Winston Foster grew up in a Catholic orphanage called Alpha Boys School in Kingston, and was shunned due to having albinism, which was usually not socially accepted in Jamaica. Alpha Boys School was known for its musical alumni. In the late 1970s Yellowman first gained wide attention when he won a contest event in Kingston, Jamaica called “The Tastee Talent Contest” where deejays would perform toasting. Like many Jamaican deejays, he honed his talents by frequently performing at outdoor sound-system dances. In 1981, after becoming significantly popular throughout Jamaica, Yellowman became the first dancehall artist to be signed to a major American label (Columbia Records). One reviewer of Yellowman was quoted as saying “Listening to Yellowman sing is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. He knows he’s got it, you know he’s got it, and it’s a trip just experiencing him perform.”
His first album release was in 1982 entitled Mister Yellowman followed by Zungguzungguguzungguzeng in 1983 earning instant success. Yellowman’s sexually explicit lyrics in popular songs such as “Them a Mad Over Me” boasted of his sexual prowess, like those of other reggae singers/deejays, earned Yellowman criticism in the mid-1980s. Yellowman appeared in Jamaican Dancehall Volcano Hi-power 1983 which featured other major dancehall musicians such as Massive Dread, Josey Wales, Burro Banton and Eek-A-Mouse.
Yellowman has had a substantial influence on the world of hip hop. He is widely credited for leading the way for the succession of reggae artists that were embraced by the growing hip-hop community in America during the 1980s. Eazy-E used a sample of his voice from his recording “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt”, which also became a major hit by Eazy-E with the same title. The basic rhythm of his hit “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” can be traced throughout the hip hop scene as it was reused by such hip hop giants as KRS-One, Sublime, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, and Blackstar, formed by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. The rhythm borrowed by Yellowman in this song was referred to by him as “mad mad”, as the rhythm was originally cut by Alton Ellis in 1967 at Studio One as “Mad Mad Mad”. There has been a constant renaming of this signature rhythm (or riddim), such as “Diseases” (after the popular version of the tune by Papa Michigan and General Smiley). Yellowman changed the melodic phrasing of this rhythm from AA to AB, when he began ending the second line in the chorus on a higher note. Many of the previously mentioned artists composing songs based on Yellowman’s original riddim differed in their choice of using either the AA or AB pattern. However, this riddim has little to do with Yellowman’s talent, as it was most likely written by the Roots Radics band, also responsible for countless other reggae riddims recorded at the time. Where Yellowman’s real talent can be shown is in his ability to ride a riddim like no other DJ at that time. He was the undisputed King of the Dancehall – the top-selling artist in Jamaica and abroad, and also of a new ruler of a nastier, ruder form of DJ style of lyrics knows as “slackness”. As Shabba Ranks later said in one of his hit songs: “Where does Slackness come from, some blame slackness ‘pon Yellowman…”
Yellowman proclaimed, “I never know why they call it slackness. I talk about sex, but it’s just what happens behind closed doors. What I talk is reality”.
By the mid-1990s however, Yellowman released socially-conscious material, rising to international fame along with singers such as Buju Banton. Yellowman became the island’s most popular deejay despite being albino. During the early 1980s, Yellowman had over 40 singles and produced up to five albums per year.
In 1982, Yellowman was diagnosed with skin cancer and was initially told that he only had three more years to live. However, this prognosis proved to be inaccurate, and after several surgeries Yellowman was able to continue his career. The cancer went into apparent remission during this time. It was not until 1986 that it was diagnosed that the cancer had spread to his jaw. Yellowman was forced to undergo a very invasive jaw surgery to remove the malignant tumor that had formed. This surgery permanently disfigured Yellowman’s face, as a large portion of the left side of his lower jaw had to be removed to successfully extract the tumor. He re-invented himself with his 1994 album Prayer, which stepped away from the slackness that gave him his initial fame. His latest albums are New York (2003) and Round 1 (2005). Yellowman was also a featured guest vocalist on the Run-DMC track “Roots Rap Reggae”. Yellowman continues to perform internationally with his Sagittarius Band, and has toured through places such as Nigeria where he retains a following of fans, as well as Spain, Peru, Sweden, Italy, Germany, England, France, Kenya, the United States and Canada. He also featured on OPM’s 2004 album, Forthemasses.
Yellowman’s song ‘Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt’ is used on Grand Theft Auto V and appears on Blue Ark FM.
He has spoken against violence, in the Montreal Mirror in 2005 he said, “Now it’s not your entertainment or teaching. If you notice the hip hop and dancehall artists today, all they do they sing about drugs, clothes, car, house—when they can’t get it, they start get violent. … I know what violence is like and what it contain and what it can do. I’m glad that the roots is coming back.” The slackness style which Yellowman is associated sometimes has homophobic lyrics. However, in the same Montreal Mirror article he spoke against it. “Everybody listen to me … I don’t do songs against gay people, I don’t do violent lyric against gay people. If you don’t like a person or you don’t like a thing, you don’t talk about it. You don’t come on stage and say kill them or burn them because everybody have a right to live.”