DAVID RODIGAN’S My Life in Reggae illuminates the journey of the thespian, broadcaster and cup-winning dancehall sound clash veteran.
David Rodigan and I are the same age and though we developed a passion for the music of Jamaica via slightly different trajectories we, for a number of years, travelled parallel paths. When David Rodigan arrived on the air via BBC Radio London waves I was scribbling articles on roots reggae for whoever would print them. Occasionally, I would make the journey to an open air market in Clapham Junction where John MacGillivray and Chris Lane ran a stall to supplement the cultural life-line that was the excellent Dub Vendor mail order, and I believe it was there that I first became aware of this devotee from Oxford.
In ’78, without Rodigan’s knowledge his girlfriend wrote a letter of application on his behalf applying for a position at BBC Radio London left vacant by their ‘Reggae Time’ presenter, Steve Barnard. To his amazement he got an audition and on the back of his 15 minute tape secured a job share with Tony Williams, a Jamaican who was also presenting a Soul show. The pay was £12.50 each! For me, as a regular listener to their show Rodigan – as a selector – always had the edge. It was his time – it was post punk, Rock Against Racism was on the move against the National Front and a militant new generation of UK Rastafari orientated reggae artists like Aswad, Steel Pulse, Black Slate, Cimmarons and Misty In Roots emerged to compliment the mainstream break through made by the JA vanguard of Bob Marley and The Wailers. Alongside the roots scene, certain sound systems like Sir George were building a following for what became known as Lovers Rock and the national chart success of artists like Janet Kay added fresh momentum to David Rodigan’s broadcasting and journalistic career.On his first trip to Jamaica in ’79 with fellow enthusiast and photographer Dave Hendley he not only cemented a relationship with sound system and dub master King Tubby but also encountered cult JBC broadcaster Michael Campbell aka Mikey Dread – “The Dread At The Controls”. From my perspective, Mikey Dread, in terms of his jingles and use of dub plates, re-defined what could be done as a radio DJ – if you want a taste of that touch down on the ‘African Anthem’ album that Dave Hendley released. Without doubt Mikey Dread’s approach to broadcasting had an impact on how Rodigan was to construct and structure his own shows. Sadly, the book reveals that Rodigan’s relationship to Mikey Dread eventually soured leaving a particularly bitter taste. The musical community that Rodigan was engaged with had a potentially volatile dimension to it. For example, he clashed with the sound system operators who didn’t like him playing advanced dub plates – which traditionally they would have aired first – on his show. A threatening and potentially violent scenario emerged when the so called Black Music Protection Squad produced flyers showing the DJ with a noose around his neck while accusing him of “the Rape Of Black Music”.
It’s therefore not surprising that the DJ/broadcaster and his co-author Ian Burrell prefer to move rapidly through these years. My Life In Reggae is an easy read. In fact, I’d say it’s lightweight from a literary point of view. If you are looking for genuine depth and writing that is evocative of the places and scenarios he’s experienced you might be disappointed. I notched up two thirds of the book in a couple of days while gaining a somewhat matter of fact, surface-like impression, of his life as broadcaster, club DJ and actor. The man has trod the boards of the theatre, worked with a Toucan in a Guinness TV ad campaign and battled Doctor Who as Broken Tooth. He moved from Radio London to Capital Radio – where presented the legendary Roots Rockers Show – and eventually found a musical home for 22 years with the dedicated crew of former the pirate radio station Kiss100 FM before finally landing back at BBC 1Xtra.
It has to be said that in recent times I’ve met many a person who came across David Rodigan for the very first time on You Tube in a sound system clash. Inevitably they came away both bewildered and confused. “Who is this white guy?” they asked. They were not sure whether to be embarrassed or entertained. Fortunately, for the readers of ‘My Life In Reggae’ the book is at its strongest when he moves into the realm of the sound clash. It’s here we find Rodigan at his most enthusiastic. We actually get a deeper insight into his approach, into his role as an entertainer and musical selector. The sound clash for him is pure theatre – you win some you lose some. But in reality he wins more than he loses. He is an edutainer. His knowledge of the music is deep. Having dallied in the world of reggae music myself I freely admit to being in awe of his ability to craft a show that can win over a musically and culturally sophisticated audience whether in Kingston, Bermuda, Brooklyn or London. He can compete with supa-skilled sound system operators like Stone Love, Killamanjaro or Mighty Crown and at the end of the day can still lift that cup! David Rodigan is a phenomena and as this biography comes to a close it’s clear that the somewhat reluctant self publicist remains as enthusiastic as ever about both the roots of the music that inspired him as a teenager and its natural evolution in the UK via jungle, drum & bass and dubstep. His role today is as an musical elder but there’s little doubt that when he steps behind those turntables and picks up the mic he seriously enjoys himself… “In January 1979, I took my first trip to Jamaica and met King Tubby, Bunny Wailer, Big Youth, Gregory Isaacs and Marcia Griffiths….. ”