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Reggae Legends

Yellowman

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Yellowman
By Tom Pryor

Published September 9, 2005

Winston Foster, a.k.a. Yellowman, overcame significant obstacles to dominate the dancehall like no other DJ in the early 1980s. Born an albino, a serious social liability in color-obsessed Jamaica, and raised as an orphan in a series of institutions around Kingston, the young Foster already had two strikes against him. Luckily, he also had some serious talent and a platinum-plated ego, both of which propelled him to the very top of the dancehall heap, earned him the title “King Yellow” and made him the first dancehall DJ to be signed to a major U.S. label.

          Yellowman burst on the scene in 1981, setting West Kingston dancehalls on fire with his sexually lurid “slackness” lyrics and an outside personality that turned the liability of being a six-foot-tall albino into something to boast about. There was something about the sheer nerve that it took to do this that resonated with audiences. But once Yellowman was in the door, he proved he was anything but a novelty act, defeating all comers with a combination of furious wit and an uncanny ability to ride the rhythm that few could match.

          His 1981 debut, Them A Mad Over Me, saw Yellowman rhyming his slack boasts and lewd toasts over some very, very hard riddims produced by Henry “Junjo” Lawes, a formula that would work again and again. In 1982, Yellowman recorded Live At Aces, the first-ever live dancehall set captured on record. It was an immediate success that spawned a whole new recording genre, and caught Yellow at his height, trading off rhymes with his “spar” Fathead and just dominating the dance.

          As the ’80s wore on, Yellowman sensed that slackness was on the wane, and recorded more conscious tracks, without ever resorting to Rasta-fied clichés. Classic singles like “Operation Eradication” and “Soldier Take Over” used the dancehall pulpit to reflect ghetto realities, while more traditional roots acts were still singing about “back to Africa.”

          By 1984, Yellowman’s reign in Jamaica was coming to a close, but that didn’t stop him from signing with CBS records and breaking through to entirely new international audiences with his King Yellowman album. Though the album wasn’t terribly successful—hometown crowds weren’t interested, and most foreign record buyers didn’t know what to make of it—it was still the very first dancehall album for a major U.S. label. But Yellow wasn’t going to give up his crown without a fight, and his two subsequent “in tandem” albums, Two Titans Clash and Slackness Vs. Pure<

Recommended Recordings

 

King Yellowman (Sony)
Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt (Shanachie)
Look How Me Sexy: Reggae Anthology  (VP)

 

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