Slack and Loud
When doctors gave him only six months to live, Yellowman ignored them and defeated the cancerous tumor that had developed in his jaw in 1986. This would have meant the end of many vocalists' musical careers, but for Jamaica's "Mr. Sexy," as he has been fondly called in the past, this was just another challenge.
"I just put my faith in God and trusted that he would get me through this," the yellow-haired DJ says. "I didn't dwell on the six months they told me I had left. Instead, I did what I had to do."
Born Winston Foster in 1956, Yellowman remains a tall, ghostly, pale figure, but his face is distorted; the side of his jaw was removed as part of cancer treatment. As a child, he was constantly teased and called names like dundus -- meaning that he has no skin color -- by his fellow Jamaicans, who considered albinos to be social outcasts at that time.
Ignoring the stigma, Yellowman in 1978 entered the popular Tastee Talent Contest, a platform for discovering new talent on the island. Still a teenager, he placed third after performing a witty DJ piece. And he caught the attention of some local producers who were ready to transform the yellow wonder into the next dancehall prodigy.
"Before the competition, I went to those same producers at Joe Gibbs' (studio), Studio One, and Channel One trying to get their attention and have them listen to me," laughs Yellowman, "but none of them were interested. Then after I struck gold in the talent contest, they came looking for me, and I didn't have to do the running around anymore."
During his early days in the business, Yellowman developed a lewd DJ style that is bold, cocky, and filled with lyrics that many would consider homophobic. Blessed with the ability to ride any rhythm, he would poke fun at his skin pigmentation and encourage others to share in the joke. In fact, back in those days, he turned dancehall yellow by always wearing a yellow jogging suit and driving his yellow BMW all over the island.
Yellowman went on to make scores of recordings, his first being "Soldier Tek Over," which got him into hot water with local troops. They didn't appreciate the lyrics, "Lift your foot and put them down, Government boots is not your own," and by 1982, he had close to 40 tunes receiving regular airplay on local radio stations. He filled his raunchy stage performances with humorous, wild, hip gyrating moves and transformed himself into a national sex symbol, eventually becoming one of Jamaica's top-selling reggae stars.
Some of his biggest and most memorable hits include his recordings under the guidance of producer Henry Junjo Lawes. Issued between 1982 and 1985, they include "Who Can Make the Dance Ram," "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt," "Yellowman Getting Married," and "Gregory Free." South Florida reggae producer Lloyd Campbell was the force behind "Operation Radication" and "Mad Over Me."
More than 50 albums have been released under Yellowman's name, so no one can fault him for being lazy. With that many releases, his output has been wildly inconsistent. His early bawdy period yields the most gems, thanks to memorable outings with Sly and Robbie, Earl "Chinna" Smith, and others. Yet his outrageous lewdness, on-stage rants against gays, and songs like "Mr. Chin" -- a denunciation of Jamaica's Asian grocery owners -- led to criticism from the likes of Peter Tosh. By the end of the '80s, however, Yellowman turned it around. His 1998 release, Yellowman Rides Again, contains the unsurprising "Want a Virgin" but also an unexpected social conscience in "Ease Up President Botha."
"They used to say I was full of slackness, but I didn't really care about what they said," the DJ notes. "I mixed everything together and added some drama to it. Whatever I did, it worked for me, because people bought my songs and asked to hear them on the radio."
With a steady stream of hit songs over the years and sometimes up to five albums released in a year, as of this day, he has released more records than perhaps any other dancehall DJ. Crowned "King Yellowman" by music lovers, he snatched a record deal with CBS Records, but after releasing only one album with them, he was diagnosed with the illness that kept him out of the limelight and the recording studio for several years.
Reemerging on the music scene in the late '90s, things in reggae had changed, and a new, younger, sharper generation of DJs had risen. Yellowman still had his unmistakable style, however; the rhythms he used were more melodic, and the vulgar lyrics were lessened, and more conscious and social ones replaced them. His first release after his absence was a cover of the classic Fats Domino song "Blueberry Hill," which got him back on his feet and assured his fans he wasn't going down without a fight.
While Yellowman's performances no longer match those of his earlier days, he paces the full length of the stage and delivers a surprisingly high-energy set, slowing only to deliver a message with his twisted sense of humor.
His new album (still unnamed) should be ready for release next month, and with songs such as "911," "CNN," and "The White House," it reflects more evidence of a reconditioned Yellowman. A pioneer of the raunchy side of dancehall, the mike specialist has managed to outlive his predicted demise and continues to entertain a new generation. "I know a lot of young people look up to me, and with the changing times, I'm doing things differently," a confident Yellowman says. "But no one needs to worry, because whenever I'm in town, you can expect a good time, lots of love, and lots of yellow!"
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.