Jamaica's Yellowman changed the sound of music in the 1980s
Jamaica's Yellowman changed the sound of music in the 1980s

Yellowman was arguably the first legitimate superstar from the Jamaican dancehall scene—he broke out with the 1983 album Zungguzungguguzungguzeng—and his influence has been so extensive it’s hard to imagine what the music would sound like if he’d never existed. His 80s output bridged the previous decade’s roots-reggae sound and the electronics that would come to replace it, and his vivid lyrics—full of drugs, violence, and raunchy sex—established a template for the generations of gangsta-­minded “slack” vocalists who have followed in his wake. (To his credit, though, he hasn’t contributed to the rabid homophobia that his descendants have ingrained into dancehall culture—perhaps because he’s endured more than his fair share of discrimination as an albino.) He’s had an equal albeit less direct influence on hip-hop, where he’s been quoted, sampled, or shouted out by a who’s who of rap royalty, including Eazy-E, Ice Cube, KRS-One, and both Biggie and Tupac.

Interviewing Yellowman for this week’s Artist on Artist is one of his many American fans, Chicago dancehall torchbearer MC Zulu, who’s advocated for the genre for years despite its failure to gain much of a foothold around these parts. Where Yellowman’s music still has one foot in the 70s, Zulu is planted firmly in the present, frequently collaborating with boundary-pushing underground electronic artists—his set with local EDM oddball Chrissy Murderbot at last summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival was the surprise success of the weekend. Miles Raymer

I think one of the greatest choruses in dancehall overall—it stands out because it kind of suggests a story that might be going on—is “Nobody move, nobody get hurt.” Every time I write a song, I always think about that: how can I suggest a situation without really saying it. Have you always gone from that standpoint when you wrote a song? Yeah, because in Jamaica, they got a squad, a force that they call Eradication. So, I don’t know if you remember that song—

“Operation Eradication.” Right. Yeah.

Actually, where did that come from? It come from just the police force, you know. Because it was a police force—so, like, some police get the license to kill, you know?

I’d like to ask what kind of influences you’ve had outside music—Operation Eradication being one of them, and the police. What are some other things? Well, “I’m getting married in the morning,” you know? Even on that song called “Mr. Chin“—

Uh-huh. Because in Jamaica, back in the 70s, the 80s, it was the Chinese own all the business. And whenever they wanted to raise the price of the food items, they hide it. They hide the goods, and let it look like it’s scarce.

Oh, so create a demand. Right. You get everything easy now, they stop hiding the goods, because they hike up the price. Because the government involved in it. Because the Chinese, they own the groceries, the supermarket. That’s why I sing, “Mr. Chin, boy you fi sell the right thing,” you know?

In the rest of the world, we don’t have it boiled down to a certain race or a different kind of people or what have you. Here, it’s more of a thing of class, where people who have money fight against everyone else. It’s like the haves versus the have-nots. Right. It be like that in Jamaica—they take advantage of the people because it’s a third world country, you know.

I’m sure there are some businesspeople who aren’t Chinese who partake in that kind of abuse of the public trust. Yeah, well, I think they abuse the people because they know they have the goods. But they keep it scarce. Back in the 70s and the 80s, the Chinese people owned the establishment. They own the milk factory, the orange juice, you know. And they are friends with the Grace­Kennedy Group. All those business groups.

Do you see a lot of influence in today’s reggae artists that you may have caused? A lot of artists both locally and internationally. Because rap music was influenced by dancehall—back in the 80s, groups like Run-DMC, people like Doug E. Fresh, Ice-T, Ice Cube . . .

I remember Eazy-E’s “Nobody move, nobody get hurt.” Right. People like Nelly, people like Notorious B.I.G, people like Young MC.

But the way reggae keeps moving is that it completely moves away from its foundation and continually reinvents itself. Do you see aspects of what you were doing in today’s reggae music that’s coming out of Jamaica? Especially out of the dancehall. The younger guys, you have a couple of them doing positive things. But they are not positive enough in terms of our local culture. The music—they are doing hip-hop. They’re doing pop, hip-hop music. Because there is a thing going on now in Jamaica, because we are celebrating—

The anniversary. The 50-year anniversary of independence. And there’s a thing with the theme music, the music that they play to highlight the 50th anniversary. And the people in Jamaica, there’s a thing with them and the government going on—because the people mad, the people vexed, the people don’t like the theme song. Because the theme song, it sound like pop and hip-hop.

MC ZuluCredit: Parris Reaves

Where do you stand in all of that? Well, you know, that mostly shows you that nothing good comes out of Jamaica in terms of music right now. Because everybody want to be rich, you know. So they hustle the music. So there is nothing good coming out.

I think that is a very profound statement you just said right there. “They hustle the music.” In the beginning of reggae, there was a lot of imitation of the United States, but they still put their own kind of spin on it. Now there’s out-and-out imitation of what’s coming out of the United States, because they feel maybe there might be some kind of a financial reward that comes as a result. Yeah, true.

I think you’ve done quite a bit for not only the music scene, but for people overall. Some of the challenges you were born with—this was genius to me. Like, that’s why they called you Yellowman, because you’re an albino. I just get that name in the street, you know. And it stick with me because my favorite color is yellow. Because yellow is a penetrating color. Yellow stand out in every major way of life.

I heard a song, though, that sounded like maybe you were coping with some negative aspects of being albino. Where you said, “The people say, Lord, what a ugly baby.” Oh, yeah. Right. “Me a gon tell you me life story,” yeah, that one.

Yeah. Yeah, man. Because I was growing up, I got kidded on, I got chided. I go through a lot of tribulation. Because other kids used to call me a name I can’t even repeat. They scorned me, you know. Even when I go to school. I used to end up in one corner, you know, crying. Even when I’m grow up, and I go to the studios, I go to every studio all over Jamaica and they turn me out.

This is why I was so honored when I got the chance to interview you—because it’s not just, you know, the vibes and the fact that everything you’re on sounded so great. You are a hero to a lot of people who didn’t fit in, you know? Right.

And even with that going on, you still took the time to try to get a message across on the political side of things. That is one of the reasons why I’m out here. The general public, the Jamaican people themselves, they are the ones who give the respect. But the people who—like the radio, some of the media house—they don’t give the respect. That’s the reason why I have to come out here and tour, you know. That’s the reason why me, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Third World, Sean Paul, Shaggy, Shabba [Ranks], Mighty Diamonds, all of us been touring, because they don’t give us the respect. They give the younger artist—that’s rubbish, because right now it’s just rubbish been coming out of dancehall and reggae.

I know. Yeah. That’s the reason why people get mad. Because now, because of technology, the young people been finding out that the vintage music was the music. So most of the young artists, they trying to come into the roots of reggae.

Busy Signal’s last album, Mr. Vegas’s last album. Right. You know, they found out that internationally—Europe, Japan, America, you know, the Caribbean itself—they don’t want to hear no more dancehall artists, these young dancehall artists. Because they are bad influence on the young people, like—you know, look at people like Vybz Kartel.

What are your thoughts about Vybz Kartel? He’s in prison now, he’s in jail. So it is a lot of bad influence. They come with the gangster thing, they come with the negative thing.

Yeah, I don’t see them really as the problem—I see them as a symptom of the problem. I mean, Vybz Kartel is so talented it’s not funny. But the things that he’s saying would have come out differently if he—if the world was some other things. Let’s put it this way. They got the talent, but they don’t use the talent in the right way.

But I believe the reason why that is so is because the things that we hear you singing about—and not necessarily the Chinese, but the establishment overall—It just became so pervasive, and it has completely influenced the culture of young people, so that now all they do is imitate acts who they think would bring them some money. Or talk about murder or things they believe will get them money. Even if they don’t necessarily believe it. Yeah, but Vybz Kartel is a murderer. That’s what he’s in jail for. [Editor’s note: At press time Vybz Kartel had not been convicted of either of the murders with which he’s been charged.]

Maybe they feel that, you know, “I gotta keep it real.” And the people who are listening to the music, they’re not just influenced by the music. They’re influenced by the culture, and that becomes how they live their life. Yeah, the big cars, the jewels. The clothes, you know.

It’s social breeding. And I hope the Reader prints that, because that’s the reason why the establishment has been aligned against dancehall culture. That’s why it is. Initially it was aimed at black people, but now it’s just negativity against everyone—the idea of embracing things that are detrimental to your well-being. Kids have come to think that’s cool. Right, right. It aim at the young people also. It target the young people.

Yeah, man. So on July 11, you’ll be here in Chicago? Yeah.

What are some of the things we can look forward to? Well, you know, people having a good time, because that’s my purpose. To turn bad people into good people, and sad people into happy people, and put smile on people’s face. Because that’s what I’m for. I don’t do anything else. I don’t sell drugs, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble. My purpose is to make people happy, you know. That’s what I do.