Yabby You: Jesus Dread and his scrolls of wax

A dreadlocked Christian, the eccentric Yabby You earned a special place in the annals of reggae. David Katz recalls his struggles and his success

Yabby You in London, 1992. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Tim Barrow

As he suffered ill health for much of his life, it was not entirely surprising to learn of the recent passing of Yabby You, one of reggae’s most intriguing figures. Yet his death from a stroke at 63 in January still came as a shock, and was received with no less sadness, particularly as his music always seemed so timeless.

The history of reggae is disproportionately populated by eccentric personalities, some motivated by the desire to venerate the Almighty in song. This was especially evident in Yabby You’s case. His path to music was unusual, and his religious beliefs and musical style relegated him to permanent “outsider” status.

He was born Vivian Jackson in 1946, one of seven children raised in the ghettos of western Kingston by a carpenter and his dressmaker wife. Jackson’s father was a staunch disciple of Marcus Garvey, the radical Pan-Africanist, while his mother was a devout churchgoer who introduced Jackson to the Bible at an early age. The Good Book fascinated Jackson to the extent that he decided to leave home at 12 to debate religious doctrine with the experts. He spent time at various Rasta encampments, supporting himself by making pots at an iron foundry.

Beset by health problems from the age of 17, including malnutrition, brain fever, and rheumatoid arthritis, Jackson ended up crutches to walk. He scraped a living on the streets and by offering tips at the racetrack. Although he lived amongst the Rastafari and wore dreadlocks, Jackson maintained his Christian beliefs, which gained him the ironic moniker “Jesus Dread”.

His 1972 debut recording, “Conquering Lion”, was inspired by the angelic voices he heard in a thunderstorm, which erupted after a vociferous religious argument. Its chorus of “Yabby yabby you” led to his enduring stage name. Subsequent recordings such as “Run Come Rally”, “Warn the Nation”, and “Jah Vengeance” also had a powerful effect on the Rasta community, as did the fiery “Chant Down Babylon Kingdom”, issued in 1977.

In addition to the reputation he established through compelling albums such as Conquering Lion and Deliver Me From My Enemies, Yabby’s dub albums and single B-sides were highly sought after, as many were mixed by King Tubby, an esteemed engineer. Yabby also worked closely with saxophonist Tommy McCook and was one of the first to record at Lee Perry’s legendary Black Ark studio. His encouragement of unknown hopefuls helped launch the careers of Wayne Wade, Willie Williams, Michael Prophet, Tony Tuff and DJ Trinity.

Yabby saw his music as “scrolls of wax”, biblical teachings etched onto vinyl records. He will be remembered as a highly creative individual whose unusual productions elevated the roots reggae form.