound system."  While many see the "toasting" style as little more than an aggressive take on reggae, there is no question that it has had a massive influence in ways that cannot be tied to the reggae sound.  The similarity between the "toasting" sound and modern hip-hop is clear, and yet it is almost embarrassing to think that the largely uncreative, uninspiring sounds that dominate the current hip-hop scene have any relation to the raw, emotion-filled sounds of its origin.  Over the decades, Big Youth has been cited as an influence across a number of genres, and it is clear that beyond the style in which he performed, it was the passion and content of his lyrics that inspired many other bands.  Though the entire Screaming Target record is a mind-blowing musical experience, there are few songs in history that remain as enjoyable or as important as one finds in Big Youth's 1973 classic, "The Killer."

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