David Rodigan interview - March 2010
David Hill: Could you tell me when you first discovered reggae music?
David Rodigan: I first discovered the music of Jamaica when I was fourteen. There was a
weekly television show called Jukebox Jury, which was hosted by David Jacobs. They’d listen
to the song and you’d see the jukebox drop the record, it would play, and at the end of the
song they’d vote for it. That’s where I first heard some of the music that I grew to love, which
was referred to then as Bluebeat. At the time a large number of West Indians, particularly
Jamaicans, were arriving in the UK and bringing their music with them, which was being
released [in the UK] by the Bluebeat and Island record labels. The first major tune to hit me
was ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie, and that was in 1964. I thought that it was magnificent and
it made a real impact on me. I actually saw her singing it on a TV show called Ready Steady
Go, which was on a Friday night. They announced that there was this girl from Kingston that
Chris Blackwell (the head of Island Records) had flown her over and then she sang ‘My Boy
Lollipop’. It was just amazing. Of course then I discovered Ska - songs like ‘Oh Carolina’ by
the Folkes Brothers and ‘Al Capone’ by Prince Buster. That song really was a key achievement
because it was a massive street hit in the summer of ’67 and you heard it everywhere. Already
the music was changing from Ska to the Rocksteady beat and by the summer of ’67 we had the flowers in our hair and it was the first summer of love. We were going to Margate beach and it was all [sings] “Are you going to San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie. The Beatles were number one with ‘All You Need Is Love’ and The Who’s ‘Happy Jack’ was big. I consider myself very fortunate because as I hit 16 all this was happening. It was Carnaby Street, it was flared trousers, it was floral shirts and it was mods. It was all about style and fashion, records and music.
DH: In those days it seems that so much was achieved musically in such a short space of time?
DR: Exactly. That says it all. I must also say that I was seriously into soul music as well. I was blown away by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, by Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, by Wilson Pickett, Atlantic, Stax. That Memphis sound had me hooked. Anything on Stax I was enthralled by, and the sound of Motown as well, of course.
DH: I know that you originally trained as an actor, before making music your full-time career, but for a time you were doing both side by side, which could be seen as a pretty unlikely combination?
DR: It was really. I studied economics for a year and didn’t really enjoy it, so I became a deckchair attendant in Hyde Park in the summer of 1970. While I was a deckchair attendant I went busily about looking for auditions at drama school. I auditioned for several and was offered a dual course that combined teaching, which I was also interested in. I started in September and absolutely loved it. My ambition was to be in the Royal Shakespeare Company, I love the theatre, the world of acting, the camaraderie of it all. So I left after three years with a diploma and I was fortunate enough to be given an audition for a touring theatre company based in Sheffield, called Theatre North. There were two jobs going for Acting Stage Manager, where you acted and also worked in stage management. I got the audition and in September I started at the Theatre North. We were based in Sheffield and toured the civic theatres, places like Mansfield and Huddersfield, and it was fantastic. I learnt my craft there with a wonderful old actor manager called Douglas Campbell who was married to Anne Casson, the daughter of actress Dame Sybil Thornedyke. It was marvellous tuition and I would develop my skills by watching and learning. As I was also Assistant Stage Manager, I had to do the props as well, the get-in and get-out of the show, and everything else that went with it.
DH: The whole workings then really?
DR: Exactly, and I’m going on about it because I loved it so much. During that time I was still avidly collecting music, which I’d continued to buy through college and drama school. It never left me. I firmly believe that if you are smitten with this Ska fever, call it what you will, then there isn’t an antidote. I knew I had it and I just couldn’t resist. I remember the summer of 1970, when I was in one of those shared houses in West London, and I would get back from my job as a deckchair attendant, sit in my room and listen to the U Roy album ‘Version Galore’, over and over, again and again, every track. I’d wonder what Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle looked like and who the Paragons were, it was another world to me.
DH: When you listen to the musicianship on those records it’s clearly not manufactured, you hear passionate people speaking from their hearts.
DR: That was it. The Paragons with those vocal tracks that he (U Roy) deejayed over on that album - it was just amazing. At that time I would purchase my records from Lee’s Sound City and Model Market in Lewisham and Lee Laing (the owner) became a very dear friend. Well, in 1976 I was out of work for a period, or ‘resting’, I should say, so I went to him and asked if I could I have the records that he couldn’t sell. I said I’d sell them, or I’d try to, and would give him a commission on sales and he said yes. It sounds ridiculous now, but I lived in a flat in Barnes and I’d take the tube and then the train down to Lewisham, I’d fill up what you call a ‘grip’ (a type of bowling bag) with all these vinyl albums and 45s and then go to the bus station at Lewisham. I’d take the bus up to Victoria, and from Victoria, if I had enough money, I’d take the coach to Oxford, which is my home town. If I didn’t have enough money, I’d hitch hike with this grip packed with all these records. When I got to Oxford the sound system boys would meet me at the bus station and I’d show them the records. I’d tell them if they didn’t like any they could bring them back to me here, behind the bus station, at the same time next week, and that’s how I started trading the music. Of course you have to understand that the reason I was doing all this was that it meant that I could get my records at wholesale price!
DH: Aren’t these the actions of an addict turning dealer to feed his addiction?
DR: I was getting high on my own supply and I couldn’t help myself! Then eventually I was able to get a stall on Oxford’s Sunday morning market at Blackbird Leys. It was called Ram Jam’s Record Shack, and the tag was ‘You Name It We’ll Get It’. My father would drive me up there on a Sunday morning in all weather conditions for my 8am start. I’d play the tunes and the people from the Oxford reggae community, which was predominantly West Indian, would come and buy their songs from me. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Then I’d get the coach back to London, or hitch hike if I didn’t have enough money from sales. This was the period of ’76 to ’77 when I was working at the Albany Empire in Deptford. After that I went back up north and worked in Stoke on Trent at the Victoria Theatre. I was there for 18 months and even started doing a (record) mail-order service from there, which was advertised in the small ads at the back of Black Echoes. It was pathetic really, but I sold a few. I was completely obsessed.
DH: I’m guessing that you bought more than you sold?
DR: Yes, exactly. After Stoke, I came back down to London and opened a stall at Putney market. It was all day Saturday and I went back to my Blackbird Leys stall on Sunday mornings, and I was really buzzing. I was still getting all of my records from Lee’s Sound City.
DH: And how did you move into radio?
DR: Well, I used to listen to Steve Barnard’s reggae show, which was on for an hour and a half every Sunday lunchtime, and it was called Reggae Time. It was announced on air that Steve was leaving and that they were looking for a new presenter. Unbeknown to me, my girlfriend at the time wrote in to the BBC as me, asking for an audition. So when I got a letter asking me to attend BBC Radio London at Marylebone High Street for an audition, she explained that she’d written in and said that I should go in for it. I thought she was mad, but she insisted I could do this. So I went down for the audition, walked in and saw that everybody was black except for me. The audition was supposed to last half an hour but they stopped it after 15 minutes and David Carter, the producer, came in and he said “There’s only one problem, you’re not the right colour - we’re looking for a black presenter”, which I could understand. It transpires that they then played the audition tape to a number of record producers and people in the industry and everyone said that they should use me, whoever I was. They all assumed I was black.
DH: With this in mind, could you describe the first time you played a dance in Jamaica, in front of a crowd that was familiar with your voice from cassette recordings of your Capital show, sent home by relatives and friends, but that hadn’t seen your face?
DR: It was the new Kingston Drive In cinema in 1983 and it was an open-air dance, a [sound] clash with Barry Gordon that was going out live on JBC Radio 1. I walked onto a massive stage and there was this deafening silence as I saw thousands of black people’s jaws drop in astonishment. I heard “White man, white man! Bal’head white man!” When I made a speech I could see some people closing their eyes, trying to picture if it was the same guy [that they knew from the cassettes]. Barry G was very complimentary and then we started the clash, which was the first of many, many clashes that he and I did in Jamaica.
DH: When did you start presenting radio?
DR: I joined Radio London in January 1978 and I worked there for a year and a half. In September 1979 I joined Capital and broadcast my first Roots Rockers show. It went out on Saturday night after Greg Edwards Soul Spectrum show and was an hour long, but there was such a response that Capital increased it to two hours. Somebody once said to me that if Capital ever wanted a good advert for the Roots Rockers show, they should have taken footage of the night that there was a power cut in West London. Apparently there was no light in Shepherds Bush at all and all you could hear was the (battery powered) transistor radios blasting my show out of windows on Greenside Road and all around there. I’ve often heard that story. Club owners started to complain to me as people were getting to their clubs later because they were hanging back to listen to the show, they would even listen in their cars parked outside the clubs.
While at Capital I was still acting and I played Inspector Forbes in Sherlock Holmes, was in Doctor Who, and I played Frank Wild in Shackleton. I even did some commercials for Guinness - I was the Guinness man with the Toucan on his shoulder! It meant I couldn’t go to a pub for ages as all I’d get was “’Ere, do you want a pint of Guinness my son?” That would have been in 1980 or ’81.
I was at Capital for eleven years, then Elaine fell pregnant with our second child and my agent said I needed to make a decision between acting and radio. It had reached the stage where I was filming Shackleton in Scotland and then travelling back to London in the evening to do a live show on Capital, as the station insisted the show had to be live. Choices had to be made, and I chose radio.
DH: Your acting background introduced you to theatrical costumiers that you would then utilise in soundclashes. One story that comes to mind is about a Sikh taxi driver…
DR: Ah yes, well I was planning this clash at JamRock in Long Island in ’97 and the inspiration came from a New York taxi journey with a Sikh driver. The plan hinged on me entering the dance after a special newscast dubplate had been played on cue. It was Kilmanjaro versus Rodigan in New York and I reckon every Jamaican in the region was there. It felt just like a boxing match, it was ridiculous - you couldn’t move. The queue was like a cup final. On the night I went to the club in a normal black suit with my bag and as I went up the stairs to enter the stage, I stopped, reached into the bag, and put on dark glasses and an authentic Sikh turban, which I’d hired from a theatrical costumier in Camden. Then just before I entered the stage they ran the dubplate:
“David Rodigan, the sound system serial killer, has gained admission to America under disguise. He has managed to avoid immigration and has hijacked a New York City cab. He is in disguise as a Sikh taxi driver and is heading for the JamRock club in Long Island. Please do not approach him as he’s armed and dangerous and his intention is to assassinate Ricky Trooper (the Kilimanjaro Sound System DJ).”
As I went on stage in the Sikh turban and shades the crowd just went ballistic and the whole place erupted. I even didn’t say anything during my first round [of the clash], I just played tunes. In my opinion, what had been missing from clash culture was humour and I wanted to inject some back into it.
Then there was the time I dressed as Elvis at the 2007 Worldclash in New York. At the end of the clash they have a thing called celebrity clash and it was to be me versus Ninjaman, with each of us playing our tunes, clash style. I was thinking about what to wear and knew I couldn’t go on dressed as a ninja because Mighty Crown (the Japanese sound system) had recently done that. So while I was on tour, sitting on the bullet train in Japan, I noticed the guy next to me had a laptop showing a Japanese television host who had the most ridiculous Elvis Presley hair-do, which looked even better than Elvis’! Then that night I was sitting in a restaurant in Tokyo and ‘Suspicious Minds’ came on and I thought “That’s it, I’m gonna be Elvis”. I will be Elvis in the clash! So when I got back to England I rewrote the lyrics and got Peter Hunningale to build the rhythm and do all the harmonies and the chord changes. I then went and hired, from the Elvis Presley institute, the proper authentic satin outfit, the wig, the bronze make up, everything. The idea was that I’d come on and surprise him, because Ninjaman is the master of costume and wears outrageous outfits. Now I always wear suits in New York, and he naturally thought that I’d be wearing one to the clash, so he wore a really immaculate suit. Meanwhile, I’m dressed as Elvis and am hiding in a truck outside in the parking lot, because I can’t let anyone see me, and it’s Thanksgiving Saturday in Queens so I’m freezing my nuts off. He wins the toss and goes first, but they can’t see me anywhere. He starts his round and when I hear him play his second to last record I hammer on the door and the security guard opens the back gate and looks at me as though I’m a trolley merchant, you know, a head-case. It took some convincing, but they finally let me in. Then I hid behind the stage door, so that nobody could see me, and after Ninjaman’s round, Pee Wee, my selector who had the dubplate lined up, let it go, and the dubplate says:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to announce that unfortunately David Rodigan is unable to perform this evening, however he has sent a substitute selector from Las Vegas”
Pee Wee then plays ‘Substitute Selector’ by Half Pint on special (a dubplate version) and I run on as Elvis. I literally ran though the crowd at the back stage area and on to the main stage. The place went absolutely crazy, they didn’t know what was going on, and I said to Ninjaman “I know you know about tunes, so can you name this tune for me?” and I played my special instrumental reggae version of ‘Suspicious Minds’. I said again “Can you name it?” Well, he couldn’t stop laughing, so I said again “Well if you can’t name it, allow me to sing it for you” and I then sang live “Ninja you’re caught in a trap, and you can’t get out, cos Rodigan will kill you, Ninja why can’t you see, you’re done dead already” and I then I did the Soulja Boy dance live on stage, which is the one that all the footballers were doing at the time and I won, it was all over.
DH: People don’t seem to issue soundclash albums in the way they used to in the early ’80s. You did one back then didn’t you?
DR: That one was Rodigan and Tony Williams, though it was actually put together by Larry Lawrence. He took the idea of the two radio shows, the fact that I was on Capital and Tony was on Radio London, and he did it as a kind of cup - Williams versus Rodigan. But in fact we had nothing to do with it, he chose the songs, our voices weren’t used, and it had a terrible sleeve.
DH: Yes, I remember the sleeve’s illustrated artwork that featured you with shoulder length blond hair!
DR: Yes it was a marmalade dropping moment when I saw that!
DH: Why do you think that the reggae scene in Europe is so much stronger with the youth than in the UK?
DR: There’s no doubt about it, Italy, Germany, France, all the way up to Finland, Norway, Sweden. I really don’t know why, except to say that this music really is so infectious that when people discover it via Sean Paul or Bob Marley they discover an Aladdin’s cave. When they open the door, it’s so deep, so vast, there’s so much to discover that once they start digging they are forever captivated by it. Then in some cases they take it to the level of sound system, or DJing, or sound system teams. I mean, there is now a sound system in every single major city in Europe and in virtually every town, and that is not an exaggeration. However in England that is not the case. There are no new youngblood sounds in the way that there are in Europe. Young British kids seem to be more interested in creating their own music, and it’s not reggae, it’s dubstep, or funky house, or whatever. I don’t know the answer as to why it’s not happening here, but I know why it’s happening in Europe, it’s because it’s a culture that wasn’t a part of their culture, whereas it’s been a part of British culture for over fifty years.
DH: So it’s not seen as ‘your parents music’ by the kids in mainland Europe and Scandinavia then?
DR: Yes, one of the issues in England is ‘Oh my mum and dad like reggae’.
DH: Talking of dubstep, I know that you’re being asked to play an increasing number of dubstep gigs these days. What has the general reaction been?
DR: Well, I’m very flattered. It’s blown me away really. The first big one that I did was at Caspar’s launch party at Fabric last year and the response of the people was fantastic. It was so exciting, this was the first gig that I’d done to a young urban audience who knew the dubs and could understand the link to King Tubbys. I was getting big forwards on tunes, so they’ve obviously done their homework, in terms of discovering where their music came from. It was an honour for me to be able to play some of those songs to them and they appreciated it. It’s like it’s opened a door. I did a dubstep night in Nottingham a few weeks ago that was just amazing and now Caspar has booked me for his birthday in Bristol in May. The response ha been really incredible.
DH: I heard that there is a DVD coming with vintage footage of you at dances and clashes over the years?
DR: Yes, there’s a director in Berlin who’s been working on that, and it’s a lot of work. She’s been going through old video cassettes of dances from back-in-the-day, some of which I found in my loft. She’s currently editing it together and it’s being finalised at the moment. Hopefully that will be out for the summer.
David Rodigan is a resident selector at Rootikal, which is the first Sunday of every month at East Village, Great Eastern Street, London. EC2A 3HX (www.rootikal.net). His reggae show is broadcast on Kiss 100 from 11pm to midnight every Sunday and can be listened to via the Kiss 100 website (www.totalkiss.com).