Not-So-Mellow Yellowman

Dancehall reggae champion Yellowman was first motivated to make music by a couple of admittedly unlikely heroes. "From my growing up, I loved Elvis," he reveals. "I grew up listening to him and Neil Diamond on the radio from when I was twelve years old, and with those artists, most of the music is like an inspiration to me."

Yellowman gives more than just lip service to the King. Or, rather, he offers exactly that by covering Presley's "Love Me Tender" on his latest disc, Message to the World. And fortunately, the track is not the typical, watered-down reggae version of a rock smash. Yellowman's impersonation of Elvis is so dead-on that you can easily imagine his lip quivering. That's no accident. "I just tried to do it the right way," he emphasizes. "I know Elvis would like me to do it the right way, so I just do it like him. I think the artists love it better that way."

Born Winston Foster in Kingston, Jamaica, Yellowman grew up in an orphanage. It was a difficult childhood made more so by his unusual skin color--he's an albino. "When I used to go to school, I had to face a lot of prejudice and a lot of racism," he recalls. He adds with a laugh, "A lot of people thought I was white."

The handle under which Yellowman performs was conferred in the schoolyard, but he says he didn't mind it. In fact, he helped to promulgate it. "If I eat anything, I eat it yellow, like bananas," he notes. "And if I wear clothes, I make them yellow, too."

As a teenager, Yellowman first began to exhibit the deejaying skills that would spread his name far and wide. Upon being discovered during a music contest, he was offered gigs by the men who ran several of the legendary sound systems that dominated Seventies-era Jamaica. These performances provided his ticket out of the orphanage. "After the talent competition, I started doing dancehall in Kingston sound systems like Aces International, Gemini and then Black Scorpio," he recalls. "We would put records on and rap over the instrumental of the record. We wouldn't play music with voices, just pure music."

This practice of rapping, or "toasting," over the other musical beds made by previous acts contrasted sharply with the roots style of reggae that was prominent in the late Seventies. Dubbed "dancehall" because of the forum in which it was created and performed, the approach quickly gained in popularity--and Yellowman, one of its earliest proponents, became its most recognized star.

"I first started recording right there in the dancehall," he explains. "It was easiest to do a live album right there, and my first one was called Mad Over Me." That album proved to be a landmark release, establishing the dancehall subgenre as the future of reggae music. Also noteworthy was Yellowman's "slack" rapping approach, which dwelled upon sex and boasting rather than the Rastafarian tenets that provided the basis for roots reggae.

Although lyrics from his early LPs read more like excerpts from Penthouse Forum than from the Book of Revelation, Yellowman claims they served an important purpose, transforming his albinic look from a stigma into a symbol of his sexuality. "That prejudice against me make me stronger growing up," he points out. "But I hang on to what I have. And now look: It turns out that people turn around and love me now. So it done a whole lot of good things, too. That's the reason that most of my records talk against racism and discrimination."

While Yellowman's love of women remains an important topic throughout much of his most recent music, his latest projects also include a strong focus on the Rastafarianism he once forsook. His spiritual awakening dates from the mid-Eighties, when he battled throat and skin cancer. "It didn't affect my vocal chords, but I had to do chemotherapy to get rid of the cancer," he reveals. "I never had my doubts about performing again, though, because once I've got my life, I know everything after that is going to be okay. I know the Lord gonna help me. That's why I did the album Prayer."

Whatever he's singing about, Yellowman remains an undeniably popular and prolific figure in reggae: He's officially credited with putting out 26 albums, though by his count (which includes numerous imports and live CDs), the total is closer to 40. Since the death of Bob Marley, no one has sold more albums than him. "That's what they tell me, and I'm not surprised," he states. "White people know me and Bob Marley more than any other reggae artists."

Given the frequency with which his albums appear, Yellowman's sales may eventually match those of his mentor. It will take longer for him to eclipse the records set by Presley, but that won't stop him from trying. After all, when Yellowman performs, Elvis himself may not be in the building, but his essence remains.

"A lot of these fans take artists personally," he acknowledges. "But bodies don't count--it's just your spirit. Elvis's music is alive and his spirit is there. But I don't think he'll be showing up at the Fox Theatre, or at Burger King, or on Mars. It'll just be me."

Yellowman & the Sagittarius Band. 9 p.m. Thursday, September 19, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, $12.60, 830-

 
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