Obituary: Justin Yap
"When musicians worked for me, they didn't have to come back the next day. I never give them cheque, always cash - in an envelope, the precise amount, not a penny short," he said. Indeed, in a field notorious for one-off deals and quickie releases, Yap wasn't afraid to pay Jamaican musicians more than his competitors and then make the most of the extra takes. This visionary outlook undoubtedly contributed to the seminal nature of the recordings he financed and issued on his label Top Deck.
Born Philip Yap in 1944, he grew up in the Barbican area of Kingston, where his Chinese-Jamaican parents ran an ice-cream parlour and restaurant. In order to entertain fellow teenagers, Yap (who later changed his first name to Justin) and his brother Ivan (aka Jahu) established the Top Deck sound system on the premises.
Further, to impress a teenage girl he had a crush on, the 18-year-old Yap began writing songs dedicated to her. After a couple of attempts at home recording, he booked Federal studios and produced Ephraim "Joe" Henry crooning "There She Goes", "My Darling Josephine" and "Last Summer" which he issued on Top Deck, but without much success. However, the next attempt, featuring a new singer called Fitzroy "Larry" Marshall, gave the Yaps a minor ska hit with "Too Young To Be In Love".
"Promise is a Comfort for a Fool" proved a worthy follow-up and Larry Marshall scored a Jamaican No 1 thanks to a cover version of Paul Martin's "Snake in the Grass". This was Justin Yap's idea and helped establish the label further. Releases by the Angelic Brothers and the School Boys followed. Amazed by Yap's dedication, the trumpeter Oswald "Baba" Brooks offered Top Deck a couple of instrumental tracks; "Five O'Clock Whistle" and "Distant Drums" (an adaptation of Artie Shaw's "Jungle Drums") became hits in 1963. "Then I started concentratin' and got into instrumental," said Yap.
The following year, he found his perfect match in the talented Skatalites, a group merging jazz, American rhythm'n'blues, boogie-woogie, calypso and mento and developing this new sound called ska (a forerunner of reggae). They were the house band at Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's rival Studio One, but Allan "Bim Bim" Scott, one of Dodd's assistants and a friend of the Yaps, pointed out that the arrangement between Studio One and the Skatalites was not exclusive.
In November 1964, having secured the services of the group for one night by paying them twice as much as the going rate, Justin Yap supervised a marathon 18-hour session which yielded Ska-Boo-Da-Ba, arguably the definitive ska album, combining original compositions (from various Skatalites and Yap himself) as well as instrumental versions of standards (Duke Ellington's "Caravan" syncopated in a reworking entitled "Ska-Ra-Van", for instance).
"This was a monster session and it turned out the greatest recording for me. One night session, one long jam session; it was like a party!" Yap told the reggae expert Steve Barrow. Yap cut extra takes featuring different lead instruments (Roland Alphonso's tenor saxophone, Johnny "Dizzy" Moore's trumpet and Don Drummond's trombone) from the ensemble as well as the Skatalites backing their former vocalist Jackie Opel from Barbados and also B.B. "Bibby" Seaton and the Astronauts. Other extensive sessions took place at Studio One and JBC (the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation) in 1965.
In late 1966, Yap emigrated to the United States rather than face the deteriorating social climate in Jamaica and took most of his master tapes with him. He relocated to New York, took up US citizenship and joined the army, serving in the Vietnam war. After his discharge in the early Seventies, he got involved in the computer industry and subsequently drove a taxi.
By the mid-Nineties, various ska revivals in Britain and the United States had increased interest in Yap's pioneering recordings from the Sixties and the Westside label began an exhaustive release programme. A team of ska and reggae archivists has since compiled eight volumes of the Top Sounds From Top Deck series.
Justin Yap moved back to Jamaica and underwent a triple heart bypass operation in 1995. Diagnosed with liver cancer last year, he travelled to the United States regularly for treatment. He also did his utmost to facilitate the remastering process which should see the release later this year of a three-CD box-set of his work.
Philip Stanford "Justin" Yap, record producer and songwriter: born Kingston, Jamaica 23 May 1944; married (one son, one daughter); died Plainsboro, New Jersey 23 July 1999.
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