The group was formed in 1979 when the fathers of Kelvin and Michael Grant and Frederick (known as Junior) and Patrick Waite put together a band featuring their sons. The latter pair's father, Frederick Waite Sr, had been a member of the Jamaican reggae group The Techniques. Frederick sang lead with Junior at the start of Musical Youth's career. Although schoolboys, the group managed to secure gigs at different Birmingham pubs and released a double single in 1981, including songs "Generals" and "Political", on a local label (021 Records, named for the then-Birmingham area code.) An appearance on BBC Radio 1 John Peel's evening show brought further attention to the group, and they were signed to MCA Records. By that time, founding member Frederick Waite Jr had backed down to be replaced by Dennis Seaton as lead singer.
During the autumn of 1982, the group issued one of the fastest-selling singles of the year, "Pass the Dutchie" (based on the Mighty Diamonds' "Pass the Koutchie"; a song about passing a pipe used to smoke cannabis). The title had been subtly altered to feature the patois "dutchie", referring to a type of pot used for cooking. This idea was reinforced throughout the political and economic overtones of the song about extreme poverty and Musical Youth asking the question "How does it feel when ya got no food?". The record went to number 1 in the UK Singles Chart in October 1982. It went on to sell over four million copies, and was nominated for a Grammy Award. A Top 10 placing also followed on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States.
Their debut album The Youth of Today was certified gold in the UK, while the follow-up single, "Youth of Today", reached number 13 in the UK Singles Chart and "Never Gonna Give You Up", released early in 1983, climbed to UK number 6. Minor successes with "Heartbreaker" and "Tell Me Why" were succeeded by a collaboration with Donna Summer on the UK Top 20 hit, "Unconditional Love". The group also took part in her 1983 TV special A Hot Summer Night with Donna. Their second album, Different Style!, was released in 1983 and showcased more R&B-influenced repertoire to make the band more accessible in the North America, but flopped on both British and American market. A revival of Desmond Dekker's "007" saw them back in the Top 30, but after one final hit with "Sixteen", their commercial success ended. The band received a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards of 1984.
With their careers going downhill, the band members became embroiled in legal, financial, and personal problems. In 1985, Dennis Seaton left the band, leading to its dissolution. The Grant brothers remained involved in the music industry; Seaton released a solo album in 1989 before going on to form his own band, XMY. Plans for a reunion of Musical Youth were halted when Patrick Waite, who had gone on to a career of juvenile crime, died in Birmingham in February 1993. Only 24 years old, he collapsed from a hereditary heart condition. A compilation album, Anthology, was released in 1994, followed by Maximum Volume: The Best of Musical Youth in 1995.
Dennis Seaton performing in Austria in 2005
Now reduced to a duo, Michael Grant and Dennis Seaton reformed Musical Youth in 2001, and planned a tour. However, the tour plans were cancelled due to the September 11 attacks. In 2003, Musical Youth finally performed as part of the Here and Now tour, an annual series of nostalgia concerts featuring performances by musicians of the 1980s. A compilation album was released in 2004, 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection. In 2005, the band performed at the Wiesen festival in Austria. In 2009, they released a cover of Boney M.'s "Mary's Boy Child – Oh My Lord", followed by Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" in 2013. Their new album, When Reggae Was King was scheduled for release in 2016, then early 2017, but has yet to materialize. They performed tracks from the album at Camper Calling Festival at Ragley Hall on 27 August 2017.