“Moody DJs Are Boring”: In Conversation With David Rodigan

Words: James Keith

For quite a few decades now, David Rodigan has been educating the UK on the finer points of reggae, ska, rocksteady, dancehall, dub, ragga and everything to come from the Caribbean. His various radio shows on Radio London, Capital, Kiss, 1Xtra, Radio 2 and more—not to mention his Ram Jam club nights—have been essential entry points to the world of reggae for several generations of listeners. But up until recently, his area of expertise was confined solely to that area. As you might expect, however, his tastes are far broader than that. In our conversation, he enthusiastically skips from subject to subject, rattling off facts and insider knowledge about everyone from Smiley Culture to Jorja Smith to Newham Generals.

Slowly but surely, more and more audiences are getting to see these different sides to Rodigan, at least in some small part due to events like the Red Bull Culture Clash. Again, he has an endless reel of anecdotes from that night, including (but not limited to) provoking A$AP Mob into losing their cool and trolling Boy Better Know. That side of Rodigan—the showman who demands as much from his audience as they do from him—is definitely nothing new. In fact, that was one of the reasons he found himself sampled on Newham Generals and Breakage’s “Hard” in 2009, and why he continues to fill his year with bookings.

Much of Rodigan’s year is spent touring tirelessly up and down the country with his prized collection of 7”s, dubplates and solid gold classics. He’s played a profoundly important role educating the world on the history and culture surrounding reggae and he continues to do that, tying together the different strands and strains from their roots in Jamaica and into the streets of the UK. If you’re even a passing reggae fan, chances are you’ve caught one of Rodigan’s sets either at a festival, soundclash, club night or carnival. Either way, you’ll doubtlessly never forget it.

You’ve got to be one of the busiest people in music today—how do you manage to balance it all?

Well, I get up at 5.30 in the morning, and I go for a swim at an outdoor pool in Acton. So I do that. It keeps me fit and gives me a good start to the day. I eat healthily, I stay fit, and I try to stay ahead of the curve. I take great pride in anticipating music trends. I make sure I’m up to speed with what’s happening in the world I specialise in, which is the world of Jamaican music. Primarily, I’m making sure I know what’s going on in Jamaica, I know what’s going on within the world of Jamaican music and its various subgenres. That means when I come to do my show every Sunday, apart from two tracks out of 30, everything is new and current. That’s important to me.

Like you say, your main area is Jamaican music, but what other scenes or sounds have got your attention that you maybe don’t get a chance to play out?

I think Jorja Smith is amazing because she’s just got such a powerful voice. She also happens to be a lover of reggae music as well. I like elements of drum & bass—always have done. I like certain elements of some music. Like the riddim from that Cardi B song [“Bodak Yellow”], the way that’s structured. I try to keep up to speed with grime, to a degree. The truth is some people have the ability to be masterful in many areas of music, but I find that my area takes up so much time, staying up to speed with it, because it really is underground. So I tend to concentrate mainly on that. If I hear something that works, then I’ll go with it, but this music stretches back almost 60 years now and there’s a lot going on within that.

Your sets are becoming more eclectic these days, mixing grime in with reggae and dancehall.

That’s come to me later in life because I was sampled on a record by Newham Generals and James Breakage called “Hard”, and it changed my life. Until that moment in time, I was primarily a reggae DJ playing in my little lane. I got a knock on my door because they’d heard my voice and they wanted to know who I was. They took the speech on that track from a cassette recording of a clash that happened like 20 years before; I still don’t know where it was taken from, but I know it’s my voice. I may have had a little whiskey when I said it, though [laughs].

Is that when you got more into grime?

I was aware of grime at that point—that’s more when I discovered dubstep. This was about seven or eight years ago. I was aware of funky house and I was aware of UK garage, which kind of preempted grime. But grime is just another development of what was already happening here in the ‘80s with reggae emcees riding on riddims; Smiley Culture and all these guys going into cockney and Jamaican and back again. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when I was on Capital radio, I remember the hottest guys were Tippa Irie, Peter King—who originated the fast style of rapping—Papa Levi, and so on. What these guys specialised in doing was do it in cockney and then rhyme it in Jamaican. A perfect example was “Cockney Translation” by Smiley Culture, where he speaks in cockney rhyming slang and then in Jamaican slang and ties the two together. The big record, though, was “Police Officer”—Please, officer / don’t give me producer—where he gets pulled over by the cops. So this was already happening. The grime MCs weren’t even born then, but it’s forever developing. Now the accent’s very different. Kids in London now are speaking in a fusion of cockney and Jamaican. They would like to speak in Jamaican, with a West Indian accent, but they can’t because they were reared in London. So their speech is London but they’ve mixed it with Jamaican.

Musical tribes seem to have died out right now. Even 10 years ago they were still very much a thing, and obviously you’re very focused on reggae and so on. Do you think we’ve lost anything by moving away from that?

I think we’ve gained a tremendous amount. I think the world in which we now live is a much more exciting world. I remember when it was incredibly tribal. If you were going to an event, you would go to a drum & bass event or a reggae event. Even within the world of black music like reggae events or soul boy events, the two would be quite separate. What’s happened now, as a result of festivals, there’s much more cross-pollination. For example, if you go to the Warehouse Project in Manchester on a weekend you’re going to see and hear a collage of music that you wouldn’t have been able to hear many years ago. And we’re seeing and hearing that happen at festivals in particular. Within those festivals, at every stage, there are all forms of music. I think that’s a really good thing. The world in which we now live means that people are able to find out much more. The other day I saw a photograph of someone in the library with those cards that you had to go through from back in the day. That was Google. I remember travelling all the way to the library, going in and just thumbing through all the vinyl. That’s gone. We’re now able to access things incredibly quickly. That means people are much more open to new ideas, musically. What happens with me in these festivals where I’m appearing in front of thousands of people, is you’re seeing people who may not understand elements of dub music or dancehall or whatever, but they do understand that this is exciting. If you throw out love, you get it back in abundance. That’s what I do. People say, “You’re a reggae DJ? Really?” But when you go on stage as a performer, you’re duty-bound to entertain your audience. Moody DJs are boring.

I still remember you heckling A$AP Mob at Culture Clash.

[Laughs] He was furious! He was going ballistic in the dressing room, like: “Who’s this guy Rodigan?” But I went there to give it to them. The pen is mightier than the sword and the tongue, when used correctly, can demolish someone. You don’t have to punch them on the nose, just say something they’ll never forget. It’s the truth. We also gave it to Boy Better Know as well.

A lot of people thought they had it in the bag that night.

Chase & Status always tell this story, but I used to walk around backstage with a clipboard that said “Keep it simple”. We were going there to demolish everybody and we had a game plan. When they started giving us mouth I said to Will, “Don’t even look at them.” We just turned around, conversed with each other and gave them our backs as we slowly walked off the stage. You could hear them getting more irate because we weren’t even looking at them, never mind listening! Obviously, we have to take note of what they’re saying so I can get them back but to show them we weren’t even recognising that they’re opening their traps, that’s the key.

Which other DJs do you rate?

Sometimes I see myself in younger selectors and their enthusiasm. I had breakfast up in Newcastle recently at the Hotel du Vin, and the guy who served me was a bit nervous. He walked away and then he came back and kind of whispered to me, “I collect records just like you!” He then started to list all the times he’d seen me. When I was leaving, he came running out and asked me how many records I had. I said, “It doesn’t matter.” “Oh,” he said, “any tips?” I said, “No! Just enjoy it!”

One thing I always remember, growing up in Newcastle, is that you were one of the few big artists who would consistently come up at least once or twice a year.

I wouldn’t miss it. It was by choice. That venue, World Headquarters, it’s great. The guy who runs it [Tom Caulker] is going to be given a doctorate by Newcastle University. Also, did you know it was Newcastle who gave the doctorate to Dr. Martin Luther King? He came over in ‘66 to collect it and that’s why he’s Dr. Martin Luther King. And now Tommy’s getting one for all he’s done in the community, everything he’s done for race relations. He’s one of the reasons I go back. I was there recently, and it was nuts. They don’t want to go to bed! There’s no fog on the Tyne, it’s just ganja smoke.

Posted on August 24, 2018