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Culture, Music

The Original White Boy

by Andy Davis / Images by Luke Daniel / 27.09.2012

It’s bedlam in London town. A hot summer’s Friday eve on the final weekend of the Olympics and the streets of Shoreditch are a carnival of women dressed recklessly and an array of hip young sailors with fashionable Dali moustaches. As the sun dips towards the horizon, on it’s late evening trajectory we’re hustling through the streets to make it in time for our interview with David Rodigan. The only problem is that I have no idea who this Rodigan chap is. But everyone I speak to is making like it’s a big deal. Massive. I’m trying to google the fucker and Vodacom is rape-rimming me on my roaming cellphone… and hanging. A blank white screen. Considering this is a Puma Yard jol, a celebration of all things Jamaican, I suspect that Rodigan has something to do with reggae. It’s time to call in the heavy artillery. I SMS Fletcher!

“About to interview Dave Rodigan. Do you know who he is? Any Qs?”
My phone buzzes back instantly. “Man! He’s the king of reggae dancehall selectahs. Long history. Ask him if you can have a copy of Damien Marley on Marka Riddim, pretty please :-)”
“What’s he famous for?” I thumb back.
“Famous for still being there ripping up shows 50 years later. He’s an institution in my world. What Carl Cox is to house, what Mick Jagger is to rock.”

Check out some Rodigan pedigree here.

OK so I’m almost prepped. Finally my google search comes through and I read a little yarn about David Rodigan receiving his MBE and speculation that Prince Charles might just be a reggae fiend. Implausible? I disconnect, take a deep breath of jerk chicken barbecue, swill the warm dregs of my Red Stripe longtom and head inside to catch the first instalment of Rodigan’s set.

It’s kinda funny to see this middle aged white dude, bigging up the crowd and slinging vinyl hooks from the Babylon by Bus inspired DJ booth… but you can see it’s as natural to him as brushing his teeth. Rodigan is reggae and mixes a fire set that gets the yardies bumping and grinding in that inimitable dagger-style. It’s getting pretty porno on the dancefloor to the dancehall rhythms. And soon that’s done, then Norman Jay takes over, keeping the floor rooted, and we meet up with Rodigan, backstage in a converted shipping container overlooking The Yard.

“Where did it all begin.” I ask. And it’s like pushing play on an old, well worn turntable, but as David plays the same old record, detailing his lifelong journey into reggae, there’s no jade or fatigue in his voice. He’s still as enthusiastic as the teenager in the 60s who tripped over a box of Jamaican riddims. The original white boy who fell down the rabbit hole of black island music…

“The music of Jamaica has fascinated me all my life, from the age of 14 really. I first heard this crazy backbeat from the islands around ‘64, with ‘My Boy Lollipop’, Madness, The Wailers, The Skatalites. It was very exciting, it was great to dance to, I didn’t understand all the lyrics because of the patois, but I was hooked. It was as simple as that. It was also a wave of new music. We had soul music coming in from America and from Jamaica we had Studio 1 and Treasure Island. Just this infectious dance music. Remember in those days it was rock, pop or blue beat, ska and soul. Or classical. It was that simple. There were no where near as many choices as you have today. And when you’re 16 everything is so exciting, because everything’s so new. And going out and dancing until the sun comes up is part of that. This music was very danceable. So that’s where it began and then the music started to change. From ska to rocksteady, the beat slowed down and then into reggae of course. And then it became for more ‘conscious’ – spiritual music. Not that it hadn’t been spiritual before, but it became even more with the advent of Rastafarianism influencing the music. It became a deeper music, more significant. Songs of social awareness, injustice and so on. It touched me and hundreds and thousands of other people in the way we were touched by Bob Dylan. This was rebel music. It had an appeal because it stood for injustice in so many ways. It had another side to it too. It touched on romantic subjects in a very moving and unsentimental way. Some of the songs were beautifully understated. So by the mid 1970s I was an avid collector of this music on vinyl. And very little has changed, except that I was given the opportunity to broadcast this music on the BBC in 1978.”

“Can you tell us about the effect this music and island culture in general has had on the UK?” I ask.

“Caribbean music has had a profound effect on British music. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles are the obvious examples. The Rolling Stones recording at Dynamic Studios in Bell Road in the 70s, the Beatles doing “Ob La Di Ob La Da’. UB40, Sting, The Police… there are many others. But essentially, as we all know, West Indians brought their music with them: calypso, mento and ska. That was the first movement. And Jamaican doo wop, you know, the original rhythm and blues that came from those islands. And it was part of the culture of those people that came to live and work in England. They brought it with them. And that infected us with a fascination for it, because we’d never heard anything like it before.”

“Then in the 70s, things got a lot harder.” I say. “There were race riots in the UK. The punk movement was just getting started and reggae was taking over… the bass was getting deeper and then dub arrived and changed everything…” I say.

Rodigan nods his head, picks up the lead and runs with it: “Dub music originated in the studios of western Kingston. King Tubby, Lee Perry, Errol Thompson, the engineers who went crazy with technique and effects. In this country Dennis Bovell, Aswad, Steel Pulse, again a long list of performers and artists, the whole DJ cult, British emcees rapping, often using cockney rhyming slang over their rhythms, which illustrated the effect of Jamaican patois when twisted and turned and peppered over the tracks. So it was a cross-pollination, essentially, of two different cultures. The Caribbean people who came here to work and make money, who then brought their music with them and that music had a profound effect on young Brits who fell for it, big time, and started, in later years to make their own versions of it. There are numerous ska bands all over the world, average age 18-22 tops, who are still trying to recreate the sound that came from Jamaica in 1962. That in itself speaks volumes.”

I nod my head and smile. “Tell us about your MBE,” I say.

“The MBE was a big honour, and I was humbled by it too. It was given for ‘services to broadcasting’ but I firmly believe it was as much for the recognition and significance of Jamaican music, which I’ve spent all my life broadcasting.”

“Look at us.” I say. “We’re all a bunch of white boys with a passion for black music… What do you think about that?” Hinting at the inescapable purgatory and dislocation of our privileged whiteness.

Rodigan chuckles. “Yeah. I worked on the radio before they saw me in Jamaica and it caused a big surprise and an element of shock when they first laid eyes on me. But they already knew that I cared about the music, because they’d heard me on the radio. And I think, really and truly, because there’s no other way around this, but if you absolutely care about something, it means everything to you, you’re passionate about it, at the end of the day when the race card comes out, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been in Jamaica, in the districts of Kingston where the music is made and I’ve never felt any animosity, I’ve never felt any hatred. In fact I’ve felt a whole ton of love from Jamaicans towards me, as a white boy from England who fell in love with their music. I think that they probably were pleasantly surprised by that, and proud to know that someone from another culture, another country could be fascinated by their music and was. And I still am. Equally so many French, Italians, Germans, Swiss and Japanese especially, have gone there on a musical pilgrimage, as I did in 1979, because they want to get to the heartbeat of the music. I think Jamaicans are taken by that. They feel honoured by that. And why shouldn’t they? It’s something to be proud of, that their music has had such a profound effect on world music.”

And with that we nod and shake hands. He unclips the mic and prepares to saunter off backstage to dig in his record box and find something that’ll upstage Norman Jay’s eclectic set that seems to have the dancefloor heaving. Suddenly, I remember Fletcher’s request.

“Any chance I can get a copy of Damien Marley on Marka Riddim?” I ask.

Rodigan shakes his head and smiles. “Sorry mate. They only made one dubplate of the Damien Marley thing and it has my name all over it.”

Later I fire off the response to Fletcher. My phone buzzes again, instantly. “I was being very cheeky. Kinda like asking Snoop Dogg for one of his braids.”

Check out our exploration of British Jamaican culture and the interview with Norman Jay MBE.

And read our 3 part Olympic series here.

*All images © Luke Daniel.

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