Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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David Rodigan: Reggae, Reggae Source

David Rodigan
David Rodigan David Rodigan David Rodigan David Rodigan David Rodigan David Rodigan David Rodigan David Rodigan David Rodigan

It sounds like David Rodigan is throwing a party but that’s actually still a plane ride away. The London-based reggae titan is sitting in Gatwick’s chaotic departure lounge waiting for his flight to America and yet another string of high-profile international gigs. Snatches of other passengers’ conversations burst in and out of earshot, as do several grainy Tannoy announcements and what sounds like the screech of a possessed luggage trolley.

“They’ll be calling me to board soon but, don’t worry, Blues & Soul has my undivided attention,” David calmly opens. “I can always make time for you; I grew up on the magazine… on Chris Lane’s reggae charts during the Seventies. The magazine was an education.”

David is fast approaching 60-years-of-age and yet is as busy as ever. The radio, DJ and media commitments continue to fly in, an amazing reflection, it seems, of the man’s timeless appeal and unique musical stature. It’s not everyone in fickle underground clubland that reaches Rodders’ level of maturity and still commands a crowd; a cool one at that.
It’s for that very reason that ‘Sir’ David has stepped up to helm Fabriclive’s latest compilation – number 54. “It’s not a typical reggae mix loaded with classic hits,” he explains. “It’s the sort of music I’ve played in Fabric before, aimed at a completely different club audience – the young dubstep fraternity.”

Listeners can therefore expect a feisty, highly creative selection of tracks covering all shades of the reggae spectrum – everything from deep, customised dubs to soaring protest songs: “The new compilation has allowed me to delve into all sorts of fantastic recordings, not least those historic dubs I made with King Tubby The Dubmaster at this legendary studios in Kingston. The dubplates were made exclusively and whenever I have dropped them at Fabric the crowd has gone completely bonkers.”

Rodigan’s fresh Fabric sound is a lesson in artistic versatility and a lesson aimed at those quick to judge books by their covers. Over the years, he’s been derided by newcomers as “the old, bald-headed Englishman” – someone with no chance of rocking anything other than a creaky wooden chair. But then they’ve heard his flow and promptly changed their mind.

“I’ve been in clubs like Fabric and seen those kids looking at me like it’s their dad in the booth about to completely embarrass the pants off them” Rodigan laughs. “And then they’ve heard my selections and given me massive forwards. Equally, over the years, I’ve visited some of the most hardcore areas of Jamaica to ply my trade, and surprised a lot of people. I’ve earned a lot of respect for going to places not even locals have been too. King Tubby told me once that he didn’t know me until I went to his studio in West Kingston, and to other nearby studios like Channel One – it was ghetto and I stood out like a sore thumb, but I earned a lot of respect, because the music was calling me.”

David Rodigan was born June 1951 on a military base in Hanover, Germany, where his father was stationed as a Warrant Officer. Subsequent postings took him to Derna and Tripoli in Libya, and then, in 1959, to Oxford where he then remained. Back in Blighty, he soaked up all sorts of musical influences, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Yardbirds, but it was the release of Millie Small’s "bluebeat" hit 'My Boy Lollipop' in 1964, and rhythmically pioneering material by Prince Buster and the Folkes Brothers ('Oh Carolina') that really inspired.

“Records like 'My Boy Lollipop' and 'Oh Carolina' were my first exposure to Jamaican music” Rodigan recalls. “I was amazed at their rhythmic structure and at the feeling they created. I was sold.”

Into the 1960s and a teenage Rodigan was playing records at friends’ birthday parties. But the role of DJ wasn’t afforded any particular kudos in those days and so it wasn’t long before he was working elsewhere - treading the boards, in actual fact, as an actor in various repertory companies. It was Rodigan’s then girlfriend who came to his reggae rescue.

“She heard that DJ Steve Barnard was leaving the Reggae Time show on BBC Radio London,” he explains. “It was 1978, I didn’t think I’d get a look in but she requested an interview on my behalf and I eventually got the position.”

That quickly led to Rodigan’s first Jamaican adventure – a trip on which he’d meet reggae titans Bunny Wailer, Big Youth, Gregory Isaacs, Marcia Griffiths and, of course, Tubby – and more substantial broadcast spots with Capital (his own show for 11 years) and, from 1990, Kiss FM. Rodigan is still at Kiss today, albeit with a shorter one-hour show.

“At first I was disturbed by the cut to my show; it’s always had a loyal following” he confides. “But then I thought about how radio used to work… it used to work like that, in hourly slots. And when I thought about the three minutes I used to get at Capital…. My show at Kiss still gets so much support and I have a concentrated 60 minutes where I can do what I want. That’s about 11 or 12 tracks, quite a lot.”

Because of his strong, long-standing association with radio, Rodigan has never really pursed a career in production. There has always been an honourable intention to broadcast impartially; a feeling that making records and working closely with particular labels might compromise his neutrality. Does he ever look back and regret his decision?

“Of course I think it about from time to time; I would have loved nothing more than to record” he reflects. “But I’ve had a long and memorable career, so I’m happy. Why is that? I’ve simply thrown my heart and soul into what I do; I still get genuinely excited when I hear good music. At the same time, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind, and try new things.”

Like dubstep: “I think the future of dubstep is really interesting and exciting. A lot of the new music draws on the origins of Jamaican dub, roots and rock-steady. There’s often a smart connection. I’ve been playing a lot of the big festivals this year for the first time, because I’ve been welcomed by the key dubstep DJs; places like Bestival and Glastonbury. Dubstep is a fantastic, thriving world.”

On the other hand all is not currently well in Jamaica. The core reggae scene has, like all music scenes, faced the challenges of digitalisation and global recession in recent years but according to Rodigan its problems run far deeper. “Jamaica is in a freefall and doesn’t know what to do with itself” he laments. “Vinyl is dying out and there are no shops… a loss of culture. But then you have these feisty young ‘AKA’ producers producing rhythms on laptops with any old vocalist they can find; there’s no mastery of production and no appreciation of mix quality. The records aren’t as good as they could be and sales are down as result; it’s a precarious situation right now.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Rodigan’s new Fabric compilation will attest. There’s a perfectly boss representation of contemporary reggae talent, including the likes of Chezideck, Million Stylez, Konshens and Etana, one of the most original female vocal stars to have emerged from Jamaica in recent times. And then there’s Rodigan’s youngest twentysomething son Oliver, who crops up as Cadenza with a storming remix of Keith & Tex’s Stop That Train.
“I heard him playing it in his bedroom one day and wanted a copy to play out” Rodigan Snr laughs. “I loved the original, but didn’t believe Oliver when he said this amazing new version was his. I included it for no other reason than it’s a great track. And I do still think there is good music being made.”

Times might be changing but ‘Sir’ David continues to lead his heavy but cultured charge in truly confident fashion: “I’ve been DJing for over 30 years now; it’s been a rollercoaster journey but with much love and happiness along the way.”

And one suspects that there are plenty more outrageously exciting twists, turns and loop-da-loops to come. Reggae looks forward to them, you can bet….

Fabriclive 54: David Rodigan is out now on (UK) Fabric Records.

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