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SNWMF 2005 - Photo by Lee Abel

Dancehall We Deh:
Sugar Minott’s Youthman Promotion Sound

The aptly-named “dancehall” style of reggae that emerged in the late 70’s and early 80’s was accompanied by an outpouring of live performances in Jamaican dancehalls of the time. Appearances by a sound system’s crew of artists supplanted new records as the primary musical attraction of the dancehall, and the vocal side of new 45s was often played for barely a minute before being flipped to the version side to allow eager singers and deejays to ride the rhythm track. Through these sound system performances, established artists maintained their popularity and introduced novel lyrics, and up-and-comings had a chance to take up the microphone and make an impression on the audience. Out of these spontaneous dancehall sessions grew free-flowing, intuitive new styles of singing and deejaying that would set the course of Jamaican vocal music for the next decade.

Although there were many influential sound systems in this time period, the sound known as Youthman Promotion in many ways embodied the new direction the music was taking. Established by Sugar Minott, a famous dancehall singer in his own right, Youthman Promotion offered a greater variety of live performances than any other sound of the time, showcasing a crew of regular performers numbering in the dozens. Guest entertainers of all stripes would also take up the microphone and contribute to the sessions: many of the major artists of the day passed through Youthman Promotion at least occasionally, and, true to the sound’s name, young hopefuls were offered a chance to perform and gain valuable exposure.

Youthman Promotion also set itself apart from the competition through a focus on the art of singing. By the early 1980’s deejays were dominating the dancehall, a trend foreshadowing the preponderance of deejay recordings today, and most sound crews of the time had only one or two singers, or even none at all. In sharp contrast, Promotion sessions frequently featured more vocalist performers than deejays, with a similarly equitable division of microphone time. Not surprisingly, the singing-oriented environment that Sugar created served as a training ground for some of the most influential vocalists of the next generation: in addition to Sugar himself, Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty, Junior Reid, Frankie Paul, Michael Palmer, Half Pint, Little John, Echo Minott, and the very young Yami Bolo and Little Kirk all performed on the sound. Talented but less-famous vocalists like Patrick Irie, Thriller, and Lacksley Castell’s younger brother Trevor Junior also were members of the Promotion crew. Out of all other sounds in Jamaica at the time, only King Jammy’s Super Power would regularly offer a singer lineup that was even comparable to Promotion’s, and several of Jammy’s singers, including Nitty Gritty, Frankie Paul, and Echo Minott, were Youthman Promotion regulars as well.

Although Promotion’s deejay contingent does not contain as many famous names as the singing roster, a cursory listen to Promotion tapes from the era reveals even the lesser-known chatters to have no shortage of prowess at the microphone. Two stalwarts on the sound were Colorman, an ace Scrabble player with a clever turn of phrase, and Daddy Ants, a surprisingly underrated and under-recorded deejay with an agile, skillful flow. Daddy Freddy, known for his lightning-fast chat (for four years his searing delivery of 508 syllables per minute held the Guinness World Record for fastest rap), was also a regular before moving to England, where he found crossover success. Dickie Ranking (now known as Snagga Puss), Welton Irie, and Peter Metro’s younger brother Squiddly Ranking, although most closely associated with Gemini, were also frequent performers on Sugar’s sound. Other less-famous deejay regulars, including Macca P, Blacka T and Josey Wales’s younger brother Daddy Shark, would also contribute vibes to the sessions. Deejays and singers alike were supported by Jackie Knock Shot, a human sound effects machine who, much like the similarly named Joe Lickshot, would produce a variety of gunshot and explosion noises at key moments, building excitement in the dance.

Musical backing for this diverse array of artists was provided by two selectors, Jah Wise and Major Stitch, themselves both veterans of the sound system circuit. Jah Wise was one of the founders of the famous Tippertone Hi-Fi, which with Jah Wise at the controls and deejays like Big Youth, Doctor Alimantado, and Ranking Buckers at the microphone became one of the leading sounds of the 70’s. Jah Wise occasionally would select for a variety of other sounds, including Mellotone, Jack Ruby, and Emperor Faith, and was also a talented painter. Major Stitch spent the 70’s deejaying under the name Jah Stitch; he performed on Tippertone and on his own sound Black Harmony, and recorded successfully for Bunny Lee and Yabby You.

Promotion’s selectors had at their disposal a veritable arsenal of exclusive records and dubplates, largely due to Sugar Minott’s involvement in music production. Sugar’s Black Roots and Youth Promotion record labels were intimately connected with the Youthman Promotion sound: members of the sound crew were given an opportunity to record and release music, and the recording studio kept the sound system amply supplied with new music from dancehall artists of the day, stars and newcomers alike. As a result, the combined sound system and record production operation served as a hotpot of creativity, with the spontaneity of sound system sessions and the refinement of the recording studio working together to generate new musical ideas. This close association with the dancehall led Sugar to notice and record many future stars before they achieved widespread fame, and he cut early recordings of artists like Tenor Saw, Nitty Gritty, Garnett Silk, Tony Rebel, Echo Minott, Yami Bolo, Little John, Don Angelo and others before other producers recognized their talent.

Today, in an era when deejay dubplates rather than live performances are the norm in Jamaican dancehalls, Youthman Promotion plays out less frequently. However, the current popularity of Jamaican music of the past has led to a revival of interest in foundation-style sound system sessions, and tours by sounds like King Stur Gav, Downbeat the Ruler, and Blood and Fire have demonstrated that the now-venerable art of live sound system performance has not lost any of its freshness or excitement. Youthman Promotion’s upcoming appearance at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival will undoubtedly prove the same.

Michael Villet 2005

Steve Barrow and Robert Dalton’s Rough Guide To Reggae

Rich Lowe interview with Jah Wise

Recommended Listening:

“Hidden Treasures” Volumes 1 and 2 on Easy Star Records feature 40 of Sugar Minott’s productions, mostly from the early dancehall era. The musical quality is generally quite high, and many Youthman Promotion regulars are represented; some of the earliest works of stars like Garnett Silk and Yami Bolo are included.

Sugar Minott Links:


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