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David Rodigan's Life In Reggae: Defined By Fanatical Love, Not Race... Right?

David Rodigan on July 15, 2016 in London, England. His autobiography, <em>My Life In Reggae</em>, was released earlier this year.
Ollie Millington
Redferns/Getty Images
David Rodigan on July 15, 2016 in London, England. His autobiography, My Life In Reggae, was released earlier this year.

Though he has been called a lot of names throughout his life, David Rodigan has been referred to most concisely as "the best black music presenter on British radio." To the uninitiated, the 65-year-old Briton is arguably the world's preeminent deejay of reggae music, genuinely and gleefully mystifying audiences for the past forty-odd years.

"When people meet me for the first time, I can see the shock on their faces. Sometimes their mouths are open. Point-blank, some have apologized to me and said, 'I'm sorry, I thought you would be... somebody different," he says, laughing over the phone from his library in London.

Yes, Rodigan looks a bit like Warren Buffet, if Warren Buffet liked leisurewear. But perhaps the best introduction to Rodigan's universe — and the quickest means by which to really consider how his appearance intersects with his work — is to see the man in action. Take this performance of a 1998 soundclash in Birmingham, U.K., where he battles the British-based sound system Luv Injection Sound.

Keep your eye on the audience behind him. The guys in the back nod to one another, laugh hysterically, then lose it, just as Rodigan begins his set. In earlier live performances, he recounts more intense reactions: "Once, as I started to walk out across the stage, a deafening hush descended upon the club. Sometimes, I would see people hold their hands over their eyes as they listened to the voice they knew from the radio, trying to decide if it was really me."

At the time of that Birmingham clash, Rodigan had spent more than thirty years as a radio DJ in Britain, Jamaica, and in residencies across the world. His status had long been cemented as one of the principal forces of taste and selection within reggae music, responsible in no small part for how the non-Jamaican world listens to and understands the genre.

It's worth seriously asking why audiences routinely find him so funny or jarring or unbelievable; presumably, it's the magic shock of having one's expectations knocked violently out of, then violently back into, place.

For those in the crowd, seeing Rodigan in the flesh ostensibly satisfies most of the questions held quietly in one's head when squaring Rodigan's appearance with the very black music he's come, in the eyes of many, to represent. My Life in Reggae, the autobiography he released in the U.K. this past March (October in the U.S.), we had hoped would fill these silences in with more detail. Instead we have a work that reveals the author's complex relationship to race — by virtue of its own reserve.

Around the time of Rodigan's birth in the early '50s, large-scale Caribbean immigration to the U.K., urged by a nationwide invitation to fill labor shortages in the wake of WWII, brought with it Trinidadian calypso and Jamaican mento music. Carried by the breezy lurch of a rumba box and a choppy banjo plunk, the two genres mixed and traveled well with American jazz, already so admired on the islands.

Sound systems — titanic audio setups where decks, amps, turntables, and speakers are stacked and strung together — necessarily came to Britain as well, making any public space a Caribbean one, too. In a culturally partitioned England, sound system deejays known as "soundmen" (it was almost always men) dotted street corners and storefronts, playing a blend of island and jazz music in a high-volume bid to attract Caribbean clientele. By nightfall, these soundmen would bring their daytime systems to outdoor dancehalls, where DJs would "clash," playing their best records and winning when the audience determined that one soundman had better taste than his opponent's.

The soundclash became a laboratory for black music in the U.K., both as a testing site by which to measure popular taste and as an environment that encouraged genre mutation. Ska, the first Jamaican-rooted genre indigenous to the U.K., fused mento, calypso, and jazz; rocksteady, its successor, clipped ska's horns and slowed the music to a crawl; reggae was faster than rocksteady, slower than ska, and formalized a thick downbeat strum pattern that would change the course of Caribbean, and for that matter world, music.

As each successive genre bore the birthmarks of its constituent sounds, each also carried its cultural history coded within. Jamaican music in England offered a soundtrack for West Indian youth, a "rebel sound" in both style and lyric that afforded them a sense of black identity in a foreign land. It also drew the attention of white working-class teens, skinheads, and the police, all of which checkered the music's history in duotone.

Rodigan was raised in East Oxfordshire, a small, predominately white, blue-collar hamlet in the heartland of the English countryside. His youth was charming and fashionable; as a teenage Mod, his adolescence was spent collecting custom-made suits and American soul records.

At thirteen, it was the thin, tinny voice of Millie Small on pop countdown show Ready Steady Go! that jarred his passing curiosity into a lifestyle. "My Boy Lollipop," a strange, galloping ska hit forged in Kingston, landed in Britain with unexpected force. "Her voice was infectious, and Millie's vocal was so bright and uplifting, effortless and pure. I was hooked," he writes, still full of teenage reverie. It was the first Jamaican hit to chart internationally, reaching No. 2 on the U.K. charts in 1964. Despite its longstanding popularity among black youth in the country, Caribbean music had earned its first moment of quantifiable acclaim.

Rodigan's fascination with reggae would hold fast as the genre's popularity with white audiences waxed and waned across the next forty years. After logging hundreds of hours deejaying at friends' homes, school dances, and selling reggae records at neighborhood bazaars, Rodigan entered the radio world by earning a role as broadcast host at BBC's Radio London in 1978 — right at the time of Britain's infamous working-class strike wave known as the "Winter of Discontent."

This arid economic climate was making it disproportionately difficult for West Indians to find any kind of work in Britain. "If the BBC handed the only Jamaican music show on the airwaves to a white man, it might be too much for the audience to bear," writes a solemn Rodigan. David Carter, then a producer at Radio London, denied his application because he was, as Rodigan states outright, "the wrong color" for the job. Yet, after a surprise change of heart, the BBC hired him under the caveat that he would co-host alongside Tony Williams, a black Jamaican presenter, the pair alternating week-to-week on the show Reggae Rockers. At the time, Rockers monopolized reggae airplay in London (perhaps in spite of the form's stigma as "music for skinheads").

Paraphrasing Lee Gopthal of Trojan Records, the British-based reggae label, Rodigan considered this both a shame and an obstacle. "It was unfortunate that we got tagged as being skinhead music because it just gave us another battle to fight," he writes.

By September of that year, the tide had turned again, as punk began latching onto reggae in a strong and systemic way. The Clash, The Slits, The Sex Pistols and their ilk had adapted reggae stylings, embracing thick, loping bass lines, choppy guitar configurations, and modified "one drop" rhythms in their music. At this point in punk's maturation, the crossover was simple: punk and reggae audiences — both anti-establishment, both outcasts — shared quite a bit of conceptual ground.

David Rodigan and a soundclash competitor in 1980.
David Corio / Redferns
David Rodigan and a soundclash competitor in 1980.

Wherever reggae went, Rodigan followed. Redeemed via punk appropriation, reggae was given new vigor as the urban sound of the changing city. "Britain realized they needed a reggae show because it had become such an important part of the music scene in the London metropolis." He left the BBC for London's Capital Radio by January 1979, just on the crest of the punk-reggae bloom.

To be clear, Rodigan was a reggae purist, committed to reggae as it came out of Jamaica. His solo show for Capital, Roots Rockers, enabled him to make frequent reconnaissance missions to Jamaica, where he would seek out new tracks from the island, fly them to Britain and watch as they flourished on the charts. "I knew that if this music was given daytime airplay it would be successful, as long as programme controllers had the courage to back it," he writes. "Capital Radio did — that's why records became hits."

This pollination worked in the other direction, too. By developing a partnership with the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation's radio arm, Rodigan was able to bring reggae records from British-based artists to Jamaica. Just by introducing vinyl to the island, reggae records from the UK could both top Jamaican charts and appear on Top of the Pops within weeks.

As Roots Rockers flourished, racial tensions in Britain hit a noxious, feverish pitch. As worsening social dynamics between low-income populations and the police in the wake of new "suspicion law" legislature — laws that aimed to cut street crime in Britain by removing the need for evidence to harass who they wanted, quite like New York's notorious stop-and-frisk program — rioting erupted on the streets of Brixton in 1981, following rumors that a young black man had been left to die by the hands of the police.

The riots, which would later be condemned in a report by British law enforcement as an unquestionable abuse of police power, were carried out in large part, and soundtracked heavily by Brixton's Afro-Caribbean population. Reggae took on the tenor of protest, and tracks by dub poets Linton Kwesi Johnson, Raymond Naptali and Roy Rankin were the sonic arm of a Caribbean insurgency.

Amid the haze of this turmoil, Rodigan saw it through the lens of its effect on the music. "There was brilliant creative output," he writes. "The decade was an incredibly productive period for reggae in Britain." As the city's preeminent reggae deejay, Rodigan was able to watch and score the scene from above.

The power of Rodigan's radio show, across Britain and Jamaica, had startling reach in the aftermath of the riots. When offered the opportunity to perform a soundclash on-air with Jamaican deejay, Barry G. 'the Boogie Man,' Rodigan was unprepared for the sort of feedback he would receive.

"Back then, Barry G was it for radio in Jamaica," notes Billboard contributor and reggae historian Patricia Meschino in a conversation with NPR. "Clashes were for Jamaican soundmen, not for radio deejays. To have Barry bring David Rodigan on his show was an unbelievable platform for Rodigan to have had, both on and off the island."

When the six-hour broadcast of tune-for-tune, back-to-back clashing had ended, Rodigan and Barry G. emerged as heroes. Rodigan became an international institution. Roots Rockers became so popular that club owners in both Jamaica and Britain com­plained that their venues were empty until the program finished. Rodigan had been informally inducted into the echelon of Jamaican soundmen, and would become a coveted mainstay at clashes, battling live with a personality — and dedication to dramatics — unseen among his peers.

To Rodigan, any clash worth performing at would feature baroque costuming, elaborate skits, and dubplates — the exclusive, still-unreleased tracks that only soundmen of Rodigan's caliber would be able to obtain — prepared before each battle. He loved to get these dubplates finished with insults voiced-over by reggae royalty, which lent his clashes a slapstick and encyclopedic energy.

Though he continues to tour the globe today, Rodigan has weaned off proper clashing in favor of events that skew less toward old reggae heads and more toward a younger faction of listeners inspired by Jamaican-rooted music. Aside from his current role as a radio presenter on BBC 1Xtra, his presence is staked at festivals, residencies, and nightclubs, claiming space for reggae both past and present.

Throughout My Life in Reggae, you can't help feeling that Rodigan wasn't interested in spending time on his personal life. Outside of his affiliation with the music, his private history is almost glib, or at least treated as such. Even the more fascinating bits that exist at the outer rim of his personality — the fact that he was a jobbing actor, with small roles in Dr. Who, Shackleton, and a sex comedy called The Office Party, among others — are unfortunately downplayed, in the genuine interest of more reggae-related material at hand.

In fact, it's blindingly obvious from reading My Life in Reggae that Rodigan's love of this music is extreme. Both in our conversation and on the page, the unrelenting stream of references that Rodigan makes in an average breath can be dizzying. Memories pinball against one another in long, jerking narratives that celebrate soundmen, producers, and artists. Shout-outs beget shout-outs. When speaking to him, Rodigan is certainly not beneath singing a few bars of any song that seems to come up even peripherally in conversation.

"It means so much to me that I'm not seen as a 'band-waggonist', just hitching my horse to the latest musical fad to benefit my career before moving on to something else," he says. "I couldn't ever divorce myself from reggae — it's been with me since I was a boy."

Rodigan's responsibility for reggae as a worldwide cultural export is almost difficult to fathom. "We definitely have our share of people who've done so much to bring reggae to where it is now, but in terms of a national figure, I don't think there is one comparable to what David Rodigan represents for England," notes Meschino. "There was probably nobody more renowned or as influential on radio as he was — and he was in good company."

As an extraterrestrial who has entered into, dominated, and nurtured a scene of music fundamentally foreign to him, Rodigan's living legacy is a rare and unique one. Across 40 years of radio programming, soundclashing, and generally fanatical boosterism, Rodigan has been rewarded duly for his work as a reggae superpower, and remains hugely responsible for the international embrace that reggae receives daily from all corners of world.

Yet, upon the book's close, we are obligated to return to the earlier question of Rodigan's appearance. What was it about the audience's laughter, that deafening hush, or those shielded eyes? Throughout My Life in Reggae, the question of Rodigan's race is raised quietly and only occasionally. But this choice reads at a louder volume than he may believe: While it's clear he's moved by his well-earned acceptance by the Jamaican community, Rodigan's whiteness weighs considerably upon his support of reggae, a black enterprise, whether he's comfortable directly acknowledging it or not. Despite the exhaustive detail, the constant shine on other soundmen and routine thanks to Jamaica's listeners, Rodigan seems — by omission — uncomfortable to candidly confront the powers and privileges afforded to him because of the color of his skin.

Race is a tender topic that, when pressed, either prickles – to a losing sound system competitor who called him a "white bwoy" on stage as an insult: "I've got one thing to say to you. This was a sweet dance until you started on this colour thing. You know what you've done? You've just brought the whole thing down into the gutter!" Or it becomes a point of discreet pride — "I felt like an oddball. I was a white man in a black man's world and for many years I had yet to meet anyone as fanatically obsessed with the music as I was — aside from Jamaican record collectors."

When asked to speak about his power specifically, Rodigan does so with a careful hand: "All selectors have a debt of gratitude to people who create this music, no matter where they're from. We are not born and bred in Jamaica; it is not our culture. But we fell in love with it."

For a life lived in reggae, it feels reasonable to ask Rodigan to reconcile with the form's blackness in a more forthright way. Though there is something to the story of an individual who doesn't allow the color of his skin to deter him from enjoying and contributing towards something he feels fanatical about, it is telling that Rodigan earns such acclaim – a book deal, an MBE conferred to him by Princes Charles, and the financial security from a long career of touring and festival appearances – while Jamaican soundmen live in popular obscurity, lacking his reach, appeal, and marketability. Rather than holding Jamaican people at the center of a discourse about their own music, men like Rodigan helm the table, and are even championed as the charming counternarrative to traditional reggae discovery. Online, he is referred to often as "The Rudeboy Gentleman," or the "Gentleman of Dancehall."

Rodigan's reception is, of course, outside of his scope of control. The perpendicularity of his appearance to the world of reggae, and the attention this receives, is not so much a conscious selling point on Rodigan's behalf as it is a passive perk. Yet by dodging this discussion altogether, he leaves inarticulate the ways in which different groups are able to navigate the world, particularly within the mires of the music or radio industries. Rodigan's rare seat of power in this industry affords him, one would imagine, a great view from the top.

I had hoped that Rodigan would testify to this in his autobiography. Reggae is entangled in race so tightly, that to distance himself from a discussion of it not only denies his favorite music an honest narrative, but denies his readers a key truth of his own. His relationship to blackness and Jamaica is at once a source of pride and a source of anxiety — an ambivalence that subtly avoids the more difficult considerations of the invisible workings of privilege at play. And any serious discussion of inclusion — in the world of music or otherwise — demands these sorts of considerations.

The autobiography's great success, then, is in its demystification of Rodigan's apparent quiddity. Despite, or perhaps in light of, his idiosyncrasies, Rodigan is not very difficult to understand. He is, at his purest, an obsessive, devoting his life to a reggae-focused tunnel vision that casts everything else out of his field of view. What results is an awe-inspiring, exhaustive — and yes, sometimes myopic — work.

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