THE paradox is that it’s quite possible, though Jimmy Cliff might disagree, that had it not been for Bob Marley, reggae might never have been more to the wider world than a local style on a Caribbean island. Only the influence of its UK diaspora generated the occasional hit single in that part of the world.
Yet Marley cast such a giant shadow across the reggae landscape that, despite the music’s consequent comprehensive assimilation into international pop and rock consciousness, the majority of its outstanding practitioners remain unknown to all except a relatively specialist audience.
Yabby You was born Vivian Jackson and made his earliest recordings under that name. His first single, Conquering Lion in 1972, credited to Vivian Jackson & the Ralph Brothers, included a chant of "be you, yabby yabby you".
Jackson was unusual among reggae musicians for his espousal of a form of Christian Rastafarianism that replaced the Emperor Haile Selassie with Jesus Christ as its central figure, and claimed he had first heard the chant sung by angels. It seems that soundscaping genius King Tubby, who often worked on Jackson’s tracks in order to create B-side versions in dub, suggested that he adopt the Yabby You moniker.
Jackson, who had grown up in extreme poverty and malnourishment, had developed physical disabilities that prevented him from performing conventional work, even if he could have got it. He turned to music both as a way to get by — though he was always a critical and cult success, rather than a commercial one — and as a vehicle for his heartfelt, often apocalyptic religious declarations.
He released several brilliant early deep roots singles under a variety of group names, but usually Vivian Jackson & the Prophets. These then formed the basis of an exceptional debut album, Conquering Lion (entitled Ramadam in the UK), released in 1975.
A collection of dubs of the tracks, made in King Tubby’s studio by Tubby himself as well as by a couple of his acolytes, came out in limited release as King Tubby’s Prophesy Of Dub, by Yabby U.
In 1995 the wonderful British reggae reissue label Blood And Fire, once an absolutely surefire guarantee of the highest quality but sadly no longer in business, reissued the dub album. It followed it two years later with the double-disc set Jesus Dread 1972-1977, its title referring to the nickname that Yabby You had picked up as a result of his beliefs.
The set includes, among its 47 tracks, the entire Conquering Lion album along with several versions by King Tubby and others.
Jackson’s title song provides the backing track for the instrumental Fisherman Special by legendary Skatalites hornmen Tommy McCook and Don D. He then becomes Yabby Youth, on which Big Youth toasts over the pared-down remnants of the Jackson track, which then turns into the even more skeletal Big Youth Fights Against Capitalism.
On this, King Tubby subjects the Big Youth version to a further dub process. The result is a fascinating, even riveting, display of the way that dub and versioning work, using some of the finest spiritual reggae songs ever recorded as their source material.
Where the fabulous Run Come Rally, accompanied by an alternative Upsetter mix by Lee Perry, cloaks its warning of the fate in store for an unrepentant population in the most irresistible rock-steady beat, titles such as Jah Vengeance and Warn The Nation make their point more plainly, though even they feature riddims (the instrumental part of a song) that exclude sitting still while you listen.
If you’re able to make it past disc one without pressing the repeat button, the second disc features critical post-Conquering Lion tracks, similarly treated, along with important songs by other singers who were produced by Yabby You.
It’s one of the all-time great reggae reissues.