Big Youth may not have been the first of the great Jamaican DJs, but he was the second. U-Roy preceded him, virtually inventing what then was called toasting by improvising rants, brags, and poetry atop the instrumental B-side of reggae 45s at Kingston dance halls where records provided sole entertainment. American artists like the Last Poets notwithstanding, U-Roy and his gutsy usurper Big Youth laid the groundwork for what eventually would become rap, and Youth's declamations haven't dulled since they first shocked and energized the youth almost 30 years ago.
Career retrospectives generally demand familiarity with the résumé of the artist in the box to appreciate what you're hearing. But even if you're deficient in the history of Jamaican DJs, you will still be impressed by the three-CD Big Youth set Natty Universal Dread 1973-1979. The Youth is as outrageous a performer as ever lived, right out there on the edge with Moondog, Sun Ra, Lee "Scratch" Perry, John Zorn and John Cage, and Liberace. For proof wrap your skull around "Children Children" on disc one, Hot Stock. If Big Youth's slice-and-dice production of the riddim "Anywhere but Nowhere" isn't disorienting enough, he surfs the shattered rhythms on a tide of nursery rhymes, onomatopoeia, scat singing, and screeds -- along with yelps and screams that would curdle James Brown's blood. The peculiarity of the performance raises a number of questions, such as how does he do it, why does he do it, and how come it works so well? After a few similar assaults of Youth's freeform fusillade, an even greater shock is the man crooning with Gregory Isaacs on the title track.
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Big Youth would have made a sizable splash had he clung to the disruptive DJ style he invented, but he shows impressive dexterity throughout the collection. On the set's Reggae Phenomenon CD, "Plead I Cause" features a graceful chanting from Psalms laid over the "Daylight Saving Time" riddim. "Battle of the Giants" pits Youth in a lyrical struggle against the great U-Roy, and "Every Nigger Is a Star" builds a ballad with the help of the I-Threes. The third disc, Hotter Fire, continues the variety with a no-prisoners version of Burning Spear's "Marcus Garvey" and, on the other side of the creek, covers of "Hit the Road Jack" and "Sugar Sugar." Culled mainly from Jamaican singles, Natty Universal Dread features liner notes by Steve Barrow with the same over-the-top enthusiasm as the performances plus as seductive a packaging as I've seen in years (though the Styrofoam spindles that "hold" each CD in its cardboard folder plainly suck). I'm not sure if Big Youth knew he was making history when he cut these songs, but he sure as heck had to know he was making inimitable music.