Iconic Reggae and Dancehall Artist U-Roy Dies at 78

Known as "the Originator," the Jamaican popularized the toasting vocal style
Iconic Reggae and Dancehall Artist U-Roy Dies at 78
U-Roy — an influential Jamaican DJ and vocalist recognized for popularizing the toasting vocal style — has died. A representative for Trojan Records confirmed the artist passed away yesterday (February 17) in Jamaica, though a cause of death was not revealed. He was 78.

The artist's partner of over 40 years, Marcia Smikle, shared with The Gleaner today that U-Roy had been been in and out of hospital with health concerns relating to his kidney.

"He has diabetes and hypertension, but those are under control because we make sure that he takes his medication. But he also had a kidney problem and was being treated at Andrews [Hospital], and then they told us to take him to [University Hospital of the West Indies] for surgery because the kidney had messed up the bladder, and he was bleeding," Smikle said.

"They recommended dialysis for the kidney, but he didn't want to do that," she told The Gleaner, adding that the artist underwent surgery Tuesday (February 16).

"It was successful, and the bleeding stopped. But afterwards, the doctors realized that somewhere else was blocked up, and they had to take him back to theatre on Wednesday," Smikle said. "Him heart stopped three times, and him come back and then last night he died. Him never mek it."

U-Roy earned nickname "the Originator" for his melodic, highly rhythmic style of toasting, which spawned numerous soundalikes and came to influence popular music beyond his country.

A critic for Reggae Vibes wrote of his style, "His rich-toned voice proclaimed sizzling, jive-saturated lyrics rather than simply inserting a few phrases...[riding] the pared-down instrumental track all the way through, rather than interjecting at crucial points."

Born Ewart Beckford in Jones Town, Jamaica, in 1942, U-Roy received his nickname from a young family member unable to correctly pronounce his first name. He began his career in 1961 as a DJ, and rose through the ranks of Jamaica's sound system scene to become the top selector of King Tubby's Hometown Hi Fi later that decade.

King Tubby's spacey, drawn-out dub mixes allowed U-Roy to toast at length, leading to further develop his style. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, "That's when things started picking up for me."

U-Roy would make his first recordings in 1969 with Keith Hudson, Lee Perry, Peter Tosh and Bunny Lee, though his breakout would come a year later. After the Paragons' John Holt saw U-Roy toast over his own song, "Wear You to the Ball," he insisted that producer Duke Reid get in the studio with the artist.

The partnership between U-Roy and Reid saw singles "Wake the Town," "Rule the Nation" and "Wear You to the Ball" dominate Jamaican charts. "Before that, the deejay business was not something that people take seriously," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't really took it serious...People weren't really used to this stuff."

The 1970s saw U-Roy achieve international success with albums including 1975's Dread in a Babylon, 1976's Natty Rebel, 1977's Rasta Ambassador and 1978's Jah Son of Africa. The decade would also see him found his own Stur Gav sound system, featuring selectors  Josey Wales, Charlie Chaplin and Ranking Joe.

In 2007, U-Roy received Jamaica's Order of Distinction for his contribution to music. His most recent record remains 2019's Rebel in Styylle, though The Guardian reports that the artist recorded a new album dubbed Gold: The Man Who Invented Rap that same year. 

The site notes that Gold, expected to arrive this summer, will feature revered rhythm duo Sly and Robbie, guitarist Zak Starkey, and Youth of Killing Joke on production, with guest appearances from Mick Jones of the Clash, Santigold, Shaggy and Ziggy Marley.

Find tributes to U-Roy below from Buju Banton, Mad Professor, Shaggy, Young Galaxy and more.