Interview: Reggae legend David Rodigan
I've been a bad blogger. A bad, bad blogger. I haven't posted anything for weeks: mainly because I've been thinking, 'Oh my pineapples, how the turkey am I going to edit down some of the mammoth interviews I've done lately'. So I decided not to bother. Editing and cutting and slicing, that is. Below is the intro to a rather largeous interview with master selectah David Rodigan, a version of which appeared in Time Out in issue 2084.
BUT, it appears here full-length, in all its one-million-thousandan-word glory after the jump.
David Rodigan Interview
The last time I saw reggae legend David Rodigan perform, it was at Secret Garden Party in Cambridge in July this year. A field of characters from Alice in Wonderland were pogoing to the heaviest, wobbliest dub, reggae and even jungle records that the festival had ever heard and the smiles stretched all the way down the M11 when he closed with a song dedicated a song to ‘the original badman’, Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’. The average age of the crowd was 26, the grey-haired man high kicking and bouncing across the stage, 59.
Such is his cross-generational appeal. The Kiss 100 host, whose DJ career spans 32 years plus, has been praised with laying the foundation for reggae music in Europe and for being the king of the soundclash, but these days you’re as likely to see him playing with Caspa at Fabric or with Major Lazer at Carnival to a scrum of young people losing their marbles as you are to see him playing to predominantly Jamaican clubbers in Britain’s dancehalls to Kingston’s ghettos.
I caught up with the west London selectah for an incredibly long chat about his mix for the FabricLive series, why modern Jamaican is rubbish and about what it takes to be a truly amazing deejay.
Hi David. What are you up to these days? You seem to have gained a new audience in the younger clubbing community this year.
'It’s been a very busy summer with all the festivals. But yes, what’s happened to me in the last 18 months to two years is very interesting, considering how long I’ve been doing this. During that time, the dubstep world has sampled my voice on some recordings and this has led to me being invited to select and play at dubstep gigs, which has been very exciting, because the origins of dubstep music to a degree hark back to the origins of Jamaican dub music from the early ’70s. And I happen to have a lot of those original dub recordings that I made in Jamaica with King Tubby and so on. It’s been very exciting for me to be invited to play at gigs like Fabric, for example at Caspa’s launch night of his album – and I was featured on the album – because it allows me, first of all, to be able to feel like I’m 18 again, and also to reflect on the fact that this music does leap across several generations. And that’s what’s so exciting about what I still play, the fact that it reverberates so much. For example, watching the television, which I occasionally do, the other night, there was an advert with the tune ‘Rudi, A Message To You’ by The Specials. And it was for the new Next campaign. Now that record was by The Specials in, I think, ’81, but I remember it in the ’60s by Dandy Livingstone. So this music, being reggae and dub in its origins, it turns people on.
'From my point of view, it’s been most refreshing to be able to play to a relatively new audience, the music that means so much to me. Another example: I played in the Bollywood tent at Bestival this year and there were a lot of very young people in the audience and yet they knew ‘Israelites’ by Desmond Dekker. I thought, well I’ll see how it goes; I’ll just play it. But forget it, they all knew it! They weren’t even born when that record was made, why do they know every word of it? My youngest son is 20 and I was talking to him about this song last year and he said, hang on Dad, and Googled it and there it was, the original song, the singer singing it on ‘Top of the Pops’, and he got that in, what, under a minute.'
How does he feel about his dad going to play all these young, cool parties and festivals?
'He thinks it’s great. At one of the nights I did at Fabric, I was looking into the audience and I saw my youngest there, about four deep, with some of his mates. I caught his eye and nodded and he smiled as if to say, “Go for it dad”. It was a very special moment for me. I was playing at Caspa’s Dub Police night to quite a young audience and they were going nutzoid at some of the old King Tubby dubs I was playing. I realised I’ve wittered on for ages at your first question, but what’s happening for me is, yes, that, and also my traditional work venues, so to speak. I work a lot in Europe and in America, but particularly in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and to a degree in Sweden and Finland, where there is still a thriving reggae scene and by that I mean, traditional reggae, not some of the rubbish that poses as reggae that’s coming out of Jamaica now, which I just find so utterly, utterly disappointing. Just don’t even get me going on this subject; I am so bitter at what they’re pawning off as reggae. It really is appalling and many people within the reggae fraternity are bitterly disappointed. And I don’t use the term loosely: rubbish. And that’s why the reggae industry is so divided now, because there’s this new fraternity of musicmakers in Jamaica that aren’t actually making music or dancehall – and by dancehall, I mean music that has a Jamaican feel to it.'
What is this new ‘reggae’ stuff like?
'It’s not reggae: it’s not dancehall, it’s this zombied, American hip hop imitation and dance and house music. They’re trying to create beats that resemble Usher or Ne-Yo or house beats, because satellite television has hit Jamaica – actually, this would be a really fascinating article in itself, what has happened to Jamaican music – so they’ve seen all this stuff [in American] and they’re thinking, “We could be doing this”. What they’re forgetting is that the rest of the world would rather that they created reggae. Obviously reggae is still being made there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not being made to the degree, to the quality and indeed to the volume and quantity that it used to be made, so consequently there’s less of it. There are some shining examples – Itana, her and Shereen Anderson are two examples of upright, conscientious, powerful women who are writing really great reggae tracks. The flipside of that is Lisa Hype and these Rihanna imitiations, plastic dolls – sorry, that sounds really rude but I’ve seen some things on the Internet in Jamaica that these so-called artists are doing and it’s embarrassing, it really is. Actually, if you want a laugh in the office, go to ‘Boss Lady’ by Toyah. Google that and everyone will buy you lunch. No, they won’t buy you lunch because it’s so sad. Fortunately, there is still a thriving reggae fraternity that listens to real reggae and I’m playing that.'
That’s what’s great about some of the producers now in London, like Toddla T, and Major Lazer in the US, who are going over to Jamaica and recording with some of the better MCs and producing the sort of music that perhaps a lot of people in Kingston should be.
'You’ve summed it up: you’ve got it in one. That’s it. I mean, the fact that I got so excited about Major Lazer – and I’m not a fan of [Major Lazer collaborator] Vybz Kartel and everyone knows that, and the subject matter that he seems to hone in one so often – but they created a track, which features, to be honest, very little of Vybz Kartel, and that’s ‘Pon The Floor’. But the structure of that rhythm is so exciting, that is in my opinion a new branch of Jamaican dancehall. The other one that I really really like is ‘Hold The Line’, which features Santigold and Mr Lex, now the structure of that rhythm is so exciting too. That album was a step forward because it was a major look at how the music could develop and did develop under the guidance of Diplo and Switch. It was just so refreshing – and I play those tracks with a vengeance when I play out. I can’t wait to queue the bloody things up because I know what’s going to happen. When I first play them, people ask why I’m playing them and say, that’s not reggae, that’s not dancehall, but yes it is, actually, if you listen. It’s just another element of it and it’s so exciting. In Jamaica, these so-called new producers are not mastering the songs properly, they’re not producing them properly, there’s no bottom-end in the rhythm and there’s no weight, so when it drops, it’s like behind a paper bag, it’s just shallow and vacuous. It’s like, pass my a bloody packet of crisps, you know?'
So you’ve been enjoying this new renaissance of reggae through dubstep and fresh digital dancehall sounds etc?
'That is an understatement. That is exactly what I feel. I am proud to be a part of that circle and to be invited to play in it. When Major Lazer said that they wanted me to come and play at Carnival, I haven’t played Carnival for years and everyone knows that. Because I got tired, I got fed up with it. Kiss didn’t have a stage anymore, we used to have a big stage, and the other reason was that I was always working in Canada during that period and I’d been doing carnival for years and years and years. That same weekend, I started getting regular work in Toronto and Montreal and so on, and so I started accepted those offers, so one thing left to another and I was doing Canada at the same time as Carnival. But this year the Canada trip was put back and ML and Red Bull asked whether I would like to come and play, and I said, do you know what, yes! They put a clip online. It was really nice, you know.'
I’m gutted I missed it. I saw you most recently at Secret Garden Party in July and that was brilliant.
'Oh, you were there?! I was so nervous because I didn’t quite know what I was going to do and we ended up being so late because of the traffic that I got to the site a minute before I was due to go onstage. It nearly all went pear-shaped! But I ran onstage and it looked like Alice in Wonderland, there was so much fancy dress. The site was like something from a Thomas Hardy novel, it was just so beautiful, the view of it. And I could understand why it was so captivating because it’s so different to a festival in Jamaica, for example. Very different! I don’t do playlists per se, I look at an audience and I think, OK, let’s see where this leads. Everyone was sitting down and it was all very laidback and the next thing I knew I was getting this lovely feedback from them. It was exhilarating. I saw so many smiling faces beaming back at me – and it wasn’t the typical audience that I would play to, not even remotely typical. Normally I’m playing to a predominantly Jamaican audience, as you can imagine, apart from in Europe, but the next thing I knew they said that my time was up. I was dripping with sweat. It was exhilarating, Kate – that’s the only adjective I can really find.'
So what was the Major Lazer Carnival party like?
'It was wild, crazy, nutzoid and full of vibes and energy. I had a ball. Again, lots of smiling faces and happy people. And that’s the privilege of this job that we do, broadcasting or DJing – and I do consider it to be a privilege. That we’re able to share what we care about as DJs, selectahs, call us what you will, with an audience that responds. And I think I even said it at Secret Garden, but if I do love it and if I wasn’t playing it then I’d be in the audience dancing to it. To any DJ who moans and groans, Oh, I’ve got another gig and I’m tired, what I call moody Djs, of which there are many. I’ve seen some examples and I think, do you know how lucky you are? Do you know how many people would love to be where you are right now? There are hundreds of thousands in every city. I do think that they’ve forgotten how lucky they are. They seem to think that because they’re big names, and I’m not going to call any names because I’ve not into that… And I think it’s sad because, to me, I’m from an old school of DJing. When I was young, the DJ was the nerd in the corner that you told to play the records. In the ’60s, to want to be a DJ was like, why would you want to do that? You can’t check girls, you can’t dance with girls, you’re going to be standing in the corner playing records all night, are you mad? The DJ was the nerdy looking guy in the corner in front of one turntable with a box of singles in his hand. Now, I used to do it at youth clubs and parties in ’66, ’67, because I was so passionate about the music. So people would say, oh David, come to my house party because you’ve got some great records and you can play them. But everybody else would be having a good time. And so, because I came from that school who decided well I don’t want to be boring, I don’t want to be the nerd in the corner, it’s got to be interesting and when I started DJing in college and so on, you have to be able to play across the board. You had to play Ike and Tina Turner to Bob Marley. If you couldn’t make a wedding party work, you weren’t a DJ. You couldn’t classify yourself as one. And the whole idea of it was to get people to fill the floor and enjoy themselves. There was no mixing, you had one turntable. You had a box of sevens and 45s.'
Are there too many DJs these days are focusing too much on producing their own music rather than the art of DJing?
'Yes, we have a new breed of DJ who is an ‘artist’ because they create their own music and that’s great. Both my sons have created some of their own songs because they have the facilities to do it on virtual studios on computers, which is truly amazing. And yes they are creating and becoming perhaps becoming too immersed in their own productions. There is a fine line here, that some DJs by nature are shy and I understand that too because I have that problem. I can go into a room with 20 people in it and not know what to do with myself but I can walk onstage and although it’s still nerves, I’m there to play some songs. With D&B DJs, dubstep DJs, they frequently have to have an Mc – a master of ceremonies – and they have to have things to say between the songs because the DJ’s not the type of person that wants to speak on the mic. Well, that’s fine, but because of my background, if you couldn’t speak on the mic as a reggae DJ, forget it, unless you were on a soundsystem, which was a team of maybe six people, in which case you could be a selector and there was a mic man similarly.
'In more recent times, when that changed, and selectahs started playing in twos and threes, if you couldn’t ‘bust a dance’ with something constructive to say – and in clashes this happens all the time, you’ve got to counteract the speech that your adversary just played against you, and that training in Jamaican dancehall culture is very important. I’ve played in ghettos in western Kingston, in Philadelphia, in Baltimore and New York and so on, and if you can’t find a speech to counteract what you’ve just been hit with, then even if you play Frank Sinatra on dub you’re not going to get a forward [an audience’s call for an encore]. You have to have the speech that links to the next song. So that’s the difference between the world that I’ve worked in for the past 30 years and the world that dance now exists in. I mean, now when I go to dance things, the DJ doesn’t say a word, not a word. And that’s fine, because that’s the music that’s played, but that’s not the way that I work, I’ve got to say something, I just can’t help it sometimes.'
To summarise, what does it take to be an amazing DJ today? Do you have any pearls of wisdom?
'Care about your music, be passionate about it. And to be a good selector, you’ve got to be a good collector. And I believe that to be true: you’ve got to have a good collection of records. It’s not important if you’ve made them, it’s not important whether or not they’ve got your name in it, what is important is whether you’re able to take a bunch of records, whether they’re on CDs or laptops or 12-inch vinyl, 45s or 7-inch singles, but can you take those records and put them in the right order to make the crowd that you’re playing to have the time of their life. And if you can do that in one hour, then you’re in the right position to continue to do this thing called DJing. It’s about total commitment, it’s about sizing up your audience, and it’s about playing to your audience and not to yourself. That’s the key to it. And one final tip: look for Mr Miserable. In any dance, you will find somewhere Mr Miserable. He’s there, he’s in the corner, he may be taking notes in his head, but he’s there because he either is not impressed, doesn’t want to be impressed, and is there to find out whether or not you will impress him. And when I find him – and I usually do – I use them as a focus. Because the ideas is that if I can crack him and get him to smile, to put his hand or a lighter in the air, I’ve done my job. I think that’s a good guideline because sometimes you think it’s an easy job, but sometimes the audience is hard. So look at that audience and play to them and give them lots of love, don’t give them attitude.'
Onto your new Fabric mix: What are you trying to represent with it?
'The joy of this music. I care passionately about the music and the mix if a reflection of my love of various elements of the music. It begins with Augustus Pablo and it’s called ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’ and the reason I chose that track to start with is because it’s one of the most exciting Jamaican dub records ever made, King Tubby being the engineer and Augustus Pablo being the artist on the melodica, and it just perfectly sums up what was magnificent about Jamaican dub music. And then I roll through Big Youth, a traditional DJ who used to DJ on a soundsystem in Jamaica, and he talks about water houses (the track is called ‘Waterhouse Rock’ and it relates to a particular part of west Kingston where King Tubbys studio was located. And then it goes current with ‘Kingston Town’ by Alborosie, who is an Italian from Sicily who now lives in Jamaica and makes authentic reggae, some of the newer artists like Chezidek and Romain Virgo. The first part of the CD reflects on life within Kingston, on the tough side of town, of how life can be if you’re born on the other side of the tracks. It doesn’t represent my career – the first time I visited a Kingston ghetto was in 1979 and I had the shock of my life, I just could not believe it, you can understand the significance of the songs that they write and perform. And there are elements on dancehall in my mix as well – Shaggy, the ‘Church Heathen’ song, which is very funny and about the hypocrisy of people who go to church and the double lives they live; Collie Buddz is a white singer from Bermuda who made this massive song called ‘Come Around’, there are a couple of King Tubby dubs on there, vintage dubplates, also Erol T, one of the original dub engineers. Also Bitty McLean and Beres Hammond with the more soulful, sweeter side of reggae and some vintage tracks as well, like Super Cat’s ‘Don Dada’, which is a great dancehall anthem, and Prince Alla’s ‘Bucket Bottom’ which is a roots classic. So a mixture of songs that reflects current and classic reggae and stand up on their own. They don’t need embellishing; they are all, in my opinion, important songs in the reggae rainbow.'
It must have been incredibly difficult to whittle down your list!
'It was, but I deliberately veered away from the obvious. If you go to a music shop and flick through the reggae section, they’re all there, the Trojan hits, all the Megabuck tunes that we know – Desmond Dekker, Israelites – all the song that all know and love. But we’ve heard them on so many compilation albums over there years that I thought, do you know what, they’re already there, people can get them now. I wanted this mix to be more eclectic, to reflect what it is that makes Fabric so special. I’m not looking for brownie points here, but it is a very special club and what it has achieved over the past 11 years is historic. To have maintained such a high profile and such a devout, loyal audience and when you to that club, the vibes that are generated by the music in there, I wanted it to be reflective of the types of people that would go there and enjoy this type of reggae instead of saying, oh yeah, Rodigan’s Fabric mix, it’s got a lot of stuff that my dad’s got on his reggae top 20 or the greatest reggae hits of all time. I don’t want to be rude about that, because those songs have their place, but I didn’t see the point of putting those songs on this CD. So it is authentic reggae and dancehall, but hopefully it will be an introduction, and there are quite a number of instrumentals on there because the essence of Fabric’s background is essentially instrumental music, be it D&B, be it dubstep or whatever. And this [reggae and dancehall] music did emulate from Jamaica as instrumental music originally as well. I mean ‘August Town’ by Etana, a woman who I really really rate, describes the police raiding a swimming party in August Town. These kids are swimming in the river and the police come, the gunmen shot – and this actually happened, it’s a recent song that’s been popular in Jamaica – but the instrumental type songs like from King Tubby and Erol T, Sly & Robbie, these are instrumentals again reflecting on Fabric.'
A lot of DJs don’t know what’s current, they just play what they play from their period in time, or they pick top tracks from Beatport for that week in their sets. But Fabric chooses people who have their finger on what’s current and original.
'Well, thank you, because that’s what these 21 tracks try to show: new, current and recent tunes, sprinkled with authentic classics that are deep and heavy and not particularly exposed. That was the other idea behind it: when you look into an audience, and I haven’t played Fabric many times, it’s to see the absolute burning passion in the faces of those young people and it’s exhilarating because it just reminds me of exactly how it used to be. When Caspa came on after me, there was this rush of energy, like tidal wave onto the stage. I remember in 67 going to gigs and songs being played and we just went absolutely looney-ballistic. I remember hearing Desmond Dekker’s ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ and I just couldn’t believe how good that tune was, so much so that us, the kids on the street, bought so much of it that we catapulted it into the Top 10 pop charts at the time. But the BBC didn’t know what to do because they couldn’t find the artist, they didn’t know who he was and they were lost, but they had to play it on TOTP and the radio because everyone had bought it. And that’s the essence of what playing at Fabric is like for me – it’s to recharge the batteries because you see what young people bring to music.'