The reggae world is populated by eccentric visionaries, from the shamanic excesses of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to the esoteric quietness of Augustus Pablo.
With Rastafari as their guiding light, such figures and their equally individual peers steered music into unheard directions. And in the pantheon of reggae strangeness, the singer-songwriter and music producer known as Yabby You is perhaps the ultimate outsider. Although he wore long dreadlocks and lived amongst one of the most militant Rastafari communities of the western Kingston ghettos, Yabby was a committed Christian that contested the divinity of Haile Selassie, leading to the ironic sobriquet, ‘Jesus Dread,’ which was first levelled at him as a barbed insult, but later worn as a badge of honour. This double-outcast was responsible for some of the most compelling and individual pieces of roots reggae ever recorded, having worked closely with King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the Gladiators, Tommy McCook and members of the Wailers band, fronting the harmony group he called the Prophets during the 70s and 80s. He also helped initiate the careers of several early dancehall innovators, including Trinity, Wayne Wade, Tony Tuff and Michael Prophet, the latter named through his association with Yabby.
As was the case with Augustus Pablo, Yabby You was dogged by physical disability for much of his life, with rheumatoid arthritis, malnutrition and other debilitating ailments wreaking havoc on his body, following a working residence at an iron foundry on the gully bank, during a time when he had been wandering the land, seeking to emulate the life of Jesus. Yabby saw the world through the lens of the Bible, and could see the fulfilment of biblical prophecy all around him, with Jamaica’s two-party political battles manifesting as the struggle between Joshua and King Pharaoh. His music, he said, took the form of new hymns for the modern world, issued on ‘scrolls of wax,’ and although he was a dancehall pioneer, he felt that his output was the antidote to the godless consumerism and senseless braggadocio of the hardcore ‘ragga’ style that rose to prominence in the late 80s.
Born Vivian Jackson in 1946 and raised in an impoverished household in western Kingston, his mother was a devout Christian and his father was a staunch Garveyite, leading to the religious fervour and political radicalism that marked out his life and work. His father also instructed him about the ways of duppies, malevolent spirits that roam the land, giving him a similar belief in the living spirit world to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Yabby once said his spiritual quest began at the age of seven, when he fully immersed himself in the Bible; approaching his teens, he began his emulation of Jesus, wandering the land to debate religious doctrine, which led him to live among the Ites People, a radical Rastafari sect based on the outskirts of west Kingston. While working at their metal foundry in Waterhouse, he became seriously ill, leading to a long period of hospitalization at age 17. He later began scraping a living by giving betting tips at the racetrack, and after arguing with a group of Rastas about Selassie’s alleged divinity, he had a vision where lightning and thunder made strange sounds, as though a group of angels was singing. He eventually convinced some musicians to go into the studio and provide their talents for free, leading to his earliest productions, circa 1972. The Yabby You moniker came from King Tubby, who told people active on the music fraternity that the group making the music was an American harmony act called the Yabby Yous, and Tubby remained a major supporter, his trademark dubs featuring on nearly every Yabby-produced 45, and on a couple of select Prophets dub albums too.
Yabby’s peak period was the mid-to-late 70s, and although his output waned thereafter, he continued to issue music sporadically in the 90s and into the new millennium, including a decent collaboration with Mad Professor. His death is 2010 at the age of 64 followed a prolonged period of ill health, though he’d made select overseas live appearances along the way. What follows are ten of Yabby’s most timeless productions, each an individual slice of electrifying roots reggae.
Vivian Jackson and the Ralph Brothers
Vivian Jackson’s first recording is the stuff of legend. The tale begins when Jackson had a lengthy argument with a group of Rastas (including members of the Gladiators, and Tony Brevett of the Melodians), tiring them out so much that they all dropped asleep. Then, the flashing of lightning and crashing thunder brought forth angelic voices, singing ‘Be you, yabby yabby you.’ Jackson sang along with what he heard, and the Rastas encouraged him to record it, so he took drummer Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett and guitarist Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith into Dynamics studio to lay a rhythm track with engineer Karl Pitterson, but left the tape unvoiced due to lack of finance. He later sat in with Rasta elder Brother Joe at the Ethiopian World Federation Headquarters in Waterhouse, joining in a Rasta rendition of the hymn ‘Carnal Mind,’ but when Joe went into the studio to record the song, he left Jackson behind.
After this negative experience, Jackson took the Dynamics master tape to King Tubby to voice ‘Conquering Lion’ with Alric Forbes and Bobby ‘Melody’ Powell on harmony (credited on the original release as the Ralph Brothers, but subsequently known as the Prophets). King Tubby told everyone that the featured group was an American harmony act, the Yabby Yous leading to Jackson’s lasting moniker. The song remains a stunning debut issue, its unusual rhythm percolating beneath the strange harmonic relation of Jackson’s angelic vision, referencing Haile Selassie’s 1930 coronation in the process. Big Youth’s deejay version ‘Yabby Youth,’ Augustus Pablo’s melodica take, ‘False Dread,’ and Dicky Burton’s ‘God Is Watching You’ are excellent further mutations of the same rhythm, while Horace Andy’s ‘Undivided World’ uses the same melody on a strangely sped-up augmentation.
Vivian Jackson and the Prophets
‘Run Come Rally’ (aka ‘Rally Round Jahoviah’)
Recorded at Lee Perry’s Black Ark in 1974, ‘Run Come Rally’ has a tight drum sound, a cheesy keyboard melody, and more of the Prophets’ soaring choral harmonies. Calling on the faithful to “come away from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah,” the song draws on a favourite proverb to remind that “the hotter the battle, the sweeter the victory.” This buoyant rhythm forms another underdog’s anthem, referencing Rastafari culture from within a Christian outlook, chanting words of righteousness from the margins of Jamaican society.
Vivian Jackson and the Sons of Jah
Another total killer, again cut at the Black Ark, ‘Jah Vengeance’ unfolds slowly, with a little horn fanfare reminding that this is music to blow down the Walls of Jericho, as the Prophets sing in choral unity of the resulting bloodshed that will inevitably coat the streets when God’s wrath is meted out on the unrighteous. The rhythm is in the ‘flying cymbal’ mode that was the rage in Jamaica for a brief time, based on the open-and-closed high-hat favoured by Philly soul ensemble TSOP, but here is strangely out of kilter, a lopsided rhythm that offsets the undercurrent of seriousness provided by the horn blasts and intricate guitar flurries. The rhythm proved excellent fuel for deejay artistry too, as heard on Dillinger’s ‘Freshly,’ Tappa Zukie’s ‘Natty Dread On A Mountain Top’ and Trinity’s forlorn ‘Gwan And Lef Me.’
‘Black Is Our Colour’
One of the least typical records recorded at the Black Ark, ‘Black Is Our Colour’ was an early slice of lover’s rock in terms of its musical arrangements, with a lilting flute line courtesy of Tommy McCook, yet Wade’s pubescent voice delivers militant lyrics celebrating black pride. A true classic that resulted from a great meeting of minds, ‘Black Is Our Colour’ made an impact on both sides of the Atlantic and remains a perpetual favourite of the revival reggae circuit today.
Former Skatalites bandleader Tommy McCook was a major force in the evolution of Jamaican popular music. Very much a jazz visionary (along the lines of Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk, but without the substance misuse or mental health issues), McCook was responsible for shaping the greatest ska in the skatalites, the most successful rock steady in the Supersonics at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle, and some of the most striking roots reggae for a range of different producers. The work he did with Yabby You is thoroughly exceptional, and ‘Death Trap’ is the best of the bunch, a stunning flute and sax re-working of the same rhythm used for Linval Thompson’s ‘Big Big Girl,’ but here with McCook leading the way entirely. Ample proof that instrumental reggae could be as powerful as any vocal release.
Vivian Jackson and the Prophets
‘Fire In Kingston’
This topical number is a commentary on the internecine gang violence, linked to Cold War politics, that was then causing untold death and destruction in the Kingston ghettos, as armed men variously associated with the left-leaning People’s National Party and the right-wing Jamaica Labour Party went to war in the street. The mournful rhythm underscores Yabby’s lyrics as he describes trying to walk through various neighbourhoods of western Kingston, only the fire, violence and war does not permit him to enter. Minor-key harmonies on the choruses also emphasize the gravity of the situation.
Dillinger Meets Trinity
(Vivian Jackson, 1977/Grove Music, 1978)
Yabby’s song ‘King Pharoah’s Plague’ was another warning to the ungodly, riding a sparse and foreboding rhythm; placing twin deejays Dillinger and Trinity atop the rhythm, it becomes totally transformed as ‘Jesus Dread,’ with the pair saluting Yabby’s decision to ‘knot up him head,’ even as he venerates Jesus, rather than Haile Selassie. It’s a wild recasting that shifts the song into the realm of sound system battle, with the pair proclaiming that “Yabby You sound ah the general sound, but all other sound them ah really clown.”
‘Deliver Me From My Enemies’
(Vivian Jackson 7”/Grove Music LP, 1977)
The title track of a 1977 album release that featured liner notes from Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Deliver Me From My Enemies’ is Yabby on typically righteous form, imploring God to deliver him from evil and make him a better person in the process. The Gladiators are present as backing musicians, and they would back Yabby on his first live tour dates in Britain around this time too. Evidencing a somewhat fuller sound than on earlier releases, this is Yabby in evolutionary mode.
‘Chant Down Babylon Kingdom’
(Nationwide/Vivian Jackson, 1977)
One of Yabby’s most forceful releases, ‘Chant down Babylon Kindgom’ has superb drumming (most likely from Carlton Barrett), and strangely jarring guitar lines that again heighten the forceful warnings of Yabby’s religious proclamations. The extended 12″ version features a livid toast from Trinity in firebrand mode, and some echoing dub portions towards the end. I still remember hearing the extended mix on Jah Observer sound system at the Notting Hill Carnival, making a dramatic impact that captivated the entire crowd.
‘Mash Down Rome’ (aka ‘Love And Unity’)
(Vivian Jackson, 1979/Island, 1980)
Michael Haynes became Michael Prophet after he started working with Yabby, who the singer described as a hard taskmaster. The result of the pairing was truly tremendous, with Yabby steering the budding dancehall singer into his most rootical direction, yielding songs of religious and social importance. ‘Mash Down Rome’ aka ‘Love And Unity’ demanded that the youth join together to fight the evil forces of Babylon and Rome, rather than fighting each other; Prophet’s ‘Turn Me Loose’ was another winner from the period, which wound up on the soundtrack of the Babylon movie.