Artist Spotlight: Judge Dread

WARNING: If you are easily offended by juvenile innuendo, or are overly-vexed by musical and cultural miscegenation and questions of “authenticity”, click away now.

But if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to hear a cross between Bob Marley and Benny Hill: well, pour yourself a stiff one and read on.


Then court is in session – all rise, for the not-so-honorable Judge Dread.

Dread is what happens when the sounds of Kingston were filtered through the sensibilities of British music hall.

I will be quoting large sections of the stellar Allmusic thumbnail bio of The Judge; really, click through to it and read the whole thing, as it is truly a masterpiece of (in)appropriate puns.

And frankly, I don’t think I can explain The Judge any better than Allmusic author Jo-Anne Greene does.

Although often dismissed as a novelty act, Judge Dread was actually a groundbreaking artist. Not only did he put more reggae records onto the U.K. chart than anyone else (Bob Marley included), he was also the first white artist to actually have a reggae hit in Jamaica. The Judge also holds the record for having the most songs banned by the BBC, 11 in all, which incidentally is precisely the number of singles he placed on the charts.

Judge Dread was born Alex Hughes in Kent, England, in 1945. In his teens, he moved into a West Indian household in the Caribbean neighborhood of Brixton. Hughes was a large man, which helped determine his early career as a bouncer at the Brixton’s Ram Jam club. He also acted as a bodyguard for the likes of Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd, and Duke Reid. There was a spell as a professional wrestler, under the mighty moniker the Masked Executioner, and even a job as muscle for Trojan Records, collecting debts.

By the end of the ’60s, Hughes was working as a DJ with a local radio station and running his own sound system. It was Prince Buster who provided the impetus for Hughes’ metamorphosis into a recording artist. The DJ was so taken by Buster’s seminal “Big Five” that he went into Trojan’s studio to record his own follow-up. –Jo-Anne Greene, Allmusic

Prince Buster – Big Five (Lyrics NSFW)

Prince Buster – Judge Dread

Over the rhythm of Verne & Son’s “Little Boy Blue,” Hughes recited a slew of hilariously rude nursery rhymes. It was by sheer chance that Trojan label head Lee Gopthal walked by during the recording; impressed, he immediately signed the DJ. His song was titled “Big Six” and Hughes chose the name Judge Dread in honor of Buster. – Jo-Anne Greene, Allmusic

VIDEO IS NSFW (partial nudity, of the European cheesecake variety). Don’t click unless you want to watch it:

Judge Dread – Big Six

The single was released, aptly enough, on the Trojan label imprint Big Shot. Initially an underground hit, once Trojan signed a distribution deal with EMI later in 1972, the single rocketed up the charts, even though the distributors refused to carry the record. The song was also a hit with a radio ban as well, and Trojan’s disingenuous cries that it wasn’t about sex were met with the same scorn as Max Romeo’s “Wet Dream,” the first of the rude reggae hits. The ban was no more effective this time either, and the single rocketed to number 11, spending six months on the chart. “Big Six” was just as enormous in Jamaica, and before the year was out Dread was in Kingston performing before an excited crowd. Those nearest the stage assumed the white man milling around was Dread’s bodyguard or perhaps his manager, at least until he stepped up to the mic. An audible gasp arose from the crowd as no one in Jamaica had considered the possibility that The Judge was white. – Jo-Anne Greene, Allmusic

The thing is, the musicians behind him were quite frequently stellar. Check this riddim:

Judge Dread – Big One

This isn’t QUITE what you might think:

Judge Dread – Up With the Cock!

The left-right alternating “PSYCH!!!” lyrics of this one are possibly the apotheosis of The Judge’s art:

Judge Dread – Big Five

It wasn’t ALL “wink-wink-nudge-nudge, know what I mean?” Apparently Elvis Presley planned to record this one for his daughter, but died before he could do so:

Judge Dread – A Child’s Prayer

As goes The King, so goes The Judge:

His last show was at a Canterbury club, on March 13, 1998. As the set finished, the consummate performer turned to the audience and said, “Let’s hear it for the band.” They were his final words. As the mighty Judge walked offstage, he suffered a fatal heart attack. – Jo-Anne Greene, Allmusic