David Rodigan is sometimes referred to as the rudeboy gentleman, a nickname that sums up the apparent contradictions that make the veteran UK selector and radio personality such a singular character. Who else can say that they have cut dubplates in King Tubby’s studio, juggled tunes in King Jammy’s yard, and received royal honors from the Prince of Wales inside Buckingham Palace? Youth like Prince Harry will have to practice long and hard before they can test Rodigan. Because Rodigan has always been more than a DJ—he’s a cultural historian and educator who elucidates the nuances of Jamaican music to a wide audience (and whose dubplate collection is a veritable musical museum.) He’s also a rigorously trained professional actor on stage and television who might have easily chosen another path in life. Last week the selector talked about how he’s reaching the dubstep generation and paid respects to the late, great King Stitt. In part 2 of our series of exclusive interviews, the legendary selector and radio presenter reveals how his girlfriend first landed him a gig on the radio, how his background in theater helps him as a reggae DJ, and why he never talks patois on the air. OK, let’s get to it. [And if you somehow missed REASONING WITH RODIGAN PART 1, fret not thyself.]
David Rodigan in King Jammy’s Yard, Waterhouse JA (1983)
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT REGGAE MUSIC WAS GOING TO BE YOUR LIFE? YOU HAD OTHER OPTIONS. HOW DID YOU KNOW THIS WAS THE PATH FOR YOU?
Well, I didn’t, and that’s the irony of all this. If you told me in 1970 that I was going to become a reggae DJ, I would’ve had said that was simply not possible. I went to acting school. I studied to become a teacher as well. I was offered a teaching post at the end my three years of studying theater and teaching, and I almost took it, but I dramatised Yevtushenko’s Zima Junction, and I managed to put it on in the West End in a small theater called “The Little Theater” in St. Martin’s Lane in the Summer of 1974. And I also got past an audition to join a repertory company in the North of England.
So I figured that, although the teaching post was tempting, and I thoroughly enjoyed teaching—immensely in fact—I felt that it would’ve been great security, and it would have been probably too tempting. That once I’d taken it I wouldn’t have wanted to risk pursuing theater, and because I loved theater, and particularly theater as opposed to film or television, I decided, well, why not? It was £18 a week. You could hardly live on it, but I took it, and I headed up to the North of England, Sheffield. And I worked up there with a theatrical touring company for almost two years playing every kind of part in, you know, Henry IV Part II and so on. And then into other companies in the North of England playing The Tempest and so on. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.
So my love of reggae was just like millions of other people. It was a hobby. It was a passion. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was addicted to it. I was enamored of it. I pursued it and I collected it. And that was it. That’s … I mean, I played in school dances. Yes, school discotheques. And I played in house parties at people’s birthdays and so on. I played college discos, but, you know, I would play a cross-section of music. I couldn’t just play reggae. But that was, like, once a term. So, it was just fun—you know. It was just people knew: “Oh, Rodigan’s got some records”… “Could you bring your records?” You know. And it was Carly Simon or whoever it was—Rolling Stones or whatever. It was just party music, but my passion was this.
So, No. I never ever imagined… And had it not been for a girlfriend, an actress called Pauline Sittle, who I was living with at the time, had it not been for her writing a letter to BBC Radio London asking for an audition at the BBC, I would never be talking to you now. Because it was her letter and that moment that changed everything, Because I used to listen to the only show on radio at the time which played reggae music and that “Steve Barnard’s Reggae Time” on BBC Radio London for an hour and a half on Sunday lunchtimes. I listened to it religiously—as we all did. And it was announced that he was leaving, and they were looking for a new presenter. And it was open audition. If you think you could do this show, write in. And I remember Pauline said to me, “Oh, you could do that.” And I laughed, and said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” And little did I know that she’d sent a letter on my behalf.
WELL YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY IS BEHIND EVERY GREAT MAN…
A letter came back saying, “Your audition with the BBC is on such and such a date.” Pauline said, “I know you can do this. I wrote the letter.” So, I went down, and they stopped the audition after 20 minutes—15 minutes actually. It was supposed to be half an hour. And the producer, his name was David Carter, he came and he said, “I’ve produced this reggae show for a number of years, and he said, “In 15 minutes you’ve taught me more about this music that I’ve ever known.” But he said, “There’s one problem, Mr. Rodigan: you’re the wrong color.”
HE JUST TOLD YOU STRAIGHT UP, EH?
Yeah, I said, “Fair enough. I can understand that.” And I really could, Rob. Because in those days, you know, it was hard enough for black people. But getting a job in the media was even harder. And this was the reggae program, and naturally they were looking for a black presenter. Why wouldn’t they be? But the irony of it was that, after I left and weeks became months, what they’d done was they played that audition tape to a number of black Jamaican record companies and producers, like Count Shelly and all these people. And they asked them, you know, “What do you think of this guy? What do you think of this guy?” There was about three or four of them they presented. And apparently they all said, “You should use that guy. Whoever he is, you should use him.” And they presumed that I was a black Londoner.
A REASONABLE PRESUMPTION.
So they realized that they were practicing a kind of inverted racism. So what they actually did was they gave the show to me and a fellow presenter who was black. His name was Tony Williams. We co-hosted the show, and it became known as the “B&B Show.” It was 1978 on BBC Radio London. And after a few months, they decided it would be better if we did our own shows—one on, one off. So one Sunday I’d do it, and the other Sunday he would do it. Capital Radio heard what I was doing, invited me to do a magazine program once a week for them. In the context of a rock show I had a 15-minute reggae news desk. And that’s where it started. Then Capital Radio said, “Listen, we’re getting a really good response to your little 15 minutes within a rock show. Leave Radio London, and join us.” That was September 1979, and it all changed. I was still working in the theater and once I started doing the show on Capital Radio, one of the first interviews I did was Bob Marley.
THAT’S A GOOD WAY TO GET BROKEN IN.
Yeah, it was back in 1980. I couldn’t believe it. You can hear my voice go up an octave as I begin the interview. [Falsetto voice] “Hi Bob—it’s so nice to have you here.”
Because I was so bloody nervous. But it was very significant because what they said to me was, “Look, you know, you’ve got a good broadcasting voice. Why don’t you forget this acting game and just come and be a full-time DJ with us and we’ll give you the late-night show. You can start with the graveyard slot—midnight till two or something, and then we’ll move you up and bring you into the format.” And I said, “No. No. No. No.” I would not do it.
David Rodigan’s dramatic death scene in the British sci-fi series Dr. Who
The only thing I did do in later years was I became a sort of float DJ. I would do drive-time stuff the occasional holiday. I wanted to continue working in theater, and I did. And film: Dr. Who and stuff like that, and Shackleton. And then in 1989 my wife gave birth to our second son. And my theatrical agent said, “Dear boy, you’ve got make a decision. You know, you can’t be jumping from one boat to the other. What are you going to do, dear boy? Are you going to be actor or going to be a disc jockey?” He was very camp. And I said, “Hmmm.” And then Kiss offered me full-time radio. And in 1990 I decided, “Hey, this is a very serious offer.” Kiss was a new station. It was an urban station, and it was very significant opportunity, you know, in terms of what they were offering and asking me to do to be full-time radio DJ with my own show every day and my own reggae show. And I took it. So, what was once a hobby had become a full-time position as a broadcaster and my passion for the music became part of my every day life.
WELL IT SEEMS LIKE IT WAS GOING TO BE A PART OF YOUR LIFE REGARDLESS, WHETHER IT WAS YOUR JOB OR NOT. HOW DO YOU THINK THE THEATER PREPARED YOU FOR LIFE AS A REGGAE DJ?
I guess in terms of speech, because when you study theater for three years, you study voice and speech. And I did that for three years, so you were taught… Actually, part of the training was radio broadcasting technique. You had radio broadcasting technique classes for one year within the three years. And, you know, they started from scratch. They broke you down, said your voice was crap. You learned everything from Alexander Technique—your body movement, and so on and control. To traditional voice and speech and phonetics—the study of phonetics, how sound is formed and recorded. And, you know, how speech can be improved. You had to achieve standard English. By the end of your three years you had to be able speak received pronunciation, or “BBC English.” If you had a natural accent from a particular part of the country, that was fine, but you were supposed to be able to—at the drop of a hat—speak in standard English so you that could perform in Shakespeare. And that was the essence of it, of course. And you could change your voice, but you had to have standard English as your first mode, you know—your “reset mode”, if you like.
So, yes, it taught me… Obviously, theater is very, very disciplined. You know, and people who think they’re going into acting is easy going, it’s not. It’s often very highly competitive. It requires great stamina in terms of keeping your body fit, studying, working. I mean, those three years were very, very intensive. You were in college every morning at eight o’clock for a warm-up class, and you didn’t leave there ‘til six or seven o’clock at night—sometimes ten o’clock at night—for three years.
THAT IS SERIOUS.
Anyone who thinks that being an actor is an easy option is sadly mistaken. But it taught me—not that I wasn’t disciplined, I was to a degree—but it taught me tremendous discipline. You know, for example, in the theater you have to be in the building at the half, 30 minutes before curtain up. It’s actually 35 minutes. A theatrical half-hour is 35 minutes. You can’t be ever, ever, ever late for anything in the theater. The stage manager will kill you. You’re letting down all your fellow actors. So, great discipline. And of course, studying how you best can work a stage. You know, for example, you know, standing in the theater and saying [quietly] “the King comes on apace” means nothing to someone in the back row of the dress circle. They can’t hear it. You’ve got to be able to project that speech so that, without a microphone—there’s no microphones on stage in those days—so it could be heard in the dress circle or up in “the gods.” So, voice projection was very important and knowing how to use diction, how to speak with effect. That helped me when I would script—cause in the very early years and for many, many years, I would script elements of my shows. One of the difficult things I found was just trying to be myself. I realized that you couldn’t become a DJ by pretending to be a DJ. When you are an actor, you studied a part and you developed a character for that part, and that character would grow in rehearsals and that’s the character you would perform on stage. You couldn’t do that on radio, ‘cause you’d sound like … it wouldn’t sound real. You weren’t studying to be a DJ. You had to become yourself. You had to get rid of trying to sound like a DJ or trying to be a DJ. You had to be yourself. You had speak in such a way that was natural and warm and friendly, and it was summarized in one term by the BBC when they started training us: You have to remember that you’re being invited into someone’s front room or their bedroom or their car. You’re a guest. Please behave accordingly. Don’t shout. Don’t patronize. Don’t be rude. And don’t chat too much.
SOUNDS LIKE GOOD, SENSIBLE ADVICE.
And that was how I studied and that’s how I was taught. I was also taught that once you began a sentence you had to complete it. There were to be no hiatuses. That once you began the fading of a piece of music, you’d got to continue fading that piece of music, and you’ve got to continue talking while the fade is going on. Don’t you dare bring that fader back up. That was sacrilege. Also, don’t you dare crash the vocal on the song. So, you get a record. You listen to the record. You time it. You time the intro—30 seconds, 28 seconds, 15 seconds before vocal begins. You make a note of that intro time on your script, and you make a note of how the record ends. Does it end a capella? Does it fade? At what point does the fade begin? Does it begin 3:20 or 3:30? Make a note of that. And how long is the fade, the natural fade? And all that detail you had to take into account when preparing a radio program. And you had to script it to a degree. And because I had difficulty in—obviously, all my short life, I’d only been using scripts where I’d learned lines. So, to go into a radio station and sit in front of a microphone and talk without a script was at first quite difficult. Because I was nervous. And when you start talking about stuff in that situation, it’s not natural. It’s completely unnatural. You’re in a room with a microphone and a red light and an engineer staring at you.
IT’S NOT LIKE A DANCE.
It’s not. No. There’s no reaction. So you have to… Well, what I believe what you have to do is you have to carefully craft what you’ve got to say, and make it relevant and pertinent and, where possible, inform, inspire, confirm knowledge that someone has, or perhaps inform someone of knowledge that they didn’t have. But don’t patronize them. Have a beginning, and a middle and an end of your program. And the features that are there are to be good and significant, not time-wasting doodles. So that discipline of theater of how you speak and how make yourself heard quite clearly, using diction and tone of voice—you know, a voice warm up before you go into the studio, a diction warm up and so on was important. And I guess—well I don’t guess, I know—it helped in the way that I prepared for a show. I mean I’ve still got those scripts from those very early shows where sequences were actually scripted. You know after a while, I could get my foot off the bottom of the pool and could start swimming because it became natural, but initially it wasn’t natural. It was actually rather difficult, but I overcame it.
AND YOU NEVER SPOKE IN PATOIS ON THE AIR?
No, no. God no. Oh, for God’s sake… never. Never. That DJ in Jamaica, Ron Muschette, I did an interview with him a couple weeks ago on his radio show on IRIE FM, and he just would not stop trying to get me to speak patois. I mean I can speak patois. And when I feel to I can. And it surprises people when I do, but on the radio to attempt to do that would be—I felt, patronizing to Jamaicans. so I didn’t attempt to do so.
Michael Prophet “Mash Down Rome”
WHEN DID YOU CUT YOUR FIRST DUB AND WHY DID YOU CUT IT? WERE YOU PREPARING FOR A CLASH? ALSO, WHAT WAS THAT DUB?
Well, the first dub I cut at King Tubby’s was in January 1979. It was Michael Prophet’s [Sings] “I man ah go mash down Rome in pieces…” I cut that dub there and several others by Michael Prophet, Yabby You productions. It was kinda baptism of fire, because I would arrive at Tubby’s late at night and Jammy’s was there, and I said, “I’ve come to cut dub.” Jammy knew of me from radio. He’d heard of me. And I was with a chap called Mo Claridge who had a record company and Dave Henley, who was A&R at Trojan at the time was an avid record collector, and what he didn’t know about reggae you could write on a postage stamp. The three of us went there together—we were traveling companions. So I had an in, in that I was with Mo Claridge of Ballistic Records, United Artists. And he was a significant big-time player, and he was an old buddy of mine, best man at my wedding. So I had that click with Jammy.
Jammy introduced me to Tubby. Tubby was very, very reserved—typically skeptical of everyone. He was always very quiet and reserved upon initial meetings. So I’m in the studio with Jammy and Tubby’s there and he said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to cut some dubplates.” And he put this tape on and he pressed play and he played, I think about four or five tracks. And each time he looked at me, “You want to cut that?” I said, “No. No, thank you.” “Want to cut that?” “No, thank you.” “Want to cut that?” Then he looked at Jammy’s and there was a slight smile out the side of his mouth, you know. He took his keys out of his pocket and he chucked them at this young lad, and he said, “Open the tapes door.”
GOOD THING YOU DIDN’T GO FOR THE FOOL-FOOL TUNES. HE WAS TRYING YOU OUT.
Yeah, he was trying me out. Yeah. In other words, if I was some putz I’d cut anything.
There was a couple [tapes] down on the floor that was just opened and the four-track was taken out. The young lad strung it up, and Tubby pressed “Play.” And I heard… [Sings the horn line]. I just went, “Oh my God! Who is that?” He said, “You like that?” I said, “Yeah.” I said, “Who is it?” He said, “A new singer called Michael Prophet. I said, “Who produced it?” “Yabby You.” I said, “Cut it!” I’ve got the plate here in the house. I’ve taken it out of the house twice in 30 years, 34 years. It’s in here, right now.
Yabby You & Michael Prophet “Dub Down Rome”
ON WHAT OCCASION DID YOU FIRST BRANDISH THAT?
I actually brandished it at… I can’t remember the first time I brandished it in London in the ’70s. It would have been in a club somewhere; I can’t remember. But the second time I brandished it was at Fabric. My first dance in Fabric. “This was one of the first dubs I ever cut at King Tubby’s.”
SO YOU NEVER CHOPPED BARRY G WITH THAT?
No, I was terrified of it being damaged. It was so precious to me. I actually made a copy dub of it. So that original is as was. But that was it really. That was the kind of audition if you like. The baptism of fire.
WHAT SORT OF MAN WAS TUBBY?
Even in later years he was a man of few words. He was revered, of course, within the community. No smoking was allowed in the studio. Everything was immaculate. “Quick Tubby’s coming!” [Blowing] “Blow out the smoke!” Door would open, Tubbs would walk in. “Who’s been smoking in here?” he would say. “Not me, Tubbs. Not me, Mr. Tubbs.” He was meticulous. And then in later years we became very good friends. When he built that new studio in back garden of his property… I remember the last time I was with him, we sat for a long time in the new studio, the 24-track—or was it 16? Whatever. It was massive by comparison. He said, “I chose every single piece of wood from the wharf that’s in this room, and I put it up by myself with my colleagues. I built this studio with my own hands.” I said how did you…? He showed me all engineering books he’d bought on how to build your own studio. He showed me the books. And on a previous, much earlier meeting with him when I was sort of welcomed into inner sanctum, so to speak. I was taken into a room and the door was closed and he said, “This is it.” And you’d turn the light on, and there was the biggest jazz collection I’ve ever seen. Immaculate. The biggest jazz collection. He was a serious jazz collector.
AND HE KEPT IT OUT OF SIGHT.
Yeah. I often wondered, in later years, if he wasn’t a frustrated jazz musician, because what he was doing if you think about it when he was making those dubs was the he was breaking down the music in a way that jazz breaks down music—and going into solos and highlighting solos.
SO THAT’S WHO CUT YOUR FIRST DUB? NOT A BAD START.
That was the first dub I cut in Jamaica. I’d cut dubs before that in London. An old Jewish gentleman called John Hassel, who looked like Mr. Magoo, had a dubplate cutting studio in front room behind net curtains in a very exclusive part of London called Barnes. And he’d been an recording engineer. He’d actually built Federal Studios [in Jamaica]. Him and Graham Goodall, the Australian engineer, had installed the equipment at Federal. So John Hassel knew about the West Indies and knew about reggae from that period when Federal was built. And he was a recording engineer, so he had this dubbing facility where he made tape copies and so on and mastering. He mastered records, that’s essentially what he did. And on that same mastering lathe he cut dub plates, acetates, soft wax. So you go in there at eight o’clock in the morning, the weed would be steaming out into the hallway and there be Jah Shaka and Lloyd Coxsone cutting dubs. So that’s where I’d cut my first dubs.
AND WHY WERE YOU CUTTING THOSE? WAS IT JUST FOR FUN? WERE YOU CLASHING AT THE TIME?
No. No. No. No. No. No. No clashing. I wasn’t even on the radio then. This was in 1975, ’76, ‘77. I had a little record store in Oxford Market, a street market. And some sound boys asked for dubplates. And in those days a dubplate, as you know, was really just a different cut of a song that was already popular. And if you could get hold of the four-track, you just got a different mix.
I SEE, SO THESE WERE NOT PERSONALIZED OR CUSTOMIZED.
No. No. No. That didn’t exist then. All that would happen to suggest was there would be perhaps a DJ on the intro saying “only can be played by Sir Coxsone,” and that would be maybe voiced in Jamaica or at John Hassel’s. But you didn’t need to be told, because if you knew the music you’d know that it was different. And whoever was playing it—Shaka, Coxsone, Fat Man, whoever—they would tell you what you’re about to hear: “it can only be played by this sound.”
Johnny Clarke “Death In The Arena”
So you’d hear Johnny Clark “Death in the Area” and it would be a completely different mix. It would be four versions. Shaka notoriously had about 20 different cuts of “Death in the Arena” on different plates, and that’s what sound system culture was about. You go to listen to Coxsone and Fat Man and Shaka, all strung up together in Acton Town Hall, and when they played a dub, it didn’t have their name it in. It was just different to the one that was on the street. For example, The Royal Rases “Down Here in San Salvador.” Lloyd Coxsone had that dub that he cut at Tubby’s in Jamaica on the 4-track, with Tubby’s mixing it straight onto the plate. That was a completely different mix. Everyone knew as soon as that plate dropped that no one else could play that. It was Coxsone—only Coxsone could play that. He had Burning Spear on dub, but not with Burring Spear singing his name, not with the Royal Rases sining his name. Just a different mix. That’s where this whole thing started. And that’s kinda where dub started, because the DJs wanted something different. And the engineers realized, “Hang on a minute… just let the rhythm run and there’s no vocal. That’s different, innit?” I remember in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s in clashes, if you played an organ instrumental of a song that everyone knew, you could win a clash.
I remember Lee Perry arriving with dubs for Lord David, and the dubs were organ instrumentals by Glen Adams of the hits on the same rhythm, but just the organ version. That was it. You played that, the clash is over. Everyone would know the vocal, but there was not vocal. It was some guy on an organ.
And you’d win that round!
I GUESS IT’S ALMOST THE PRECURSOR TO THE “SLENG TENG” OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT. JUST STRIPPED DOWN TO THE RAW KEYBOARDS.
Yeah. Exactly. Just Glen Adams or Winston Wright, you know, playing the organ. And that started to happen on releases. It got released on records on the B-side or version. And eventually the word “dub” would appear. Yeah, in answer—a very long-winded answer—to your question, that’s how I started cutting dubs. But there was no clashing. There was no clashing.
David Rodigan’s Roots Rockers Radio Show “Tribute to King Tubby’s Part 1” (1989)
David Rodigan’s Roots Rockers Radio Show “Tribute to King Tubby’s Part 2” (1989)
David Rodigan’s Roots Rockers Radio Show “Tribute to King Tubby’s Part 3” (1989)
David Rodigan’s Roots Rockers Radio Show “Tribute to King Tubby’s Part 4” (1989)
Big request to @Gumkojima for transcription assistance