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INTERVIEW: Yellowman
Thomas Hasson , February 27th, 2014 10:04

Ahead of starting his UK tour with a show in London this Sunday, we catch up with the dancehall veteran

"All the time I'm optimal. I'm the attraction."

Yellowman, the dancehall toaster, DJ, singer, rapper extraordinaire, is a phenomenon live. At least that's what he tells me. I've never seem him perform. The plan is to catch him in London when he plays a show with Dillinger, backed by the Sagittarius band, and Rootikal at The Flyover in London this Sunday. Whether that happens will depend on whether the people either side of him on the line-up are willing to perform alongside him. I say this not because of anything Dillinger or any of the Rootikal boys have said to me (I've never spoken to any of them), but only because of what Mister Yellowman said to me over the phone from Jamaica the other day.

We got to talking about whether or not artists would play alongside him in a discussion about one of the things he's most famous for; slackness. In the early 80s the albino DJ became well known for not just his ability to ride across a rhythm like no one else in Jamaica at the time, but specifically for his lyrics, those of a bluer variety than that of his peers. These sexually explicit lyrics were fairly tame in comparison to what you'll hear in some of today's dancehall, but at the time they were considered by some to be vulgar and indecent. Some people even refused to perform on the same bill as him. But, he tells me, "back in the days, it was not what I say, it was about their prejudice against me."

Because of your albinism?


"Because I will take away the attraction from them," he says. "Back then those artists didn't want to perform with me. Even now they don't want to perform with me."

A sense of bombast and bluster comes hand in hand with dancehall, and at 58 years old and more than 30 years experience at the top of the genre, Yellowman is no exception. When he leaves the stage after a show, that's it, it's all over for anyone who's unfortunate enough to follow him. Once he's finished his performance, "everybody walks away," he says. "When [the other acts] play, everyone gone, everyone quiet."

Yellowman has managed to keep everyone's attention for more than 30 years now, with his effect being felt in different areas of popular culture for all of those three decades. Most recently his 1984 song 'Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt' was used in the multi-million selling video game Grand Theft Auto V, although he's never played the game. Prior to that the rhythm used in what is arguably his biggest hit, 'Zungguzungguguzungguzeng', was a big influence on hip-hop in the 1990s. KRS-One, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Blackstar and more all used its rhythm in their songs at some point. Had he expected the song to not just do well, but influence on the scale that it did when he recorded it all those years ago?

"I just do the song because I want to make a record," he says. "So it surprise me when it had that big influence, and even now it has that big influence."

Before all of this, King Yellowman cut his teeth with performances on the famous sound systems of late '70s Jamaica. The sound clashes were where he got his first breaks in the music industry, toasting and DJing to the people of Jamaica, winning over their affection against the rival sound systems.

"Coming from a sound clash background, that made me a better performer," he says. "But you know back in the days the clash was like entertainment, now it's not that way. Now it's about dividing the people, not the music."

His shows today are different to that of his sets in the '70s. Back then, he says, "we did the music on the sound system, singing over it. Today it's more a live one."

Different though it may be, he still enjoys himself. "I love it," he says, but comparisons are pointless, "because they're both performance."

And you enjoy performing?

"Yes sir."

Yellowman plays The Flyover in Portobello, London this Sunday, March 2, with Dillinger and Rootikal resident DJs, followed by a UK tour; head here for full details and tickets