Mar15

I was allowed to creep into the studio just as the last tune of David Rodigan’s Kiss 100 show was playing out. Chezidek’s ‘Want To See Love Again’ was on the turntable, Rodigan bantered with his guest Dave Hendley and I have to admit I felt truly honoured just to be there.

This may seem a rather starry eyed reaction, but even someone who hasn’t listened to the show for years would sense that something special was happening in that studio each week. Rodigan may broadcast from a glossy, corporate West End HQ which Kiss shares with bastions of radio mediocrity like Magic FM, but the atmosphere in his little space at that moment felt more like the back stage area after a gig. Don’t worry I’m not talking about an entourage or rock star excesses, merely the amount of energy emanating from this veteran DJ. He clearly continues to give his all to every show, to enjoy every minute and to feel a genuine satisfaction with his two hours work.

Rodigan, alongside Sting International, has recently put together a compilation entitled ‘KIngs Of Reggae’. The record company are keen for him to promote the album and I could immediately see why. Still very much in broadcasting mode and firing on all cylinders he launches into the sales pitch whilst simultaneously packing away after his show.

“It’s a London and New York perspective because Sting is an established club DJ who lives in New York and built some great rhythms with Shaggy back in the day. It’s also his view from a Dancehall aspect and mine from a more classical aspect. Put the two together and you’ve got ‘Kings Of Reggae’. I took it to mean “kings” in the sense that it was classic tunes. Also there’s a queen on there, Marcia Griffiths, and a couple of current tunes.”

It’s the more recent choices that I’m particularly interested in. What does his selection of Chuck Fender and Richie Spice’s ‘Freedom’ and Gentleman, Barrington Levy and Daddy Rings ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’ tell us about Rodigan’s view of the current Reggae market?

“I thought Barrington Levy, Daddy Rings and Gentleman was an interesting mixture. Gentleman is a relatively new recording artist within the history of music. He’s without doubt the most popular German Reggae star. He’s passionate about his music and what he does is very real. I think he’s a significant artist, in terms of his contribution to the music and that’s a very good song. I thought that ‘Freedom’ was a nice reference because Chuck Fender and Richie Spice are two of the most recent new wave of Roots Reggae artists and the tune utilises a classic Bob Marley rhythm. It’s Big League’s take on ‘Sun Is Shining’. They re-built the rhythm, it wasn’t a loop, they actually played it back. Noticeable by his absence from the album is Bob Marley, but that was simply for licensing reasons with the Marley estate. Which is problematic.”

I had wondered if ‘Freedom’ had been chosen because Seanie B’s Big League production team are a UK based outfit, but Rodigan makes it clear that this hasn’t been a priority. A compilation that accurately reflects recent developments in Reggae shouldn’t be overly concerned with finding a place for modern British music.

“Sadly, very little is happening in UK Reggae at the moment. It’s very disappointing. The youths don’t seem to be able to relate to Reggae in the way that they do in Europe. France, Italy, Germany, Sweden… Czechoslovakia! A true underground, cult phenomena is going on in Europe for Reggae music. In every major town and city in those countries you’ll find soundsystem crews and fraternities cutting dubplates and everything. In England there are hardly any that I’m aware of. It just seems that, for whatever reason, the youth are more interested in creating their own type or brand of music. They don’t seem to have the fever for Reggae. There’s no interest at that street level. Consequently where’s the new Aswad? The new Peter Hunnigale? the new Capital Letters? The new Steel Pulse? The whole British Reggae movement that we had in the seventies and into the eighties is really a historical reference now.”

Rodigan is a trained actor and a natural performer, which is useful both on radio and when making speeches during a soundclash. He is famously articulate and so fluent that he barely pauses for breath when he gets going. As UK Reggae’s most celebrated ambassador he must be very used to questions about its apparent decline and can deliver his lines without hesitation. I wondered if there was any place in his script for the UK Dub scene?

“It’s been there for as long as I can remember. Jah Shaka, and Aba-Shanti who does a similar thing. In recent years it has encompassed a more cosmopolitan audience than it did originally. If you go to those dances you’ll see people from all sorts of social backgrounds and classes. That’s interesting; but they’re not really making a lot of new music on that scene. I’m aware of Disciples work and what they do is very good, also there’s the Mad Professor…but who else is there? If there is anyone else then tell me about it. I’ll play anything I hear that’s interesting, but there’s so little of it.”

An image of the racks of ten inch releases by Gussie P, Conscious Sounds, Vibronics, Blakamix and all the others that sell in Dub Vendor passed through my mind as I heard this. I also remembered a previous interview where he’d appeared to sidestep a question about UK Dub with the noncommittal response that it was “interesting, if a bit heavy sometimes”. Was there something he wasn’t telling us? In fact he’s not someone you need to interrogate. He seemed to feel duty bound to try his utmost with any question I wanted to ask.

“It is very heavy. I’m a fan of a good melody and vocals. I’m a mug for a good voice, a good rhythm, a nice chord change and sweet harmonies. If I don’t get enough of that I go into withdrawal. I like Dub within reason. If its too extreme, if its too mind-bending, if it totally does my brain in because the bass sound is so severe that I feel a nausea, then that is excessive. I enjoy a good Studio One Dub, or a good King Tubby’s Dub that’s restrained. Too crazy and off the radar and it does my head in, I get lost. I can appreciate it, I can understand it and see what’s going on but if I’m not feeling it, I’m not feeling it. I’m on the outside looking in. That’s not to criticise it, it’s just my take on it. Too heavy is a way to describe an extreme version of anything.”

His unfavourable response to “extreme” music sets Rodigan apart from another respected British broadcaster with whom he has sometimes been compared. John Peel made a career of seeking out the most extreme of every type of music. However, there are interesting comparisons which go some way to explaining why both DJs have been so highly respected by generations of music fans. An insatiable appetite for new music seems to be one of the most important.

” I still avidly search the market place for songs that sound interesting. I still go to record shops, listen keenly and buy tunes. I dutifully listen to everything that’s sent to me and phone around to find what’s popular. I try very hard to stay in touch.”

Rodigan is entirely free to choose his own playlist. As a Reggae broadcaster, he does so largely without the attention of record pluggers, PR companies and major labels using corporate power and influence. Untainted by the payola bribery that infects Jamaican radio, Rodigan provides a level playing field, where everyone has an equal chance of airtime.

“If there’s something new and refreshing out there, that sounds good, it should be played. I’ve often played things I’m not too keen on; but I think, hang on, I know there are people out there who will enjoy it. It’s my duty as a broadcaster to play it if it’s valid within its genre. Just because I don’t like hard Dub, it doesn’t mean I can’t play some eccentric Dub that someone has made, I can still see its’ potential.”

Whether it’s on radio, in a club or soundclash, as compere at a stage show or simply in person, Rodigan’s enthusiasm is infectious. He simply doesn’t do jaded or cynical. It’s exciting to hear how open he is to new music and other people’s input. Independent producers and anyone else with an opinion take note! There’s no doubt in my mind that a recommendation from Rodigan and a place on his playlist would be of significant benefit to any Reggae release. However when it came to discussing his own influence, he rather modestly became a little more reticent. He doesn’t see himself as particularly powerful and wouldn’t be comfortable sitting within the mainstream of anything.

“At times I’ve felt like a bit of an oddball. In the sixties me and my friends were into Ska. When Rocksteady kicked in some of them dropped it. When Reggae kicked in and skinheads picked it up, the rest of them got into other things. So I was a bit of a loner. When I first went to college I remember buying the U Roy ‘Version Galore’ album, listening to it in my rooms and everyone went “what’s this? A guy talking over a song, what’s that about?” So I remember being almost in denial. I was a white bloke from a village in Oxfordshire who was obsessed with this music. I felt alone and at odds.”

Regular listeners will confirm that Rodigan, whilst full of entertaining observations and anecdotes, never says anything to try and make himself sound cool, clever or important. However he now holds an important position within Reggae music. He seemed to forget all about tidying up the studio in order to properly explain how seriously he takes it.

“I’ve always tried to shoulder my responsibilities and do things properly. I don’t think you can take short cuts to getting things right. I try to cover the full spectrum of the music. From love songs to Dub to whatever. The new releases and the old tunes that have been re-issued. I never try to make the show obscure. I don’t indulge myself in tunes that no-one can buy. I don’t think there’s any point in that. I’m very, very conscious that it’s my duty to help; particularly British Reggae. I’m currently championing Peter Hunnigale’s new album. I’ve championed ‘Smile’ by Suzanne Couch. I’ve championed Lloyd Brown. I’m the last in the food chain before the customer and DJs who think they’re more important than the music have got it completely and utterly wrong. I’ve always firmly believed that. So don’t keep rapping and chatting over the music and spoiling it. Be informative, but don’t be tedious and don’t interrupt the public’s listening pleasure.”

Rodigan has, without question, stuck to his principles. He has informed, entertained and educated hundreds of thousands of listeners along the way during his three decades in radio. With Kiss now available on-line, on digital TV boxes and the FM dial in an increasing number of areas outside London, Reggae obsessives don’t have to feel like oddballs anymore. This self-confessed trainspotter feels that the only thing that makes him different from any other fan is the fact that the music has become his profession.

“I’m just one of the thousands of collectors around the world. But in 1978 I was given the opportunity to share my love of the music publicly on the airwaves. It’s rolled on from there, but I’m just as passionate as I ever was. I’m fifty five years of age. I’ve been into this since 1965. Next year is thirty years in broadcasting. I’ve got the fever and there isn’t a known antidote so it’s not going to leave me.”

As Rodigan himself would say – get your anorak and I’ll meet you at the end of the platform.

March 2007

David Rodigan’s website: www.rodigan.com

Kiss 100’s website: www.totalkiss.com

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