Sir RamJam Talks About Getting Sampled On Dubstep Tracks And Bigs Up The Late Great King Stitt

2012 has been a great year for David “RamJam” Rodigan, the veteran UK selector and radio personality. Last month he won Irish & Chin’s World Clash, defeating Bass Odyssey in the final round. The month before that he was invited to Buckingham Palace to be proclaimed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his work as a reggae disc jockey. Not bad for a man who never intended to pursue a career in music. But Rodigan has always been a music lover, and a passionate historian and educator about Jamaican music. In this first of a series of exclusive interviews, the legendary selector and radio presenter speaks about how he’s connecting with a whole new generation of reggae fans since having his unmistakable voice sampled by dubstep producers. He also recalls the first time he saw Jimmy Cliff perform live, and pays respects to the original reggae DJ, the late great King Stitt aka The Ugly One—Who was, among other things, one of the unheralded pioneers of rap music. OK, let’s get to it.

GOOD MORNING SIR RODIGAN. HOW WAS THE GIG LAST NIGHT?

It was bonkers, crazy, ballistic. For the last two and a half years, my life has been transformed totally in terms of my gigs by a whole new audience of young university students, undergraduates. Frats all over the country Edinburgh University last week and Nottingham University, last night was South Hampton, Oxford University, Cambridge University, playing to typical undergraduate audiences of, you know, several hundred and sometimes over a thousand people, who have discovered reggae. And it’s a bright light shining, and it really is uplifting to see this. Because these are not Jamaican audiences. These are not urban audiences. These are not street—what you might, for lack of a better term, call “ghetto audiences,” or, you know, neighborhoods like Bronx, Brooklyn, London, Brixton. It’s not Lewisham. It’s not like that.

These are students who are clearly intelligent people. I’m not suggesting that people who don’t go to university aren’t intelligent, but you know what I mean by that?—it is not an audience that traditionally I would have played to. In fact, in over 35 years of doing this, I’ve never actually done very many student gigs in terms of university gigs. So it’s really been just an amazing experience—without sounding too rich. Because these audiences, and this also comes from the festivals… In the last three years, I’ve been doing festivals. Glastonbury! I mean who would’ve ever imagined I would be playing Glastonbury? Bestival. This year at Bestival I’m going to have my own tent on the Isle of Wight: “Ram Jam Presents” with artists I chose.

THAT’S FANTASTIC.

I’m in Croatia and so on. All these major music festivals I’ve been booked at in the last couple of years, and it’s all because—I think it was three or four years ago, a good three years ago that my voice started being sampled by dubstep DJs.

REALLY? HOW INTERESTING.

Yeah, I’m sure you’re well up to speed with the dubstep phenomenon.

YEAH, A LITTLE BIT.

These young DJs started sampling my voice, most notably a chap called Caspa and another chap called Breakage. Breakage put me on one particular track called “Hard,” and that just became an underground street smash. And it was unbelievable, the buzz on that record.

I’VE GOTTA GO LOOK FOR IT. WHAT IS THE SAMPLE HE USED?

“Hard” by Breakage—the original version which has a typical dubstep instrumental, and it has a clip of me saying, “We’re going around the track together… It’s all about the music.” Blah, blah, blah. And I make quite a long speech, and then I say, “It’s all about going ‘round the track.” And then they echo it, and the rhythm comes back in again. And I started getting bookings from promoters. Interest was generated by this because people wanted to know who this guy was.

Breakage ft David Rodigan “Hard”

Breakage ft Newham Generals & David Rodigan “Hard”

THEY DON’T EXPECT YOU TO PLAY DUBSTEP RECORDS WHEN YOU SHOW UP, DO THEY?

No. And furthermore, of course, to this young audience—this was three or four years ago—I was under their radar. And so, I came on their radar because of these dubstep records. Next thing I knew, promoters were booking me to turn up. Most notably it started at Fabric, which is the most famous drum & bass club in London; it’s been going 10 years. And they booked me to come up and play on a Dub Police night. Dub Police is a night run by Caspa, and I had to come onstage and do an hour’s set playing my original dubplates from King Tubby’s—you know, classic instrumentals from Tubby’s. And I did that, and I mixed it with some of my, you know, Desmond Dekker and bits and pieces. And the place erupted!

I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I was actually—for the first time in a long time, Rob, I was very nervous about that gig. ‘Cause I stood on the stage… It was a white audience. You know, there was a couple of black people in there, but it was not a typical reggae urban audience at all. And I stood on stage, and I thought, “Oh my God. Why have I agreed to do this?”

[LAUGHS]

“What am I going to do here?” I was actually quite nervous. And I had a little plan, a game plan in my head, and I went with it. And there was no one in there over 22. No one. Tops 23. Very young audience. And really that was the start of it. And it hasn’t stopped since then. It’s just rolled on. I mean, this year was booked out by September last year. So I don’t have any dates available. And I mean I was already very busy before because of re-bookings in the reggae fraternity over the years, as you can imagine.

YES, I’M SURE.

Same time next year in Berlin, same time next year in Rome. And Europe’s a big territory, so naturally it’s relatively easy if you’re passionate about what you do, and you do it well and people turn up to see you, then promoters tend to say, “Same time next year.” But the advent of this dubstep phenomenon has increased the number of bookings. And it’s been, I have to say, a revelation. Because what it’s done… I’m sorry if keep going on. If I’m talking too much, tell me to shut up.

NO! GO FOR IT! I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS PREPARED BUT I’M GOING TO LET YOU RIDE THIS ONE OUT.

OK. Well, I’ll finish this rant.

OK, BE MY GUEST. [LAUGHS.]

What has been so refreshing is… I could just see myself, looking back out into the audience. When I was 16, 14, I remember seeing Jimmy Cliff on stage at a place called “The Stage Club,” which is on the fourth floor of a building in the center of town, which is a Brett’s school of dancing. You know? It was literally a room—a big room on the top floor of an office block. It was in Oxford, George Street. This is in the 1960s. And I saw Jimmy Cliff there in 1966 on stage.

OH GOSH.

And I remember just standing in the audience thinking, “This is just amazing!” I was 14, 15. You know? It’s that period in your life when you’re just starting to break out. Where you can kind of go on your own abit more, perhaps, than you could have done two years before. You know? Your life’s on that cusp where you’re enjoying that freedom, that sort of revelation of becoming a teenager. And it was just amazing to see Jimmy Cliff.

And I stood on the stage at Fabric thinking that’s what it was like when I was their age or younger watching and being excited by music. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not comparing myself to Jimmy Cliff for one minute; I’m just a DJ, but the point being that: When you’re young and you have that energy and that passion to discover something and you’re and you’re energized by it. It’s so infectious! And to stand on stage and see literally hundreds of these young, you know, 18 to 22 year olds, going absolutely crazy for Desmond Dekker’s “007.”

Desmond Dekker & The Aces “007 (Shanty Town)”

And it was that song and “Israelites” and “You Can Get It if You Really Want.” I played three Desmond’s in a row. I’m big fan of Desmond Dekker. And the forwards from those three songs and “My Boy Lollipop” was quite a phenomena.

THESE ARE SOME OF THE FIRST JAMAICAN RECORDS TO HIT THE BRITISH CHARTS, AND THEY’RE STILL HITTING IN 2012.

In fact, “My Boy Lollipop” generated a lot of excitement because there was an outcry backstage, and apparently the owners of the club, who’s an ardent drum and bass fan, you know, underground music club, were informed. Oh my God, you know, “My Boy Lollipop” was played in Fabric, tonight. And the owner apparently said, you know, “Who the hell played that song in my club?”

[LAUGHS.]

And they said, “Oh, it was Rodigan.” He said, “Oh, Rodigan? Oh, that’s fine.”

[LAUGHS.] HE CAN DO WHAT HE WANTS. 

Yeah, Yeah. In other words, you know, that’s fine. But imagine playing “Israelites” and “ You Can Get It If You Really Want” and just seeing the crowd go crazy. Now, Summer of ’67 was “007.” “Israelites” was ’69. “You Can Get It if You Really want” was 1970. Three songs from a period when I was still in my late teens—18, 19. They weren’t born. Drum and bass, all the music we now know did not exist. And yet, and doesn’t this speak volumes for the music that you and I love, yet those three songs created one of the biggest forwards for the night. It says everything …

IT DOES, IT DOES.

… about our music.

IT ALSO SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT YOU THAT YOU SEEM PERFECTLY AT HOME IN A KINGSTON STREET DANCE, CLASHING SOME BIG JAMAICAN SOUND, BUT YOU GET NERVOUS IN FRONT OF A BUNCH OF WHITE FOLKS IN A CLUB IN ENGLAND.

[Laughs] Never quite thought of it like that.

WHAT DOES THAT SAY?

You are so right!

WE’LL GET INTO THAT A BIT MORE AS WE GO. BUT FOR NOW I JUST WANT TO POINT THAT OUT AND LET YOU  REFLECT ON THAT FOR A MOMENT. MEANWHILE I WOULD LIKE TO ASK YOU ABOUT THE LATE GREAT KING STITT. HE WAS SORT OF THE PROTOTYPICAL SOUND SYSTEM DEEJAY, AND ALSO A GREAT SELECTOR AMONGST OTHER THINGS. WHAT DOES HIS PASSING BRING TO MIND FOR YOU?

Very significant because I was, and I think we all were, big fans of King Stitt, because it was what he didn’t say and didn’t do that made him so special. He was a master of the understated DJ performance, but he was gifted with a magnificent voice. What he lacked in looks—and he regarded himself as “The Ugly One” and termed himself that publicly and on record—he made up for with his haunting tone of voice. And you and I know the essence of deejaying is the tone of voice. Obviously you’ve got to have good timing and so on, but the sound of the voice, the tone of the voice is everything. Example: Shabba Ranks, Burro Banton. And he had been given a wonderful tone of voice.

Two years ago in Stockholm, a DJ called “DJ Mark” played me two dub plates he voiced with King Stitt. One of them was on the “Baby Why” riddim [sings the horn line] “Da-daaa, da-da-da…” And it was absolutely brilliant, you know? Even then, you know, just a couple of years ago, he must have been. I don’t know how old he was when he died two days ago—sixty something, maybe seventy—but the tone of the voice was still there. He epitomized a period in the music which is incredibly exciting. We heard people talking on records. [Laughs]

WHAT A REVOLUTIONARY CONCEPT.

And that was significance of it. They were know as “talking records.” They then eventually became know as “deejay records,” as you know. But it wasn him, it was Machuki. And I didn’t didn’t know, for example, that “You coming from town? / You face turned to this sound. / On your way up or on your way down / I want you to stop at this station for identification.” I only found out three years ago that that was Count Machucki on the intro of “More Scorcher.”

I never knew that was Machuki. Some of those guys didn’t get the credit that they deserved—and that’s just one example.

NO DOUBT ABOUT IT. SO MUCH OF THEIR WORK WAS DONE LIVE AND JUST FLOATED OFF ON THE CARIBBEAN BREEZE NEVER TO BE HEARD AGAIN…

Exactly. Yeah, yeah. And when they did, when for example, Machuki did the intro to “More Scorcher” for Studio One, he wasn’t credited. It was credited to The Sound Dimension.

HALF THE STORY HAS NEVER BEEN TOLD.

The trombone was, you know, Vin Gordon. It was brilliant, and I still play it, but I never knew that intro was Count Machuki. But I did know that “Vigorton Two” and “Fire Corner” were most definitely King Stitt, because he referred to it “I am the Ugly one.” And there was an album that I purchased in 1970—I could even go an quickly grab it now, because I know exactly where it is—but on that album in the Summer of 1970, when I was a deck chair attendant in Hyde Park in London, I came home every evening and I played that album relentlessly. It was an album by The Dynamites. And there’s a track on there called “Herbsman Shuffle” [sings the bass line] Dum-dum-dum-d-d-d-d. “Take a lick. / Take a draw. / Take a draw.”

BIG TUNE.

Clancy Eccles was the producer. And The Dynamites were the band. And on that album was “Herbsman Shuffle” by King Stitt. [Sings] “Smoking is habit.” King Stitt. And there was also an instrumental version of the same track. And it is upon reflection years later that I realized that was probably one of the first dub records that I ever heard.

REALLY—WAY BACK IN 1970?

But I didn’t know it at the time. Yeah, that was “Herbsman Shuffle” and the straight instrumental. And if you listen to it, the rhythm breaks down and gets slightly dubby, That was in 1970, and he was on it.

SO THAT’S THE FIRST DUB RECORD YOU HEARD. BUT WE’RE ALSO TALKING ABOUT THE BEGINNING OF RAP TOO, AREN’T WE? I MEAN, TALKING OVER RECORDS IS A REVOLUTIONARY IDEA. AND MAKING A RECORD OF TALKING OVER A RECORD IS REALLY RAP MUSIC BY ANY OTHER NAME, CORRECT?

U Roy “Version Galore”

Exactly. And also at that time U-Roy’s version album, Version Galore came out, and I bought it on the street and I played that every night that summer. Along with that Dynamites album, Clancy Eccles’ production. Those two albums are very significant for me because I listened over and over again to Version Galore. And I couldn’t get over it because there was one or two Duke Reid productions that I didn’t know on there. Because, obviously Duke Reid was deejaying over Duke Reid riddims, three or four years after they’d been hits, as you know. So that was very significant, but the one for me that really did it was King Stitt’s “Fire Corner.” I played “Fire Corner” last night in South Hampton at the university gig, and they went crazy, you know. They went absolutely crazy. Because the energy inside that rhythm and that production is amazing. I think it’s probably Winston Wright on organ, but [toasts] “No matter what the people say / These sounds lead the way / It’s the order of the day / From your boss DJ I  King Stitt / Lick it from the top to the very last drop!“ The place went crazy.

THERE’S NOTHING ELSE LIKE IT.

Nothing like it. [His death is] so very, very sad. He was, as we all know, Coxsone’s right hand. He knew everything… He knew what tapes were  where. I mean, whenever I went to Studio One he was there. And it was “Stitt get this…” and “Stitt get that…” and “Stitt go do this.” And Stitt knew where everything was. He was, you could say, in my opinion, he was Coxsone’s right hand man, for as long as I knew Coxsone. And he also did that so-called live album for Studio One, didn’t he?

RIGHT, DANCEHALL 63 OR WHATEVER.

I mean, I don’t know what your opinion of that is, but I don’t think that was a live recording of a dance in 1963.

OH, CLEARLY NOT.

I mean, they claim it is, but to me … I don’t know. Every time I listen to it I think, “Hang on. This is all too neat and clean and tidy.”

YEAH IT DOESN’T SOUND LIKE SOMETHING RECORDED IN 1963.

I don’t hear any records being queued up. It sounded to me as though it had been put together in the studio to recapture what had happened back then.. I mean doesn’t he name-check the date on the album? I think he does, doesn’t he?

I’M NOT CERTAIN.  I NEED TO LISTEN TO IT AGAIN, BUT YEAH THAT WOULD BE A BIT TOO OBVIOUS. STILL I THINK IT WAS PROBABLY DONE WITH THE BEST OF INTENTIONS. LIKE WE SAID, SO MANY GREAT MOMENTS WERE LOST ON THE BREEZE. YOU CAN UNDERSTAND THE DESIRE TO PRESERVE SOMETHING IN RETROSPECT.

And I think that actually given what they were trying to do, I thought they did it rather well.

YEAH AND I CHERISH THAT ALBUM JUST FOR THE COVER ART ALONE.

[Laughs.]


NEXT WEEK: KING TUBBY’S PUTS YOUNG RODIGAN TO THE TEST