Born Manley Augustus Buchanan on April 19, 1949, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Big Youth was born Manley Augustus Buchanan in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1949. One of five children raised by his mother, a Christian preacher, and his father, a police officer, he grew up in chaos and poverty; Manley had a strong will and often clashed with his parents. He left school at 14, determined to make it on his own, and went to work as an auto mechanic at the Skyline and Sheraton Hotels in Kingston. Here he was first dubbed “Big Youth” because he was both younger and taller than his coworkers. After hearing him practice using his voice in the hotel’s large empty rooms, his friends told him he should try to deejay. He began to work at local dancehalls by night, where he developed his talent, talking and singing for an audience. By 1970 Big Youth was a regular deejay at Lord Tippertone’s sound system, a popular music scene in Jamaica where dueling deejays vied for the stage. Big Youth, with his deep voice and Rastafarian style, quickly became a star.
To understand Big Youth’s contribution to music one must first get a sense of the music scene in Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s. In Jamaica deejays rap or “toast” their often-political messages over the instrumental B-sides of other artists’ melodies, a practice that many believe laid the foundation for much of today’s rap and hip-hop. In the 1960s and 1970s the Rastafarian movement was enjoying a surge in popularity. When Big Youth joined the Rastafarians it caused a lot of stress in his Christian family. His mother was particularly disappointed and it took years for her to accept her son’s decision.
Although his early recordings didn’t catch on with the public, he kept performing, developing a unique casual and conversational style. Finally, after releasing his eighth single, Big Youth found his audience. He had gone through some of the best-known music producers in his quest for a hit but a young producer named Gussie Clark finally got him the recognition he deserved. Clark turned Big Youth’s single “The Killer” into his first big hit. With a follow-up collaboration on the single “Tippertone Rocking” the two enjoyed a back-to-back success that put Big Youth on the music map. “Representing the authentic sound of the ghetto, Big Youth set new standards for DJs to say something constructive on record…,” said the Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
His 1972 single “Ace 90 Skank” (also known as “S. 90 Skank”), produced by Keith Hudson, gave his career another big boost. The song, named after a cult Japanese motorcycle, was about riding the bike safely. Producer Keith Hudson actually brought the motorcycle into the studio to record its characteristic sound. The melody of “Ace 90 Skank” and Big Youth’s flowing rap caused an immediate stir in Jamaica and was his first single to go gold.
The artist’s first full album came in 1973, with Screaming Target, a powerful piece that produced a number of hits, including four that stayed in the Jamaican top 20 for a full year. His live performances were also becoming legendary. He would drive the audience wild with a quick flash of his incredible dreadlocks. He was, indeed, one of the first artists to don the style on album covers and on stage where it became a staple of the culture. He also had red, gold, and green gems set into his front teeth. By 1974, Big Youth had earned the nickname “The Human Gleaner,” in reference to The Gleaner, one of Jamaica’s leading newspapers, because “it was from his records that many young Jamaicans learnt what was going on in society around them,” according to the Encyclopedia of Rock.
Once Big Youth caught the spotlight, he didn’t let go. His output became prolific–at one point he had five of the top-ten Jamaican singles. Bob Marley, already a growing international musician, called Big Youth his favorite artist. Though his influence over the years has remained primarily in Jamaica, Big Youth has made his mark internationally as well. His tour of England in 1977 was a huge success–Johnny Rotten, of the Sex Pistols, saw Big Youth’s London Rainbow show and went backstage for photographs with the artist afterward.
Big Youth’s biggest hits were collected on Natty Universal Dread, a three-CD set released in 2000. TheAustin Chronicle hailed it as a set “just bursting with Youth’s incomparable toasting over many of the most crucial riddims [reggae beats] of the era, riddims that have remained foundational to this day.” PopMattersmusic critic Maurice Bottemley singled out the track “Riverton City” for praise: “a tour through the poorest of the poor that is done with warmth, dignity, and love. This is urban poetry at its most sublime and over as fine a set of rhythms as anyone has ever heard.”
Big Youth has built his legacy on a number of moving hits and a casual demeanor that makes his audiences feel like they know him. He continues to record and perform new material, with a focus on preaching the ways of Rastafaria. “Though his records and live appearances are now few and far between, Youth has remained at the top for longer than any other DJ apart from U-Roy, and he is still respected and revered by the reggae cognoscenti,” said the Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
(Source – Written by Ben Zackheim)