THE GENTLEMAN SELECTOR
For all their myriad influences and disparate strains of origin, the styles of electronic music collectively known today as ‘bass music’ are forever indebted to one genre – reggae. Whether hidden deep in their genealogy or blindingly obvious, it’s no exaggeration to say that without reggae, and its dub and dancehall offspring, there would be no drum & bass, no dubstep, no garage… our lives would all have been poorer without the Jamaican musicians who got there first, who realised the importance of bass and placed it at the centre of their musical world.
And within that mind-blowingly rich and resilient genre, one man is respected as having no superior when it comes to knowledge, passion, and most importantly, selection. That man is David Rodigan, a legendary sage and DJ to reggae fans, and to onlookers a fascinating figure who over a forty-year career has ridden a wave of genuine passion and sheer enthusiasm that’s enabled a middle-class, university educated Englishman firstly to infiltrate and become hugely respected in the world of Jamaican music and then, more recently, experience new-found fame in a realm usually occupied by DJs more than half his age, the world of dubstep and modern raves.
Beginning his career as a DJ way back in the 1970s, when the profession attracted little of the glamour and attention it does today, Rodigan has never neglected the music he first discovered in late-1960s Britain as a teenager. With over four decades of collecting records to draw from and some of the most envied dubplates on earth, Rodigan holds a reputation as not only a peerless selector, but as an inspirational figure to all those who dedicate their lives to music.
Over the many years of his career, Rodigan has developed from a mere selector into a unique one-man show, who stands out front on the stage and schools his crowd on the importance and relevance of each track he plays. It is the recordings of these speeches that have led to a whole new generation of bass obsessives discovering Rodigan, as a DJ, a performer and a figure of huge respect, and you’re now just as likely to hear the man deliver his impassioned, almost sermonic, monologues at Fabric as you are at a clash in Montego Bay.
It’s clear, then, that beyond his perennial career as a reggae icon, there is a new Rodigan in town, increasingly lionised by a whole new audience eagerly lapping up his words, his presence and, most importantly, his music.
“Yes. There is a new Rodigan in town,” he begins in a clear-cut and very English accent, miles from the thickened patois-inflected tones with which he addresses his audiences at shows, “and I’m very grateful to the dubstep fraternity for welcoming me in the way that they have. It takes me back to 1972 when dub music hit these shores from Jamaica. It was so exciting, it was a revelation musically.
“And I can see and hear that same excitement in this music, dubstep. When dubstep first kicked in, my two sons were seriously into it and made me aware of it. Obviously, I was fascinated by it. Then I found out I was being sampled; speeches I’d made years ago. Don’t ask me where those speeches were made because I can’t remember… Breakage’s ‘Together’, was a very important track, it became immensely popular and then there was the Newham Generals version.
“I was absolutely blown away to be getting all this attention and it was a big surprise when Caspa said, ‘Look I want you to be on my album and do the intro,’ and then to be invited to Fabric to play at Dub Police with his selectors. For me it was fantastic because it enabled me to once again play these King Tubby, Lee Perry, Joe Gibbs, Errol Thompson mixes – those great engineers in Jamaica who made this dub music that I wasn’t really able to play anymore.
“For me to be invited into that world; it’s enabled me to join the dots up musically; there is a direct musical heritage and lineage that can be traced back to those origins in western Kingston. And some of those King Tubby dubs that I’m able to play in a dubstep session connect completely and utterly with that audience. I can see it on their faces as the bass drops in or out, I see them getting it exactly as I got it. So yes, some have referred to it as a ‘career renaissance’ – my career was certainly absolutely fine, because it was in a world where I’ve been working for over 30 years; reggae. But this new world into which I’ve been welcomed is fantastic.”
“As DJs, all we want to do is share our love of music”
As he talks, the passion that informs Rodigan’s every word is infectious, and it really is remarkable to hear a man who is, on paper at least, almost triple the age of many of you reading this talk with such verve for what is very much a young person’s sound and invention, dubstep. And although Rodigan is a man who’s played to some of the biggest and, in the early days, most suspicious crowds possible, the gravity of being asked to play at Fabric and then provide a mix for the London club’s world-renowned FABRICLIVE series, is not lost on him.
“The first of my gigs to incorporate dubstep was at Fabric. I walked onto the stage and I could hear what The Others were playing from the DJ booth across the other side of the dancefloor. The smoke machine started going, it was quite cold, the place was packed and I thought to myself ‘What have I done?’ And I actually got nervous; I haven’t been that nervous in a long time. I looked into this very young audience and thought ‘What am I gonna play?’
“And there was a moment of doubt. And then I thought ‘I’m gonna play what I decided to play days ago when I first thought about this gig. I’m gonna play these dubs that I think are relevant and I’m gonna tell one or two stories that relate to them and show a couple of album sleeves that connect this thing up.’ I just did it… And the response was amazing. The love I got back from that audience; the anticipation, the shining eyes, the smiling faces when the dubs dropped…
“I’d bought out one of my first ever King Tubby dubplates that I hardly ever take out the house, I played that and I’d chosen one or two dubstep tracks that I liked, things that I’d heard that I’d enjoyed. So now what I do, when I’m playing in those sessions, is I sprinkle a little of the kind of dubstep that I’m enjoying in. Not too much though, because I don’t want to look like I’m hitching my horse to a bandwagon, because I’m not. I’ve been invited into a world where I’ve been very well received and I come in, humbled by the attention, because it is a very special time in my career that this should be happening for me.
“I’ve been given the opportunity to play the music I love. We must never forget that as DJs, all we ever want to do is share our love of music with like-minded souls. And you know you’ve got the DJ sickness when your 14 years of age, and you’re playing in your bedroom and you look out the window to see if anyone in the street is taking any notice. If you’ve ever caught yourself doing that, and peeping out from behind the nets curtains to see if anyone’s stopping in the street, in the hope that what you’ve just played has excited someone, you have the DJ fever.
“And there isn’t really an antidote to it; once you have that fever of wanting to share, and wanting to endorse and pass on, it never leaves you. So that’s what’s happened again here; I’ve been invited into a world where I can share what I think is important. And when you get the response back from the audience, you can’t buy that high. It’s almost illegal; it’s so good and it’s so rare.”
Sharing his vast knowledge and zeal for the music he loves is at the very heart of what Rodigan does. Whether to a clued-up reggae crowd at a clash, or to a mostly uninitiated rave full of bass-hungry students, Rodigan’s uncontrollable tendency to stop the music and introduce each track with a story about its history or impact is what’s made him a superstar across geographical and musical boundaries. But how did this happen in the first place? What drove Rodigan to stop simply playing records and take to the microphone?
“It’s interesting how that developed,” he muses from behind his spectacles, “because originally when I first started DJing there was no talking. Let’s put this in context, in the 1960s the DJ didn’t have the status he does now, he was regarded as the nerd in the corner who had the records. You had records and you played them on one turntable. In Jamaica, someone would jive talk while you took that record off and put another one on.
“When I first started professionally playing reggae in clubs in London in 1978, it was not acceptable for the selector to talk – the MC talked, that was the tradition, as it still is now in dubstep and drum & bass. So for me, as a white man playing in black clubs in 1978, you had to have a mic man. What used to happen was, you’d play the vocal, then you’d flip it over and play the rhythm and the mic man would talk and rhyme to it. The selector didn’t speak; I used to work with an MC called Papa Face, he was my MC from the 70s to the 80s. Then it changed. The new style of dubplate meant you no longer needed a mic man, the whole business of someone toasting the flipside began to fade away, and it was all about having customised dubs with your name in it.
“So I found myself not requiring an MC in the traditional way, but just playing the dubplates. I started telling stories about a particular song and soon I found myself almost not able to contain myself in wanting to share something about that moment. It just started to happen, and then people would ask, ‘Why didn’t you talk so much about the music this time?’ Then I knew I’d stumbled onto something. I found out that Jamaican MCs were doing impressions of me on stage ‘If Rodigan was here, let me do it in a Rodigan style’, and I realised then it had become something that people expected of me.”
“There was a deafening hush…”
For MCs to be imitating an English-born white man at reggae shows in Jamaica is an indication of just how respected Rodigan was, and remains, on the Caribbean island. His is a reputation built purely on respect for his all-conquering love of Jamaican music, and in his 30-plus years of visiting the island Rodigan has not only earned the respect of the crowds, but also that of those at the very top of the reggae industry.
“The love I’ve been given in Jamaica, from the first show, has been incredible. I went there in 1979 and cut my first dubs at King Tubby’s and then in 1983 I did my first radio show over there. I’d gone to Jamaica to record shows to be broadcast on Capital Radio where I worked at the time. I asked Barry G, who was the number-one DJ, if he’d do a top ten for me. So he did and said, ‘I’ll reciprocate, come on my show.’ So I went along that Saturday, he turned to me when the news was on, and said, ‘By the way, rather than you just being my guest from England and playing the top records from there, let’s do a clash!’ I said ‘Thanks for the warning!’
“It started at 8pm that Saturday night, and it finished at 2am, and it was the talk of Jamaica. Inevitably, after that radio show, we started doing live shows. The first I did in Kingston was at the New Kingston Drive In. I walked on to stage and there was a deafening hush as they realised this guy Rodigan from London who they’d heard on the radio was actually a white guy. And after the initial shock, I was given a whole lotta love, as I always have been since whenever I play in Jamaica.”
Jamaica is, unsurprisingly, a place very close to Rodigan’s heart and, as a man almost without parallel when it comes to awareness of the music emanating from the isle, his views on the state of Jamaican music today are of real interest. Having previously gone on the record to express his dissatisfaction with so much of the music coming from there these days, his opinions on the latest styles and fashions coming out of JA make for interesting reading…
“Jamaican music is forever changing. But it seems to me it’s become somewhat obsessed with a new style of music, which I don’t identify as being reggae or dancehall, I identify it as a hybrid of pop, R&B and dance. I think the internet has enabled Jamaicans to see what is going on elsewhere. That sounds terribly patronising, but you have to remember that Jamaica is an island, and before the digital revolution, it was its own world in a sense; the music being made was always very Jamaican, the way they dressed was, it was unique.
“Now, they see and hear Usher, Jay Z, whoever, and think ‘I could do that’. So a lot of the music has this hip-hop kind of flavour to it as its backdrop; I find that inadequate. It doesn’t move me, it doesn’t excite me; it doesn’t generate any passion in me to want to go out and own this rhythm, capture this beat. A lot of it doesn’t have the weight and bottom end and depth of what I would call traditional dancehall and reggae. Now a lot of the music is hypey-hypey for dancing, but it doesn’t have any substantial message or emotion in it other than just fun and vibes. And a lot of the topics and subject matters, in my opinion, leave a lot to be desired. So, I’m bitterly disappointed by a lot of that, I can’t get my head round it musically. There are new artists coming through, but in comparison with how it used to be in the 70s, 80s and 90s it is not as substantial as it was. That would be my observation. But like everything, you never know what’s around the corner.
“Which is why I find the new world into which I’ve been invited by the likes of Caspa so very exciting. Jamaican’s aren’t making dub music anymore; it’s not part of their musical vernacular. So for me to be able to play this great dub music, which I haven’t able to play for years because the reggae world haven’t been particularly interested in it, is amazing. So for me, going right back to your first question, yes, it’s like the summer of 73 again; I’m 22 again. I’m not saying that to defend my age, but age really is just a number. When you have a passion and a genuine love of something, it never leaves you. Music is so important in our lives. And the thing about music is, when it hits, as Bob Marley said, you really do feel no pain.”
Words: Jon Cook
Photos: Laura Lewis